[size=18px]Bears eye repeat with stable starting lineup[/size]

By MARK GAUGHAN
News Sports Reporter
The Buffalo News
7/8/2006


Bears coach Lovie Smith is the dean of NFC North coaches.

This is the seventh of eight stories examining NFL teams by division as they prepare for
training camp. Today's installment focuses on the NFC North.

Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith finds himself as the dean of coaches in the NFC North division after only two years on the job.
"I'm trying to figure out how that happened," Smith admitted this spring. "But I like being the dean, that's for sure."

Smith's Bears were the picture of stability this offseason. Chicago returns all 22 of its starters from the club that won the division with an 11-5 record in 2005.

Almost everything else in the NFC North changed.

All three of the Bears' foes hired new head coaches, and two of the other three teams have changed starting quarterbacks. The NFC North was the most overhauled division in the league this year, which leaves the Bears as the favorite to repeat.

Here's how the offseason moves stack up:


[size=18px]Chicago Bears [/size]

Key gains: Brian Griese (Bucs), PR Devin Hester (Miami), DB Danieal Manning (Abilene Christian).

Key losses: None.

Breakdown: The Bears' defense was the least scored upon in the league and returns intact. Third-round pick Dusty Dvoracek (Oklahoma) adds even more depth to a dominant front seven. The Bears had the luxury to make special teams a high priority in the draft. Manning could play dime corner but has return ability. Hester could be a dynamic punt-return man.

Key questions: The passing attack ranked 31st last year; can a fully healthy Rex Grossman make a difference at quarterback? Can WR Mushin Muhammad rebound from a mediocre year? He better because the Bears got outbid for Antwaan Randle El by Washington in free agency. The team lacks a top-notch tight end. Jake Delhomme scorched the defense for 319 passing yards in the playoffs. Depth at corner is an issue.


[size=18px]Minnesota Vikings [/size]

Key gains: G Steve Hutchinson (Seahawks), LB Chad Greenway (Iowa), RB Chester Taylor (Ravens), FB Tony Richardson (Chiefs), K Ryan Longwell (Packers).

Key losses: QB Daunte Culpepper (trade), WR Nate Burleson (Seahawks), S Corey Chavous (Rams), S Brian Williams (Jaguars), DE Lance Johnstone (Raiders), RB Michael Bennett (Saints).

Breakdown: New coach Brad Childress steps into what could be a decent situation. The Vikes were 9-7 last year despite injuries and controversy over players' off-field conduct. Childress, an offensive coach who helped groom Donovan McNabb, immediately had to shift his original plan. He wanted Culpepper, but the veteran QB wanted out. The Vikes only got a second-round pick for him. Nevertheless, expect Childress to get more out of an offense that ranked 25th, as long as QB Brad Johnson stays healthy. Hutchinson is a huge addition.

Key questions: Johnson turns 38 in September. His backups are Mike McMahon and Tarvaris Jackson, a project from Alabama State picked in the second round. The Vikes have invested free-agent money and picks in their defense in recent years, but it only ranked 21st. With the loss of Burleson, is last year's No. 1 pick, Troy Williamson, ready to make an impact at receiver? He had 24 catches last year. Safety is a worry.


[size=18px]Detroit Lions [/size]

Key gains: QB Josh McCown (Cards), QB Jon Kitna (Bengals), LB Ernie Sims (Florida State), S Idrees Bashir (Panthers).

Key losses: QB Joey Harrington (trade), QB Jeff Garcia (Eagles).

Breakdown: Somehow, team President Matt Millen kept his job despite a five-year record of 21-48. Millen jettisoned Steve Mariucci and will start over with former Tampa defensive line coach Rod Marinelli. He will bring discipline, accountability and a sergeant's mentality to the job. After investing five years in Harrington, the Lions weren't ready to draft another QB No. 1. They hope McCown is ready to blossom. If he isn't, Kitna will play.

Key questions: Can Marinelli be a big-picture CEO of the team after jumping from position coach to top dog? Can he get more out of an underachieving defense that ranked 20th? G Rick DeMulling was a disappointment last year. Can he rebound? Kelly Butler is a concern at right tackle. Will the Lions' receivers live up to their potential? The loss of R.W. McQuarters (Giants) and Andre Goodman (Dolphins) in free agency leaves the corner spot thin.


[size=18px]Green Bay Packers [/size]

Key gains: CB Charles Woodson (Raiders), DT Ryan Pickett (Rams), LB A.J. Hawk (Ohio State).

Key losses: WR Javon Walker (Broncos), K Ryan Longwell (Vikings), C Mike Flanagan (Texans).

Breakdown: One miserable season cost Mike Sherman his job, and the Pack replaced him with Mike McCarthy, a surprise choice because he had been fired as offensive chief in New Orleans two years ago. McCarthy learned the West Coast offense from Paul Hackett and gets QB Brett Favre back for another year. McCarthy's offensive wizardry will be put to a test. The interior O-line is suspect, and so is the receiving corps. Hawk fills a huge need at linebacker, but the stoutness of the defensive line is questionable.

Key questions: Will Favre get any protection? Can he succeed with a receiving corps that includes Donald Driver, Robert Ferguson, Rod Gardner, Marc Boerigter and a pedestrian group of tight ends? Can RB Ahman Green come back from a torn knee ligament? Aside from a solid starter in Al Harris, the corner position is a worry. New defensive coordinator Bob Sanders has giant shoes to fill in replacing Jim Bates.

NEXT: NFC West.

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Bears eye repeat with stable starting lineup