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Tuesday, July 20, 2010
NFC North training camp preview

By John Clayton

Of the eight divisions, the NFC North reports to camp the latest. All four teams arrive July 30.

Figuring Brett Favre will report to Minnesota sometime after the Vikings break camp in Mankato, Minn., that seems fitting. All good things come to those who wait.

The NFC North, once known as a pounding-the-rock division, is now one of the more interesting for quarterback play. Favre, who is expected to return, and Aaron Rodgers of the Packers are among the league’s elite quarterbacks. Jay Cutler of the Bears hopes to regain that status after a poor 2009 season. The Lions drafted Matthew Stafford with the hope of him being one of the next great ones.

FOUR BIG QUESTIONS

Mike Martz
The addition of Mike Martz to run the Bears' offense should pay off on the scoreboard.
Chicago Bears: Can new offensive coordinator Mike Martz add enough offense to the Bears to catch up to the Vikings or Packers?

Martz adds five to six points a game to any offense he’s around, so there is no question the Bears will be better on offense. Cutler likes what he sees, but the Bears must tighten their defense because the season will be a roller-coaster ride if they play 27-24 games every week. Keep an eye on the defense -- it ranked only 17th in 2009 -- in camp and during the preseason.

Detroit Lions: Can the Lions generate enough of a running game to make it easier on Stafford?

Probably not. The Lions averaged only 25.6 rushing attempts a game last season, meaning Stafford needed to complete 24 or 25 passes a game for the offense to be good. Keep an eye on rookie RB Jahvid Best in camp. He will add explosiveness. Last year’s starter, Kevin Smith, is coming off knee reconstruction and may not be ready to earn quality first- and second-down yards.

Green Bay Packers: What’s the biggest concern on defense?

The Packers must sort out their cornerback situation in camp. Al Harris is coming off a major injury, so they must make sure that Tramon Williams is ready to take over if Harris is not ready for the start of the regular season. They also must develop Pat Lee as a key backup just in case.

Minnesota Vikings: While they wait for Favre to return, what is the main job of the Vikings’ offense this summer?

Adrian Peterson
Adrian Peterson had nine fumbles in 2009, losing six.
Ensuring that Adrian Peterson protects the football would be nice. Peterson has an NFL-high 20 fumbles the past three seasons. Vikings head coach Brad Childress knows that Peterson’s aggressive style sometimes will lead to fumbles, but a repeat of late-season fumbling issues by Peterson would not be good. Peterson fumbled twice and caused a turnover on a third play when he botched a handoff in the second quarter against the Saints in the NFC Championship Game.

HOTTEST SEATS

Bears: Head coach Lovie Smith. This is an easy one. Smith is on the hottest seat in the division. If the Bears don’t have a winning record this season, anyone who isn’t a McCaskey or a Halas will lose his job. It’s win or else.

Lions: Right tackle Gosder Cherilus: Former Redskins veteran Jon Jansen was signed to be an insurance policy, but Jansen came out of the offseason program in competition for a starting job. The right tackle job is there for the taking. Cherilus is big and physical, but he’s on the hot seat.

Packers: Safety Atari Bigby. The Packers rewarded free safety Nick Collins with a four-year, $30.4 million contract. Bigby isn’t happy that he was given the $1.759 million restricted tender and hasn’t signed it. Plus, the Packers drafted strong safety Morgan Burnett in the third round and seem to like him.

Vikings: Backup quarterback Sage Rosenfels. Before Favre joined the Vikings last season, Rosenfels competed against Tarvaris Jackson for the starting job. Rosenfels left the offseason program as the fourth quarterback, behind rookie Joe Webb, who was drafted to play receiver. Rosenfels’ seat is burning.

SECRET WEAPON

Bears receivers: Want a weird stat? The Bears are tied with the Vikings for most Pro Bowl players at wide receiver. That’s right. The Vikings have Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin. The Packers have only Donald Driver as a Pro Bowler, although Greg Jennings has been on the Pro Bowl radar the past couple of years. Bears wide receivers Devin Hester and Johnny Knox have each been to the Pro Bowl. The problem is that each made it as a returner, not a receiver. Those trips vouch for their athletic abilities, but it makes them ultimate secret weapons in the Mike Martz offense. Hester has receiving skills similar to Steve Smith of the Carolina Panthers, but he tends to wear down the more routes he runs. Plus, he is challenged by the adjustments receivers must make on routes. Knox’s game is speed, but the second-year player still must polish his receiving skills.

Martz and the Bears said they like their receiving corps, but how good is it? If Hester and Knox are raw talents who can turn into solid receivers, the Bears could emerge as one of the league’s surprise offenses.

Another receiver to follow in training camp is Devin Aromashodu. This is Aromashodu’s fifth team, but Jay Cutler treated him as though he were his favorite receiver in the second half of last season. He caught 22 passes in the final five games. It’s hard to categorize Bears receivers into who is the legitimate No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3. It will be interesting to see how this sorts out in camp.

WILD CARD: DETROIT’S SECONDARY

How quickly the Lions’ secondary jells this summer could determine the fate of Detroit’s division rivals. In many ways, the Lions are the wild card of this division because the Vikings, Packers and Bears are each counting on two wins against Detroit if they want to get a better seeding in the playoffs or, in the case of the Bears, make the playoffs.

No secondary has undergone more change the past two offseasons than the Lions’. Detroit’s passing defense was abysmal last season, ranking last in the NFL. Opponents threw for 266 yards a game, with a 68.1 completion percentage and a 107.0 QB rating. Obviously that won’t cut it in a division that features Favre, Rodgers and Cutler.

Safety Louis Delmas, a second-round pick in 2009, seems to be a good piece to build around. Lions coach Jim Schwartz must sort out whether Ko Simpson, Marquand Manuel or C.C. Brown is the strong safety to pair with Delmas.

It’s a roll of the dice at cornerback. Eric King is the only corner returning from last season, but he started only one game for the Lions. The Lions acquired Chris Houston from the Falcons in a trade and have high hopes for third-round choice Amari Spievey. The Lions also have Jonathan Wade and Dre’ Bly, who played for Detroit from 2003-2006, but he’s 33.