Around the NFC North
A couple of Utah prospects make sense for the Bears, who won't have a pick until the third round of next month's draft but still have holes to fill at safety and on the offensive line.
It's difficult to project which players will be available when the Bears finally get around to their first pick, which is 76th overall, but they would probably be delighted if Utah's Zane Beadles was still on the board.
Beadles was mostly a left tackle in college, starting there for the past three years. But several NFL talent evaluators project him to guard, where he started for the Utes as a freshman. While he seems to lack the athleticism necessary to play left tackle in the NFL, he could find a home at right tackle.
The Bears could use him at guard or right tackle. That would allow them the flexibility of starting Beadles at whichever of those two positions isn't filled by Frank Omiyale, who started at guard most of last season but has had more experience at tackle.
Another Utah player the Bears could target on draft weekend is safety Robert Johnson, who was not invited to the NFL Scouting Combine but could be a sleeper. Johnson already has a visit set up with the Bears at Halas Hall on April 6.
The Bears were among 16 teams represented at Utah's pro day last Monday. Afterward, Vikings regional scout Kevin McCabe told the Daily Utah Chronicle, "(Johnson) has got great ball skills, and he has great range. He made a lot of great catches down in the corner."
Johnson measured a fraction over 6-foot-2 and weighed in at 203 pounds. He ran the 40 in the 4.6 range, which is adequate, but his 4.06 in the 20-yard shuttle and 6.56 in the three-cone drill would have been tops among safeties at the Combine.
The Bears have changed starting safeties 41 times since Lovie Smith was hired as head coach in 2004. The free safety starter has changed 21 times, while the strong safety starter has changed 20 times. Last year the Bears opened the season with rookie Al Afalava at strong safety, and he started the first eight games until he suffered a shoulder injury. Josh Bullocks replaced him for one game, Afalava returned to start twice more at strong safety but the switched to free safety for three starts before missing the last two games with a knee injury. Kevin Payne started three games at strong safety after Afalava moved to free, but Craig Steltz started Game 15 before Payne returned for the finale.
Payne started the season opener at free safety but was benched after that game in favor of Danieal Manning started the next 10 games. He was benched in favor of Afalava, but Bullocks took over in Week 15 and Steltz started at free in the season finale.
The Bears would like to stop the revolving at safety or at least slow it down.
The Colts do it with Peyton Manning. The Saints do it with Drew Brews. And the Lions already are doing it with their franchise quarterback, even though he just turned 22 and has only 10 NFL games under his belt.
The Lions' coaches and executives are asking for Matthew Stafford's input and keeping him in the loop on personnel matters. They even had him help recruit free agent wide receiver Nate Burleson.
"It's awesome to know that they trust me," Stafford said. "Obviously I'm not making draft picks. I wouldn't want to. It's a tough job. But just seeing if I'm familiar with a guy and maybe his past and understand how he could work in our offense or how he might not, that kind of thing.
"I'm sure it will keep growing as my relationship with all the guys up there keeps growing. But it's exciting to be able to bounce ideas. I think they know that I know a lot of guys in the league and personnel pretty well. It's fun to be able to kind of help out a little bit."
Stafford said he and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan talked about Burleson last year and "thought that he could really fit." When the free agent market opened at 9 p.m. PT March 4, Burleson got more than a text message from coach Jim Schwartz and a personal visit from Linehan in Seattle. He also got a phone call from Stafford.
"He just talked to me briefly," Burleson said. "He was like, ‘Hey, man, look, I hear we're interested in you. We'd love to have you here, and I'm excited about the season.'"
Burleson said that made an impact, though Stafford played it down.
"He seemed excited," Stafford said. "I guess he was excited enough. I don't think it was my call that made it all work, but I'll take credit if you want to give it to me."
When the Lions landed Burleson and defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, general manager Martin Mayhew informed Stafford via text message. There is little doubt that this team is Stafford's now.
"I feel a whole lot better walking around this building than I did probably a year ago when I first got drafted and came in," Stafford said. "It's a completely different feeling. I'm excited to kind of take this thing over and get us going in the right direction."
Stafford didn't join the Lions last year until after they made him the first pick in the draft in late April. He went through only the end of the off-season program. He competed with Daunte Culpepper for the starting job at first.
"Last year was kind of a different deal, going through training camp, splitting reps, doing all that kind of stuff," Stafford said. "But it needed to be done."
After winning the job for the season opener, Stafford played 10 games — throwing 20 interceptions, suffering knee and shoulder injuries, learning a lot. Now he returns for the off-season program as the clear-cut No. 1.
Linehan said late last year that this off-season would be "huge" for Stafford.
"It's the most critical, I think," Linehan said. "You've got to develop that timing and rapport with your guys where you're doing a lot of the work and you're promoting a lot of the extra work, because that's what the great quarterbacks do. They keep the guys working towards getting better at the things we weren't good enough at."
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Cynics can't call general manager Ted Thompson a cheapskate this offseason.
Thompson, who hasn't endeared himself to some fans and even a few of his players in the past for not spending money to lure big-name free agents, went on a shopping spree in the first couple weeks of free agency. The catch is, the big bucks stayed in house.
"The Packers always try to be proactive in our discussions with our current players," Thompson said.
The re-signing of left tackle Chad Clifton during the opening weekend of free agency triggered a significant haul for Green Bay in Thompson's sixth year of calling the shots.
The Packers also sandwiched long-term deals for nose tackle Ryan Pickett and right tackle Mark Tauscher, both of whom like Clifton were unrestricted free agents, around a multi-year contract for free safety Nick Collins, a restricted free agent.
Those four players, all longtime starters, surely weren't short-changed.
The contracts add up to a potential value of more than $80 million. What's more, the aggregate first-year pay exceeds $35 million, as the Packers worked the uncapped year to their advantage by loading the deals with sizable roster and workout bonuses that won't have to be counted in future years if a new collective bargaining agreement is in place.
"We had the opportunity to try to sign everybody back," head coach Mike McCarthy said. "We're focused on bringing our own free agents back, getting better as a football team, starting internally, and then we'll add another draft class to this group.
"We like where we are today, but the importance of the offseason program and keeping your own players has been our focus, and that time is upon us now."
The Packers protected themselves in the short term on the offensive line by bringing back dependable veterans Clifton and Tauscher, who have started since their rookie season with the team in 2000. Tauscher, whom the team re-signed at midseason last year after he recovered from major knee surgery, received a two-year deal worth upward of $8.7 million.
Pickett and Collins, cornerstones on a highly rated defense, previously had one-year deals as the team's franchise player and indispensable restricted free agent, respectively. Their contracts were extended three years, locking them up through 2013.
"We're excited about our future," said Pickett, whose deal is worth nearly $25 million, with $10 million in first-year pay.
Pickett was going to make $7.003 million this year as the franchise player.
"We're excited we get another shot of just being together as a unit and going out to win the Super Bowl," Pickett said. "That's our ultimate goal. All of this stuff is behind us, and now our number one goal is to hold the trophy."
Collins, a two-time Pro Bowl player, originally signed the team's qualifying offer of $3.3 million. His new deal is worth $26.75 million, with $14 million in first-year pay.
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