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Tuesday, July 21, 2009
NFC North training camp preview

By Kevin Seifert
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert
 
  AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh
  Quarterback Jay Cutler and the Bears will need a young receiver to step up in camp.

Chicago Bears
Training camp site: Olivet Nazarene University (Bourbonnais, Ill.)

Campfires
The only Bears receiver with a guaranteed job is Devin Hester. Otherwise, the position is wide open. Veterans Earl Bennett and Rashied Davis will compete with rookies Juaquin Iglesias and Johnny Knox for the Nos. 2, 3 and 4 receiver positions. If general manager Jerry Angelo doesn't like what he sees, the Bears could pursue a proven veteran later this summer.

The free safety position is also wide open as the Bears replace the departed Mike Brown. Craig Steltz ended spring practice atop the depth chart, but he'll have to battle converted cornerback Corey Graham. Former New Orleans starter Josh Bullocks is also on the roster as a third, if distant, option.

Although the Bears hope it never matters, they'll have to sort out their depth behind new quarterback Jay Cutler. Unproven Caleb Hanie is set to battle free agent Brett Basanez in a competition that, like receiver, could ultimately give way to a veteran from outside the organization. Hanie, however, is a favorite of coach Lovie Smith and will get every opportunity to win the job.

Camp will be a downer if ...
... the Bears realize this summer that they haven't given Cutler enough weapons. While young players don't always develop on a convenient timetable, it should be pretty clear by mid-August if the Bears have enough mature depth at the receiver position. Adding a veteran at the end of the summer is an imperfect solution and would limit his chances to develop a rapport with the new quarterback.

Division Camp Previews
Tuesday: NFC North | AFC North
Wednesday: NFC East | AFC East
Thursday: NFC South | AFC South
Friday: NFC West | AFC West

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Camp battles: AFC | NFC

Schedule: Training camp dates

The best-case scenario is if Bennett can parlay his familiarity with Cutler -- they were college teammates at Vanderbilt -- into a quick claim on the No. 2 job. That would lessen the pressure on the rookies and relieve the need to rely on Davis, who isn't a starting-caliber receiver. But if Bennett stumbles, the domino effect could significantly diminish the Bears' passing attack early in the season.

Camp will be a success if ...
... Smith can lay the groundwork for a revived defense. Smith has taken over as the de facto defensive coordinator and will call most defensive signals during games. He'll need to restore the Bears' core values -- producing a pass rush with the front four and making big plays in the secondary -- in order to meet the standard his defenses set earlier this decade.

It might be difficult to judge the success of this venture during camp and even in the preseason; Smith isn't likely to give away too much from a schematic standpoint before the regular season begins. But make no mistake: The origin of any improvement must come during technique and drill work in training camp.

O-verhaul
Quietly, the Bears shook up 60 percent of their offensive line this offseason. Center Olin Kreutz and right guard Roberto Garza are the only returning starters. Chicago is hoping that left tackle Orlando Pace, left guard Frank Omiyale and right tackle Chris Williams can breathe some life into a group that grew stale last season.

Pace is the short-term key. Injuries have caused him to miss 25 games over the past three seasons. His health and conditioning will be monitored carefully in training camp. It will be interesting to see if the Bears also work Williams at left tackle -- his natural position -- as a contingency should Pace suffer another injury.


Detroit Lions
Training camp site: Team facility in Allen Park, Mich.

 
  Rashaun Rucker/zuma/Icon SMI
  The Lions would like Daunte Culpepper to earn the starting quarterback job ahead of Matthew Stafford to start the season.

Campfires
No Black and Blue battle will be more scrutinized than the competition between Lions quarterbacks Daunte Culpepper and Matthew Stafford. Conventional wisdom suggests Culpepper will win the job as long as he maintains his offseason conditioning level. But coach Jim Schwartz has said Stafford will start as soon as he meets two criteria: when he is ready and when he surpasses Culpepper as the team's best option.

Stafford's status as an underclassman suggests he faces a steep learning curve this season. That, along with Culpepper's familiarity with offensive coordinator Scott Linehan's scheme, imposes a two-pronged challenge for Stafford to win the job in training camp.

Another rookie, safety Louis Delmas, appears to be one of the few locks to start in the secondary. You would assume Phillip Buchanon will win one cornerback spot, but the other two starting roles seem wide open.

Anthony Henry could start at cornerback, or he could move to safety. Other safety candidates include Daniel Bullocks, Marquand Manuel, Kalvin Pearson and Stuart Schweigert. The competition will be wide open as the Lions look for defensive backs who are aggressive and eager for contact.

Camp will be a downer if ...
... every player on the roster suffers a season-ending injury on the first day of camp. Otherwise, there is nowhere to go but up for a team that went 0-16 last season.

Seriously, there is one position where Detroit is keeping its fingers crossed. The Lions signed 36-year-old nose tackle Grady Jackson to help tighten their run defense and also keep offensive linemen off their talented trio of linebackers. But Jackson missed all of spring practice after undergoing knee surgery in February. Jackson is as important as any player the Lions acquired this winter and he needs to get at least some practice time in training camp to ensure he will be ready for the season.

Camp will be a success if ...
... Culpepper can win the job outright, rather than become the starter simply because Stafford isn't ready. If Culpepper can recapture some of his previous magic with Linehan, the Lions will have a much better chance to be credible in Schwartz's first season.

And despite the protestations of modern-day thinkers, Stafford can only benefit from some time on the sidelines. That doesn't mean he should sit for three years. But rare is the quarterback who can start -- and succeed -- on day one. A rejuvenated Culpepper is the first step in the Lions' rebuilding project.

Linebacker city
Through trade and free agency, the Lions have put together a competent group of linebackers in Julian Peterson, Larry Foote and Ernie Sims. It will be interesting to watch defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham experiment with ways to utilize their playmaking skills.

Cunningham has said he plans to blitz 40 percent of the time this season. Peterson could make some big plays if he has maintained the athletic skills of his prime. The same goes for Foote. We'll get a good idea of how much each player has left in the tank this summer.


Green Bay Packers
Training camp site: Team facility in Green Bay, Wis.

 
  Scott Boehm/Getty Images
  The Packers are searching for a running back to pair with Ryan Grant.

Campfires
At least two and possibly three positions on the offensive line are up for grabs as the Packers transition to a younger -- and, they hope, bigger -- offensive line. Jason Spitz seems primed to overtake veteran Scott Wells at center, while Allen Barbre is hoping to hold off rookie T.J. Lang for the right to replace Mark Tauscher at right tackle. And if Wells wins the center job, Spitz could move to right guard and compete with Josh Sitton.

Got all that? Because there's plenty of competition elsewhere on this team. The Packers moved back into the first round of the April draft to grab outside linebacker Clay Matthews, but a spring hamstring injury allowed second-year player Jeremy Thompson to grab hold of the job seemingly designated for Matthews. Thompson will spend training camp trying to hold off Matthews.

Elsewhere, the Packers will have an intriguing (if somewhat inside baseball) competition for their No. 3 receiver position behind Greg Jennings and Donald Driver. James Jones' playmaking skills would seem to give him the edge over 2008 top pick Jordy Nelson, but Jones' injury troubles last season make him an unknown quantity this summer.

Camp will be a downer if ...
... one of the Packers' two backup quarterbacks doesn't demonstrate substantial improvement. Matt Flynn and Brian Brohm got rookie exceptions last year, but neither ran the offense smoothly during minicamp last month.

Brohm's case is especially interesting. He flopped last summer after the Packers made him a second-round pick, by default leaving the No. 2 job to Flynn. If Brohm wants to restore his track as the Packers' top backup and a future starter (for another team), he'll have to get it turned around in camp this summer. Otherwise, he'll be buried on the depth chart for another year.

Camp will be a success if ...
...the Packers can demonstrate mental proficiency with the 3-4 defense. There is little doubt that retrofitting the personnel base will take some time. But if the Packers can master the different alignments and strategies typically employed by coordinator Dom Capers, they'll almost certainly improve their defensive proficiency from a year ago.

Capers and his staff are good teachers, and it's reasonable to expect Packers players to have absorbed the mental part of this new scheme.

A true one-two punch?
Training camp would be a nice time for someone to step in as a legitimate second option behind tailback Ryan Grant. One question the Packers would like to solve: Do they have someone on the roster who provides a stylistic complement to Grant?

Is Brandon Jackson the best answer? You could make an argument that his style isn't different enough from Grant to make him a viable option. Could that person be DeShawn Wynn? Or possibly Kregg Lumpkin? The Packers would like to leave camp with a firm idea on whether they have someone they can consistently rotate into the lineup for strategic purposes.


Minnesota Vikings
Training camp site: Minnesota State University (Mankato, Minn.)

 
  Scott Boehm/Getty Images
  Quarterback Tarvaris Jackson will be vying for the starting job or the No. 2 spot.

Campfires
Whether or not Brett Favre ultimately signs, the Vikings will have an interesting competition at  quarterback. Tarvaris Jackson and Sage Rosenfels will be vying either for the starting job or the No. 2 spot behind Favre. If it's the latter, you have to assume the loser won't have a future with the team. The Vikings remain intrigued by John David Booty as a developmental player at the No. 3 position.

Most everyone is assuming that rookie Phil Loadholt will win the starting right tackle position. But he'll still need to demonstrate proficiency superior to that of incumbent Ryan Cook before officially joining the starting lineup.

Someone is going to lose playing time as rookie Percy Harvin grows more comfortable in the offense. That player seems likely to be slot receiver Bobby Wade, but we should get a better idea of how the rotation will work once camp starts. Harvin appeared all over the field during spring practice, but it's doubtful the Vikings will take snaps away from Bernard Berrian or even a healthy Sidney Rice to make room for him. Wade would seem to be the odd man out.

Camp will be a downer if ...
... the defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams fail in their legal attempts to stave off a four-game NFL suspension. Their case has been ongoing for eight months, but in reality the Vikings aren't equipped to maintain their top-ranked run defense without them.

Backup nose tackle Fred Evans is a competent player, but fellow backup Letroy Guion is unproven and opponents won't need to apply the double-teams they routinely direct toward Kevin Williams and/or Pat Williams. Unless Evans or Guion makes a substantial leap in camp, the Vikings won't be the same defense without the Williams Wall.

Camp will be a success if ...
... one way or the other, the quarterback situation is resolved.

One option is for Favre to give the Vikings their first unquestioned starter since Brad Johnson opened camp in 2006 as the No. 1 quarterback. In the absence of Favre, the other positive alternative is for Jackson or Rosenfels to take control of the job from the start.

The latter option would require a significant swallowing of pride. The Vikings have made clear they were looking to upgrade this offseason. But if Favre remains retired, either Jackson or Rosenfels is going to have to get past the Vikings' professional slap.

Inspiration
More than a few eyes will be on defensive end Kenechi Udeze, who has returned to the field about 18 months after being diagnosed with an acute form of leukemia. Udeze was still working to improve his conditioning during spring practices, but he expected to report to training camp at full strength.

Although their starting lineup seems set on the defensive line, the Vikings will give Udeze every opportunity to make the team. That could include a trip to the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, which would give him additional time to recover and regain his strength if necessary.

Trey Wingo and Tim Hasselbeck preview the NFC North.