Minnesota players are attending training camp meetings as we speak (or, at least, write). Green Bay's players are moving into their dorm rooms, Chicago's are heading down I-57 and Detroit's will start showing up Friday.
On the brink of Camp '09, we should continue establishing our season-long storylines in the NFC North. We started Tuesday by noting our relatively historic collection of young and potentially elite quarterbacks, and wondering how they will impact the aesthetics of the Black and Blue division.
Today, let's identify some players whose teams are counting on them to establish a high level of performance in training camp. You can call this a "Hot Seat," but I prefer "Pressure Cooker" because these players are being counted on to succeed -- in some cases based on hope rather than previous production -- in order to meet their short- and long-term goals.
Enough with the mumbo-jumbo. On to the list:
Chicago receiver Earl Bennett
The task: Earn and maintain a starting job after a rookie year that netted zero receptions.
The skinny: Jay Cutler was Bennett's college quarterback at Vanderbilt, and his arrival can only help ease this transition. But it's still a huge leap to expect Bennett to provide starting-caliber production after such a quiet rookie year. The Bears haven't given themselves many other options.
Chicago defensive tackle Tommie Harris
The task: Re-establish himself as a pass-rushing force to meet the needs of a Tampa-2 defense.
The skinny: There were all kinds of offseason warning signs about the condition of Harris' knee, and at 26, he might already be permanently limited. But the Bears are hoping he will be fresh for games if they can get him enough rest during the week. They are also hoping new defensive line coach Rod Marinelli can work some magic this summer.
Detroit quarterback Daunte Culpepper
The task: Revive his skills and win the starting job so the Lions don't have to throw Matthew Stafford to the wolves.
The skinny: If the stars were ever aligned for Culpepper's resurgence, it's now. He is in excellent shape, will be playing for his favorite offensive coordinator (Scott Linehan) and has one of the league's best receivers in Calvin Johnson. Getting 10-plus starts from Culpepper will help Stafford's development in the long run.
Detroit defensive end Cliff Avril
The task: Develop into a credible, three-down starting defensive end.
The skinny: That doesn't sound like a huge challenge, but the Lions' defensive line was terrible last season and they made only one notable offseason move (signing free-agent nose tackle Grady Jackson) to address it. It appears they're trusting Avril to make a big leap in his second season after showing a few flashes last year.
Green Bay safety Atari Bigby
The task: Put aside a year's worth of injuries and bring his physical presence back to the Packers' secondary.
The skinny: Bigby sat out offseason workouts to let his body heal but will open camp as a starter. The Packers signed free agent Anthony Smith as insurance, but they know Bigby has a much bigger upside. At his best, Bigby can be a hard-hitting threat against the run and also make plays in the passing game.
Green Bay linebacker Aaron Kampman
The task: Learn a new position in the 3-4 scheme after seven seasons as a 4-3 defensive end.
The skinny: Kampman showed some signs of competence during a late-June minicamp, but there's little doubt he's uncomfortable with the transition. The last thing the Packers want to do is develop a defense that doesn't have a place for the top pass-rushing threat.
Minnesota safety Tyrell Johnson
The task: Replace Darren Sharper as the starting strong safety.
The skinny: The Vikings traded up to draft Johnson in the second round last year with this job in mind. He actually started seven games while free safety Madieu Williams recovered from a neck injury, but his impact was minimal from a big-play standpoint. Johnson will have to demonstrate progress quickly or opponents will target him.
Minnesota center John Sullivan
The task: Replace perennial Pro Bowl center Matt Birk after a year of seasoning on the bench.
The skinny: The Vikings like Sullivan's intelligence and his background in Charlie Weis' pro-style offense at Notre Dame. But he still has a big leap to make, especially from an athletic standpoint, to match up against NFL defensive tackles who have both size and quickness. Luckily, he'll have help from All-Pro left guard Steve Hutchinson.