Chicago Bears: Aaron Berry

NFC North training camp battles

July, 2, 2012
7/02/12
1:14
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AFC camp battles: West | North | South | East NFC: West | North | South | East

An early look at the biggest training camp position battles:

CHICAGO BEARS

Left tackle: J'Marcus Webb versus Chris Williams

It's a bit disconcerting to stage a competition at such an important position, especially when you consider how difficult it is to find a good left tackle at the NFL level.

Williams, a first-round draft pick in 2008, hasn't manned the position since early in the 2010 season. Left tackles who are moved away mid-career usually aren't brought back. He has also started games at right tackle and left guard in his career, making him a candidate to be a swing backup if Webb wins the job.

Webb was one of the Bears' few options last season at left tackle. But after absorbing 15 accepted penalties and allowing 12 sacks, based on tracking from Pro Football Focus, it's clear Webb did not establish himself as a long-term answer.

Offensive coordinator Mike Tice was the Bears' offensive line coach when Williams moved to left guard. Tice also installed Webb as his left tackle last season, so it's reasonable to guess Webb would get the benefit of the doubt. The Bears will cross their fingers and hope one of the two emerges as a competent option.

DETROIT LIONS

Cornerback: Aaron Berry versus Jacob Lacey

Lions training camp will include a number of competitive storylines, from whether rookie offensive lineman Riley Reiff can win a starting job (somewhere) to whether safety Amari Spievey can hold on to his role. But the most significant battle could be between Berry and Lacey for the chance to replace Eric Wright as a starting cornerback.

Berry was the Lions' Week 1 nickel back in each of the past two seasons, and it would be a natural progression for him to take over as a starter. Lacey started 27 games for the Indianapolis Colts over the past three seasons, but it's worth reiterating that the Colts did not issue him a qualifying tender as a restricted free agent. That decision wasn't exactly an endorsement of his career to this point.

For the moment, at least, Berry's recent arrest for suspicion of drunken driving hasn't threatened his roster spot. The bigger issue has been his inability to stay on the field, having missed 15 games in 2010-11 and five last season because of injury.

Given the number of three- and four-receiver sets the Lions likely will face in the NFC North this season, both Berry and Lacey should see plenty of action. But the Lions surely would like Berry to feed off the competition and solidify himself as a permanent starter.

GREEN BAY PACKERS

No. 3 receiver: James Jones versus Randall Cobb versus Donald Driver

The winner of this competition might be reflected in playing time rather than actual starts, and that, of course, is assuming Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson receive the most snaps among the Packers' deep and talented group of receivers.

Driver started 15 games last season even though he played fewer snaps than Jennings and Nelson. Cobb's expected development adds another element to the question of who will play most often among this trio.

Some of the answer will depend upon matchups and scheme, but ultimately the most reliable playmaker will emerge and receive the most playing time.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS

Safety: Multiple players and positions

Given the miserable performance of their pass defense in 2011, it's safe to assume the Vikings will have a new starter at one safety position, and possibly both, in 2012. Veterans Jamarca Sanford and Mistral Raymond worked with the first team during most spring practices, but Sanford has proved a liability in pass coverage in the past, and a number of other players should get long looks during training camp.

That list is headed by first-round draft pick Harrison Smith, who eventually will be a starter, even if it isn't in Week 1. Fellow rookie Robert Blanton, who is making the transition from cornerback, is another candidate.

The Vikings also will have competition at right guard between second-year player Brandon Fusco and veteran newcomer Geoff Schwartz, but it's likely more fans will follow the progress of the safety positions.

Biggest improvements in NFC North

June, 20, 2012
6/20/12
11:45
AM ET
SportsCenter's divisional analysis moves to the NFC North on Tuesday night (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET). We've already discussed our most versatile players as well as potential breakout players, so let's give our television pals a pre-show primer on the biggest improvement (and regression) each division team made this offseason:

Chicago Bears: Enhanced comfort zone for quarterback Jay Cutler
In detail:
The Bears fully committed to Cutler three years after acquiring him from the Denver Broncos. They finally gave him a full complement of promising receivers, most notably his all-time favorite in Brandon Marshall. Cutler will have his choice of big downfield threats, be it Marshall or rookie Alshon Jeffery, and Devin Hester has drawn rave reviews for his work within the team's new concepts. Coach Lovie Smith hired one of Cutler's favorite former coaches, Jeremy Bates, as quarterbacks coach, and offensive coordinator Mike Tice has liberally assimilated thoughts from Bates and Cutler into his scheme. For the first time the Bears feel like Cutler's team.
Biggest regression:
The Bears' top four defensive players -- linebacker Brian Urlacher, defensive end Julius Peppers, linebacker Lance Briggs and cornerback Charles Tillman -- all got a year older without the team acquiring a potential heir at any of their positions. (Rookie defensive end Shea McClellin is projected to fill the Bears' spot opposite of Peppers.)

Detroit Lions: Insurance and a long-term plan at left tackle
In detail:
The Lions mostly stood pat this offseason, making it their top priority to keep together a nucleus that earned a playoff spot three years after the franchise bottomed out at 0-16. They accomplished that goal by reaching contract agreements with receiver Calvin Johnson and linebacker Stephen Tulloch while franchising defensive end Cliff Avril. Retaining young players with room for growth counts as an improvement, but most notably, the Lions hatched a legitimate plan for the end of left tackle Jeff Backus' career. First-round draft choice Riley Reiff could replace Backus this season if necessary but could also get a year to develop. Regardless, it's a rare luxury for a team to have a legitimate succession plan in place at left tackle.
Biggest regression: It might not qualify as a step back, but the Lions didn't do much to improve a secondary that struggled for large portions of the 2011 season. Nickel back Aaron Berry will compete with free agent acquisition Jacob Lacey to start opposite Chris Houston, and the Lions appear set to give safety Amari Spievey one more chance to lock down a long-term job.

Green Bay Packers: Adding juice to their defensive front
In detail:
As we discussed in May, the Packers devoted a large portion of their offseason to elevating the energy and competition along their defensive line. They hope to manage the playing time of nose tackle B.J. Raji more efficiently by calling on rookies Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels, along with eventual contributions from Anthony Hargrove (eight-game suspension) and Mike Neal (four-game suspension). The Packers have also signed Phillip Merling, a former second-round draft pick of the Miami Dolphins, and veteran Daniel Muir.
Biggest regression:
The Packers had near-ideal insurance at quarterback when Matt Flynn was their backup quarterback. Presumptive replacement Graham Harrell has extensive experience in the Packers' system and has been widely praised by coaches this offseason, but no one has suggested he is the equivalent of Flynn just yet.

Minnesota Vikings: A better situation for a young quarterback
In detail:
Quarterback Christian Ponder will have a blue-chip left tackle in rookie Matt Kalil protecting his backside and two proven pass-catchers for mid-range passing in tight ends Kyle Rudolph and John Carlson. The Vikings have also added a receiver who can stretch the field in Jerome Simpson, who will be eligible to play in Week 4 after an NFL suspension, and might have unearthed a draft steal if Arkansas' Greg Childs is healthy. The offense is far from a finished product, but it is staffed much better at multiple positions than it was in 2011.
Biggest regression: The Vikings appear to have cast aside E.J. Henderson, their middle linebacker for most of the past decade. For now, that means they are hoping to make fourth-year player Jasper Brinkley their new starter. Brinkley played decently when he started four games as a rookie in 2009, but he missed all of 2011 because of a hamstring injury and coaches are waiting for him to turn it loose this spring.

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