NFC North: 2011 back to work FYI NFC

Lions back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
2:00
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: Coach Jim Schwartz has maintained the same offensive and defensive schemes since arriving in 2009, minimizing the mental cram factor in training camp. But significant transitions loom at several positions, and they will be rushed in less-than-ideal situations. The Lions need to establish three starting defensive backs, two linebackers and will also need to find a balance for their running back duo of Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure.

Biggest challenge: I think someone once said that cornerbacks don't grow on trees. (Neither does money, I hear.) We've been over this issue before, but here are the facts: The Lions' top two cornerbacks currently under contract are Alphonso Smith and Nathan Vasher. Is that their plan for 2011? Will they be aggressive enough to land one of the few starting-quality free agents available? Is veteran Chris Houston more likely to re-sign? Perhaps, but the Lions have a complex problem to solve in quick fashion.

Obligatory Stafford reminder: It's been well-established that quarterback Matthew Stafford's right shoulder has healed after January surgery. He has looked buff during offseason workouts and is ready to resume his role as the Lions' franchise quarterback. At 23, Stafford is about the same age as 2011 rookies Jake Locker, Christian Ponder and Blaine Gabbert. But two years of injuries have put Stafford into something close to a make-or-break season. He needs to stay on the field.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Defensive end Cliff Avril, cornerback Chris Houston, running back Kevin Smith, quarterback Drew Stanton.

Vikings back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
2:00
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: Since the end of last season, the Minnesota Vikings have promoted Leslie Frazier from interim to permanent head coach, revamped their offensive staff and forged a new path at quarterback. The lockout hasn't just cost Frazier the chance to set a new tone in the locker room. He's also been unable to get his offense introduced, much less installed, and will enter training camp with a truly blank slate at quarterback. For those reasons, the lockout has hit the Vikings as hard as any team in the NFL. It will be a struggle to bring their offense online.

Biggest challenge: One way or the other, the Vikings must quickly identify and prepare a Week 1 starting quarterback. Rookie Christian Ponder received a playbook during the one-day lockout respite in April, but he has still missed valuable offseason prep work. Ponder is said to be smart, but starting as a rookie in Week 1 is difficult enough even with a full offseason. Should the Vikings seek a short-term answer in free agency? At the very least, they'll need a backup plan if Ponder needs more time.

Peterson decision looming? Tailback Adrian Peterson is entering the final year of a contract that will pay him $10.72 million in 2011. Will the Vikings allow him to play out the final year of the deal? Will they offer him an extension, if for no other reason than to lower his salary-cap number? Those questions were intentionally put off until after the lockout. Well, we're here. Peterson's future with the team hangs in the balance.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Defensive end Ray Edwards, linebacker Ben Leber, receiver Sidney Rice, nose tackle Pat Williams.

Bears back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
2:00
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: The Chicago Bears have been playing the same defensive scheme, with some of the same key players, since coach Lovie Smith arrived in 2004. That familiarity is an important mitigating factor for the loss of offseason workouts, and players expect that consistency to give the Bears an early-season advantage. The Bears could have used another offseason to fine-tune their offense under coordinator Mike Martz, especially to give them a head-start on retooling their offensive line, but such is life. Quarterback Jay Cutler did his part by running skill-player workouts this spring in the Chicago suburbs.

Biggest challenge: You thought offensive line coach Mike Tice had a tough job last season patching together a starting lineup? He'll have to do it again this season, and with less time. The Bears hope to find a permanent solution earlier than they did in 2010, but as of today, none of the five positions has an obvious starter. Free agency will affect Tice's decisions, as will the development of rookie tackle Gabe Carimi. Where will former first-round pick Chris Williams play? Will center Olin Kreutz be re-signed? These questions must be answered -- and soon.

Just for kicks: The Bears have a decision to make at punter, a position occupied by Brad Maynard for the past 10 seasons. It didn't appear the Bears were eager to resign Maynard, 37, before the lockout. That could change given the quick turnaround between now and training camp, but it's also possible the Bears have their eye on his targeted successor. Maynard was a big part of the Bears' special-teams machine over the past decade and would be difficult to replace.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Quarterback Caleb Hanie, center Olin Kreutz, safety Danieal Manning, punter Brad Maynard, linebacker Nick Roach, linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa.

Packers back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
2:00
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: Players felt confident enough to avoid any known group workouts during the lockout. Several players suggested they wouldn't go public with any grand plans even if they had them, but all indications are that most Packers worked out on their own this offseason. Coach Mike McCarthy supported that decision, saying conditioning and avoiding mishaps should be players' highest offseason priorities. It makes sense. The Packers are entering their sixth season in McCarthy's offense and their third in Dom Capers' defense.

Biggest challenge: The Packers are in pretty good shape. Their biggest challenge is the same whether or not they had a full offseason: Putting their Super Bowl victory in the proverbial rearview mirror and dedicating themselves to the kind of long-term success they appear built for. Players and coaches had every right to enjoy a celebratory offseason. Now it's time to flip the switch.

A true backfield rotation? When Ryan Grant has been healthy, McCarthy has strongly preferred a one-back system as opposed to rotating multiple runners into the game. Grant's season-ending ankle injury has healed, but is McCarthy planning to break the mold this summer? The Packers have a number of viable options to use either alongside or in place of Grant if and when they want, including 2010 postseason star James Starks. This Packers backfield arrangement will be one of the more closely watched areas of their training camp, especially by fantasy football players.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Guard Daryn Colledge, place-kicker Mason Crosby, running back Brandon Jackson, running back John Kuhn, defensive end Cullen Jenkins, receiver James Jones.

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