Around the NFC North

The Bears are looking for a deeper offensive backfield, a versatile Lion is still trying to find his spot, and the Packers are practicing a bit shorthanded in the defensive backfield. We go around the NFC North for those stories and many more notes and quotes.


Running back Matt Forte limped off the field near the end of the June 3 OTA practice with an injury to his left hamstring and was not practicing last week, although his inactivity is more of a precautionary measure.

Forte's practice time is likely to be limited in the remaining OTAs, which end on June 17, but he is expected to be 100 percent long before the first practice of training camp on July 31.

Backup running back Kevin Jones is likely to see more time with the first team this week. He could also give Forte more rest in the regular season if, as hoped, Jones is completely recovered from the knee injury that ended his 2007 season and limited him last season. He had 30 carries for 107 yards in the first five games, but just four carries for two yards the rest of the season.

"Kevin will fit in real well," offensive coordinator Ron Turner said. "We're excited about him. He'll have had a (full) offseason. Last year when we got him (just before camp began), he was coming off that knee injury and wasn't in the best of shape. He's had a year to learn our system and a year to get that knee better."

The 6-foot, 228-pound Jones was considered a strong between-the-tackles runner and an effective option in short-yardage situations before his knee injury.

The Bears also would like to find a role for 5-foot-7, 186-pound Garrett Wolfe, whose playing time and production tapered off in 2008, even after minimal contributions as a rookie in ‘07. Wolfe had just 15 carries last season for 69 yards and did not catch a pass, although he showed some promise as a receiver out of the backfield as a rookie, catching nine balls for 117 yards, a 13.0-yard average.

Wolfe will have to prove that he deserves more carries and catches than reliable eighth-year veteran and special-teams standout Adrian Peterson, who averaged 5.0 yards on 20 carries last season and has averaged 4.1 yards on 304 career carries.

Peterson tied for third on the Bears last season with 14 special-teams tackles and has averaged 18 over the past five seasons. Wolfe also emerged as a force on special teams last season with a team-best 21 tackles, even though he had almost no previous coverage experience.


  • Despite improving from 20 receptions in 2007 to 51 last season and increasing his receiving yardage from 299 to 665, Devin Hester was disappointed in his 2008 performance.

    He did not have a single return touchdown after scoring seven times on punt returns and four times on kickoff returns in his first two seasons. Hester's punt-return average of 6.2 yards was less than half the 14.1 yards he averaged in his first two seasons, and he lost the kickoff-return job to Danieal Manning midway through the season.

    "I hate to say it, but the season that I had last year wasn't up to my high expectations," Hester said. "This year I'm coming out trying to be better than I was the first two years. My goal is to just come out and make big plays like I normally do."

    The proof of Hester's subpar 2008 has been staring him in the face all offseason.

    "I was kind of getting upset because when they show commercials on ESPN and NFL Network, I'm not one of the players they show," he said. "I know there's a reason why — because of the season I had last year. This year, hopefully during the middle of the season, I'll be on some of those commercials."

  • Three-time Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs says he won't be satisfied even if the defense recaptures the form that led the Bears to Super Bowl XLI, before suffering huge drop-offs the past two seasons.

    "I don't want to revert back to that (Super Bowl) form; I want to revert to a better form," Briggs said. "I think that's what we all want. We're all aiming toward something better; better than where we were. You hear coaches out here yelling at everybody on every play. That's what we need. We've got to be yelled at. We have to put our grind in if we want to be successful."

    Lovie Smith believes he has improved his staff by adding defensive line coach/assistant head coach Rod Marinelli and defensive backs coach Jon Hoke, so Briggs says it's only natural now to put pressure on the players to create a better product this season.

    "That's why they pay us the big bucks," Briggs said. "We might have had some down years, but they pay us big bucks because they believe in us, and we've got to show up this year."

  • As enthused as offensive coordinator Ron Turner is to have Jay Cutler running his offense, the Bears' offensive coordinator realizes that the quarterback's assimilation is a work in progress.

    "I'm excited, but I also realize that it's not going to happen overnight," Turner said. "It's not all of a sudden it's going to come together. It's going to take time. It's going to take a lot of work.

    "Jay has generated a lot of excitement in the locker room, and I think we have a lot of good players around him, but it's going to take a while for everything to mesh. It doesn't just happen. We need a lot of reps. We're not going to be as good Sept. 13 as we will be later on in the year, but we'll be good enough to go out and execute and move the ball and score some points hopefully."

  • Cornerback Charles Tillman returned to the practice field Wednesday and he was glad to be back following a rehab period after postseason shoulder surgery.

    "My shoulder feels fine," he said. "It's nice to be able to be out here. It's full strength now. The doctor said after the surgery I should live until I'm 102. So I'm good."

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "He's making it something where you're just constantly doing it on an every-day basis. And he makes you want to do it. He makes you want to come through these doors and be the best at what you do." — Bears DT Tommie Harris on what makes new defensive line coach/assistant head coach Rod Marinelli such an effective teacher.


    The Lions are trying just about everything to improve their roster this offseason, and players on the fringe will do just about anything to make it. Case in point: Sean Conover, who has gone from defensive end to tight end to defensive end again.

    Coach Jim Schwartz knows Conover from Tennessee, where he was defensive coordinator the past eight years. Conover played defensive end for the Titans, appearing in six games in 2006 and five in ‘07.

    But Conover also played tight end on the Titans' scout team. In college at Bucknell, Conover played tight end as a freshman, and then moved to the defensive line after the team introduced an option offense.

    The Lions claimed the 6-foot-5, 275-pound Conover off waivers Feb. 28. Conover spent time last year on the Falcons' and Ravens' practice squads, and then ended up with the Jets.

    "We wanted that big point-of-attack blocker," Schwartz said. "Well, after we did that with Sean, I said, ‘Hey, let's look at you as a blocking tight end.' "

    But then the Lions signed free agent Will Heller and drafted two tight ends: Brandon Pettigrew in the first round and Dan Gronkowski in the seventh.

    Heller, 6-6, 270, is considered a blocking tight end. Pettigrew, 6-5, 263, is the complete package but known best for his in-line blocking. Gronkowski, 6-5, 255, is a tough, hard-working guy with long arms and big hands.

    "All of a sudden, you look at our tight ends, and now we are a lot bigger," Schwartz said. "Guys are bigger and physical. Just in fairness to him, we wanted to give him a chance to be able compete."

    So, after working at tight end for weeks, Conover went back to defensive end and didn't miss a beat.

    "He jumped right into defensive practice," Schwartz said. "That's been going on a while now, and nobody's noticed, and that's a good thing. He's able to jump right in on defense."

    Conover said playing tight end was interesting and a good experience, but it made sense to move back to what he considers his natural position.

    "I'm happy," Conover said. "I'm happy to be back on defense. I love defense."

    Now Conover has to win a roster spot. The players are conditioning this week and next. They have a minicamp June 22-24 before they're off until training camp opens in late July.

    It's not going to be easy. The Lions have a lot of defensive ends: from veterans like Dewayne White, Jared DeVries and Eric Hicks, to recent early round draft picks like Cliff Avril and Ikaika-Alama Francis.

    But Schwartz speaks highly of Conover.

    "Sean's got a lot of ability," Schwartz said. "He's big. He fits our profile, and he's a really, really tough guy."


  • The Lions are among the NFL teams who could put a sponsor's logo on practice jerseys.

    "We are exploring it and are currently in the preliminary stages with potential interested partners," Lions president Tom Lewand said. Several teams are exploring deals now that the NFL has permitted a new way of generating revenue in a struggling economy. The NFL is also allowing partnerships with state lotteries, and the Lions are exploring that as well.

  • Coach Jim Schwartz threw out the first pitch at a Tigers game — despite a partially torn rotator cuff he suffered doing a fist-pump during a game last season. He wore a No. 6 jersey in honor of Al Kaline, whom he met before the game for the first time.

    "He actually grew up maybe five miles from where I grew up," Schwartz, a Baltimore native, told the Detroit Free Press. "And I also worked all through high school maybe a block from his high school. So a lot of the guys that were his contemporaries, guys that he went to high school with, worked at a market I worked at."

    Schwartz was scheduled to wave the green flag at a NASCAR race in Brooklyn, Mich.

  • In his blog, defensive end Cliff Avril made a comment that could be construed as an indirect shot at former coach Rod Marinelli or defensive line coach Joe Cullen. Marinelli, who spent his entire career as a defensive line coach before the Lions hired him in January 2006, spent a lot of time with the Lions' defensive line while head coach. Marinelli prided himself on communication. Now Marinelli and Cullen have been replaced, and without mentioning Marinelli or Cullen, Avril praised new defensive line coach Bob Karmelowicz. "I definitely feel that Coach Karm, our new D line coach, brings a different philosophy," Avril wrote. "Coach Karm tells you the reasons behind why we do what we do in practice. Sometimes, coaches just tell you to do things but not why. I feel like this coach is better at communicating in that way."

  • The coaches are taking two weeks off in mid-June. The players are still conditioning. The Lions will hold a minicamp June 22-24, then take off until training camp opens in late July.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "I partially tore my rotator cuff on Monday Night Football against the Colts doing one of these. It's a funny way to hurt yourself, fist-pumping." — Lions coach Jim Schwartz, to the Detroit Free Press, on playing through pain as he threw out the first pitch at a Tigers game.


    The longer Nick Collins stays away, the better the chances — as slim as they may be — for newcomer Anthony Smith to crack the starting lineup at safety for next season.

    Collins, coming off a monster season that earned him his first spot in the Pro Bowl, had yet to report for organized team activities. The four weeks of voluntary practices end June 18.

    Collins has cited family issues for being away most of the offseason, but his latest prolonged absence is believed to stem more from his displeasure that the Packers haven't discussed a contract extension with him. Collins, a fifth-year player, will be entering the final year of his rookie deal.

    Coupled with Atari Bigby's continuing recovery from late-season ankle surgery, the Packers have been without their two starting safeties in offseason work.

    Smith and Aaron Rouse have filled in, and the former is making a bid to stay put even when Bigby and Collins return to the field. The Packers signed the 6-foot, 200-pound Smith to a modest two-year deal after the Pittsburgh Steelers didn't re-sign him as a restricted free agent.

    "I'm at a new place; obviously, it's a new start," Smith said. "But, I'm glad to have this. It's a great opportunity. (The Packers) already know what I can do. That's why they brought me here. With those (Collins and Bigby) being out, obviously I'm getting a lot more reps with the ones."

    What's more, Smith is in a better position than the rest of the team's defensive players during their particularly demanding offseason because he has experience in the 3-4 system that is being implemented.

    Smith, a third-round draft pick in 2006, logged 14 starts in his three seasons in the Steelers' 3-4 scheme. He also previously played for Packers first-year safeties coach Darren Perry when Smith broke into the league.

    "Anthony looks very comfortable," Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said. "Definitely, his experience in Pittsburgh has really helped him. He understands conceptually there is probably some things that we ask him to do differently just as far as communication.

    "But, he was the furthest ahead of anybody when we started this process. He looks very natural out there. He's an athletic safety. I can see why people were as high on him as they are, and I think he'll definitely factor in our safety group."


  • The Packers will use what's left of their offseason program and then training camp that starts Aug. 1 to let two young guys battle for the punting job.

    They released undrafted rookie Adam Graessle midway through the OTAs.

    Head coach Mike McCarthy said Graessle had the strongest leg of the three punters on the roster, but the team wants to see Jeremy Kapinos and Durant Brooks fight it out with their feet.

    Kapinos was signed as a free agent late last season and handled the punting chores for the final four games, averaging 39.2 gross yards and 34.5 net yards.

    The Packers signed Brooks to the practice squad for the final three weeks of the 2008 season after he struggled as a rookie at the outset of the season with the Washington Redskins. Brooks, a sixth-round draft pick, had averages of 39.6 gross yards and 32.1 net yards in six games before the Redskins released him.

    "We don't have a lot of experience there. I think that's fairly obvious," McCarthy said.

  • Linebacker Clay Matthews, the second of the team's two first-round draft picks this year, hasn't recovered from a strained hamstring he suffered on the first day of OTAs, May 27. Matthews dropped out of practice June 10 when the injury flared up on him.

  • In addition to the release of Graessle, the Packers cut first-year nose tackle Brian Soi.

    That puts their active roster at 85 players, with all eight draft picks this year unsigned.

  • Running back Tyrell Sutton, an undrafted rookie from Northwestern, reported for the third week of OTAs. He had to miss the first two weeks because classes still were in session at Northwestern.

  • Cornerback Brandon Underwood, a sixth-round draft pick, remained absent from OTAs because classes had yet to let out at Cincinnati.

  • Following the conclusion of the OTAs, the Packers will jump into their mandatory minicamp June 22-24.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "We're kind of rolling that way, but I look at Matt and Brian as the same. I think that's a competitive situation that will work itself out. I think they're both two young quarterbacks with bright futures." — Head coach Mike McCarthy on whether second-year players Matt Flynn and Brian Brohm would remain Nos. 2 and 3, respectively, on the depth chart at quarterback, as they were last season.

  • Viking Update Top Stories