Around the NFC North

Do the Bears have enough weapons for Jay Cutler? Do the Lions have a good insurance policy at safety? Is Atari Bibgy the Packer most anxious to return to the games? Training camps are just weeks away and the anticipation is building around the NFC North.

CHICAGO BEARS

Assuming Devin Hester fulfills the great expectations that the Bears' coaching staff has for him — becoming a No. 1 wide receiver — the team still has a pronounced lack of proven talent at the position.

One of the most frequently asked questions during the offseason was: Why give up three draft picks, including a pair of first-rounders, to get a potential superstar quarterback like Jay Cutler if you're not going to give him any weapons?

Many speculated on how serious the Bears were about taking on Plaxico Burress and his extensive baggage. There certainly was and still is a need for a big, experienced difference maker, but the Bears-Burress thing never seemed to be more than a dalliance. There was also talk of going after Cutler's former go-to guy, Brandon Marshall, who wants out of Denver. But the Bears don't have the draft-pick ammunition to pull the trigger on a deal of that magnitude.

So for now, Earl Bennett, a third-round pick a year ago, is the other starter. If the name doesn't sound familiar, it's because Bennett failed to catch a single pass in 2008 and played very briefly in just 10 games.

But Bennett has apparently had a great offseason, a designation that, as often as not, doesn't mean anything. Bennett does appear to have a more thorough grasp of the playbook than he did as a rookie, when, by his own admission, he was not as well versed as he could have been.

Bennett and Cutler do have a history. As a true freshman at Vanderbilt, Bennett caught 79 passes in Cutler's final season with the Commodores. So he's got that going for him, which is nice. A starting job is there for the taking, provided the Bears don't sign a quality veteran free agent just before the start of camp.

The only other wide receiver on the training camp roster who caught a pass for the Bears last season is Rashied Davis, who had 35 receptions for 445 yards and had more than his share of drops. Ideally, Davis, who excels on special teams, is a No. 4 or No. 5 receiver.

Two rookies will get a long look in training camp and have an opportunity to earn significant playing time: third-rounder Juaquin Iglesias and fifth-rounder Johnny Knox. Oklahoma's Iglesias has better size (6-foot-1, 205 pounds) and should have an easier adjustment making the transition to the NFL. Knox, from Abilene Christian, showed great speed and excellent hands in spring practices. But it remains to be seen if he can play as impressively when the hitting begins.

CAMP CALENDAR: Players are scheduled to report to Olivet Nazarene University, in far south suburban Bourbonnais, on July 30. The first practice is at 3 p.m., July 31, and training camp ends following a 3 p.m. practice on Aug. 20. The normal routine is interrupted for a noon practice back at Soldier Field on Saturday, Aug. 8.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "We're a running football team — it's great to have Jay (Cutler) here — but we're a running football team and that won't change." — Bears coach Lovie Smith.


DETROIT LIONS

The Lions were able to trade Gerald Alexander to Jacksonville for wide receiver Dennis Northcutt because they felt they had enough depth to spare a safety.

They still had two recent second-round picks: Louis Delmas (2009) and Daniel Bullocks (‘06). They still had Kalvin Pearson. And don't forget: They also had signed Marquand Manuel on June 2.

Manuel has played for five teams in his seven seasons in the NFL. The Lions are set to be his sixth team in eight seasons.

But as well-traveled has he has been, he has also played well enough to appear in 111 games — regular-season and playoffs combined — and to start 55 of them, including Super Bowl XL at Ford Field.

"Some people look at it like, ‘Oh, you've been on a lot of teams,' " Manuel said."I've started on every team I've been on — not one game, not two games, but 14, 15, 16 starts."

Manuel spent his first two years with the Bengals, who drafted him in the sixth round out of Florida in 2002. He played 28 games for them, starting nine.

Then he spent two years with the Seahawks. He played 35 games for them, starting 14, including the Super Bowl loss to the Steelers.

From there, he bounced from the Packers (16 games, 16 starts), to the Panthers (16 games, two starts) to the Broncos (16 games, 14 starts).

Manuel attributed all the movement to coaching changes and free agency.

"In the whole scheme of things, I never really been penciled No. 1," Manuel said. "But I always came in and just whatever they asked me to do, I learned the scheme and I tried to pick it up and play as hard as I could. ...

"You don't know. Every day you prepare as if you are the starter."

Manuel said his experience has helped him pick up the Lions' defense, which is similar to what he ran with the Seahawks. It should help him compete for playing time against a rookie like Delmas, as impressive as Delmas was in the offseason.

"The game's a lot slower for me than it is for Louis," Manuel said. "Very athletic, but the game's moving fast for him. For me it's so slow that I know when I did something wrong."

CAMP CALENDER: Players report July 30 and the first practice is July 31. Camp breaks Aug. 20.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Football is football. When they blow the whistle, I'm 8 years old again." — LB Larry Foote, to the Detroit Free Press, on leaving the Super Bowl champion Steelers for the 0-16 Lions, his hometown team.


GREEN BAY PACKERS

Atari Bigby's threshold for pain turned out to be incredibly high for most of last season.

His urgency to get back on the field is even greater.

Perhaps no other player is looking forward to the start of Packers training camp Aug. 1 more than Bigby. The safety hasn't put on a helmet since his injury-plagued 2008 season ended prematurely in late November.

Although it was a sprained shoulder that kept Bigby out the final four weeks, a more excruciating injury to his left ankle essentially made his fourth NFL season insignificant.

"The (severity of the) ankle (injury) was more than what you guys got," said Bigby, in reference to what was reported last season. "I did as best as I could. It wasn't me, but I tried to do my best for my teammates."

Ligament damage that Bigby sustained in the third preseason game last year dogged him from the outset of the season through the seven games he was able to play. A hamstring injury he suffered in Week 2 compounded matters and kept Bigby out of the next five games.

Thanks in great measure to the ankle injury, Bigby was a shell of the hard-hitting, playmaking starter who had a breakout 2007 season, when he had 121 tackles, broke up 13 passes and had five interceptions.

"I don't know how I even played on it. But, I did," Bigby said. "So, it's a mind-over-matter thing. I didn't want to let my teammates down.

"I got the surgery (in December), and I got it taken care of. So, I feel much better this year."

The subsequent rehab from the surgery kept Bigby from participating in offseason workouts with the team.

While Bigby says, physically, "I feel a hundred times better," the great unknown as he expects to be cleared for the start of training camp is where he is at mentally in the Packers' big conversion in defensive scheme from a 4-3 base to a 3-4 look.

"I guess we won't know until the season comes, the outcome of the season. You can't predict it," Bigby said. "But, I feel good (in the system). The chalkboard and the classroom, I know the plays."

How quickly Bigby can assimilate himself in the scheme on the field will be paramount because the Packers project him to be the multi-dimensional enforcer a la safety Troy Polamalu in the Pittsburgh Steelers' 3-4.

"I couldn't be in a better defense," said Bigby, who is signed through this year. "I think I'll be more of a highlighted player in the defense. For me, it's going to be more of a versatile position."

CAMP CALENDAR: Players report July 31 to the team's facilities in Green Bay. Camp opens Aug. 1. An intrasquad scrimmage will be held at Lambeau Field on Saturday night, Aug. 8. The team has seven two-a-days scheduled in the first 20 days of camp, which will close Sept. 1.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "He ain't going to win in Minnesota. I'll bet on it." — Packers Hall of Famer Paul Hornung, who was suspended by the NFL for the 1963 season for betting on games, on the prospect of former Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre's coming out of retirement a second time to play for the rival Minnesota Vikings. Hornung made the comments at a sports banquet July 14 in Sheboygan Falls, Wis.


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