Chicago Bears: Jasper Brinkley
With the draft in the rearview mirror, what is the most pressing issue on each NFC North team’s agenda?
Chicago Bears: The top priority at Halas Hall, from now until the start of the season, is getting the offense organized in Marc Trestman's new scheme. This task has appeared annually for the Bears in recent years, but the failure to accomplish it played a big role in the firing of former coach Lovie Smith. There is also an additional level of urgency as quarterback Jay Cutler enters the final year of his contract. The Bears might not want to make a decision on Cutler's future until seeing him adjust successfully to this scheme, but will he do it in time for the Bears to make a decision?
Detroit Lions: The next order of business in Detroit is to set up a plan for settling on the new right side of their offensive line. Right tackle Gosder Cherilus departed via free agency, right guard Stephen Peterman was released and right guard candidate Riley Reiff is likely to play left tackle. Rookie Larry Warford will compete with Bill Nagy and perhaps Rodney Austin at right guard, while right tackle will be a competition between Jason Fox and Corey Hilliard, among others.
Green Bay Packers: Suddenly, the Packers have an offseason-long project on their hands: Making a reconstructed offensive line work. After the draft, Packers coach Mike McCarthy moved Bryan Bulaga from right tackle to left tackle and flipped guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang. McCarthy now has his two best offensive linemen on the left side, with Lang pairing with a yet-to-be-named right tackle. There is no substitute for time when establishing continuity for an offensive line, so the Packers' next and continued order of business is getting Bulaga and Sitton comfortable on the left side. They'll also need to decide whether Marshall Newhouse, Don Barclay, Derek Sherrod or even rookie David Bakhtiari are best suited to be the right tackle.
Minnesota Vikings: Identifying the 2013 middle linebacker is the Vikings' most unanswered question. After allowing 2012 bridge starter Jasper Brinkley to depart via free agency, the Vikings set their sights on the draft to find a longer-term replacement for E.J. Henderson. There was widespread and justified speculation that the Vikings would draft Notre Dame's Manti Te'o, but the unpredictable first round brought them three players they ranked higher on their board. Without second- or third-round picks, the Vikings weren't able to draft a starting-quality prospect. Veteran outside linebacker Erin Henderson told reporters this week that he was preparing to take on the role, apparently at the suggestion of coaches, but this is the time of year for experimenting with position changes that could be reversed before training camp. To this point, the Vikings haven't shown serious interest in free agent Brian Urlacher.
To that end, it's worth noting where the inside linebacker class stands, at least in the eyes of ESPN analysts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay. Kiper Jr. updated his list of the five best players at each position this week, while McShay released his third mock draft.
McShay had two inside linebackers in his mock: Georgia's Alec Ogletree to the New Orleans Saints at No. 15 and Te'o to the Baltimore Ravens at No. 32. Kiper's top five, on the other hand, looks this way:
Ogletree is considered the most talented inside linebacker in the draft, but has experienced two significant off-field issues in the past year, a drug suspension and a drunken-driving arrest. Obviously, Kiper Jr. thinks those issues will hurt him more than McShay does. Minter didn't impress teams at the NFL scouting combine with his time of 4.81 in the 40-yard dash at 246 pounds.
It makes you wonder if one of our teams would have a chance to draft a top-five inside linebacker in the bottom half of the second round. These assessments will change once again now that pro days have begun, but that's where things stand at the moment.
Opponent: New York Giants
Location: MetLife Stadium
Day/Time: Friday/8 p.m. ET
Personnel notes: After an intense week of discussion about linebacker Brian Urlacher's future, there is more reason than ever to scrutinize Nick Roach's play at middle linebacker. Whereas we once considered it a lock that Urlacher will be ready to start the season, there now seems at least a chance that Roach will open the year at middle linebacker. It's not his best position. … Punter Adam Podlesh has a hip flexor, so rookie Ryan Quigley will handle all of the punting duties Friday night. His performance will determine whether the Bears need to consider other options if Podlesh isn't ready to start the season. … The game will be televised nationally on CBS.
Focal point: What else, if not for the Bears' offensive line? The Giants aren't expected to play All-Pro defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul because of back spasms, but they should still give the Bears' line its best test yet. The Bears would like to make a final decision on their starting left tackle, where J'Marcus Webb is trying to hold off Chris Williams, as well as at left guard. Chris Spencer and Chilo Rachal are competing for that job.
Opponent: San Diego Chargers
Day/Time: Friday/8 p.m. ET
Personnel notes: Tailback Adrian Peterson won't play but will participate fully in pregame warmups, according to ESPN's Chris Mortensen. … Cornerback Chris Cook (concussion) and nose tackle Letroy Guion (knee) aren't expected to play. … The Vikings will continue to search for possibilities to replace receiver Jerome Simpson during his three-game suspension. Look for second-year player Stephen Burton, along with veterans Michael Jenkins and Devin Aromashodu, to all get long looks. … Rookie cornerback Josh Robinson has impressed the Vikings in training camp and could get a chance to work with the first team Friday night. … Quarterback Charlie Whitehurst will start for the Chargers, who don't want to risk starter Philip Rivers behind an injury-riddled offensive line. Tight end Antonio Gates will also sit out.
Focal point: This might be middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley's final chance to secure the starting job. The Vikings haven't been thrilled with his tentative preseason performances, coming after a hip injury cost him the 2011 season. Another poor outing could put the team on a search for replacements.
Opponent: Oakland Raiders
Location: Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum
Day/Time: Saturday/7 p.m. ET
Personnel notes: Tailback Mikel Leshoure is expected to make his NFL debut, nearly 17 months after he was drafted and nearly 20 months from his last live game. Leshoure last played for Illinois on Dec. 29, 2010. He missed last season because of a ruptured Achilles and a portion of training camp this summer because of a hamstring strain. The Lions want to get him some preseason work because he'll has been suspended for the first two weeks of the regular season. ... New special teams ace Kassim Osgood isn't expected to play. ... Rookie Kellen Moore's chances of making the team increased with the release of R.J. Archer, but he still must earn a roster spot even though he is one of only three quarterbacks on the roster. The Lions could keep only two on their final 53-man roster.
Focal point: It would be nice to see defensive tackle Nick Fairley have a signature, breakout game to reinforce projections that he will be a significant factor this season. But in reality, a game with impact would suffice.
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.