NFC North: 2012 NFL hidden treasure

AFC hidden treasures: West | North | South | East NFC: West | North | South | East

Examining a position group that could exceed its preseason expectations:

Offseason practices revealed there might be less reason to panic about the Minnesota Vikings' cornerback position. Although they took a middling response to a personnel disaster in 2011, the team has some options that should make it competitive, provided key players remain healthy.

Third-year player Chris Cook, reinstated to the roster after last year's legal problems, looked sharp in pass coverage. Veteran Antoine Winfield appears set to work as a slot/nickelback, and the Vikings have some decent options at the other outside positions. Veteran Chris Carr made the biggest impression during camp, but rookie Josh Robinson's speed will help him get on the field. Fellow veteran Zack Bowman, meanwhile, worked mostly with the third team.

There might not be any 2012 Pro Bowl players in that group, but it has the potential to be more competent than it might appear at first glance.
AFC hidden treasures: West | North | South | East NFC: West | North | South | East

Examining a position group that could exceed its preseason expectations:

There is reason to be optimistic about the Detroit Lions' backfield despite a two-game suspension for one prominent player and every-down concerns about another.

By the time Mikel Leshoure gets into a regular-season game, he'll have gone a full 13 months since rupturing his Achilles tendon. That's more than enough time to project him at 100 percent when his 2012 season begins.

Jahvid Best's concussion history always will be a concern, but the 14-game eligibility of Leshoure should give the Lions an opportunity to pick and choose their spots for Best's unique game-breaking skills. And if nothing else, veteran Kevin Smith proved last season that he can jump into the lineup and produce immediately on short notice.

The Lions would prefer to have fewer question marks and contingencies in their backfield, but it's not difficult to foresee more than adequate success.

Packers' hidden treasure: Safety

June, 27, 2012
6/27/12
12:00
PM ET
AFC hidden treasures: West | North | South | East NFC: West | North | South | East

Examining a position group that could exceed its preseason expectations:

The Green Bay Packers bid farewell this spring to Nick Collins, one of this generation's best safeties, because of a neck injury. Collins' absence was at least part of the reason the Packers allowed more passing yards in 2011 than any team in NFL history, but some intriguing options were brewing this spring.

First, the Packers won't be afraid to use veteran Charles Woodson in a safety-like position alongside Morgan Burnett in their base defense. In the nickel and dime schemes, the Packers have a better balance than outsiders might realize.

Rookie Jerron McMillian will challenge for a starting job at some point, but the Packers don't have to rush him onto the field right away. Veteran Charlie Peprah has gotten starter playing time in each of the past two seasons, and is a solid insurance plan. And the offseason emergence of second-year player M.D. Jennings gives the Packers a sense of competition they might not have had otherwise.

Bears' hidden treasure: Safety

June, 27, 2012
6/27/12
12:00
PM ET
AFC hidden treasures: West | North | South | East NFC: West | North | South | East

Examining a position group that could exceed its preseason expectations:

The Chicago Bears' annual search for long(er)-term answers at safety has turned up some interesting possibilities for 2012.

Rookie Brandon Hardin, a third-round draft pick, was one of the standouts of offseason practice, in part because of his unusual 6-foot-3 frame. History suggests Hardin will get his starting chance sooner rather than later. Hardin was a cornerback at Oregon State, which can translate well into coverage skills for safeties at the professional level.

Along with Hardin, the Bears have a second-year prospect in Chris Conte, who made a positive impression last season before suffering a foot injury. Coach Lovie Smith has long been a fan of Major Wright, and veteran Craig Steltz hasn't embarrassed anyone in the short stints he has received in recent years.

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NFC NORTH SCOREBOARD

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