Around the NFC North

Greg Olsen is bucking a trend of first-round busts for the Bears, Matthew Stafford is getting good reviews from Scott Linehan and others for the Lions, and B.J. Raji will have a lot of catching up to do whenever he decides to sign with the Packers. As always, there is a lot of preseason intrigue around the NFC North.


The burden of high expectations is on tight end Greg Olsen this year, but that doesn't appear to be nearly enough to stall a career that seems to be blasting off for stardom.

"He's to that point is his career where he's ready to step up and have a huge year," Bears offensive coordinator Ron Turner said. "He's gotten better and better every year, and (when) you get a better supporting cast around him, then obviously he's going to do better. He's playing with a lot of confidence and playing very fast right now."

Olsen has had star potential since the Bears selected him in the first round (31st overall) in 2007. But great expectations have haunted most of Bears' first-round picks in the past decade. First-rounders Curtis Enis (1998), Cade McNown (1999), David Terrell (2001), Marc Colombo (2002), Michael Haynes and Rex Grossman (2003) and Cedric Benson (2005) have all fallen somewhere in between major disappointments and outright failures.

Olsen has already surpassed all of those predecessors with two solid seasons. As a rookie he caught 39 passes for 391 yards, and last season he had 54 receptions for 574 yards and a team-best five TD catches.

The combination of early production, steady improvement and an enviable array of physical talents, plus the addition of Pro Bowl quarterback Jay Cutler, have optimists predicting a monster season for the 6-foot-5, 255-pound Olsen. He's always had the speed and soft hands of a wide receiver, and now everything is coming together for him.

"When you're watching him, you see a lot of talent," Cutler said. "There are very few things he can't do on a football field as far as running routes and blocking. You don't very often find a guy with that kind of motor and, as big as he is, just the way he adjusts to balls. A lot of guys that big are kind of stiff and they can't do some of the things he can. He's a huge target, and we just have to use him the right way."

If the first week of training camp was any indication, it looks like Cutler will be utilizing Olsen more frequently than any Bears tight end has been used since some guy named Ditka back in the 1960s. Cutler has gone to Olsen repeatedly in seven-on-seven and 11-on-11 drills, connecting on quick slants, deep sideline routes and everything in between. Through the first week of practice, Olsen had dropped just 1 pass.

" I feel pretty good, and a lot of it has to do with being more confident because it's my third year," Olsen said. "As guys get more comfortable, they're able to go out and just do what they have to do instead of thinking about it."

Turner considers it a natural progression for Olsen to have his best season yet.

"He was ready to take the next step even without Jay," Turner said. "But they've already developed a good chemistry. Jay has a lot of confidence in Greg, and I think he's primed to have a really good year.

"The skill level obviously was always there, but he is playing faster, and he's doing a lot of the little things. I've mentioned it many times when we're in there watching film. Whether it's blocking with his pad level down, his footwork on blocks or the way he runs routes against press coverage. A lot of the things he's doing, he's doing so much better than he did last year and the year before."

Much was made over Olsen's promotion to No. 1 tight end ahead of 11-year veteran Desmond Clark, but that writing was on the wall well before training camp began. The changing of the guard was inevitable, even though Clark has always been a better blocker than Olsen, and has caught more than 40 passes in each of the past three seasons. Olsen has the speed to stretch a defense, and he's worked hard to improve his deficiencies as a blocker, as Clark graciously points out.

"One thing you have to appreciate about Greg is that he's a guy who came into the NFL with probably only one glaring weakness," Clark said. "For the last three years, that's primarily what he's been working on getting better at, trying to improve his strength, trying to work on his footwork so he could be that complete tight end. When you see a guy that has as much talent as he does working on the weaknesses, you just know there's going to come a day, and it's probably going to come very soon, where he's the complete package."

That day may have already arrived.


The story of Lions training camp is clearly quarterback Matthew Stafford. The No. 1 pick in the NFL draft has lived up to his billing so far and is pushing veteran Daunte Culpepper for the starting job.

As Stafford, Culpepper and No. 3 quarterback Drew Stanton have rotated reps in practice, Stafford has shown the impressive arm strength for which he is known, zipping balls effortlessly downfield. He has wowed the crowd with deep passes to wide receiver Calvin Johnson.

But what has been more impressive is Stafford's knowledge of the offense and overall presence. A week into his first NFL training camp, Stafford simply carries himself like a starting quarterback.

"I don't feel like I'm coaching or talking to a rookie when we work with him," offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. "It's not just talking, saying that's how it is because he was the No. 1 pick and all that stuff.

"He has a very natural feel for the game and understands concepts. He can translate things he's done before to what he is doing now without a lot of repetition. He can go right to it and make that decision and make that transformation."

Stafford is only 21 years old. But when it comes to football, he has always been ahead of where he is supposed to be.

He was a precocious kid. His father, John Stafford, said he diagnosed a failed sweep on television by saying the tackle didn't pull — when he was 4 1/2 or 5. He stunned his seventh-grade coach by spotting a poorly aligned cornerback, changing the play and attacking him for a touchdown — in seventh grade.

He became a nationally known talent by 10th grade. As a 15-year-old sophomore, he led his high school to a playoff victory over a team led by a senior quarterback, Graham Harrell, who set Texas records with 4,825 passing yards and 63 touchdown passes that year. Before more than 20,000 fans at Texas Stadium, he threw for 403 yards and three TDs in a 38-28 upset.

He left high school early for college. He took off for Georgia shortly after winning a Texas state title.

"It was tough," Stafford said. "Nobody wants to leave their second semester of senior year in high school. ... I was so dead-set on playing early and getting in there and playing football and not sitting. I knew that's what I needed to do, especially at the quarterback position."

Stafford started as a freshman at Georgia. Then, after three years as a starter in a pro-style offense, he entered the NFL draft, became the top pick and now is dead-set on playing early again.

"What he did in college and high school has prepared him for being in the position that he is in now," Linehan said. "This guy ran a pro-style system. He shot the ball down the field, attacked all parts of the field with the passing game and did a great job of running their run game. I would ... say it's actually really prepared him for what he's doing."


B.J. Raji's holdout from training camp as a first-round draft pick without a contract stretched into a second week and apparently with no end in sight.

The longer Raji remains unsigned, the stronger the possibility the defensive lineman won't be in the starting lineup opening day Sept. 13.

"He's behind. I think it's obvious," head coach Mike McCarthy said. "It's important for players to be here in training camp. If it wasn't, we wouldn't have training camp. It's important that he gets in here as soon as he can."

The impasse with Raji is more or less connected to three other players taken in the bottom five of the top 10 of the first round who hadn't signed a week into camp: offensive tackles Andre Smith (No. 6) of the Cincinnati Bengals and Eugene Monroe (No. 8) of the Jacksonville Jaguars and wide receiver Michael Crabtree (No. 10) of the San Francisco 49ers.

The agents for the unsigned players taken ahead of Crabtree don't seem inclined to ratchet up negotiations with their players' teams until something happens with Crabtree, who is seeking to be paid like a top-five pick after a foot injury caused his draft stock to fall.

Raji had been in Green Bay since the Packers opened training camp Aug. 1, but he is barred from being with the team and going to its facilities until he is signed. He decided to leave town this week.

Mamie Raji said her son has been passing the time by "cooking and all of that, fixing up his townhouse. He's waiting."

The Packers were to complete the third phase of the nine installations in their defensive playbook by Tuesday.

Although Raji was on hand for Green Bay's organized team activities in the spring, when the second round of installations was done, teammates on defense acknowledged the missed time in training camp could be detrimental since the Packers switched to a complicated 3-4 scheme this year.

"Hopefully, he can jump right in and with some extra work, it won't take him too long to catch up," defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins said. "But, it's definitely not benefiting him not being here.

"Obviously, he's in a difficult spot with (the contract situation). So, hopefully, he remembers a lot of the stuff from the OTAs, so that when he does come in he's not too far behind."

McCarthy planned to include some on-field preparations for the season opener against the Chicago Bears in the week of practice leading up to the first preseason game, Saturday against the Cleveland Browns.

The combination of extensive work that is missed and not knowing what kind of shape the 6-foot-2, 337-pound Raji is in could prompt McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers to reconsider their use of the former Boston College standout at season's beginning.

Raji has been projected to start at left end and also will spell incumbent starter Ryan Pickett at nose tackle, Raji's natural position.

"As far as percentages and how much he's missed (in training camp) ... it's truly to his benefit to get in camp," McCarthy said.

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