Around the NFC North
About the only person not making a big deal about tight end Greg Olsen's role in Mike Martz's offense is Olsen himself.
Olsen led the Bears last season with 60 receptions and eight touchdowns, but Martz's offenses have rarely utilized the tight end to that extent.
In Martz's seven years with the Rams, the first season as the offensive coordinator and the next six as head coach, no tight end ever caught more than 38 passes and all the tight ends combined never caught more than 50 passes in one season.
The Bears' new offensive coordinator has mainly used the tight end as an extra blocker in the run game or pass protector. So, when the Bears signed 6-2, 295-pound blocking tight end Brandon Manumaleuna early in free agency, Olsen's demise was widely anticipated. Either he would be traded, or his role as a pass catcher would be drastically reduced, according to the doomsday predictors.
But there was Olsen last week at Halas Hall in the first of 14 OTA (organized team activity) practices sprinting down the field catching lasers from Jay Cutler as a member of the first team, often in the same personnel package as fellow tight end Desmond Clark. Manumaleuna has been limited to individual running drill on the sideline since his recent minor arthroscopic knee surgery. Olsen is not worried about his place on the team.
"I've addressed this a million times," he said. "I feel good the way things have gone so far, and it's early in the process, but so far everything's been great."
But, will it remain that way? Olsen will be asked to block more and more effectively than in the past, and he may never be an 80-catch guy, as had been predicted when he was drafted in the first round in 2007. But Olsen doesn't seem worried. It's still football, and Martz has said that the 6-5, 255-pound former Miami Hurricane presents a receiving threat at tight end he never had in St. Louis.
"Sometimes you focus your offense around what you've got," Olsen said. "In the past, (Martz) has had great wide receivers and great backs. It's the same here, but we feel like we have a couple tight ends who can do some stuff in the passing game along with those other guys. So we'll see how that works out.
"We feel good that he can kind of make it work to whatever his players' strengths are, and that's something that they continue to hit on."
As for the blocking, that's something Olsen knows wasn't a strength coming out of college, but he continues to work to improve that aspect of his game.
"It's been part of the program every single off-season, and each year I've gotten better," he said. "This year is no different, regardless of all that's happened. Every off-season we work hard at it, and that's not going to change."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We have to have more takeaways. It's as simple as that. We feel like we are going to be able to score some points. But you've got to get the ball back. That is the No. 1 goal of our defense, to get the takeaways and then score." — Coach Lovie Smith, whose Bears teams have forced the most turnovers (200) in the NFL since he took over in 2004, but they had just 28 last season and only 13 interceptions.
The secondary, specifically at safety, was expected to remain an area under construction throughout the off-season and into training camp, but the picture there may already be coming into focus.
Danieal Manning and Chris Harris have been the starting safeties in minicamp, although Manning has been at strong safety, even though he's started 37 games at free safety the past four years. Harris has been at free safety, even though he's spent the majority of his six-year career at strong safety.
Manning played free safety and nickel back last season, but 2007 fifth-round draft pick Corey Graham and 2009 fourth-round pick D.J. Moore have been getting most of the reps at nickel with Manning exclusively at safety.
"I'd just kind of go with that right now and let it play out at the nickel position," coach Lovie Smith said. "We like the potential. We've seen Corey Graham. We know a little bit about what type of player he is. We're excited about seeing D.J. at the nickel position. He has good instinct, great hands. We'll see how he goes."
At least some long-suffering fans are starting to get excited about the Lions. Despite the Lions' lousy record and Detroit's lousy economy, fans are lining up and paying up for autographs from the team's young stars.
One night, quarterback Matthew Stafford, the No. 1 pick in last year's draft, and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, the No. 2 pick this year, were signing at memorabilia stores on opposite sides of the metro area. Suh's signature cost $40-55, Stafford's $30-35.
The first fans in line for Suh were Allen McCord, 40, and son Thomas, 12, of Detroit. They showed up two hours early so they could nab Suh's signature and then race over to get Stafford's.
"I haven't seen two Lions signing at the same time," said Steven Graus, who has been in this business for 22 years and owns DC Sports, where Suh signed. "It's good for the city. People are spending their hard-earned money, and so the memorabilia market is hopefully back for the Lions."
Joe Morgan has owned Motor City Sports Gallery for five years. He said for the first time he is receiving more requests for Lions autograph signings than for Red Wings, Tigers or Pistons.
Wide receiver Calvin Johnson drew a larger crowd recently than athletes like Chris Chelios, Carlos Guillen and Curtis Granderson. Stafford's crowd was even bigger than Johnson's.
Graus said Barry Sanders used to be in high demand, but because he was Barry Sanders, not because he played for the Lions. Fans actually are interested in the team now.
"I think it's about the best it's been since we've been in business, as far as the renewed interest in the team, with some of the drafts they've had," Graus said.
When the Lions drafted Stafford last year, there was fear and skepticism. But he has won over fans, and the Lions have added more pieces. Suh is viewed as a coup. As Graus said, "He was the player everybody told them they should take, and they took him."
"Stafford, I was always kind of hemming and hawing about whether or not he was actually going to be good," said Randy Osbourn, 33, of Shelby Twp. "But Suh, it feels different with him versus the last five or 10 draft picks we've had.
"There was always the excitement, but with him, it's just that thing you can't really describe. You feel he's not going to be just either your average guy or follow the Charles Rogers route of just complete collapse."
Osbourn has an impressive personal collection that includes more than 100 individual autographs. But he had only one Lions autograph, that of former defensive tackle Shaun Rogers', until he stood in line to get Suh's.
"I've had opportunities to go to other shows, and no one's piqued my interest, really drawing me out," Osbourn said. "Suh, as soon as I heard we got him on draft day, it was pretty much wherever he was going to be at."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think today you would have probably had a hard time - if you didn't have a roster and you didn't know the team - of just looking out there and seeing who the rookies were." — Lions coach Jim Schwartz, on the rookies' progress through three weeks of organized team activities.
Tight end Tony Scheffler is getting back up to speed after spending time in a boot because of a foot problem. Coach Jim Schwartz said he had made some big-time catches in organized team activities. ... Schwartz said safety Ko Simpson is "seeing some light at the end of the tunnel" as he recovers from knee surgery. Simpson at least has gone through some warm-up drills. ... Tight end Will Heller remains out with a minor injury. ... Running back Kevin Smith, tight end Brandon Pettigrew and cornerback Jack Williams continue to participate to varying degrees as they recover from torn knee ligaments.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
From teammates to coaches, concerns are mounting about the playing future of defensive end Johnny Jolly with the Packers.
Jolly faces up to 20 years in prison if he is convicted of a felony drug possession charge, stemming from an incident in his hometown of Houston in July 2008. The start of the much-delayed trial was pushed back to June 4.
"I'm concerned for Johnny Jolly personally," Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said. "He's a member of our football team that's going through a legal situation, and we're monitoring it closely, and we'll just continue to support Johnny the best we can."
Jolly, an unsigned restricted free agent, hasn't been with the team since the end of last season. McCarthy hasn't spoken to him in more than a month, and even players who are close with Jolly have had little or no contact with him this spring.
"It's tough seeing this whole thing transpire. We just pray for him," veteran defensive lineman Ryan Pickett said.
Pickett is hopeful Jolly won't be found guilty and will be back with the team, but Pickett added, "It's a distraction."
McCarthy isn't sure that Jolly will be available to play next season. Guilty or not, Jolly could be suspended by the league for violating its substance-abuse and/or personal-conduct policies — he was arrested for allegedly possessing more than 200 grams of codeine outside a Houston nightclub and last month was reprimanded by the court for breaking conditions of his bond.
"Definitely, his availability is in question," McCarthy said. "I don't think you can deny that."
As such, the Packers have been preparing to move on without Jolly, a full-time starter the last two seasons.
They moved Pickett, a nose tackle his first nine years in the league, to Jolly's spot at left end. B.J. Raji, the team's top draft pick in 2009, is the starter at the nose, his natural position.
"We're eager to have him back," Pickett said of Jolly. "We're just going to watch the thing unfold like everyone else and see how it comes out."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think Brandon Underwood would definitely be a candidate for most improved player from year 1 to year 2 so far from what I've seen. I think he's really matured in the weight room. He looks very good right now. I know we're only practicing in shorts and helmets, but I think Brandon Underwood is off to an outstanding spring so far." — Head coach Mike McCarthy, on the development of the cornerback who was primarily a special-teams player as a rookie last season. The quote was given before Underwood was named in an investigation of sexual assault over the weekend.
The longer Atari Bigby sits at home, the rosier the outlook gets for Morgan Burnett to begin his rookie season as a starter.
Burnett has been getting the first-team reps at strong safety thus far in the offseason in the absence of Bigby, one of three Packers who haven't signed the team's qualifying offers as restricted free agents.
The others are nickel back Tramon Williams and defensive end Johnny Jolly, an incumbent starter who is entangled in a legal situation.
"Anytime a player misses these, it's an opportunity that is wasted as far as being with his teammates," head coach Mike McCarthy said of the ongoing organized team activities.
Burnett, a third-round draft pick out of Georgia Tech, has made a good early impression on Green Bay's coaches. He's picked up in the OTAs where he left off in college as a playmaker with a nose and magnetic hands for the football.
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