Chicago Bears: Riley Reiff

Eight in the Box: NFC North camp issues

July, 19, 2013
7/19/13
12:00
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NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What are the three key camp issues facing each NFC North team?

CHICAGO BEARS

Offense: Kyle Long's readiness
The Bears drafted Long in the first round to help an offensive line that has struggled for years to protect quarterback Jay Cutler. Long, however, had a short Division I career and missed almost all of the Bears' offseason work because of the timing of Oregon's final academic quarter. The Bears will find out in camp, and during the preseason, whether Long is ready to be an immediate starter as you would expect based on his draft position.

Defense: Configuring linebackers
After the retirement of Brian Urlacher and the departure of Nick Roach, the Bears gave themselves two tiers of options at linebacker to play alongside Lance Briggs. If all else fails, they can use veteran D.J. Williams in the middle and James Anderson on the strong side. But they also drafted two players who one day will get their chance: Jon Bostic in the second round and Khaseem Greene in the fourth. The process of determining the best combination will begin in training camp.

Wild card: Coaching transition
This will be the Bears' first training camp in 10 years without Lovie Smith as the coach. Marc Trestman began the transition process during offseason workouts, but training camp is the time for establishing the meat of his program. How does he expect players to practice? How quickly does he expect scheme assimilation? How do players know when he's happy? When he's angry? The first training camp will set the parameters.

DETROIT LIONS

Offense: Line changes
One way or the other, the Lions will enter the season with three new starters on the offensive line. Riley Reiff is at left tackle after the retirement of Jeff Backus, and there will be competition at right guard and right tackle. Pulling off an overhaul of the offensive line in a win-or-else season is an ambitious task. All discussion of improvement for quarterback Matthew Stafford, and the impact of newcomer Reggie Bush, is made on the presumption that the offensive line won't take a step back.

Defense: Ziggy Ansah's development
Usually, the No. 5 overall pick of a draft is ready to step in and play right away. But Ansah was a late arrival to football and was almost an unknown to NFL scouts a year ago at this time. There was a sense during pre-draft evaluations that Ansah would need more development time than the typical No. 5 pick, but the Lions have high hopes of putting him into the starting lineup right away. They gave themselves some flexibility by signing free agent Israel Idonije, but they'll find out in camp if Ansah is going to be ready to play a full-time role in Week 1.

Wild card: Ryan Broyles' status
Broyles was a value pick in the 2012 draft, but he is very much needed after the release of Titus Young. Nate Burleson has returned to play alongside All-Pro Calvin Johnson, but the Lions' depth would be thin if Broyles isn't ready to play soon after tearing his ACL in Week 13 last year. The Lions hope Broyles can be full-speed by the start of the season, a pace he must confirm with at least some significant work in training camp.

GREEN BAY PACKERS

Offense: Running back rotation
The Packers added two rookies, Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin, to a group that includes holdovers DuJuan Harris, James Starks, Alex Green and John Kuhn. Unless the Packers suddenly convert to a run-based offense, an impossibility as long as Aaron Rodgers is at quarterback, the Packers will have to thin this herd in training camp. Not everyone from that group will make the team, and a few who do aren't likely to get much action in games. Harris, Lacy and Franklin seem the likeliest candidates -- in that order -- to be feature backs.

Defense: Replacing Woodson
The Packers have openings at safety and cornerback following the release of Charles Woodson. Training camp should provide significant insight, if not an outright answer, into who will start at safety -- M.D. Jennings? Jerron McMillian? -- alongside Morgan Burnett. We'll also get a sense for who is ready to step into the cornerback and nickel job opposite veteran Tramon Williams. Top candidates for that job include Sam Shields, Casey Hayward and Davon House. The Packers' cornerback group is by far the deepest in the NFC North.

Wild card: Crosby's state of mind
No one expects Giorgio Tavecchio to beat out place-kicker Mason Crosby, who went through a well-publicized extended slump last season. But how will Crosby react to the first competition of any sort he has faced since taking over as the Packers' kicker in 2007? That's what the Packers want to find out, frankly. If he isn't sharp in camp, the Packers might need to consider their options elsewhere.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS

Offense: Cordarrelle Patterson's development
The Vikings know they want Patterson to be their kickoff returner, replacing Percy Harvin, but is Patterson ready to take over any part of Harvin's role as a primary offensive playmaker? Patterson's short stay at Tennessee once suggested he will need some development time before contributing regularly on offense. His performance in offseason practices, however, suggested he might be further along than once believed. Training camp will tell us for sure.

Defense: Linebacker alignment
Will newcomer Desmond Bishop play middle linebacker or on the outside? What would that mean for Erin Henderson, who spent the offseason transitioning to the middle position? It seems pretty clear that Bishop, Henderson and Chad Greenway will be the Vikings' three linebackers. Training camp should give us a better idea of where they will line up and, importantly, who will come off the field in nickel situations.

Wild card: Chemistry in passing game
The Vikings are expecting a jump in the efficiency, if not raw numbers, of their passing game this season. Quarterback Christian Ponder will have to accomplish that by developing quick chemistry with his new receivers, including Patterson and veteran Greg Jennings. That task appeared to be a work in progress during offseason practices.

Post-draft storylines in the NFC North

April, 29, 2013
4/29/13
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Brian Urlacher, Marshall Newhouse, Josh McCownGetty ImagesFollowing the 2013 NFL draft, the futures for Brian Urlacher, Marshall Newhouse and Josh McCown appear unclear.
NFC North teams added dozens of intriguing young players over the weekend. They filled glaring holes and added to already-established strengths. Some areas remain weak, of course, while other selections created new storylines we hadn't anticipated.

So here's my post-draft plan. We'll use this post to lay out the unfilled holes and new storylines and then circle back over the next days and weeks as needed. I'll also sprinkle in some interesting and/or offbeat stories that emerged from the draft but would have been buried if I had posted them over the weekend.

Issue: The Green Bay Packers continued signaling potential change at left tackle.
Analysis: Coach Mike McCarthy said in March that the team needed better play from its left tackle position, manned last season by Marshall Newhouse. Then the Packers went out and drafted Colorado's David Bakhtiari and Cornell's J.C. Tretter in the fourth round. Bakhtiari has played left and right tackle; Tretter played tackle as well but might project as a guard. Saturday, McCarthy left all options open at the position -- including moving right tackle Bryan Bulaga back to the position he played at Iowa. McCarthy also said he is "really counting" on Derek Sherrod, the Packers' top pick in 2011 who hasn't played since breaking his leg late that season, to compete for the job. Don Barclay, who started four games last season at right tackle (plus another two in the playoffs), is also in the mix. Suddenly, the Packers have six legitimate possibilities to compete for the left and right tackle spots if they want. Moving Bulaga isn't as easy as it sounds, and there is something to be said for leaving him at a position he has excelled at. But it's telling that the Packers are even considering it.

Issue: The Packers drafted 11 players, but none of them were safeties.
Analysis: General manager Ted Thompson said afterwards that he has faith in incumbents M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian, who will compete to play alongside Morgan Burnett. We'll see if the Packers feel compelled to kick the tires on a veteran. Among those available are Quintin Mikell, Kerry Rhodes and Gerald Sensabaugh. Historically, the Packers' approach has been to evaluate younger incumbents first before seeking veteran replacements elsewhere.

Issue: None of the Minnesota Vikings' nine draft choices play middle linebacker.
Analysis: We should note that the Vikings used a seventh-round pick on Penn State's Michael Mauti, who has been projected as a middle/inside linebacker by some. But Mauti is recovering from his third career ACL tear and can't be counted on to fill any sort of significant role. Internal candidates include Erin Henderson, the strong-side linebacker whom the Vikings have said could play inside if needed, and 2012 seventh-round pick Audie Cole. The elephant in the room is veteran Brian Urlacher, who was reported at one point this spring to have had conversations with Vikings officials. Urlacher isn't anything close to the profile of the player general manager Rick Spielman typically brings in, but this is an extenuating circumstance. Remember, the Vikings used their nickel defense on 58.9 percent of their snaps last season. Whomever plays middle linebacker for the Vikings could be off the field for two of every five snaps.

Issue: The Vikings used a fifth-round pick to make Jeff Locke the first punter drafted.
Analysis: In the past five years, four punters have been selected with a fifth-round pick or higher. All four became their team's primary punters in their rookie seasons. There is every reason to believe the Vikings plan for Locke to replace veteran Chris Kluwe, perhaps as soon as they get a look at him during their rookie minicamp this summer. I know that Spielman said Locke was brought in "to compete" for the job, but that competition will be short and one-sided. NFL teams don't use draft picks on specialists unless they are certain they want to make a change.

Issue: The Detroit Lions didn't draft an offensive tackle after the departure of both 2012 starters.
Analysis: Riley Reiff, the Lions' top draft choice in 2012, will start at left tackle. The Lions' right tackle could be Jason Fox or Corey Hilliard. That still leaves the Lions thin along the line, especially at right guard if rookie Larry Warford isn't ready to step in right away. Regardless, Lions general manager Martin Mayhew made clear the Lions need to add more depth. "We're really young there so we'll look at some veteran guys there I think over the next few weeks."

Issue: The Lions didn't draft a receiver until the sixth round (Virginia Tech's Corey Fuller), but they almost….
Analysis: According to Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network, the Lions told Michigan's Denard Robinson that they planned to draft him with the No. 136 overall pick. Mayhew had spoken before the draft about Robinson's potential as a "slash" player from the backfield and/or slot receiver position. Robinson, however, was selected at No. 135 by the Jacksonville Jaguars. Eventually the Lions used the No. 166 overall pick to select Notre Dame's Theo Riddick, who is not as explosive as Robinson but is a good receiver out of the backfield in his own right. Ultimately, the Lions finished this draft thin at the traditional receiver position given the injury rehabilitations of Nate Burleson and Ryan Broyles.

Issue: The Chicago Bears did not draft a quarterback, seemingly leaving Josh McCown as the primary backup to Jay Cutler.
Analysis: The Bears figured to be a candidate to draft a quarterback in part because of coach Marc Trestman's expertise in developing them and in part to end the cycle of searching for a veteran backup each year. In the end, the Bears couldn't justify drafting one given their limited number of picks. (They started with five and through trades finished with six.) Said general manager Phil Emery: "Things would have to line up perfect to take a quarterback with five picks." McCown was relatively impressive during a two-start stint to end the 2011 season, but overall he has played in a total of six games over the past five seasons. I wouldn't call this the Bears' most pressing need, and the Bears signaled as much with their draft results.

Issue: The Bears feel better about their tight end situation than most draft pundits.
Analysis: Many draft analysts thought the Bears would draft Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert if they had a chance, but they passed him up Thursday night in favor of offensive lineman Kyle Long. Eifert went one pick later to the Cincinnati Bengals. It's true that Eifert would have been a luxury pick given the free-agent acquisition of tight end Martellus Bennett, but in the larger sense he would have been another weapon for quarterback Jay Cutler's make-or-break season.

Final Word: NFC North

November, 9, 2012
11/09/12
1:55
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 10:

Big-time clash: As we noted earlier this week, Sunday night's game at Soldier Field will feature a rare matchup in the second half of the season. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it will be only the fifth time since 1970 that a pair of one-loss teams have met in Week 10 or later. Ten of ESPN's 14 experts are predicting a Bears victory, but the oddsmakers have made the Bears slim 1.5-point favorites playing at home. One reason: The Texans have not been prone to the kind of mistakes the Bears have capitalized on this season. The Bears lead the NFL with 28 takeaways, but the Texans have the fewest turnovers (six). That's not good news for those who hope the Texans will collapse under the pressure of a prime-time game at Soldier Field. It could happen, but so far the Texans are 3-0 on the road this season.

[+] EnlargeMatt Forte
Mike DiNovo/US PresswireChicago RB Matt Forte has shined recently, but a challenging matchup against Houston awaits him on Sunday.
The running game: The Texans technically have the NFL's second-best run defense because they are allowing an average of 81.9 rushing yards per game. But it's only fair to point out that opponents have attempted the second-fewest running plays against them (165), probably because of early deficits. Opponents' 4.0 yards per carry is tied for No. 22 overall in the league. So while we discussed the possibility that the Bears could see some favorable early looks in their passing game, there is every reason to think they should test the Texans' run defense with Matt Forte and Michael Bush. (Remember, the NFC North is once again the Black and Blue division!) Forte has broken free for runs of 46 and 39 yards over the past three weeks. If he or Bush scores a rushing touchdown Sunday, it will be the first on the ground the Texans' defense has given up this season.

Paring down: Over the past six weeks, the Detroit Lions have simplified their offense in ways that are obvious to knowledgeable outside observers. In preparing for Sunday's game at the Metrodome, Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator Alan Williams said the Lions have "narrowed down" their offensive menu. "They've streamlined what they're doing," Williams said. "Not a lot of formations like we saw last time [in Week 4]. They are sticking to a package and doing that well." That doesn't mean the Lions have been more conservative. In fact, quarterback Matthew Stafford has nine attempts that traveled at least 21 yards in the air over the past three weeks. It just means they have gotten back to one of offensive coordinator Scott Linehan's most basic tenets: having the ability to run a wide variety of plays with the same personnel packages.

Preparing for Reiff: We've spent plenty of time discussing the Lions' increasing frequency and impact of using offensive lineman Riley Reiff as a sixth offensive lineman/tight end. It has shifted from a novelty to a significant part of the Lions' offense, and the Vikings spent considerable time discussing and preparing for the look this week. Williams said: "[T]his might be a stretch in some sense, but he's a little bit like Adrian Peterson in that you can't simulate him in practice. Everyone thinks with Adrian that, 'Hey these are just designed plays for him and we stop this.' But when you get in a live situation, Adrian Peterson is a different deal. That's the same thing with the extra lineman coming in. He does a great job. He's athletic, he gets his pads down and he's going to be a handful." That's high praise from an opponent.

Peterson's power: What's most amazing about Peterson's 458-yard spurt over the past three weeks has been how it's largely come against defenses with at least one extra defender near the line of scrimmage. How is Peterson defeating those schemes? The answer is nothing more complicated than flat-out breaking tackles. Not only is Peterson leading the NFL with 515 yards after contact, 156 yards more than the next-best running back, but he is also averaging 3.1 yards per rush after first contact. The Lions have every reason to bring at least one of their safeties into the box to defend him, but if Peterson continues his current surge, they'll have to be prepared to gang-tackle him.

(Statistics courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information unless otherwise noted.)

CampTour'12: What we learned

August, 14, 2012
8/14/12
3:15
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Marshall-Ponder-YoungGetty ImagesFinal training camp thoughts: Chicago is excited about Brandon Marshall, Christian Ponder has started to embrace his role as a leader, and Titus Young has been a training camp star.
We came, we saw, we conquered. Veni, vidi, vici and all that stuff. Yes, CampTour'12 wrapped up late last week, ending a stretch of spending 11 days at four NFC North training camps over a 15-day period. I took three flights, logged 938 miles on the NFC North blogmobile and limited my Jimmy John's/Chipotle intake to an average of one ingestion per day.

You can find everything I produced on location through this handy one-stop link, and the four Camp Confidential posts are all grouped here.

This division looks every bit as tough as we thought it was before the tour began, and I figure it's going to take 12 regular-season victories (or more) to win it. With that in mind, let's wrap up CampTour'12 with, well, 12, final thoughts and semi-behind-the-scenes observations from my time abroad.

1. The Chicago Bears' risk-reward: Our pre-camp discussion centered around the Bears' improvement and possible eclipse of the Detroit Lions in the standings. After seeing them in camp and in the context of the rest of the division, I still think the Bears are a really good team. But I also think they run the biggest risk of imploding among our top three teams. Already, two offseason decisions to stand part have left them vulnerable. Left tackle J'Marcus Webb has not yet demonstrated the progress expected of him, and middle linebacker Brian Urlacher's now surgically-repaired knee has drawn genuine concerns about his health over a 16-game season. Those are two huge positions on this team, and neither have a credible alternative at this point.

2. Genuine excitement: It was fascinating to watch longtime Bears employees and observers during receiver Brandon Marshall's first full-pads practice Aug. 1. Marshall made the kinds of plays that only a true No. 1 receiver makes, including some fancy sideline footwork at the end of a 35-yard pass from Jay Cutler. Several people gushed that Marshall will prove the team's best skill-position player since Walter Payton. A glance at recent Bears history suggests that's a sound judgment by default. I didn't see Marshall do anything that we haven't seen, say, Calvin Johnson do in this division. But it's been forever since the Bears have had someone do it in their uniform.

[+] EnlargeMike Tice
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhMike Tice seems more relaxed with the Bears than when he was at the helm in Minnesota.
3. Tice games: I told Bears offensive coordinator Mike Tice that he seemed less frantic and more chill than he was during his time as the Minnesota Vikings' head coach. "I still have my moments," Tice said in words that proved prophetic. Since then, he has reached deep into his bag of tricks to cajole better play from Webb, putting him in a yo-yo personnel rotation and playing him for almost all of the preseason opener. When he was the Vikings' coach, Tice once pulled fans into a non-contact drill to demonstrate mistakes to starting linemen. On another occasion, he required linemen to practice with their hands tied together to emphasize footwork. Sometimes those tactics work. Sometimes they don't.

4. Concussion impact: I wouldn't be surprised if we look back at this summer as the moment concussion treatment -- not just concussions themselves -- began impacting the game. Already, we've seen the Lions and Green Bay Packers acknowledge they are taking a much more deliberate approach to putting players back on the field after they've been concussed or if they are even suspected to have suffered a concussion. Front-line players including Greg Jennings, Marshall Newhouse and Amari Spievey missed the preseason opener because of them.

5. Traffic nightmare: Would you believe that the worst traffic in the NFC North is in the NFL's smallest market? Some of the key roads surrounding Lambeau Field have been torn up for months, including Oneida St. and Hwy. 41 near Lombardi Ave.. I pray to the construction gods that everything is finished by next month. Based on the amount of holes, gravel roads and lane closures I saw, I'm not optimistic. All I can say is to arrive early and often.

6. Camp routine: Because of the new collective bargaining agreement, players were on the field once a day in three of our locales. The only team coming close to two-a-day practices were the Vikings, whose first workout was a 60-minute, half-speed walk-through. Veterans like the Packers' Jeff Saturday were thrilled with the reduced wear-and-tear. Privately, others noted that coaches filled the time once set aside for a second practice with additional meetings. "Some really tedious days," one player said. Said another: "Sometimes the grass is not always greener, you know?"

7. Imagination movers: The Packers lead the division with unique drills and sideline gizmos. For years, they've had sideline speakers set up to broadcast the ravings of special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum. This year, they added a set of red and green lights that flash exactly 2.5 seconds after the ball is snapped in team drills. In essence, they are designed to simulate the quarterback's head clock. I also saw offensive linemen catching passes from a JUGS machine and tight ends doing a basketball-like drill where they weaved the ball around their ankles and through their legs.

8. Ponder charisma: Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder seems to have made some strides as a pocket passer. But I can say without a shred of doubt that Ponder has mastered the more ethereal parts of NFL quarterbacking. He has taken ownership of a young roster and moves easily between the inevitable cliques that develop. He is just as likely to share a laugh with fellow second-year player Kyle Rudoph as he is veteran receiver Jerome Simpson, a newly-signed free agent. I watched him call team staffers by name and treat them with genuine respect. Ponder has some work to do on the field, but he has the makings of a franchise pillar off of it.

9. Defensive dilemma: Much of the camp discussion surrounding the Vikings has centered around Ponder and the changes they've made to the offense. But the Vikings have just as much, if not more, work to do on defense. There are at least four positions -- nose tackle, middle linebacker and both safety spots -- where the presumed starter remains completely unproven. The San Francisco 49ers gashed them for 260 rushing yards in the preseason opener.

10. Eye-opening: Someone asked me along the trail to name the best NFC North player no one has heard of. The first two names to come to mind are both on the Lions' roster. You've no doubt heard of receiver Titus Young, but probably for the wrong reasons after his offseason fight with safety Louis Delmas. Young has been a training camp star, twisting and turning over defensive backs in every drill I watched. From a physical standpoint, Young can be a star. The other was defensive end Willie Young, who got elevated reps because of Cliff Avril's holdout and Kyle Vanden Bosch's knee injury. Willie Young is a high-energy, full-effort pass-rusher who has to get on the field more substantially this season.

11. Redshirt season?: Perhaps the most notable sign of the Lions' roster strength is that their top two draft picks might get a quasi-redshirt season, assuming the players in front of them stay healthy. Offensive lineman Riley Reiff isn't going to beat out left tackle Jeff Backus and probably not right tackle Gosder Cherilus, either. And receiver Ryan Broyles has been limited all summer because of residual soreness from knee surgery. At best, he will be the Lions' No. 4 receiver when he does get on the field.

12. Serious bid'niss: I realized how serious this NFC North race would be shortly after returning from CampTour'12. Check out this photo tweeted by Chris Jenkins of The Associated Press. It shows Saturday, Cedric Benson and Reggie Wells in Packers uniforms. These three are the kind of veteran free agents the Packers turned away from for years under general manager Ted Thompson. This season, Thompson has loaded up on a relative scale. In this division, this year, there is no time to wait for development. Answers are needed now.

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
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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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