NFC North Tour: Henderson's Return

LB E.J. Henderson (Rick Stewart/Getty)

In Minnesota, E.J. Henderson hopes to be ready after breaking his leg late last season. In Chicago, the Bears put their trust in offensive coordinator Mike Martz. In Detroit. coach Jim Schwartz is proud of offseason program even after breaking rules.

Minnesota Vikings

E.J. Henderson has expressed optimism that he will be back on the field when the Vikings open training camp late next month in Mankato.

The reality, however, is that Henderson will have to be cleared by the Vikings' medical staff before he is allowed to return after suffering a broken femur in his left leg last December.

That means that Jasper Brinkley will be Minnesota's starting middle linebacker until Henderson is given the green light and there is a chance Brinkley could be the starter on Sept. 9 when the Vikings open the regular season at New Orleans.

Following the Vikings' minicamp this month, Brinkley said he is "definitely" preparing as if he will be the starter because "you never know what is going to happen."

A fifth-round pick out of South Carolina in 2009, Brinkley started the final four regular-season games of his rookie season and then played in both postseason contests after Henderson was injured in a game at Arizona.

That provided Brinkley with invaluable on-the-job training and plenty of opportunities to learn from what he did right and wrong.

"I definitely feel like I came a long way," he said. "Last year was a whole lot of learning for me. I call it teach tape. So definitely got in here this offseason and critiqued myself really hard because you're your (own) worst critic. So (there were) a lot of things I wanted to work on and I came out here and got better (during minicamp)."

Brinkley, who is 6-1 and around 255 pounds, is effective against the run because he is such a big hitter. The issue in his game is going against the pass.

Brinkley did not play in nickel situations last year so he was not consistently exposed to the pass, but when he was on the field in those types of situations there were some issues with his ability to drop back into coverage as the middle linebacker in the Tampa-2 is required to do.

Brinkley said he has looked to improve in that area by working on his hip movements and also credited Henderson with helping him.

"It's all about shifting your hips off the quarterback's eyes and being able to break down on the check downs sometimes," he said. "Just being able to read the route combination and knowing what route is coming by different splits."

Vikings extra points

— Defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams likely will be able to play most if not all of the 2010 season after a ruling from the Minnesota state Court of Appeals in the lawsuit over the players' four-game suspensions for taking a banned diuretic. In the most recent ruling, the court denied a request from the NFL for an expedited hearing of their appeals in the case, meaning it could be months before oral arguments are heard in the case and up to three months after that before a ruling is issued.

— Vikings wide receiver Bernard Berrian will be part of a VH1 show that will debut on July 11 and star Cincinnati wide receiver Chad Ochocinco. Berrian will attempt to help Ochocinco choose from a field of 85 women who will be "vying for his heart at a "dating camp."

— More than a week after Sage Rosenfels received very limited reps in the Vikings minicamp practice on Saturday and then no reps on Sunday, there is still no word on if the team is shopping the veteran quarterback or what they plan to do.

It's possible the Vikings are waiting for Brett Favre to officially announce his return before they decided to jettison Rosenfels but nonetheless this has the potential to become a very uncomfortable situation. It would not be surprising if the Vikings entered the regular season with Favre as the starter, Tarvaris Jackson behind him and rookie Joe Webb as their third quarterback.

Chicago Bears

It's easy to see why quarterback Jay Cutler believes the Bears' new offense is on track for a successful 2010 season.

For openers, coordinator Mike Martz has a well-deserved reputation for creating potent passing attacks. Cutler's receivers are swift and talented, though inexperienced, and six-time Pro Bowl center Olin Kreutz was back on the practice field this week for the first time since offseason Achilles tendon surgery.

"We've got a lot of plays in, guys have responded really well to Mike and the offense and to the new situation that we're in," Cutler said. "You have to be happy where we're at. It's something to build on."


Mike Martz
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Kreutz wasn't expected back until the start of training camp, but there he was Thursday afternoon at the final OTA, snapping to Cutler and working with the rest of the starting offensive line. He's not yet full speed, but everyone expects he will be long before the games begin.

"I think he gets a little bored," Cutler said with a laugh, "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."

The reconstruction of the offense, which Martz is presiding over, is far from a finished product, but it's getting there.

"We're not ready for the first game," coach Lovie Smith said. "No team is. But we like where we are at this stage. I would say we're exactly where we want to be going into training camp and the preseason."

Much of Martz's offense has been installed, but Cutler and Co. are a long way from mastering the subtleties and intricacies of a voluminous playbook with hundreds of plays that can be run from several formations.

"You're still trying to picture the play in your head when you're walking up to the line," Cutler said. "But as far as me, and (backup quarterback) Caleb (Hanie) would probably say the same thing, I think we're seeing things really well. We're going out there and instead of thinking where guys are going to be, we're just seeing the defense and reacting. We just have to get everyone on the same page."

That will be the challenge when the Bears reconvene in Bourbonnais for the first training camp practice on July 30. Cutler says the initial signs are encouraging, and he's anxious to take the next step. It's an offense that just about any quarterback would embrace.

"I love it," Cutler said. "There's a lot to like about it. The ball's in the air, we're doing some great stuff in the run game, we're trying to get guys open, and we're trying to find spaces for them we're trying to create matchups. Mike does a great job of that."

While Cutler and everyone else on the offense will admit that learning the Martz playbook is a chore, they'll also say that the additional homework is well worth the effort.

"It makes you want to come to work every day," Cutler said. "(Martz) is so creative. He's doing fun stuff, he's finding ways to win and that's all you can ask for as a player is to have a coach that loves football and is going to do everything possible to put you in position to be successful. I think that's what the great coaches are able to do. That's what Mike's done in the past, and I don't see him changing his ways at all."

Bears extra points

— Smith practically bristled when he was asked, at the end of OTAs, if he had a team that could compete for the playoffs.

"As far as 'compete,' that's not our goal, to (just) compete," Smith said. "We have the same goal we have every year, and that's win the Super Bowl, win the world championship. It's early on, and you need to get in pads, but I just like the look of this team. I think you'll get that from most of our veterans. We know what a good football team looks like, and this is a good football team."

The Bears are 23-25 over the past three seasons, missing the playoffs each year.

— Since he was drafted in the second round in 2003, Charles Tillman has been the Bears' starting left corner, often working against the opponents' No. 1 wide receiver. But throughout this offseason, Tillman has been the right corner the majority of the time with Zack Bowman moving to left corner after starting on the right side last season and leading the Bears with six interceptions, almost half the team total of 13.

Detroit Lions

After losing 37 out of their last 40 games, the Lions need all the practice they can get. So coach Jim Schwartz was unhappy they lost two organized team activities because they violated offseason workout rules.

But he wasn't exactly unhappy about what led to the sanctions. The positive spin is that it is a good sign the Lions are working hard to turn themselves around.


Jim Schwartz
Otto Greule Jr.Getty Images
"I'll tell you what, I'm extremely proud of our offseason program," Schwartz said. "I think that if I was a player I'd want to be in this offseason program.

"I'm just most disappointed for some of our players — not our established players, but our young guys that are trying to make the team and trying to improve as football players. They were denied the opportunity to be able to go out and improve as a football player."

Schwartz had planned to end the offseason with a five-day primer for training camp — two days of organized team activities leading into a three-day mandatory minicamp. With 80 percent of the playbook installed, he wanted to have 95 percent installed by the end of the minicamp so he would be mostly reviewing come training camp.

But then the NFL and players' union took away those last two OTA days for violating rules "pertaining to the intensity and tempo of drills," forcing Schwartz to compress his installation and taking away reps some players badly needed.

What happened? Schwartz said it went back to the rookies' first practice with the veterans, when defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, the second overall pick in the draft, had his every move chronicled by the media. Suh went against veteran guard Stephen Peterman that day.

"The league called and asked for film," Schwartz said. "They actually saw a headline in one of our newspapers that said 'Suh and Peterman battle it out in OTA's,' and they flagged.

"I assume that when they said, 'Hey, we want to see the practice film,' they were looking for one-on-ones and things like that, which you're not allowed to do with the offense and defensive linemen, which we weren't doing. It took them a long time, almost a month, because it was the first practice with rookies.

"Generally, that's going to happen. The first practice with rookies is going to be more guys on the ground, and it's going to be a little bit looser because you have rookies that are trying to make a good first impression and you have veterans that don't want to be beaten by a rookie. They looked at that practice and didn't like the looks of it."

Schwartz has liked the looks of his OTAs, however, and made a point.

"We've had 14 last year and 12 this year, so 26 OTA practices," Schwartz said. "I had two minicamps last year, and we had zero injuries in those practices other than hamstrings, groins and calves. Player safety is important to us, and guys do practice hard, but we've had a good track record of staying pretty healthy."

Lions show some fight

Tempers flared at the team's Allen Park training facility on Friday, where the "non-contact" drills took an opposing twist on two different occasions. Coaching staff and personnel had to break up two fights involving several players.

At the end of one of the scuffles, Schwartz lashed out verbally at the players for several minutes.

"There's going to be lot of fines from today -- it's not acceptable what happened," said an irritated Schwartz in his press briefing. The practice concluded the team's off-season, as they gear up for training camp which begins in late July. "It's going to get hot, and at the end of practice there's going to be things that come up, but when you can't finish practice, and you have guys entering fights that they aren't involved in it, it's unacceptable."

Lions extra points

— Running back Kevin Smith took a few reps in team drills at the mandatory minicamp. "I only did about maybe six, seven plays," Smith told reporters of his first team work since tearing an ACL in December. "My first play I dropped the ball, I was so nervous. The next play I caught the ball and tripped and fell and got up. So it's just a progression, but I'm feeling good." The Lions hope Smith will be ready for training camp. "We're inching him back in," Schwartz said. "He took a few team drills. We'll want to see how he reacts to doing that and then increase it a little bit more."

— The Lions will open training camp to fans again this year. "We're still finalizing the details, but we expect it to work very similar to the way it did last year, where we got a lot of open access," president Tom Lewand said. "We want people out here. We want interaction with the team and the players. We really liked the way it worked last year, and I would expect something similar this year, but we'll have an announcement coming up before it opens." The first practice of camp will be July 31.

— Safety Louis Delmas sat out the mandatory minicamp with a minor groin injury. He should be fine for training camp.


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.

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