NFC North: 2014 NFL Camp Confidential

MANKATO, Minn. -- The biggest question surrounding the Minnesota Vikings when Mike Zimmer took over as head coach in January was the team's future at quarterback. The tallest task facing Zimmer when he accepted the job on Jan. 15 might have been remaking the Vikings' defense.

Zimmer's résumé as a defensive coordinator earned him the chance to work with a group that allowed more points than any in the NFL last season, and more than all but one defense in the Vikings' 53-season history. The coach began a detailed remodeling process almost as soon as he got the job, walking scouts and front-office members through what he'd need to succeed, and the trademark of his on-field work with players over the past two months has been an exacting adherence to details. The first concrete signs of progress came in the Vikings' preseason opener last Friday night, when the first-team defense forced a pair of three-and-outs against the Oakland Raiders. When he watched the film the next day, Zimmer saw some semblance of what he'd outlined for Vikings decision-makers months ago.

"It was a little bit like I envisioned this football team to look like. We didn’t make many mistakes on defense until later on in the ball game. We competed very well; we got up in people’s face on defense," Zimmer said. "I think that we are starting to develop a physical mindset with this football team. I like how we practice and the way we practice is showing up when the lights come on and we get ready to go play. We need to continue to practice at the same tempo, we need to continue to improve on the mistakes and we've still got a long way to go."

THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

1. If Matt Cassel (or Teddy Bridgewater) can help the Vikings move beyond the quarterback turmoil of 2013, the team has enough weapons to catch up to the prolific offenses in the NFC North. Cordarrelle Patterson could be in for a breakout season in Year 2, Greg Jennings worked well with Cassel last season and Kyle Rudolph dropped 15 pounds in an effort to adjust his game to offensive coordinator Norv Turner's downfield passing game. The Vikings, of course, still have Adrian Peterson, and they're excited about the potential of third-round pick Jerick McKinnon, who could be the change-of-pace back Turner has typically had in his offenses.

[+] EnlargeMinnesota's Anthony Barr
Bruce Kluckhohn/USA TODAY SportsAnthony Barr should start at strongside linebacker, though the Vikings night unveil some creative packages for the rookie.
2. First-round pick Anthony Barr should start at strongside linebacker, where he'll be featured as part of a defense that should be more aggressive than recent Vikings teams. While he was the defensive coordinator in Cincinnati, Zimmer sent five or more pass-rushers just 172 times last season (the seventh-fewest in the league), according to ESPN Stats & Information, but he'll bring pressure from more places than the Vikings did under Leslie Frazier. The Bengals, for example, blitzed a defensive back on 30 more snaps than the Vikings did last season.

3. General manager Rick Spielman has picked seven players in the first round of the past three drafts, assembling a core of young talent that could help the Vikings improve as quickly as it can develop. Third-year safety Harrison Smith is back from a turf toe injury that cost him half the season, second-year cornerback Xavier Rhodes is a good fit with Zimmer's press coverage scheme and Sharrif Floyd could become the Vikings' answer to Geno Atkins, the outstanding three-technique tackle Zimmer had in Cincinnati.

THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

1. The Vikings will be counting on better depth in the secondary than they had last season, which means a number of unproven players will have to fill large roles. After the Vikings' experiment with Josh Robinson at slot cornerback backfired last season, he should be more comfortable on the outside, where he could start or play in the Vikings' nickel package once Captain Munnerlyn moves inside. But Robinson hasn't been asked to play much man coverage in his career, and the Vikings will need Rhodes to be their top cover corner in Year 2. They'll also need a starting safety to emerge alongside Smith, though the signing of 34-year-old Chris Crocker could help there.

2. There's little set at the linebacker position, where Chad Greenway is trying to rebound from the worst season of his career, Barr is developing as a rookie and Jasper Brinkley, in his second tour with the Vikings, is trying to hold off third-year man Audie Cole for the middle-linebacker job. In a scheme that leans on active linebackers, the position is one of the most unsettled on the roster.

3. Of course, there's the quarterback position. Cassel performed respectably at the end of last season, and seems comfortable in Turner's offense, but probably hasn't been among the top half of the league's quarterbacks since 2010. If he isn't faring well at the beginning of the season -- and the Vikings get off to a rough start against a schedule that includes dates with Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers by Oct. 2 -- how soon do the Vikings turn things over to Bridgewater? Whether they're counting on a veteran whom they signed last season as a backup or a rookie, the Vikings again begin the season as the only NFC North team with uncertainty about its starting quarterback.

[+] EnlargeTeddy Bridgewater
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallIf Matt Cassel struggles, how quickly will the Vikings turn to Teddy Bridgewater?
OBSERVATION DECK
  • The Vikings have used Barr as a defensive end in pass-rushing situations and could unveil more creative packages for the rookie this week. Zimmer has plenty of flexibility with his defensive fronts, considering Everson Griffen has played defensive tackle in the nickel package and Corey Wootton and rookie Scott Crichton have rushed from the inside. The Vikings have also toyed with dropping defensive end Brian Robison -- who began his college career as a linebacker -- into coverage in their nickel package.
  • Zimmer wants safeties who can hold up in coverage, and he has unveiled a few nickel packages that feature three safeties and two corners. Considering how much time teams spend in nickel packages, safeties who can cover slot receivers and hold up against the run provide some additional flexibility. That's why Crocker -- who has played the past seven seasons for Zimmer in Atlanta or Cincinnati -- is back with him again.
  • Depth at tight end could be a concern, especially early in the season; Chase Ford looked like he could be a solid receiving option behind Rudolph until he broke his foot before the start of training camp, and the Vikings cut promising undrafted free agent AC Leonard last week. Rhett Ellison has mostly worked as a run blocker so far in his career. Especially if Ford starts on the physically unable to perform list, the Vikings will have to hope Rudolph stays healthy a year after missing half the season with a broken foot.
  • Running back Matt Asiata could carve out a role for himself in the Vikings' offense, especially now that Toby Gerhart is gone to Jacksonville and the Vikings need another running back who can hold up in pass protection. Asiata ran for 115 yards in the Vikings' final game of the 2013 season and has shown some ability as a downhill runner between the tackles.
  • With punt returner Marcus Sherels nursing a hamstring injury, second-year receiver Adam Thielen has shown he can be a solid No. 2 option, returning three punts for 53 yards in the Vikings' preseason opener. As a receiver, Thielen has been one of the big stories in Vikings camp, displaying sure hands over the middle of the field and working well with Bridgewater in front of the same fans who cheered him at Division II Minnesota State, which hosts Vikings training camp.

Camp Confidential: Green Bay Packers

August, 12, 2014
8/12/14
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- They're taking water breaks and serving snacks during training camp practices. They're using a GPS system to monitor players' movements.

They changed their practice plan, flip-flopping their Friday-Saturday in-season schedule, and even within those individual practices they moved drills that used to be at the beginning to the end, and vice versa.

All for one reason: To reduce the injuries that have befallen the Green Bay Packers in recent years.

And what good has it done?

They already have lost two players -- rookie receiver Jared Abbrederis and offensive lineman Don Barclay -- who almost certainly would have been on the opening day roster. Both suffered torn anterior cruciate ligaments within the first two weeks of practice.

Some injuries -- no matter what the training staff does to keep players energized for practice and regardless of how coach Mike McCarthy designs his schedule -- just have to be chalked up to bad luck.

"Watch either one of those things as it happened, it wouldn't give any sort of indication that it was going to be a bad deal," Packers general manger Ted Thompson said. "It's just the way it turned out."

But so far in camp, the number of missed practices due to muscle or fatigue-related injuries has been low. A year after hamstring pulls were the order of camp, the only serious muscle pull in the first two weeks was an oblique strain suffered by starting strong safety Morgan Burnett.

THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

[+] EnlargeAaron Rodgers
Benny Sieu/USA TODAY SportsA rejuvenated Aaron Rodgers is showing no aftereffects -- so far -- of last season's broken collarbone.
1. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers turned 30 in December and is coming off the worst injury of his career (a broken collarbone), but you would never know it by watching him now. He has been humming along in training camp as well as he ever has. His command of the offense is so great that McCarthy has been able to cut several practices short because they have not been forced to repeat plays ruined by mental errors. Rodgers reported to camp about 11 pounds lighter than he was last season, thanks to a combination of workouts (which included yoga) and diet.

2. If there's such a thing as a distraction-free training camp, this has been it. They addressed their No. 1 contract concern by signing receiver Jordy Nelson to a four-year, $39 million extension on the morning camp opened. A few days later, they locked up Thompson with a multiyear extension and said McCarthy would be next. And perhaps they have finally put any bad vibes from Brett Favre behind them when they announced last week that their former quarterback will have his number retired next summer, when he also will be inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame. All of that has allowed the team to focus on its preparation without anything getting in the way.

3. The biggest area of concern last year, the safety position, now may be one their strengths. Micah Hyde's switch from cornerback has gone better than expected, and first-round draft pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix looks game-ready. Then there's third-year safety Sean Richardson, who has made perhaps more big plays in practice than anyone on defense. If Burnett comes back soon from his oblique strain -- and finally starts to perform like the Pro Bowl-caliber player they thought he was when they gave him a four-year, $24.75 million extension last summer -- then there should not be any concerns.

THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

1. The Packers still do not know -- and may not know for a while -- whether JC Tretter can handle the starting center job. After a rough start to training camp, the second-year pro seemed to settle into the position and was solid in the preseason opener. But given the opener is at the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks in perhaps the loudest stadium in the league, there's probably nothing that can prepare Tretter for what he will have to deal with in Week 1.

2. As good as the Packers feel about Nelson, receiver Randall Cobb and running back Eddie Lacy, they don't have many other proven weapons for Rodgers. No one from the tight end group has emerged as the favorite to replace Jermichael Finley, although Andrew Quarless, Brandon Bostick and rookie Richard Rodgers have had their moments (both good and bad). And among the receivers, Jarrett Boykin has been no better than average in his quest to replace James Jones as the No. 3 receiver. Every time it looks like rookie Davante Adams may take that job from Boykin, he drops a ball.

3. Outside linebacker Clay Matthews participated in every practice during the first two weeks but still is not ready to proclaim his twice-broken right thumb 100 percent. Perhaps it's more of a mental hurdle for Matthews, but he needs to be able to use his hand without restrictions in order to return to his Pro Bowl level. It's hard to tell if Matthews is babying the injury, but in the first two weeks of practice, he took only two reps in the one-on-one pass-rushing drill and lost both. He played a few snaps early in the preseason opener against the Titans and did not seem to have any issues.

[+] EnlargeB.J. Raji
AP Photo/Morry GashB.J. Raji, back at nose tackle after spending last season at defensive end, has had an impressive camp.
OBSERVATION DECK
  • B.J. Raji looks re-energized after moving back to nose tackle. He signed just a one-year contract (worth $4 million) after the free-agent market proved soft, and might be motivated by another chance to test free agency next offseason.
  • Defensive coordinator Dom Capers is preparing second-year pro Datone Jones for a big role. Last year as a rookie, the first-round pick played almost exclusively in the sub packages and hardly ever played in the base 3-4 defense. Now, Jones has been penciled in as a starting defensive end while also playing as an inside rusher in the nickel and dime defenses.
  • If there's a high draft pick who might struggle to get on the field early in the season, it's perhaps third-round defensive tackle Khyri Thornton. Much like defensive end Josh Boyd last season, Thornton might not be ready for playing time from the get-go. Last season, Boyd was inactive for the first five games and seven of the first nine before he found a role.
  • The same could be said for fourth-round pick Carl Bradford. The outside linebacker from Arizona State has struggled to make many impact plays.
  • Last year, safety Chris Banjo was signed a few days into training camp and made the team. Receiver Gerrard Sheppard has a chance to do something similar. He was claimed off waivers from the Baltimore Ravens five days after camp opened and has made some impressive catches.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- During the spring, Matthew Stafford admitted there was a lot to pick up in the new offensive system, only the second one he’s had to digest in the NFL.

Through two weeks of training camp, though, Stafford has not shown many issues. Anything positive that happens for the Detroit Lions this season will start with the improvement of Stafford, who needed to show better decision-making and efficiency in practice and in games.

So far, not bad. He has not thrown an interception during any serious team or seven-on-seven periods in the first two weeks of training camp.

“I’m being coached differently,” Stafford said. “Our drops are different. Our reads are different. Our plays are totally different. It was kind of nice to scrap everything and start from the new way they wanted me to do it.

“I tried to embrace myself in that as hard as I possibly can and it’s been fun.”

That Stafford has shown this already -- along with strong rapport with receivers Golden Tate and Kevin Ogletree to go with Calvin Johnson -- is a massive positive for the Lions as they search for offensive efficiency.

Both Stafford and his offensive coordinator, Joe Lombardi, understand that pressure is on Stafford every play in practice. So far, he’s handled it.

“That’s the quarterback position,” Lombardi said. “All of the pressure is always going to be on him [Stafford]. Like all competitive people, and he’s a highly competitive guy, they put more pressure on themselves than anyone else does.

“It’s fair.”

It also needs to continue as Stafford continues to learn the offense.

Three reasons for optimism:
  • [+] EnlargeJim Caldwell
    AP Photo/Carlos OsorioPlayers are buying into new coach Jim Caldwell's focus on efficiency.
    This team appears to truly believe in Jim Caldwell, at least for now. Yes, it is easy to speak positively of a new regime before a regular-season game has been played, but the players are buying into his focus on efficiency. From his elimination of stretching periods in practice to his promise that he’ll treat every player equally, the Lions have been appreciative of Caldwell's approach compared to the previous regime under Jim Schwartz. Accountability has been a big focus for Caldwell, and so far it has worked.
  • Megatron. It might sound simplistic, but if this team has a healthy Johnson, that is a massive reason for optimism because of what he is able to do to opposing defenses. Johnson has looked impressive through the first two weeks of camp, making jaw-dropping plays essentially every day. This is typical for Johnson, who has been doing that since his freshman year at Georgia Tech in 2004. But Johnson looks healed from his offseason knee and finger surgeries, and the Lions are being smart with his repetitions during practice. As long as Johnson is healthy, Detroit can feel good about its passing game.
  • Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley have been dominant. Both entered camp in great shape and are playing for future contracts this season. If the Lions receive first-round efforts from both Suh (expected) and Fairley (questionable) in 2014, Detroit could have the dominant defensive front it has sought since it drafted them in back-to-back first rounds.
Three reasons for pessimism:
  • If Stafford gets hurt, the Lions are in major trouble. Yes, many teams can say that about their starting quarterback, but in previous years Shaun Hill gave Detroit a level of confidence that it could remain competitive if Stafford were to go down. So far, No. 2 quarterback Dan Orlovsky has looked somewhat rough both in practice and in one preseason game. Kellen Moore showed some flashes of potential in the preseason opener, but he was mostly facing players who won’t make Cleveland’s 53-man roster. More than any other season, Stafford’s health is of supreme importance right now.
  • [+] EnlargeDetroit's Matthew Stafford
    Leon Halip/Getty ImagesA lot of the Lions' success in 2014 will depend on how well Matthew Stafford picks up the new offense and if he can stay healthy.
    The secondary is still questionable. The Lions are set with their starters here, but the depth is still up in the air at both cornerback and safety. Beyond Rashean Mathis and Darius Slay -- and even with them -- the Lions have no sure things at cornerback and in a division with Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler, that is not good for Detroit. Safety appears to be a little stronger both in starters (Glover Quin, James Ihedigbo) and also depth (Don Carey, DeJon Gomes, Isa Abdul-Quddus) but lacks a top-end playmaker.
  • The offense has still looked a little shaky. Stafford has practiced well, especially with Johnson, but the defense has looked stronger than the offense on multiple occasions. There is still a large learning curve, but considering what the Lions have put into their offense in the offseason, that might not bode well for a team trying to score points in bunches. Part of the issue might come from Detroit’s multiplicity offensively, with players lining up in different spots on almost every play. Early on the defense has looked stronger.
Observation Deck:
  • Detroit has stayed mostly healthy through the first two weeks of camp. Part of that might have to do with the way Detroit has practiced this summer -- short, efficient, smart splitting of reps and days off for veterans. So far, Caldwell has taken care of his players.
  • Eric Ebron is coming along. He had a rough first week of camp, dropping passes and looking lost at times. Since then, the first-round pick has been much better both with ball security and route running. He has probably the most challenging camp of any player on the team as he’s a rookie and lining up in four different spots within the Lions offense. He is making progress.
  • The kicking situation has the potential to be a mess and, at best, an untested situation. Neither Nate Freese nor Giorgio Tavecchio has kicked in a regular-season game. Freese is a rookie and Tavecchio has been cut the past two camps. Both have looked decent-to-good in practice thus far, but it’ll be interesting to see how much the Lions trust an inexperienced kicker the first time the game is on the line. Punter Sam Martin has been impeccable at camp, though, and looks to have improved from his strong rookie performance.
BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- Lovie Smith finished 10-6 in his final season with the Chicago Bears before being fired. Marc Trestman comes in and leads the Bears to an 8-8 record in 2013. Yet expectations soar here on the campus of Olivet Nazarene University, where crowds for training camp practices routinely swell to 10,000.

It’s easy to see why. For a fan base accustomed to hard-nosed defense and shaky-at-best offense, Trestman flipped the script in 2013, taking Chicago’s attack to new heights with a major assist from general manager Phil Emery’s shrewd personnel moves.

The Bears broke record after record on offense last season, and the defense stumbled to historic lows.

If Trestman and Emery could basically work a miracle on offense in just one season, why can’t they do it on the other side of the ball in 2014?

“[I] feel very good about the competitive depth and the fights for positions that we're going to have,” Emery said. “Out of the three camps, I would say this camp has the best competitive level among the roster from 1 to 90.”

Emery achieved that by loading up on defenders: acquiring a mix of players poised to hit the sweet spot of their careers in Lamarr Houston and Willie YoungJared Allen, and drafting potential stars such as first-round pick Kyle Fuller. The Bears bolstered those moves with an overhaul of the scheme and additions to the defensive coaching staff.

“We started [with], ‘What could we do to get this team better?’” Trestman said. “I sat down with Phil [Emery], and we began to lay out a road map together on how we were going to rebuild this football team, and here we are at a stage where I don’t think there’s a player in our meeting room who doesn’t feel like there’s hope and high expectations. Now, it’s time to go to work.”

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastJay Cutler is more comfortable in coach Marc Trestman's system, and all of his offensive weapons are healthy and ready to go.
THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

1. Jay Cutler’s grasp of the offense is firmer in Year 2 of Trestman’s system, and his performance this year at camp is significantly different from in 2013. Offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer said Cutler is his own problem solver and is making on-field adjustments so instinctively that he doesn’t need guidance from the staff. In his first camp under Trestman, Cutler misfired routinely, and there were concerns about whether he’d be effective in the regular season. After one particularly bad session in 2013, Trestman gathered Cutler and the other quarterbacks in the middle of the field in what could be described as a turning point. That’s not happening this year at camp as Cutler has become a bona fide field general.

2. Brandon Marshall is Brandon Marshall. He wasn’t at camp in 2013. He was coming off hip surgery that hindered his season preparation. Fully healthy now with an offseason to condition, Marshall is ready to go -- and with full comprehension of the offensive system. Throw in Alshon Jeffery’s ascension and you have the makings of something lethal on offense. The duo has certainly looked that way at camp as both routinely make so many eye-popping plays that Cutler could almost throw it up blindly and one of them would come down with the ball.

3. There’s a nastiness on defense and intense focus reminiscent of the units put on the field in Smith’s heyday. Practicing against one of the best offenses in the league, the defense should be losing more than it does at training camp. But this group routinely bests the offense, with dominating play by the front seven as a hallmark. Chalk it up to a combination of personnel additions and a culture shift brought about by an overhaul of the scheme and the acquisition of no-nonsense, get-in-your-face coaches such as Paul Pasqualoni, Reggie Herring and Clint Hurtt.

[+] EnlargeRyan Mundy
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastThe Bears brought Ryan Mundy in to compete at safety, but the position, at least in camp, continues to look shaky.
THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

1. The defensive line makes plays at training camp. The corners and linebackers make plays. But you rarely see the safeties making an impact. That could be a result of a lack of chemistry because, with both spots up for grabs, the Bears are using several combinations at the position involving players such as Ryan Mundy, rookie Brock Vereen, Danny McCray, Adrian Wilson and M.D. Jennings. Horrid play at this position in 2013 contributed significantly to the defense’s demise, and we haven’t seen many indications at camp that the Bears will turn that around in 2014.

2. Protecting Cutler could become an issue if some of the injuries suffered by the team's offensive linemen linger. Guard Kyle Long (ankle) and tackle Jordan Mills (foot) missed the preseason opener, and the latter was seen wearing a walking boot when the club returned to training camp after that game. Reserve center Brian de la Puente is expected to miss time to a knee injury, and reserve guard/tackle Eben Britton still hasn’t returned from a strained hamstring suffered earlier at camp.

3. Cutler hasn’t played an entire 16-game season since 2009. So naturally, you’d think at some point in 2014 the Bears will have to turn to the backup quarterback. The problem is the candidates vying for the No. 2 job -- Jordan Palmer and Jimmy Clausen -- have done little to inspire confidence the way Josh McCown did last year at training camp. For the most part, Palmer and Clausen have been merely average at camp, misfiring on occasion and making mistakes typical of players acclimating themselves to a scheme. The duo needs to pick it up or the Bears could wind up looking outside the current roster for a suitable No. 2.

OBSERVATION DECK
  • Chris Conte says he’s the best athlete in Chicago’s secondary. He needs to prove it, which he'll finally have a chance to do now that he's off the physically unable to perform list. Conte certainly possesses the athleticism to be a playmaker on the back end, provided he regains his confidence. But time is running out for Conte to make a real push for one of the two open jobs at safety. What Conte has going for him right now is that none of the safeties vying for the starting jobs is making plays at camp.
  • The Bears hired martial arts expert Joe Kim to teach the defensive linemen hand fighting techniques as part of the scheme overhaul that requires the front four players to be technicians with their hands. It’ll be interesting to see how the results manifest themselves on the field. Every day after practice at camp, several defensive linemen -- and even some defensive backs -- work intricate hand fighting moves with Kim for several minutes. The players say the moves become almost natural once routinely put into practice on the field. We’ll see whether Kim’s assistance plays a role in the front four anchoring a run defense that finished last in 2013.
  • Zach Miller and Matthew Mulligan are pushing Dante Rosario hard for the No. 2 job at tight end. Miller is more of a move tight end, and Mulligan is a classic in-line blocker who shows some impressive skills as a receiver. The two have received extra reps because of Martellus Bennett's suspension.

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