NFC North: Position battles
The Green Bay Packers have a little issue at quarterback. (You might have read a word or two about it here.) Otherwise, their lineup consists mostly of returning starters. Here are a few interesting depth situations where movement could occur:
Backup running back: Brandon Jackson vs. Noah Herron vs. Vernand Morency
Ryan Grant emerged from this group as the unquestioned starter last season, and that's how the Packers will begin training camp -- if Grant signs a contract extension by that time. Whether he is signed or holds out, however, the Packers want to establish a pecking order behind him rather than using the committee style they opened last season with.
Jackson is the clear favorite to secure that role and would be the likely starter if Grant's absence is prolonged. A second-round draft choice last season, Jackson is built low to the ground and would have success in the Packers' west-coast scheme. He has worked this offseason on improving his pass catching so that he can compete for a third-down role as well.
Intensity index: Hot
Long snapper: J.J. Jansen vs. Thomas Gafford
Yes, you read that right. The Packers have competition at long-snapper following the retirement of Rob Davis. True story: During a trip to Packers mini-camp this summer, committed members of the Wisconsin media were charting each practice snap.
The competition is wide open, at least as of now. The Packers are going to have to make some roster moves in order to fit their full draft class under the NFL's 80-man cap. But as of Thursday morning both Jansen and Gafford were still on the Packers' roster. Not many teams have the luxury of taking two long snappers to camp with them, but it clearly represents a priority for the Packers.
Intensity index: Hot. (Is there any other way to describe a long-snapping competition?)
The Detroit Lions have their usual list of questions, the backfield tops among them:
Running back: Tatum Bell vs. Kevin Smith
The release of Kevin Jones has left the Lions facing a new era in their backfield. For starters, at least, it appears they'll give Bell the chance to be the primary ballcarrier in their new zone-blocking scheme. Bell had success in a similar offense while playing for Denver, and there can be a long transition for players who aren't used to running behind zone blocking. More important, Bell is determined to rebound from a disappointing 2007 season and knows he might not get a better chance in his NFL career.
Smith, however, could turn out to be the Lions' long-term solution here. Coach Rod Marinelli has taken a liking to him, and Smith will get plenty of opportunities to run in the preseason. By the end of the year, a transition could take place.
Intensity index: Hot
Linebacker: Jordon Dizon vs. other
The Lions drafted Dizon as a potential long-term answer at the position, but an unreported arrest for drunken driving landed him in hot water with the team before the first whistle of training camp. Dizon still has the confidence of coach Rod Marinelli, but it's been worth noting the team has visited and negotiated with free agent linebacker Takeo Spikes in recent days.
While it's not out of the question to start a rookie linebacker, the responsible thing to do for the Lions is at least have a safety net. Spikes could be that player, or the Lions could scan the waiver wire for other possibilities as the regular season approaches.Intensity index: Mild
The Chicago Bears can't say for sure who will start at quarterback, receiver or running back. That makes for a few position battles, don't you think?
No. 1 and No. 2 receiver: Devin Hester vs. Marty Booker vs. Mark Bradley vs. Brandon Lloyd
The Bears bid farewell to 2007 starters Bernard Berrian and Muhsin Muhammad, leaving this position wide open for competition. They envision Hester as their top receiver, but an unexpected holdout -- not to mention his inexperience at the position -- could curtail their plans.
Otherwise, the position is a completely up in the air. Booker is a trusted veteran but not exactly a game-breaker, while Bradley has had trouble staying healthy. Lloyd, meanwhile, is on his third NFL team in six years. There isn't usually much to read into this, but for those interested: On the first practice of training camp Wednesday, the Bears had Booker and Bradley working with the starters.
Intensity index: Red hot
Running back: Matt Forte vs. Kevin Jones vs. Adrian Peterson
The Bears have all but anointed Forte as the successor to the Cedric Benson/Thomas Jones era, but Forte will still have to prove himself in training camp. He has the size and speed to be a 20-carry back in the NFL, but the Bears might ultimately choose to take it slow with him.
To that end, they signed Jones to provide depth and to hedge their bets a bit. Jones is less than seven months removed from surgery to repair a torn ACL in his right knee and isn't ready to practice yet. But in a best-case scenario, he could be ready to contribute a few weeks into the regular season.
Should the Bears need help before then, veteran Adrian Peterson will be available, as always. The Bears prefer to limit him to a backup role, but he is in position to bail them out if necessary.
Intensity index: Hot
The Minnesota Vikings' starting lineup is virtually locked up, but there will be some competition for playing time in a few areas during training camp. Here are two:
Tight end: Visanthe Shiancoe vs. Jim Kleinsasser
Shiancoe is trying to rebound from a tough debut season with the Vikings in which he dropped three touchdown passes and never seemed comfortable in the offense. Coaches have lauded his progress and demeanor, not to mention weight loss, during the offseason. But Shiancoe will have to prove he can catch the ball consistently this summer in order to retain his role as the primary tight end.
Kleinsasser is a strong veteran blocker who has rarely been asked to participate much in the passing game. But his playing time increased last season as Shiancoe struggled, and the Vikings won't be afraid to use him -- or veterans Jeff Dugan and Garrett Mills -- in place of Shiancoe if necessary.
With tailback Adrian Peterson in the backfield, the tight end should be a powerful weapon in this offense, especially in play-action.
Intensity index: Mild
Nickel back: Marcus McCauley vs. Charles Gordon vs. Tyrell Johnson
Ah, the all-important nickel battle. If this ranks in a team's top two personnel questions, you know you're in decent shape.
That said, the Vikings spent plenty of time in their nickel pass defense last season as teams abandoned the run against them. There's no reason to expect anything different this season, meaning that, in reality, their nickel back will have the prominence of a starting corner.
In the end, the team could create several different personnel packages and use Johnson in "big nickel" situations against opposing tight ends and slot receivers. Gordon has the best one-on-one cover ability of the three and is the favorite for the traditional nickel role.
Intensity index: Hot