Chicago Bears: Brandon Fusco

NFC North training camp battles

July, 2, 2012
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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.

NFC North Stock Watch

November, 22, 2011
11/22/11
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NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. Offensive line, Minnesota Vikings: I don't want to pick only on left guard Steve Hutchinson, who quite clearly isn't playing at the same level he did at the height of his career. The biggest problem is that Hutchinson remains the Vikings' best offensive lineman. Watching this group get manhandled Sunday by the Oakland Raiders suggested it will need a significant overhaul in the coming months. We've discussed the need to find a long-term replacement for departed left tackle Bryant McKinnie, but the reality is that no job should be safe. The Vikings have a pair of 2011 draft picks, center/guard Brandon Fusco and tackle DeMarcus Love, serving as backups at the moment. I'm not sure if either projects as a long-term starter, but it's clear that immediate action is necessary one way or the other.

[+] EnlargeRyan Grant
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswirePackers running back Ryan Grant could see a lot of action on Thursday against Detroit.
2. Bench-warming time for Ryan Grant, Green Bay Packers tailback: Grant has started nine of the Packers' 10 games this season but is averaging about nine touches per game. That figure could increase significantly Thursday at Ford Field, given the knee/ankle injury of "backup" James Starks, who is averaging about twice as many touches per game. Even if Starks is available, you would think Grant could see his workload increased. Grant has been a perfect citizen and teammate during what must be a personally disappointing time. Typically, players who understand the big picture get an opportunity to make a big contribution at some point and in some way. Odds are that Grant will get that chance soon, if not Thursday.

3. The future of Chris Cook, Minnesota Vikings cornerback: Cook hasn't played since he was arrested Oct. 23 on a charge of felony strangulation following a domestic incident with his girlfriend. He is currently on what amounts to a paid suspension as he sorts through his issues, but you wonder whether his standing with the team will change at all after prosecutors added a second charge of third-degree assault. According to reports, the second charge resulted from news that the victim suffered a perforated eardrum during the incident and has experienced hearing loss. Cook has a court appearance scheduled for Tuesday.

RISING

1. Donald Driver, Green Bay Packers receiver: It was overshadowed by the performance of some teammates, but Driver had his most productive game of the season Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. His four catches matched the season high he set in Week 1, and his 72 yards -- powered by a 35-yard catch-and-run in the third quarter -- were the most he has had in a regular-season game since Week 13 of 2010. Those figures are a reminder that Driver, 36, is no longer a primary option in the Packers' offense. But Sunday served notice that he can still make plays downfield when the opportunity presents itself.

2. Amateur medical practices in Chicago: Everyone has an opinion, medically based or otherwise, on how long a fractured right thumb should keep Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler out of action. Initial reports suggested he would miss the rest of the season and possibly be unavailable for the playoffs, but coach Lovie Smith appeared confident Monday that Cutler will return before the end of the regular season. But Smith wouldn't divulge enough details about Cutler's condition to give us a chance to verify his timetable. What we do know is that the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons recommends a cast or splint for between two and six weeks after surgery. Depending on severity of the injury, the rule of thumb (sorry) is that it can take up to three months to regain full use of the hand.

3. Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions quarterback: We noted Monday how Stafford reversed his early game struggles against the Carolina Panthers on the way to a five-touchdown performance. Let's allow the folks at Cold Hard Football Facts to provide a wild glimpse at the big picture. In his three-year career, Stafford has trailed by at least 17 points in 10 of 23 starts. He has led game-winning comebacks in four of them. That's a pretty impressive trend for any quarterback, let alone one who is four months away from his 24th birthday.

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