NFC North news, notes and quotes

The Bears will concentrate on protecting Jay Cutler better this season, the Lions took a big gamble in trading away Ernie Sims, and the Packers are moving on without Johnny Jolly, at least for this season. Get all the news, notes and quotes from the Vikings' divisional rivals.


Before quarterback Jay Cutler can flourish in new coordinator Mike Martz's offense, he'll have to get better protection than he did last year.

Mike Tice takes over as line coach for Harry Hiestand, whose group allowed 35 sacks last year and struggled to protect Cutler or create running room for the ground game, which averaged a mediocre 4.0 yards per attempt. There is expected to be more pressure on the offensive line this year in the passing game, considering Martz's frequent use of five- and seven-step drops.

Considering that by the end of last season 2008 first-round draft pick Chris Williams had already moved over from right tackle to replace Orlando Pace at left tackle, there hasn't been a lot of change in personnel on the offensive line, but there have been some alterations.

Last year's left guard, Frank Omiyale, will start at right tackle, which is his more natural position. Center Olin Kreutz and right guard Roberto Garza are back for another year together (this will be their sixth season playing side by side), but there will be a new left guard, although it could be Josh Beekman, a 16-game starter there in 2008.

Tice is hopeful for continued improvement, which he said was apparent toward the end of last season.

"The first thing I did (after getting hired in January) was grade the line as if I was the coach last season," Tice said. "The one thing that did stand out to me is that they got better as the season went on. A couple of the guys were playing pretty decent football by the end of the season. I think that's one of the reasons the team finished up pretty good last year. The biggest thing I saw was that they got better."

Kreutz might be the key to continued improvement in 2010. He hobbled through a tough ‘09 season with an injured Achilles tendon that required postseason surgery and kept him sidelined until the last days of OTA practices. But he is expected to be 100 percent by the start of the season, his 13th, all with the Bears.

"Olin's one of our guys," coach Lovie Smith said of the 12-year starter and six-time Pro Bowler. "For you that have been around here a while, you know what he means and his role and that leadership. Of course, this is a new offense, and a new coach for him - a lot of different things. But he's back, he's on pace, and he feels real good looking forward to the future."

Kreutz has missed a total of one start in the past nine seasons, and that was way back in 2002, seven days after he underwent an appendectomy. It's better for everyone when Kreutz is on the field, as Cutler pointed out after the 33-year-old veteran returned to OTAs.

"It was getting bad because he wants to be in there," Cutler said. "He gets a little bored, and when he gets bored he starts picking on guys. But he's going to be the anchor of the offensive line. He has been for years, so we're not worried about him."


Zack Follett sure talks a good game. He started to play a pretty good one late in his rookie season, too. Follett, a seventh-round pick out of California who began the season on the practice squad, emerged as a playmaker on special teams and also got a chance to excel in some defensive packages at the end of the regular season.

"He took steps all along the way," coach Jim Schwartz said.

Now it's time for a giant step, though, provided Follett's ready. By trading away a four-year starter in Ernie Sims, the Lions created a void at weakside linebacker. Entering training camp, that No. 1 job appears to be Follett's to lose.

"The door's definitely open for me, compared to what it was last year," said Follett, who would join another second-year pro, DeAndre Levy, and veteran Julian Peterson in the starting lineup at linebacker in the Lions' 4-3 scheme. "It's real fun to see. Just to see how far I've grown in a year, I'm excited to go out there. The coaches have been doing a real good job of teaching me the defense. And it's coming along so much quicker than it was last year. I'm able to go out there and just play fast. And that's my game ... to play fast."

Follett's hard-hitting reputation and outgoing personality helped make him an instant fan favorite last fall. And this spring he has become a go-to interview for local and national media outlets, while also becoming an advertising pitch man in Detroit.

"Everyone's been real cool," said Follett, whose father, Bob, died unexpectedly at age 57 in April. "That's why I say it's easy to relate to these fans in Detroit. Because they're down to Earth, and that's kind of my style: blue-collar guy. And that's how the fans are, and they really appreciate that. So that's why I think I've been able to connect with them so much."

Still, he knows it'll take more than a quick wit - or his own cheering section at Ford Field - to stick around for long, and he sounds determined to do just that.

"Knowing the defense; last year, I didn't have a good grasp of it," said Follett. "That's something I've worked on quite a bit, getting in the playbook, knowing my plays, and then just being a smart football player. That's one thing (defensive coordinator) Gunther (Cunningham) likes: It's OK if you make your mistake once, but are you gonna make it the next time? And after you make that mistake, are you gonna come back and make a play? That's one thing he always looks for, and that's what I'm trying to improve on."

Added Schwartz: "He's taken the next step. He's had a good offseason. He's a lot more comfortable playing behind the ball. He worked really hard on the scout team last year to try to get a lot of that work, and it's showing right now."


  • Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham might not like what he sees yet from his revamped defense. But he's intrigued by the potential of the team's offense - coordinator Scott Linehan has some new weapons to play with in RB Jahvid Best, WR Nate Burleson and TE Tony Scheffler - to make life a little easier this fall.

    "Listening to Scott, and watching his career and the type of players he likes, when he speaks about offense, it makes you blink on defense," Cunningham said. "Because he wants to put these players in certain positions to allow him to get the quarterback to control the game. That makes it really difficult for defenses, especially with Calvin (Johnson). I saw him last year get beat up a couple times and we had no one else to threaten. What I'd like to see is Calvin Johnson one-on-one with one of these midgets."

  • Quarterback Matthew Stafford won the "Mr. Tough Guy" award from Fox analyst Terry Bradshaw last winter, based on his performance with a separated shoulder in a win over Cleveland. And Bradshaw, the Hall of Fame ex-quarterback, remains a big fan of the Lions' new young leader.

    "I think they are doing the right thing with him," Bradshaw told the South Bend Tribune. "He looks like the kind of guy who gets into it and shows he's mad. That's a guy who's leading them. I like him. I like him a lot. I like what he brings. (The Lions) still have a long way to go, but they're definitely on the right track."

  • Cornerback Jonathan Wade began last season as a starter in St. Louis and ended it on the Rams' inactive list. He's hoping to reverse that trend after signing with the Lions.

    "It's a clean start," he said. "It gives you an opportunity to be who you want to be. Whatever you give these people is what they'll think about you. There's nothing like a fresh start. It's like a brand-new car: it smells different, it feels different."

  • Nearly 40 players participated in voluntary boxing workouts in addition to their regular offseason training program this spring. Local pro boxer Luigi Gjokaj, who trains at the legendary Kronk Gym in Detroit, led the sessions, which were designed to help players' balance, power and agility. They weren't designed to create any world champions.

    "Everybody thinks they're pretty sweet with the gloves on, but I don't know that anybody could actually box," veteran defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch said. "I think Luigi's probably the smallest dude in here and I think he could beat any of us."

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "You hear about how explosive he is and then you see him catch a ball in the flat, stick his foot in the ground and get up field like a Mustang. He's just extremely explosive." — WR Nate Burleson, when asked about the speed of rookie RB Jahvid Best.


    The Packers had a sneaking suspicion they would have to play without defensive end Johnny Jolly.

    Maybe not the entire 2010 season — as is the profound case for Jolly, whom the NFL suspended indefinitely July 16 for violating its substance-abuse policy — but Green Bay braced itself for the prospect of a lengthy absence.

    Now that Jolly won't be able to apply for reinstatement until after Super Bowl XLV in February, the Packers' moves during the offseason made sense.

    They used a high pick on a defensive end in the April draft, taking Purdue's Mike Neal in the second round.

    With Jolly nowhere in sight on the practice field, the team shifted previously entrenched nose tackle Ryan Pickett to Jolly's starting spot at left end, enabling 2009 first-round draft pick B.J. Raji to take over at the nose, his natural spot.

    With that, the Packers had their Jolly-less approach in place, if indeed the league disciplined him by docking games — and pay.

    "Johnny is a good player that loves everything about the game of football," general manager Ted Thompson said after the suspension was rendered. "We appreciate the contributions he has made to the Packers the past four seasons. His focus and priorities now lie elsewhere — our thoughts are with him during this difficult personal time."

    Jolly is only the second Green Bay player to be suspended for a season. Hall of Fame running back Paul Hornung was banished in 1963 for gambling.

    Jolly faces up to 20 years in prison if he is convicted on a felony charge of possessing 200 grams of codeine outside a nightclub in his hometown of Houston in July 2008. The repeatedly delayed start to the trial is scheduled for July 30, the same day Jolly's teammates will report for training camp in Green Bay.

    Despite the Packers' intuition to have a backup plan ready were Jolly to be lost for any length of time, he won't be easily replaced.

    Jolly was a reliable and productive starter the last two seasons after he returned from a serious shoulder injury in 2007. He didn't miss a game in 2008 and ‘09 and produced 82 and 75 tackles in those seasons, the latter No. 1 among the team's defensive linemen.

    Green Bay is going to try to compensate by plugging in the massive, yet mobile Pickett on the outside for the first time in his 10-year pro career and setting Raji loose on the inside to tie up blockers and provide some pass rush.

    The depth behind the starting line, which includes right end Cullen Jenkins, is suspect since 2007 first-round draft pick Justin Harrell has been fragile as a pro and there's no telling what the Packers can get out of rookies Neal and possibly C.J. Wilson (seventh-round choice) this season.
    So, the season-long suspension of Jolly can't be easily dismissed and could have far-reaching ramifications for the Packers.


  • Not unlike most teams, the Packers have some negotiating work to get done in the final days of the offseason.

    Green Bay, which opens training camp July 31, has its top two draft picks unsigned: first-round offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga and second-round defensive end Mike Neal.

    "Would I love to be in on time? Yeah," Bulaga said. "But, there's a business part to it. Mr. (Russ) Ball (the Packers contract negotiator) and my agent, Tom Condon, that's their job is to do that; my job is to come out and play football."

    Also to be signed is Atari Bigby, a restricted free agent. The incumbent starting safety refused to sign the team's qualifying offer during the offseason.

    The Packers roster numbers 82, so two players will have to be let go once Bigby, Bulaga and Neal are signed to be in compliance with the 80-player limit.

  • Quarterback Aaron Rodgers and linebacker Clay Matthews were honored as the team's 2009 MVP and rookie of the year, respectively, at the Packers Hall of Fame induction event July 17.

    Offensive tackle Greg Koch and tight ends Marv Fleming and Mark Chmura were enshrined.

  • Packers president Mark Murphy said the team has interest in bringing a possible Big Ten Conference football championship game to Lambeau Field.

    The title game is expected to be launched in 2011, when Nebraska joins the conference.

    Murphy would like to boost the club's sagging locally generated revenue and previously mentioned expanding Lambeau Field's capacity by upward of 9,000 people as a possibility.

  • NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is scheduled to attend the annual Packers shareholders meeting, July 29 at Lambeau.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "The important thing for us going into the season is going to be, let's get five guys in place up front who we feel good about and let's get five guys behind them we feel good about as well. We have the opportunity to not have a lot of shuffling." — Quarterback Aaron Rodgers, on the state of the offensive line.

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