NFC North news, notes and quotes

The Bears are working on their linebacker depth and there is talk of Jay Cutler maturing. The Lions continue to trend toward drafting one of the top two defensive tackles. And the Packers are taking their time with their interest in RB Brian Westbrook. Plus, many more notes and quotes from the Vikings' NFC North rivals.


With six-time Pro Bowl linebacker Brian Urlacher still working his way back from a dislocated wrist that ended his 2009 season on opening day, the Bears increased their depth and experience at the position by re-signing unrestricted free agent Pisa Tinoisamoa to a one-year contract Monday.

Tinoisamoa, who will be entering his eighth season, signed with the Bears last season as an unrestricted free agent following six productive seasons with the St. Louis Rams. Although the 6-foot-1, 230-pounder won the starting job at strong-side linebacker, he suffered a sprained knee on the second play of the season opener and missed the next three games. He returned to start Game Five but suffered another knee injury in his first game back and missed the remainder of the year, finishing the season on injured reserve.

Tinoisamoa, 28, is expected to compete again for the starting job on the strong side. But he will face stiff competition from Nick Roach, who started 15 games last season, including 12 on the strong side.

"Nick Roach is a good football player," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "He can do it all. (As a pass rusher) he can beat a running back one on one, he's a good rusher. We'll be comfortable with him there."

Tinoisamoa's re-signing creates what should be a spirited competition throughout the off-season and into training camp and probably the preseason schedule. Tinoisamoa led the Rams in tackles in four of his six seasons in St. Louis, where he also intercepted seven passes and had 10 sacks.

Urlacher and weak-side linebacker Lance Briggs, who led the team with 147 tackles last season, have been voted to 10 Pro Bowls between them, including six by Urlacher. But with Urlacher and Tinoisamoa playing barely one game between them last season, Roach, Hunter Hillenmeyer and Jamar Williams all were asked to make major contributions.

With all six of their top linebackers expected back this season, that position should be one of the strongest on the team.


  • Jay Cutler was a major disappointment last year because of a propensity to make poor decisions, which often resulted in interceptions. In Cutler's defense, the Bears' running game and offensive line were also major disappointments, which had more than a little to do with the quarterback's underwhelming performance. Cutler was also working with a young and inexperienced group of wide receivers with whom he should have a better rapport after an additional year together. Cutler remains a franchise-type quarterback because of his rocket arm, accuracy and knack for moving in the pocket and buying time. But he has yet to prove himself as a leader and a winner. Cutler has not led a team to a winning record in the NFL or in college. He is seen as aloof and still has a reputation as a finger-pointer. But he may have grown up some last season. Although there were many opportunities to blame an inexperienced group of wide receivers and a mediocre offensive line, Cutler did not throw anyone under the bus.

    "We knew about Jay's arm, his athletic ability, all those things you can see on video," coach Lovie Smith said. "But when you get a chance to be around him, it's his toughness (that stands out) as much as anything. The quarterback of the Chicago Bears should be a tough guy, and that's what I saw. I saw his toughness in how he handled things and his toughness on the football field too. It's OK to slide once in awhile (to avoid contact), but that's not his mentality."

  • Alex Brown has been cut and Adewale Ogunleye is in unrestricted-free-agent limbo and will not be back, so Israel Idonije is competing with Mark Anderson for the starting DE job opposite Julius Peppers.

    For the past couple years, Idonije has bounced back and forth between end and tackle, but now the coaching staff says he'll be able to focus on one position, but Idonije isn't entirely convinced.

    "Prepare for everything is kind of how I'm looking at it," he said. "I'm excited about the opportunity to play end. That's the goal to come in and be able to rush off that end, whatever side they ask, and just get after the quarterback."

  • Bears G.M. Jerry Angelo is confident that six-time Pro Bowl linebacker Brian Urlacher is primed for a big comeback in 2010 after suffering a season-ending dislocated wrist in Game One last year.

    "He's 100 percent ready to go," Angelo said. "I feel great that he's back, and getting him back into form can only make us, not only a better defense, but a better football team."

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "You're not going to field a Pro Bowler at every position, and you don't have to. The players that we presently have we feel good about. But we always want to create competition and better depth." — Bears G.M. Jerry Angelo


    Shortly after the 2009 season, Lions general manager Martin Mayhew gave a frank assessment of the NFL's worst pass defense.

    "When we rushed four, we couldn't get there," Mayhew said. "When we brought pressure, we couldn't hold up on the corner. So that was probably our weakness defensively."

    Mayhew has overhauled his defensive line and secondary since, and he likely will continue doing so in the NFL draft. He could start by using the No. 2 overall pick on defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, a sack machine at Nebraska.

    Cornerback Chris Houston certainly hopes he does. Asked whom he wanted the Lions to draft, Houston said: "A defensive tackle. It would make my job more easy." Asked if he had any names in mind, he laughed but didn't hesitate to say "Suh." Asked if he thought he would get his wish, he said: "Yeah, I do."

    A good defensive line can make the secondary look better, putting pressure on the quarterback, forcing bad throws, creating opportunities for interceptions. The Lions already have added end Kyle Vanden Bosch and tackle Corey Williams. Vanden Bosch will start at right end. Williams will play the three techniques.

    The secondary needs all the help it can get. The Lions went through so many defensive backs last year, it was difficult to keep count. And they haven't stopped shuffling. They have parted with three corners: Phillip Buchanon, Anthony Henry and Will James. They have added three others: Houston, Jonathan Wade and Dante Wesley.

    Still more might be coming. The Lions have investigated Adam (Pacman) Jones. They have visited with Lito Sheppard. At least three defensive backs for pre-draft visits: Connecticut corner Robert McClain, Florida State corner Patrick Robinson and Virginia Tech safety Kam Chancellor.

    "Everybody's just going in to compete," Houston said. "The best man will be here. Apparently, the Lions are making changes, and they want the best players out on the field. So that's who's going to be on the field when things come down to an end."

    Not only do the Lions need talent, they need depth. Coach Jim Schwartz pointed out that teams dress players at defensive back more than at any other position.

    "The other thing is that defensive backs get hurt at a higher rate than just about any other position on the field," Schwartz said. "The reason is, other positions have gotten bigger and bigger while defensive backs have stayed basically the same, especially corners. It's not a matter of if somebody gets hurt and has to miss a game, it's a matter of when. You have to be prepared.

    "One person in the secondary who doesn't play well and makes mistakes can make the whole secondary look bad. It's how the whole secondary plays, and if there's one weak link in that chain, the whole group can look bad. And offenses are really good at finding that one guy and exploiting him."


  • Lions tight end Casey Fitzsimmons was forced to retire because of concussions. "It's frustrating because the rest of my body is still capable of playing at a high level in the NFL," Fitzsimmons said in a statement. "However, given the seriousness of the risk associated with continuing to play, I have to listen to the advice the team has given me." Fitzsimmons suffered multiple concussions in his seven-year NFL career, the last Dec. 6 at Cincinnati. He finished the season on injured reserve and still experiences symptoms. "This has been a very difficult decision," said Fitzsimmons, 29. "I feel like 2009 was one of the best seasons of my career, because I was so consistent and was able to contribute in a variety of ways. If it wasn't for the concussions, I would not be retiring."

  • Fitzsimmons can look back on a remarkable football career. He went from playing eight-man football at a small high school in Montana, to starring in the NAIA at Carroll College, to latching on with the Lions as an undrafted free agent in 2003. He became a key contributor as a receiving tight end and special teams stalwart. He played 99 games over seven seasons with the Lions, catching 88 passes for 677 yards and five touchdowns.

    "We signed him as a free agent in 2003 because we needed a tight end for our rookie camp," Lions president Tom Lewand said in a statement. "All he did was start in his first NFL game as a rookie and go on to play as many seasons at tight end as any player in Lions history, other than Jim Gibbons and Charlie Sanders."

  • The Lions could draft another tight end. They brought back Will Heller this off-season. But Brandon Pettigrew, a first-round pick last year, is recovering from a torn ACL. The others on the roster are Dan Gronkowski, Michael Matthews and Jake Nordin. At least three tight end prospects have made pre-draft visits to Detroit: Florida's Aaron Hernandez, Oregon's Ed Dickson and Miami's Jimmy Graham.

  • The Lions brought back defensive end Jared DeVries after releasing him in February. The 33-year-old missed the 2009 season with a torn Achilles tendon. The Lions released him before having to pay a $400,000 roster bonus. He was in the last year of a contract that would have paid him a $1.3 million salary. Now he has signed a one-year contract that will pay him $1.7 million — what he would have made in the first place — if he makes the team. "I've never really been worried about the Achilles itself, but I understand the stance they took," DeVries said. "I'm very excited to be back and in the fold and with the guys. That stuff sometimes you've just got to work through, as far as the release goes. The timing of signing back, I didn't work out for them, so they didn't gain any more confidence. But it was just something that we were working through."

  • DeVries said he spoke to the Lions' coaches recently to "get a firm grasp on their stance, what they were thinking." The Lions could draft a defensive tackle No. 2 overall April 22 — Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh or Oklahoma's Gerald McCoy. They already have made major changes to the defensive line, adding tackle Corey Williams and end Kyle Vanden Bosch. Kris Kocurek is replacing the retiring Bob Karmelowicz as the position coach. "He's high energy," DeVries said. "He's very knowledgeable. He played the game, so he knows about defensive line play. In just speaking with him throughout this whole thing, we're going to be a lot more disruptive. I like the direction he's got the group headed. He's a perfect fit for a guy like Coach Schwartz."

  • Vanden Bosch is working at right end. What does DeVries envision his role will be? "My vision is to be the starting left end, but obviously, I'll have to compete for that like I do every year," DeVries said. "That would have been my role last year had I not gotten hurt. But like I said, it's good to be back around the fellas, and competition is good, and I look forward to it."

  • Lions cornerback Chris Houston had only three interceptions in three years as a starter for the Falcons, but he plans to improve that part of his game. "My ball skills is the main thing I need to work on," Houston said. "I get that down, then I can be a Pro Bowl player, and I'm going to work on that during the off-season. ... "I envision achieving those goals that I have set for myself. I know I can make it to the Pro Bowl. It's just a matter of putting in the work and working on the weaknesses that I need to work on." Houston said his strengths are his speed and ability to play press coverage. He thinks he can develop good chemistry with safety Louis Delmas, a second-round pick last year. "I'm real eager to line up with Louis Delmas, because he has the same attitude that I have — aggressive," Houston said. "The coaches are establishing that within the DB group. They want us to be more physical."

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "I happen to think Suh and McCoy are better football players at their position than Okung is at his. And should you take a player that's better? And, usually, I say yes, because I think you dilute the overall quality of your roster when you pick a guy that you acknowledge is not as good as a guy that's available because of need." — NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock, who is leaning toward Nebraska DT Ndamukong Suh for the Lions at second overall in his mock draft, over Oklahoma DT Gerald McCoy and Oklahoma State OT Russell Okung.


    The Packers told Ahman Green that they wouldn't move on possibly re-signing him as an unrestricted free agent until after the April 22-24 draft.

    The prospects of another available Pro Bowl running back playing in Green Bay also could hinge on what the Packers accomplish in the draft.

    The team reportedly has put out feelers with Brian Westbrook, the dynamic but injury-riddled veteran released by the Philadelphia Eagles in February.

    While Westbrook would be an upgrade over what the Packers have behind starter Ryan Grant, the team doesn't appear to be in a rush to make a serious run at him.

    Plenty of questions remain about whether Westbrook, 30, will be healthy enough to play again and make an impact after he suffered two concussions last season. Westbrook also has been hampered by knee and ankle injuries.

    Westbrook is determined to play this year and would be a natural fit for the Packers' West Coast offense, which the Eagles have long used under head coach Andy Reid.

    The purported interest in Westbrook comes after Packers head coach Mike McCarthy gushed in late March about Brandon Jackson's progression as the team's top understudy to Grant.
    Jackson excels as a pass blocker, but Westbrook would be more valuable in a third-down role with his playmaking abilities as a runner and a pass catcher.

    This year's draft class is short on impactful running backs. Unless Green Bay is in position to take Cal's Jahvid Best, Fresno State's Ryan Mathews or Georgia Tech's Jonathan Dwyer with its picks in the late first and second rounds, Westbrook could be targeted as reinforcement.


    While their focus is squarely on the April 22-24 draft, the Packers still need to get five restricted free agents to sign their tenders after the April 15 deadline for the players to receive offers from other teams passed.

    Nickel back Tramon Williams received a first-and-third-round tender, and defensive end Johnny Jolly had a first-round tender. Left guard Daryn Colledge and strong safety Atari Bigby received second-round tenders. The team used the low right-of-first-refusal tender on fullback John Kuhn, an undrafted player.

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