NFC North news, notes and quotes

The Bears are excited to get MLB Brian Urlacher back for the season, but not nearly as excited as he is to be there. The Lions also have a LB in the news, with Julian Peterson concerned his salary might be an issue for the team. For the Packers, it's a defensive lineman that is having a troubling offseason that is making the news.


CHICAGO BEARS

Last season was the most frustrating of his football life for six-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, who by halftime of the 2009 opener was finished for the season with a dislocated wrist.

That injury snapped a streak of 65 straight starts, dating back to 2004, when he missed seven games with hamstring injuries. Those were the only games he had ever missed in the NFL until last season.

"It sucks," Urlacher said. "I got a lot of perspective: I don't want to do it again. It's very frustrating. I hadn't missed a season in my life, high school, college, nothing even close to that. The closest I ever came was back in ‘04."

The positive spin from the injury is that it occurred so early in the season that Urlacher, who turns 32 on Tuesday, is already back to full participation on the field and in the weight room.

"It's great, it feels good man," he said at the end of last weekend's minicamp. "I did everything football-wise I was supposed to do."

That's sweet music to the Bears' coaching staff, which was forced to utilize every bit of a deep linebacker depth chart last season.

"We're better with him," coach Lovie Smith said. "He's a great player. He makes our defense work. When you're the quarterback of the defense, and they're used to hearing you, that's important. For the seven years I've been here, I've heard him giving the signals — and the players have too."

A year ago, two years removed from the Pro Bowl after he made it in six of his first seven seasons, Urlacher and the Bears were anticipating a bounce-back season because he had a healthy off-season, free of injury rehab. He feels the same way now.

"I had a year off so I feel pretty good," he said. "I'm just excited I get to practice again."

Urlacher missed football so much that he was thrilled to be able to return to the less glamorous aspects of the job, the grunt work of practice and lifting weights.

"I missed not being up here (at Halas Hall) all the time, being around my teammates," he said. "I missed football obviously, but the most fun you have is being around your teammates. When you don't have it, that's when you appreciate it the most. When it's taken from you, you miss it the most.

"Even this offseason, when I got to go to workouts, it was great just to be back around the guys again, joking around with them, working out. I missed it. I don't know if they missed me, but I missed them last year. It's fun to be back, especially on the football field."

The Bears missed Urlacher, too, even though Hunter Hillenmeyer stepped up with arguably his best NFL season filling the void.

"He's the face of the franchise," defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. "I would never take anything away from 92 (Hillenmeyer) now, because he did a heck of a job, too. But (Urlacher) has a presence in the huddle. He can communicate, he can run the defense, and that's a confident feeling. That huddle is about confidence. He gets everybody aligned and set and then his play will speak for itself."
NOTES

  • Cornerback Charles Tillman, who was absent from most of the voluntary workouts prior to last week, lined up with the second team in last weekend's first minicamp practice, a temporary "demotion." And he was also on the right side instead of his customary left side.

    Zackary Bowman and Tim Jennings, who was cut in the offseason by the Colts, lined up with the first team. But Tillman's "demotion" didn't last long. He was back with the ones in the afternoon, though still on the right side, and he's still the starter, as he has been since his rookie season of 2003.

    "There's no second or first team right now," coach Lovie Smith said. "There's a starting rotation that you have. It's kind of based on who's been here the most right now. When some of the players haven't been here the entire time, you don't know exactly what type of condition they're in, and you have to get them out here and see. Charles Tillman is one of our guys. Every day that I've been here, that's been the case, and that won't change."

    The Bears conclude their only full-team minicamp with a solo practice Sunday.

  • There were several notable absences from the practice field at Halas Hall Friday when the Bears conducted the first two of their five weekend practices.

    Defensive tackle Tommie Harris did not participate in the morning, but he was back during the afternoon session. Newly acquired tight end Brandon Manumaleuna was a spectator after having arthroscopic knee surgery five weeks ago. He's expected to be at 100 percent well before the start of training camp.

    Defensive tackle Marcus Harrison was held out from all practices with a non-specific "illness." Wide receiver Earl Bennett was limited in some team activities after recent arthroscopic knee surgery, but he did most of the individual work.

    Center Olin Kreutz, who is coming back from offseason Achilles surgery, did not practice during the minicamp but is expected to be back on the field in time for training camp. Linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa (knee) practiced in the mornings but not in the afternoons.

  • Coach Lovie Smith weighed in on the Gale Sayers-Brian Urlacher war of words that has already been blown out of proportion since Sayers criticized the lack of success of recent Bears teams.

    "Those are guys in the Bear family," Smith said. "When you're in a family, ideally you would like to keep things in, but when you're in the Bear family, no one in the Bear family is happy with where we are right now. That's why you need minicamps and things like that. Our football team is better, and when we play better this year, everybody will be happy."

    The Bears have missed the playoffs the past three seasons. But they missed the playoffs in all seven of Sayers' seasons while compiling a cumulative record of 41-54-3.


    DETROIT LIONS

    Lions linebacker Julian Peterson said he has not heard about his contract since general manager Martin Mayhew spoke with his agent, Kevin Poston, early in the offseason.

    "As far as I know, they just had a nice conversation," Peterson said. "I'm still here. We'll see. I want to stay here."

    Peterson was a Pro Bowl alternate last season. But he wasn't as consistently productive as he has been in the past. He turns 32 in July, and he is due a $7.5 million salary in 2010.

    At the NFL scouting combine in February, Mayhew said he had spoken to Poston. He stressed that he hadn't used the word "cut." Asked if he had used the word "restructure," he said he couldn't remember.

    But Mayhew also said he thought Peterson was "the kind of player who's going to be an even better player when he gets better players around him." And asked if Peterson could come back at his current number, he said it was possible.

    Since then the Lions have let Larry Foote leave as a free agent and traded Ernie Sims, and they have acquired Ndamukong Suh, Kyle Vanden Bosch and Corey Williams.

    Peterson is now alongside DeAndre Levy and Zack Follett at linebacker. The Lions are high on Levy, a third-round pick last year, but he has started only two games in the middle. They are giving a shot to Follett, a seventh-round pick last year, but he has started zero games and has a lot to prove. They could make another move, but if this trio starts Sept. 12 at Chicago, Peterson must be the anchor.

    Adding Suh, Vanden Bosch and Williams to the front four should help.

    "I think that's the same with a lot of other people," coach Jim Schwartz said. "You put better players around them. They get some attention. Maybe you get less opportunities, but your production increases. Julian's always been a guy that can find his way to the passer, but it makes it a little bit easier when you have some of those other guys rushing."

    Peterson shouldn't have to play defensive end as often as he did last year to help the pass rush. The Lions can use him in situational pass-rushing packages and as a blitzer, helping create or take advantage of mismatches. In theory, when Peterson attacks the QB now, it will be because the Lions want him to, not because they need him to.

    "You'll see him moving around," Schwartz said. "You'll see him rush the passer from a lot of different places. It won't necessarily be as a defensive end with his hand in the ground."

    The Lions could approach Peterson again before the regular season starts. But unless they are willing to cut or trade him, they would have no leverage. And it should be noted there is no salary cap this year.

    Asked if he had any nervousness or felt in limbo at all, Peterson said: "I've been around too long. It is what it is, at times. You can't worry about that. You've got to go out here and do your job; everything else will take care of itself."

    NOTES

  • OTAs looked a lot like training camp when the Lions engaged in a fairly large scuffle one afternoon. Guard Stephen Peterman and defensive tackle Landon Cohen tussled to the ground. Their teammates flew in. Offensive tackle Gosder Cherilus and defensive end Jason Hunter paired off, too. But there were no punches thrown. "Just a wrestling match," coach Jim Schwartz said. "Guys were hot, and guys were competitive. It crossed the line a little bit too much, and I think they all know that in OTAs I can't fine anybody. So they missed their opportunity to get a free one in." Schwartz was right in middle of the pile. Asked if he should have been in that position, he cracked: "I've been working out. I was in the middle of it, but I think everybody knew not to tackle the head coach."

  • Schwartz made sure he sent a message when he spoke to the players on the field. "I told them after practice: I appreciate everybody's competitiveness, I appreciate having to slow guys down, but it's more important to get work," Schwartz said. "And then, the other thing is, that was during the two-minute period. Whether that was called on offense or defense, for a personal foul, that would have lost the game, or lost that drive. So there's lessons to be learned with it. But it was hot, it was muggy. They got toward the end and didn't respond the right way."

  • Now that the rookies are integrated into the program, the Lions are full speed ahead. "All of a sudden the pace is really going to start accelerating," Schwartz said. "We didn't want to have to go back and reinstall a whole lot with the rookies, so we sort of kept our pace down a little bit, slowed it down a little bit for the vets. But now that the rookies are here and will hear all the same things that the vets hear, all of a sudden we'll start really accelerating our installation of different schemes on offense and defense." Schwartz said he expects to have 90% of the playbook in by training camp.

  • Cornerback Amari Spievey, a third-round pick, missed most of rookie orientation because of tight hips, and they continue to bother him. He is still easing in physically and mentally during organized team activities. Spievey said picking up the Lions' defense had been "pretty difficult" and he was spending a lot of time with defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham. "I've been chilling next to Gun, listening to the play and seeing it happen, so that's helping me a lot," Spievey said. "The hardest part for me is learning the terminology. I've played similar defenses, but the different names are kind of confusing to me. So once I get that down, I'll be fine." The Lions won't see what they really have in Spievey for a while, because they drafted him largely for his hardnosed style. "You need to be able to cover in the NFL, so you'll be able to see that," Schwartz said last week. "But ? part of his skill set is his ability to tackle and his physical nature and his aggressiveness as a corner, and we probably won't see a whole lot of that before we get to preseason games."


    GREEN BAY PACKERS

    Johnny Jolly, the Packers' estranged defensive end, is having anything but a jolly offseason on and off the field.

    No sooner did Jolly seem to be on the outs with the starting job he held the last two years when the Packers shifted nose tackle Ryan Pickett to Jolly's spot at left end than Jolly found himself in hot water in the court of law.

    A district court judge in Harris County, Texas, reprimanded Jolly on May 21 for actions unbecoming of an individual who is facing a felony drug charge.

    The much-delayed jury trial in Jolly's case stemming from his July 2008 arrest in Houston for possession of codeine is scheduled to begin June 1.

    The fifth-year pro could be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison if convicted and is a candidate to be disciplined by the NFL for a violation of its substance-abuse policy.

    A return to football has yet to happen for Jolly since the Packers' 51-45 overtime loss at the Arizona Cardinals in an NFC wild-card playoff game Jan. 10. The restricted free agent has stayed away from Green Bay, refusing to sign the qualifying offer from the team.

    The Packers evidently aren't waiting on Jolly and a resolution to his seemingly never-ending legal situation. They took to the practice field in organized team activities, which started May 17, with a new-look starting defensive line of Pickett and incumbent right end Cullen Jenkins bracketing B.J. Raji, the team's top draft pick in 2009 who was deemed ready to play nose tackle on a full-time basis.

    If and when Jolly returns to the team, he would have to try to unseat veteran Pickett to jump back into the starting lineup.

    The notable position switch for Pickett is part of a renewed emphasis for the Packers with their defensive line. They bolstered the depth by selecting two ends in the April draft - Mike Neal (second round) and C.J. Wilson (seventh) ? and also have Justin Harrell, their 2007 first-round pick, back on the field after he missed the 2009 season with a chronic back injury.

    "There's always room for good football players, especially big guys," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "You can come up short with big guys in a hurry. Hopefully, if our young guys develop and Justin comes along, that will be a good problem to have."

    For Jolly to factor in the mix, he will have to emerge from his pending trial unscathed. The pressure already is on for him to be on his best behavior.

    Mike Anderson, the district court judge who is presiding over the case, scolded Jolly during a pre-trial hearing May 21 because of a promotional flier for a party that Jolly allegedly hosted at a Houston nightclub earlier in the month. A picture of Jolly was on the flier.

    Jolly's $10,000 bond prevents him from using drugs or alcohol.

    Anderson imposed further restrictions on Jolly, who must submit a hair sample for additional drug testing, adhere to a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew and not attend establishments where drugs or alcohol are used.

    "I had better not see any more fliers like this," Anderson told Jolly, who attended the hearing.

    Jolly's response was "Yes, sir."

    NOTES

  • Many of the players were away from Green Bay when the news broke May 25, but a few managed to give their two cents via their Twitter accounts about the NFL's decision to award the 2014 Super Bowl to a cold-weather site for the first time.

    Super Bowl XLVIII will be played at New Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.

    The reaction was varied among Packers players in comments they posted on Twitter.

    Safety/return specialist Will Blackmon wrote: "Superbowl in nyc means, superbowl is not about football. It's a social business event."

    Quarterback Aaron Rodgers, a native of Northern California, gave a thumbs down to football's biggest game being played in early February in a northern climate.

    Rodgers wrote: "Personally I'm a fan of warm weather super bowl venues. San Diego, Nola (New Orleans), Dallas, Phoenix, and Miami should just rotate."

    Since a precedent has been set with the Super Bowl going to an outdoor site where the threat of subfreezing, snowy conditions is genuine, talk has ensued about Green Bay playing host to a future Super Bowl at historic Lambeau Field. The prospect of harsh weather coupled with insufficient logistics make that unlikely, but Packers linebacker Clay Matthews isn't opposed to it.

    "GB doesnt have enough hotel accommodations 4 the S.B.??" Matthews posted on Twitter. "Yall can party at my place ... I'll b at the hotel gettin ready for the game!!"

  • The Packers are in the midst of their organized team activities, which head coach Mike McCarthy structured to run a full month this year but with a full week off for the players and coaches for the first time.

    The break fell the week of May 23, leading into the extended Memorial Day weekend. The OTAs will resume June 1, with three practices a week scheduled until June 17.

    "It really stemmed from the strength and conditioning," McCarthy said of shutting things down for a week after the first week of OTAs. "We felt that (in previous years) we had a very high number of our players that fell into a category of overtraining.

    "We felt, frankly, that we were stressing our players out (during the offseason). So, that is why we made the adjustment where we went five weeks of purely in the weight room and then four weeks more of an individual emphasis and also with the weight-room work with another week off. Then, we'll finish with another four weeks that will be truly focused on the OTA atmosphere."

  • Still yet to report for the offseason workouts are the unsigned trio of restricted free agents: safety Atari Bigby, defensive end Johnny Jolly and nickel back Tramon Williams. They have until June 15 to sign their qualifying offers from the team.

  • Although Ahman Green maintains a residence and has been teaching in the Green Bay area the last few months, the Packers don't seem inclined to re-sign the team's all-time leading rusher. The same goes for fellow back DeShawn Wynn, to whom the Packers didn't offer a tender as a restricted free agent. Wynn had tryouts this spring with the Cincinnati Bengals and New York Giants.

    The team gave Green and Wynn's uniform numbers of 34 and 42, respectively, to safeties Anthony Levine and Morgan Burnett, the latter a third-round draft pick this year.

  • Defensive coordinator Dom Capers envisions giving a lot of in-game exposure to Ryan Pickett and B.J. Raji as a hefty tag team on the field together next season.

    The Packers opened their month-long organized team activities May 17 by debuting a defensive line anchored by the 340-pound Pickett at left end and the 337-pound Raji at nose tackle. Pickett was the team's starting nose tackle for four seasons but is making the move to the outside in Green Bay's 3-4 scheme to allow Raji, its top draft pick in 2009, to settle in at his natural spot on the inside.

    "Both of those guys have enough athletic ability and size that they can play either place," Capers said. "That gives us flexibility. We're blessed to have two guys with that size that can play inside or outside."

    Besides being paired in Capers' base packages, Pickett and Raji will form an imposing roadblock in short-yardage situations.

    "Not too many people can put two guys that size with that athletic ability inside," Capers said. "We were a pretty good short-yardage team (last season), (but now) you've got big people in there that can knock people back."


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