A lot of people have said for a long time that the Bears never should have traded safety Chris Harris to the Panthers during 2007 training camp for a fifth-round pick.
In the past three years with the Panthers, Harris started 44 games, forced 12 fumbles, including a league-best eight in 2007, intercepted five passes and made 184 tackles.
And now the Bears have seen the error of their ways. Harris, 27, announced on his Twitter account last Tuesday that he would be traded back to the Bears, who drafted him in the sixth round in 2005. The Bears confirmed the deal in mid-afternoon, giving up backup linebacker Jamar Williams to reacquire Harris.
Williams, a fourth-round pick out of Arizona State in 2006, started three games for the Bears, including two last season. Against the Rams on Dec. 6, he filled in for Pro Bowler Lance Biggs and had a career-high 19 tackles. Williams was also one of the Bears' top special-teams players with 40 tackles in the past three seasons.
The Bears actually did pretty well with the pick they acquired for Harris. They used it to select cornerback Zackary Bowman in the 2008 draft. Bowman started 12 games at cornerback last season and led the team with six interceptions, nearly half the team total of 13.
The 6-foot, 205-pound Harris is expected to claim the starting job at strong safety, where he has become well known for his physical play. The Bears hope third-round draft pick Major Wright will compete for the free safety position, which has numerous contenders but no standout.
"This kind of completes our overhaul of our safety position," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "I'm excited. Chris was a good player for us when he was here last time. We know what he brings to the table."
Harris started 20 games in his first two years with the Bears, including 13 at free safety as a rookie. He had 70 tackles, three interceptions and eight pass breakups.
Harris was limited to 11 games and seven starts in 2007 because of injuries. He began the season at free safety but started the final five regular-season games and all three playoff games, including Super Bowl XLI, at strong safety, where he had an interception of Peyton Manning.
Since Lovie Smith became the Bears' head coach in 2004, there have been a total of 40 lineup changes at the two safety positions. Harris is the fourth player the Bears have added to the secondary this off-season. They also signed free agent cornerback Tim Jennings after he was cut by the Colts, and they drafted Wright in the third round out of Florida and cornerback Joshua Moore in the fifth round out of Kansas State.
"We're excited about some of our young players like Major Wright coming in," Smith said. "But we wanted to get a veteran player who has been around and who has played at the highest level. The last time Chris played for us, we were in the Super Bowl. Hopefully he can help us get some of that magic back."
The 6-foot-6, 270-pound Wootton rehabbed so diligently that he returned to the playing field for the start of the 2009 season, several months ahead of the normal schedule after, he tore the ACL, MCL and meniscus in his right knee. But he wasn't the same player as in 2008, and his draft stock plummeted, which enabled the Bears to get what may be one of the steals of the 2010 draft in the fourth round.
The knee is no longer an issue, at least for the Bears.
"He's healed," general manager Jerry Angelo said. "He needs to continue to get stronger, particularly in his quad area. But we think in these next couple of months he is going to get a lot stronger. Hopefully, he goes to camp at 100 percent."
Moore started all 24 games the past two seasons, making 140 tackles with 23 pass break-ups and 5 interceptions. While his 4.07 time in the 20-yard shuttle at the Scouting Combine was impressive, the 5-foot-11, 188-pound Moore bench-pressed 225 pounds just twice, and he lacks strength as a tackler in run support.
"There will be a transition period, but he has the skill set for cornerback," said Bears defensive backs coach Jon Hoke. "He played well on big stages and has very good man-to-man instincts."
However, Pro Football Weekly's Nolan Nawrocki said Moore is, "lazy, immature and (his) character needs to be evaluated."
In four years as the starter at CMU, LeFevour became the only player in NCAA history with 12,000 passing yards and 2,500 rushing yards. Still, he plummeted to the sixth round of the draft, where the Bears stopped his free fall with the 181st overall pick.
LeFevour was downgraded by scouts because of mediocre arm strength and questionable mechanics. Another negative is that he played in a shotgun offense and will need numerous reps to master taking the snap from under center and reading defenses while he drops back.
"It's a little bit aggravating at times, and it tries your patience a little bit," said LeFevour, who had been projected as high as the second round. "But you've got to realize that it's all going to work out. Someone's giving me a chance to play at the next level because they like the way I play. It might not have happened in the round that I liked, but it's definitely to the right team and I'm very excited to be here."
LeFevour played high school ball at Benet Academy in Lisle, a suburb about 25 miles west of Chicago. Benet ran the double-wing offense, and LeFevour threw "about five or 10 times a game," he said. The only D-I schools that recruited him beside CMU were Eastern Illinois, Eastern Michigan and Ball State.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Who would not consider Alan Faneca if you had a need at the offensive line?" — Bears G.M. Jerry Angelo, whose team has a hole at left guard.
So now, after two free agency cycles and two drafts under general manager Martin Mayhew, how does Schwartz feel about the Lions' talent level?
"Better, for sure," Schwartz said.
The Lions have been active and aggressive while trying to upgrade their personnel. After drafting defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh second overall, they traded up to take running back Jahvid Best at No. 30. In free agency, Schwartz showed up with a bottle of Cabernet at the home of defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, while offensive coordinator Scott Linehan wined and dined wide receiver Nate Burleson.
"We looked and said, ‘Hey, let's get guys that fit exactly what we want to do, let's have a role defined for them and let's try to fix those positions rather than just Band-Aiding them and having to do it again next year or any other time,' " Schwartz said. "I feel good about what we've done there. We still have a long way to go, but if you look at some of the talent that we've put in place over the last two years. ... I think you're seeing significant gains."
The Lions came out of the draft with six picks. Suh and Best likely will be starters on opening day. Cornerback Amari Spievey, a third-rounder, has a shot, too.
But Mayhew also used picks in this draft in trade packages for cornerback Chris Houston, safety Ko Simpson, guard Rob Sims and defensive tackle Corey Williams.
"We had the ammunition to do it, and we got players that are still young that have experience in the league that fit what we want," Schwartz said. "I think if we were drafting at those spots and we got those kinds of things ... we would be very happy with them."
General manager Martin Mayhew said: "When we're sitting there on the clock and we don't have a pick in the fifth round and we don't have a pick in the sixth round, we talked about, ‘Hey, we don't have those picks because we acquired starters with those picks already.' "
Last year's draft netted quarterback Matthew Stafford, tight end Brandon Pettigrew, safety Louis Delmas, linebacker DeAndre Levy and more. Combine that with the new additions — which also include tight end Tony Scheffler — and at least the Lions don't look like a team that has lost an NFL-record 30 games over two seasons.
Mayhew will keep exploring trades, talking to free agents and combing the waiver wire.
"There's still a lot of opportunity," Schwartz said. "This isn't going to be the final pool that we'll draw that 53 from when we open at Chicago. ... There's going to be somebody that's going to come between now and the first game that's going to help us win a game this year. I honestly believe that."
GREEN BAY PACKERS
What surely will be a highly scrutinized position battle the next few months started in earnest when the Packers hold their rookie orientation camp April 30 to May 2.
The two punters on the roster are Tim Masthay and Chris Bryan, and both will be on the field for the minicamp for the team's young players.
The Packers signed Masthay, a first-year player, and Bryan, a rookie from Australia, in the offseason when they moved on without Jeremy Kapinos, who wasn't re-signed as an exclusive-rights free agent after a woeful 2009 season.
Kapinos ranked last in the league with a net average of 34.1 yards.
Green Bay has suffered in the punting game since releasing the strong-legged Jon Ryan, now with the Seattle Seahawks, right before the start of the 2008 season.
"The performance here the last two years is unacceptable, and the two young men that are fighting for that position clearly understand that," head coach Mike McCarthy said.
The right-footed Masthay was a college standout at Kentucky. He had a gaudy gross average of 45.2 yards as a senior in 2008.
The Indianapolis Colts signed the 6-foot-1, 197-pound Masthay as an undrafted free agent last year, but they cut him early in training camp.
Bryan, who, at 28, is five years older than Masthay, brings a wealth of professional kicking experience from Australian Rules Football, in which he played five years.
He kicks left-footed and has good size for the position at 6-5, 210.
The Packers didn't take a punter in the recent NFL Draft. Thus, they will allow Bryan and Masthay to go toe to toe in the spring workouts before deciding whether a veteran free agent would need to be signed for training camp, which opens July 31.
After a few months of seeking multiple medical opinions with the hope he could get back on the field, the linebacker is hanging up his helmet and cleats.
The Packers released Thompson on April 26, nearly six months after he sustained a serious neck injury in practice late last season.
"I have consulted with a number of physicians, and due to my medical condition, my intention is to retire from football," Thompson said. "I am thankful to the Packers organization and to the fans for their support during my time in Green Bay. The Packers are a first-class organization, and I want to thank them for the opportunity to play in the NFL. There truly is no team I would have rather played for."
Thompson was the first player for whom Packers general manager Ted Thompson (no relation) traded up in the draft, taking him in the fourth round in 2008.
Jeremy Thompson, a converted defensive end, was beset by injuries as a pro and appeared in only 15 games his first two seasons.
What proved to be a career-ending setback occurred last Dec. 4 at the Packers' indoor practice facility. Thompson's helmet jarred the shoulder pad of practice-squad running back Kregg Lumpkin, and Thompson had to be carted off the field and taken by ambulance to the hospital.
Thompson never lost feeling in his extremities, but damage to his neck and spine sapped some of the strength on his right side.
The Packers signed Peprah, a free agent, April 26. The fifth-year player was with the Packers from 2006 until they waived him last September after he suffered a left knee injury in training camp.
Peprah signed with the Atlanta Falcons late in the season and appeared in two games, but the Falcons didn't re-sign him as a restricted free agent.
The Packers made another move April 26, releasing tight end Devin Frischknecht. The undrafted rookie spent the entire 2009 season on injured reserve because of a broken leg suffered late in the preseason.
Colledge is expected to battle Jason Spitz for the starting job at left guard, and Bigby will be challenged by rookie Morgan Burnett, whom Green Bay selected in the third round of the draft.
Notable signees included South Dakota quarterback Noah Shepard, Miami cornerback Sam Shields and outside linebacker prospects Tim Knicky of Stephen F. Austin, Frank Zombo of Central Michigan and John Russell of Wake Forest.
The 5-10 1/2, 186-pound Shields ran a blistering time of 4.30 seconds at Miami's Pro Day in late March. The converted receiver was a special-teams ace for the Hurricanes.
The 6-1, 228-pound Shepard gives the Packers a fourth quarterback for spring workouts. He is the all-time leading passer at South Dakota, possesses a strong arm and is dual threat as a runner.
The voluntary organized team activities will run from May 17 to June 17, with practices open to the public May 19 and June 2, 9 and 16. The mandatory minicamp will be June 21-23.
Players will report for training camp July 30. The first practice date is July 31.