Around the NFC North
Offensive coordinator Mike Martz knows one thing for sure about the 2010 Bears: The young wide receivers will make an impact.
For the most part, it's an inexperienced group, long on potential and game-breaking speed but, so far, short on consistent production. Martz believes that will change this season.
"I love our receivers," Martz said at the conclusion of the weekend rookie minicamp at Halas Hall. "I think that our receiver corps will be the strength of this team. You can put that in granite. I can promise you that one.
"There's not very many things I would say are un-retractable, but that one is pretty strong. This will be the strength of this football team. That's a terrific group."
And that's a pretty strong endorsement for a group that has never had a member catch more than 57 passes in a season, accumulate more than 757 receiving yards or score more than five receiving touchdowns.
As recently as one year ago, the group of Devin Hester (the old man of the group at 27), Earl Bennett (23), Johnny Knox (23) and Devin Aromashodu (25) had a total of had a total of nine NFL starts.
But Bennett emerged as a 54-catch, 717-yard receiver last season after not catching a single pass as a rookie in 2008. Knox, a lightly regarded fifth-round pick from Abilene Christian, caught 45 passes for 527 yards and five touchdowns. Hester was on pace for a 1,000-yard season and, despite a late-season swoon, still finished with career bests of 57 catches and 757 yards. Aromashodu didn't get much of a chance until the final month of the season, but he responded with 20 catches for 282 yards and four touchdowns in the final four games.
The tight end position is a little more uncertain, but more so because of uncertainty about roles than lack of talent.
Former Ram and Charger tight end Brandon Manumaleuna, the 6-foot-2, 295-pound road grader, was brought in as the extra offensive lineman that Martz needs in his scheme. But talented pass-catching tight end Greg Olsen has become one of the Bears' more potent offensive weapons, and Desmond Clark is still a solid two-way performer, more than capable as a blocker and receiver, as he enters his 12th season.
But Martz has generally not made the tight end an integral part of his explosive passing attacks, and if Olsen is to remain a factor in the offense, he will have to block. If he can do that, Martz says he will find a way to use him in the offense.
"Good players at any position, you find a way to get them the ball," Martz said. You take advantage of their strength. This is a system that allows you to bend to what you have. When you get a guy like Greg, he has to get grounded in the running game, obviously. But there are some things we'll do with him that we haven't been able to do before.
"It's exciting for me because, as a coach, you get the chance to explore some different avenues, plus you can have him on the field where he's almost a third receiver on first down. It's unlimited."
But any tight end in Martz's offense has to be able to block first before he becomes a part of the passing game.
"Before you even go there, you have to get down to the basics of putting your hand on the ground, coming off the ball and sustaining a block," Martz said. "And if a tight end can't do that, you've got to wonder. And (Olsen) can certainly do that. He's proven he can do that. We've just got to get him involved in that. It's easy for him to get into the passing game. He's certainly capable of putting his hand on the ground and throwing a good block."
He'll have to be if he wants to get the ball in Martz's offense.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm coming in there to roll up my sleeves and help in any way that I can and hit the ground running." -- Bears new director of player personnel Tim Ruskell.
The Lions looked like a different team during the first organized team activity they opened to the media -- and not only because they have added so many players to the roster. They also have gotten back several players from injuries, at least on a limited basis.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford went through all team drills after having clean-up knee surgery at the end of the season. Right guard Stephen Peterman returned to his starting spot after finishing last season on injured reserve with an ankle problem.
That was expected. What wasn't expected was seeing tight end Brandon Pettigrew, running back Kevin Smith and cornerback Jack Williams on the field. All three suffered torn ACLs the second half of last season.
"Those guys are starting to do individual-type drills and stuff like that," coach Jim Schwartz said. "They're still not even close to being cleared for team work and competitive stuff.
"They're not right in the middle of a long-term rehab. They're probably more past the middle. But they've still got a long way to go. They've done well in their rehabs. There's been no setbacks. Hopefully by the time training camp comes, they'll be able to be on the field and not have very many limitations."
Pettigrew said he started running about a month ago and had been cleared to "start amping it up a little bit." He tore the ACL in his left knee after tearing the one in his right knee in high school.
"As far as coming back, I may be coming back a little bit quicker, stability-wise maybe a little better, a little bit faster," Pettigrew said. "But I'm still taking it easy, not rushing at all."
Smith said his injury might end up as a blessing in disguise.
"It's frustrating that I hurt my knee, but knowing that I get to take my time coming in, I'll be a little more healthy and not that worn down because I'm not doing that much in OTAs," Smith said. "When training camp starts I'll be doing spotty stuff, I imagine, so I should be pretty fresh by the time I'm ready to get on the field, and that's a plus in this situation."
Cornerback Eric King has returned from a shoulder injury. Safety Daniel Bullocks also is back after missing two of the past three seasons with a knee problem. He tore an ACL in a 2007 preseason game, played in '08, then had another surgery in '09.
"My expectations are to come back and be a starter," Bullocks said. "I want to get back to where I left off at before the injury and just try to show these coaches what I can do. I didn't get an opportunity to do that last year."
Bullocks is the last player left from the Lions' 2006 draft class -- the last from the drafts between '02-06, in fact.
"With all the transactions that have been going on, I'm still here, and that says a lot," Bullocks said. "But I've still got to showcase my talent and go out there and make plays and become the player I once was."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Is my name Kevin Smith? There's your answer." -- RB Kevin Smith, asked if he would be ready for training camp after tearing an ACL last season.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Bryan Bulaga was happy the one question he feared would be asked by teams in their pre-draft interviews of him never was broached.
"I was waiting for it," said Bulaga, referring to criticism raised by draft experts that the former Iowa left tackle has short arms.
Bulaga would have had a ready reply for anyone who would have questioned him about his 33 1/4-inch reach: "I don't know what you want me to say. I can't get them any longer. Sorry."
No apologies needed now that Bulaga is in the NFL and taking aim at getting on the short track to a starting job with the Packers, who gladly took the talented lineman when he fell to them at No. 23 in the first round of the draft.
"His arms are long enough," head coach Mike McCarthy said after watching Bulaga in the team's recent rookie camp. "He's got broad shoulders, too, if you want to get really technical about it. Arm length doesn't tell the whole story based on if someone can pass protect or play with leverage."
Look no further than Chad Clifton as Exhibit A. Clifton hasn't been hindered by 33-inch arms as one of the top left tackles in the NFL after he started as a rookie with the Packers in 2000.
Comparing arms could be a nice icebreaker when Clifton and Bulaga get to work together for the first time in the organized team activities, which start May 17.
"I hope that he can help me out a little bit, show me the ropes a little bit," Bulaga said. "Obviously, he's been through a lot, and he's played a lot of good football, and he's still playing good football.
"I'm just hoping that I can learn as much as I can from him and garner all that experience that he can offer because it's very valuable information. Anything I can learn from him is valuable."
How willing Clifton is to impart his expertise and tricks of the trade to Bulaga remains to be seen. Bulaga is being groomed as the Packers' starter of the future at left tackle, but the rookie feels he can put up a good fight for the starting job now.
"I'm used to playing football," said Bulaga, who started as a true freshman at Iowa. "I'm going to determine if I'm on the field or not. It's as simple as that. If they don't think I'm ready, then I won't be out there, and if they do, and something happens where if a guy goes down or if I earn my way into a spot, then so be it."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm not really ready to make an assessment on any one player, but he looked good in his uniform. I'll say that about him. But, I think he is off to a good start." -- Head coach Mike McCarthy, on his first impression of left tackle Bryan Bulaga, the team's first-round draft pick, at the rookie orientation camp April 30-May 2.
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