NFL Nation: CampTour'12

CampTour'12: What we learned

August, 14, 2012
8/14/12
3:15
PM ET
Marshall-Ponder-YoungGetty ImagesFinal training camp thoughts: Chicago is excited about Brandon Marshall, Christian Ponder has started to embrace his role as a leader, and Titus Young has been a training camp star.
We came, we saw, we conquered. Veni, vidi, vici and all that stuff. Yes, CampTour'12 wrapped up late last week, ending a stretch of spending 11 days at four NFC North training camps over a 15-day period. I took three flights, logged 938 miles on the NFC North blogmobile and limited my Jimmy John's/Chipotle intake to an average of one ingestion per day.

You can find everything I produced on location through this handy one-stop link, and the four Camp Confidential posts are all grouped here.

This division looks every bit as tough as we thought it was before the tour began, and I figure it's going to take 12 regular-season victories (or more) to win it. With that in mind, let's wrap up CampTour'12 with, well, 12, final thoughts and semi-behind-the-scenes observations from my time abroad.

1. The Chicago Bears' risk-reward: Our pre-camp discussion centered around the Bears' improvement and possible eclipse of the Detroit Lions in the standings. After seeing them in camp and in the context of the rest of the division, I still think the Bears are a really good team. But I also think they run the biggest risk of imploding among our top three teams. Already, two offseason decisions to stand part have left them vulnerable. Left tackle J'Marcus Webb has not yet demonstrated the progress expected of him, and middle linebacker Brian Urlacher's now surgically-repaired knee has drawn genuine concerns about his health over a 16-game season. Those are two huge positions on this team, and neither have a credible alternative at this point.

2. Genuine excitement: It was fascinating to watch longtime Bears employees and observers during receiver Brandon Marshall's first full-pads practice Aug. 1. Marshall made the kinds of plays that only a true No. 1 receiver makes, including some fancy sideline footwork at the end of a 35-yard pass from Jay Cutler. Several people gushed that Marshall will prove the team's best skill-position player since Walter Payton. A glance at recent Bears history suggests that's a sound judgment by default. I didn't see Marshall do anything that we haven't seen, say, Calvin Johnson do in this division. But it's been forever since the Bears have had someone do it in their uniform.

[+] EnlargeMike Tice
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhMike Tice seems more relaxed with the Bears than when he was at the helm in Minnesota.
3. Tice games: I told Bears offensive coordinator Mike Tice that he seemed less frantic and more chill than he was during his time as the Minnesota Vikings' head coach. "I still have my moments," Tice said in words that proved prophetic. Since then, he has reached deep into his bag of tricks to cajole better play from Webb, putting him in a yo-yo personnel rotation and playing him for almost all of the preseason opener. When he was the Vikings' coach, Tice once pulled fans into a non-contact drill to demonstrate mistakes to starting linemen. On another occasion, he required linemen to practice with their hands tied together to emphasize footwork. Sometimes those tactics work. Sometimes they don't.

4. Concussion impact: I wouldn't be surprised if we look back at this summer as the moment concussion treatment -- not just concussions themselves -- began impacting the game. Already, we've seen the Lions and Green Bay Packers acknowledge they are taking a much more deliberate approach to putting players back on the field after they've been concussed or if they are even suspected to have suffered a concussion. Front-line players including Greg Jennings, Marshall Newhouse and Amari Spievey missed the preseason opener because of them.

5. Traffic nightmare: Would you believe that the worst traffic in the NFC North is in the NFL's smallest market? Some of the key roads surrounding Lambeau Field have been torn up for months, including Oneida St. and Hwy. 41 near Lombardi Ave.. I pray to the construction gods that everything is finished by next month. Based on the amount of holes, gravel roads and lane closures I saw, I'm not optimistic. All I can say is to arrive early and often.

6. Camp routine: Because of the new collective bargaining agreement, players were on the field once a day in three of our locales. The only team coming close to two-a-day practices were the Vikings, whose first workout was a 60-minute, half-speed walk-through. Veterans like the Packers' Jeff Saturday were thrilled with the reduced wear-and-tear. Privately, others noted that coaches filled the time once set aside for a second practice with additional meetings. "Some really tedious days," one player said. Said another: "Sometimes the grass is not always greener, you know?"

7. Imagination movers: The Packers lead the division with unique drills and sideline gizmos. For years, they've had sideline speakers set up to broadcast the ravings of special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum. This year, they added a set of red and green lights that flash exactly 2.5 seconds after the ball is snapped in team drills. In essence, they are designed to simulate the quarterback's head clock. I also saw offensive linemen catching passes from a JUGS machine and tight ends doing a basketball-like drill where they weaved the ball around their ankles and through their legs.

8. Ponder charisma: Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder seems to have made some strides as a pocket passer. But I can say without a shred of doubt that Ponder has mastered the more ethereal parts of NFL quarterbacking. He has taken ownership of a young roster and moves easily between the inevitable cliques that develop. He is just as likely to share a laugh with fellow second-year player Kyle Rudoph as he is veteran receiver Jerome Simpson, a newly-signed free agent. I watched him call team staffers by name and treat them with genuine respect. Ponder has some work to do on the field, but he has the makings of a franchise pillar off of it.

9. Defensive dilemma: Much of the camp discussion surrounding the Vikings has centered around Ponder and the changes they've made to the offense. But the Vikings have just as much, if not more, work to do on defense. There are at least four positions -- nose tackle, middle linebacker and both safety spots -- where the presumed starter remains completely unproven. The San Francisco 49ers gashed them for 260 rushing yards in the preseason opener.

10. Eye-opening: Someone asked me along the trail to name the best NFC North player no one has heard of. The first two names to come to mind are both on the Lions' roster. You've no doubt heard of receiver Titus Young, but probably for the wrong reasons after his offseason fight with safety Louis Delmas. Young has been a training camp star, twisting and turning over defensive backs in every drill I watched. From a physical standpoint, Young can be a star. The other was defensive end Willie Young, who got elevated reps because of Cliff Avril's holdout and Kyle Vanden Bosch's knee injury. Willie Young is a high-energy, full-effort pass-rusher who has to get on the field more substantially this season.

11. Redshirt season?: Perhaps the most notable sign of the Lions' roster strength is that their top two draft picks might get a quasi-redshirt season, assuming the players in front of them stay healthy. Offensive lineman Riley Reiff isn't going to beat out left tackle Jeff Backus and probably not right tackle Gosder Cherilus, either. And receiver Ryan Broyles has been limited all summer because of residual soreness from knee surgery. At best, he will be the Lions' No. 4 receiver when he does get on the field.

12. Serious bid'niss: I realized how serious this NFC North race would be shortly after returning from CampTour'12. Check out this photo tweeted by Chris Jenkins of The Associated Press. It shows Saturday, Cedric Benson and Reggie Wells in Packers uniforms. These three are the kind of veteran free agents the Packers turned away from for years under general manager Ted Thompson. This season, Thompson has loaded up on a relative scale. In this division, this year, there is no time to wait for development. Answers are needed now.

CampTour'12: Lions Day 2

August, 9, 2012
8/09/12
4:00
PM ET
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Some thoughts and observations from our second day of training camp with the Detroit Lions:
  • It's only fair to note that after a relatively sloppy practice Wednesday, the Lions came back with a sharp and fast-paced workout held indoors because of rain. The team opened with work on its no-huddle offense, and it set the pace for a crisp day. I like how the Lions' coaching staff sets the pace for high tempo by personally sprinting from one drill to the next. It's tough for players not to follow.
  • We noted earlier that rookie cornerback Bill Bentley has been elevated to the first team, at least for the time being. The Lions also had veteran safety John Wendling working with the starters, alongside Erik Coleman, while one-time starter Amari Spievey was working with the second and third teams. Coach Jim Schwartz said Wendling has "had a very good camp." He added: "He's knocked down a lot of passes. He's been in the right spot all the time." Look for Bentley and Wendling to start Friday night against the Cleveland Browns.
  • The practice had some tense moments during one of the final team drills when hot-headed center Dominic Raiola fell, got up and whacked rookie linebacker Tahir Whitehead on the helmet. The two jawed for several more plays but Whitehead did not retaliate, which Schwartz considered a good sign for a team that lost its composure often last season. "The players showed some restraint," Schwartz said. "That's a good step, particularly for a rookie."
  • Because the practice was held indoors, reporters saw running back Mikel Leshoure running for one of the few times since he strained his hamstring early in camp. (Most of his rehabilitation has been conducted indoors while the team practiced outside.) Leshoure ran hard, with his helmet on, during a sideline session with the team's medical staff. It wouldn't be surprising if he returned to practice sometime next week.
  • Backup quarterback Shaun Hill had a little fun during second-team work, twice taking option-like runs deep down the left sideline and encouraging defensive players to chase him. I timed his 40-yard dash in approximately 5.01 seconds.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- I caught myself thinking back to April as I watched the Detroit Lions' training camp practice Thursday morning. Back then, so many of you were bemoaning the Lions' draft-day decision to pass up a number of highly regarded cornerbacks in the second round in favor of receiver Ryan Broyles, whose short-term future was unclear as he rehabilitated a torn ACL. The fervor was strong enough that few noticed when the Lions grabbed Louisiana-Lafayette cornerback Dwight Bentley one round later.

Things can have a funny way of working out.

Dwight Bentley
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesDwight Bentley's path to the starting job was cleared once the Lions released Aaron Berry.
Thursday, it became clear that Bentley has earned the chance to win a starting job opposite Chris Houston. After spending most of training camp as the Lions' third cornerback, joining the first team in nickel situations, Bentley has leapfrogged veterans Jacob Lacey and Alphonso Smith for the moment. It's expected he will start Friday night's preseason opener against the Cleveland Browns, and coach Jim Schwartz left little doubt that Bentley has reached the cusp of an important opportunity.

"We wouldn't put somebody out there that's going to break down in coverage and doesn't know what to do, regardless of where we've drafted him," Schwartz said. "We've never been that team. You've got to earn your way on, and he's done a lot in training camp.

"This is an important stretch for him because you go from rookie camp, doing something there. [Organized team activities], doing something there. Training camp, making some plays there. And then you need to maintain that through preseason games. And then if you continue to see that, you feel a lot better going into the season. He's done well every step along the way. This is the next step for him."

Bentley is a bit on the small side, having measured a shade under 5-foot-10 at the NFL scouting combine and weighing in at 182 pounds. NFL scouts held him in mild regard until the Senior Bowl, where a strong performance raised him into a third-round prospect.

I never pretend to be a personnel expert, but amateur eyes can at least clue in to a player's general demeanor on the field and the reaction of coaches. All indications during two days of training camp are that Bentley knows what he's doing.

"I've just tried to be a student of the game, executing my plays and learning at the same time," he said. "You want to execute fast and play fast, and that's what I've got to do. I've had some great opportunities to showcase my talent, and I'm thankful for that."

Truth be told, Bentley's opportunity is tied to the Lions' late-July decision to release presumptive starter Aaron Berry. Sometimes, however, all a young player needs is a chance.

"No doubt," Bentley said. "My goal is to go out and solidify myself as a starter in this preseason. When we open the [regular] season against St. Louis, I want that to be me. So I've to go out and put it on the game film."

Note: The NFL lists Bentley as "Dwight" but he said he prefers his nickname, "Bill." So we'll start referring to him that way from now on.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Well then. My first day at Detroit Lions training camp started with news of safety Louis Delmas' knee surgery, continued through what surely wasn't the team's sharpest practice of camp and ended with tailback Kevin Smith leaving a team drill after appearing to bruise his right quadriceps.

Smith's injury does not appear serious, although it did provide a reminder of how close the Lions are to an emergency in their backfield. (Jahvid Best remains on the PUP list and Mikel Leshoure has missed most of training camp because of a hamstring injury.) And even though coach Jim Schwartz huddled the team at mid-practice, presumably after one too many false starts and overthrown balls, I can't get too worked up about one sloppy practice in the context of a three-week training camp.

Louis Delmas
AP Photo/Duane BurlesonThe Lions said Louis Delmas had surgery to "assist in his recovery from knee soreness he developed early in camp."
On the other hand, I wouldn't blow off the potential ramifications of Delmas' surgery, an undisclosed procedure on his left knee that came after he missed most of the last 10 days of camp. Schwartz termed his status as "week-to-week," which is Schwartz-speak for something more than minor, and the best guess is that Delmas could miss the preseason.

If you made a list of the Lions' five most important players, Delmas would probably be on it. The Lions defense ranked among the NFL's worst in the five games Delmas missed after spraining his right knee last season, and he is as important as an energy lifter as he is on the field. For him to face a health situation once again, rather than contributing to the on-field development of what the Lions hope is a more consistent pass defense in 2012, is a scary proposition.

"It doesn't do any good to have him back if he's not the same kind of player," Schwartz said. "And that's the whole idea of why we did what we did, to get him back for practices and get him healthy on the field. Because he does mean a lot to us, not just from his play, but his personality, his leadership, and all those things."

With Delmas sidelined, the Lions used veterans Erik Coleman and Amari Spievey as their first-team safeties Wednesday. Coleman and Spievey had been competing for the job opposite Delmas, and the Lions have veterans Sean Jones and John Wendling in reserve.

But I think we can all agree that Delmas adds a level of attitude that the Lions wouldn't otherwise have. He runs full speed, sacrifices his body in contact situations and never stops talking on the field.

Go back and look at what Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers told us about his team's defensive changes this summer. Rodgers lauded the energy added by a group of rookies and newly signed veterans, suggesting it would make the Packers a better overall team. It might sound silly, but energy and attitude are real things that are contagious and highly valued by football people. Delmas is that guy for the Lions.

"You hope those guys will pick up the slack," middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch said. "But Lou is a heck of a player. I enjoy watching him play and fly around. I love his attitude on the field. You can't replace that. Hopefully he can get back soon."

A few months from now, we could very well look back at this moment and view it as a small delay in progress for the Lions defense. This is a team deep enough to handle some short-term injuries. But there are a few players on this roster whose absence brings heightened concern, and Louis Delmas is one of them.

CampTour'12: Vikings Day 3

August, 5, 2012
8/05/12
12:37
AM ET
MANKATO, Minn. -- Some thoughts and observations from the final Minnesota Vikings practice of CampTour'12:
  • On one of the final plays of the night, rookie receiver Greg Childs suffered an injury significant enough to leave him screaming in pain. Coach Leslie Frazier didn't have any immediate information on its severity or nature, but it happened about 10 feet in front of me as I watched practice from the end zone. Childs jumped to catch a ball thrown slightly behind him. It bounced away, and Childs landed awkwardly. He initially clutched his right leg, but a team of medical officials were also examining his left leg. Eventually, four men lifted him, his legs fully extended, onto a cart.
  • Childs, whom we profiled in the spring, tore the patella tendon in his right knee in October 2010. The Vikings have been excited about his size and potential, and he made the catch of camp Thursday.
  • Frazier did confirm that offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz will undergo surgery for a sports hernia and will miss at least a month. That in essence makes Brandon Fusco the Vikings' unquestioned right guard.
  • During an extended special teams period, rookie place-kicker Blair Walsh converted seven of eight attempts, including one from 50 yards. Based on unofficial practice tracking from Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com, Walsh has now converted 24 of 26 field goals during team drills in training camp.
  • Quarterback Christian Ponder hit receiver Percy Harvin on a slant for a touchdown in an early team drill, but afterwards he was lamenting an overthrow on a deep post route to receiver Jerome Simpson. "At this level," Ponder said, "you can't miss those."
  • Rookie cornerback Josh Robinson got his first extensive action since injuring a hamstring early in camp. Robinson showed up on several plays, including a tip-away of an earlier pass intended for Childs.

CampTour'12: Vikings Day 2

August, 3, 2012
8/03/12
7:54
PM ET
MANKATO, Minn. -- A few thoughts and observations from our second day with the Minnesota Vikings:

  • The team held its fifth consecutive afternoon practice in full pads, and on Friday the temperature had reached 90 degrees by late afternoon. After about an hour of practice, offensive lineman Kevin Murphy left the field with a cold blue towel draped over his head. He left an adjacent area in an ambulance, but coach Leslie Frazier said after practice that Murphy was fine.
  • The Vikings worked on their two-minute drill during 11-on-11. The first-team defense got the better of the offense, allowing seven short completions to quarterback Christian Ponder but not allowing the offense past the 30-yard line before time ran out.
  • Cornerback Antoine Winfield got a veteran's day off Friday, so the nickel defense included Chris Cook, Chris Carr and Zackary Bowman. The Vikings also used a three-man line at times with Everson Griffen as a stand-up pass-rusher. That seems like an appropriate way to use a defensive end who is an experiment at linebacker.
  • Rookie place-kicker Blair Walsh drilled a 55-yard field goal through the middle of the uprights to end practice. The kick had at least another eight yards on it.
  • The Vikings ostensibly had a competition set at the right guard position, but for now second-year player Brandon Fusco is holding onto the job. Friday, veteran Geoff Schwartz returned to the Twin Cities to have an abdominal strain examined.
  • The team will hold its first night practice Saturday at 7 p.m. local time (CT). Frazier made clear it will not include any live tackling drills.

CampTour'12: Vikings Day 1

August, 2, 2012
8/02/12
7:20
PM ET
MANKATO, Minn. -- A few thoughts and observations after our first day of practice with the Minnesota Vikings:

  • Compared to my other stops in this tour, the Vikings spend a lot of on-field time installing plays and reviewing at slow speeds. Their hour-long morning walk-through is, by definition, a half-speed practice. And for the first hour or so of the full-pads afternoon practice, players moved quietly and deliberately through movements that were clearly focused toward mental execution.
  • The final 75 minutes of the afternoon practice were active. Off the top, the Everson Griffen Fan Club will be happy to note their hero crashed through the line in a goal-line team drill and crushed tailback Jordan Todman short of the end zone. Todman sprained his ankle on the play and did not return.
  • I'll have more on this later, but I spoke with coach Leslie Frazier about Griffen to understand how permanent or full-time his move to linebacker might be. Frazier absolutely left open the possibility of Griffen getting some time at defensive end but said this is the time to find out what he could give the team as a linebacker. The reality is Griffen is probably the Vikings' third-best defensive end behind Jared Allen and Brian Robison.
  • Rookie receiver Greg Childs made the catch of the day in the corner of the end zone, leaping over cornerback Brandon Burton and trapping a Joe Webb pass on Burton's back. He held on for the touchdown.
  • Quarterback Christian Ponder missed on a few throws you would like to see him make, but the difference between now and what we saw at training camp last summer and is night and day. Ponder stayed in the pocket and was decisive on most of the throws I saw, which is always an important point for a young quarterback. The best throw I saw him make was about a 35-yard floater down the right sideline, one that sailed over the shoulder of cornerback Chris Cook and into receiver Percy Harvin's hands.
  • Cook made two nice interceptions that I saw, including one of quarterback Sage Rosenfels about one second after he whipped his head around to look for the ball.
  • Speaking to reporters afterwards, Ponder said that tight end Rhett Ellison has "some crazy" in him and suggested that receiver Jerome Simpson is pushing Harvin to be better this summer. I'll be looking for evidence of both in the coming days.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- A quick glance at the Green Bay Packers' practice field this summer reveals some of the best players in the NFL. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers is the reigning MVP. Linebacker Clay Matthews is one of the league's top pass-rushers and defensive back Charles Woodson is a future Hall of Famer.

It took only a few minutes, however, to realize that receiver Donald Driver is the fan favorite here at Packers training camp. Whether it was his victory in "Dancing With the Stars," his decision to accept a pay cut to remain with the franchise or the phenomenal condition he reported to camp in, Driver elicits a roar for every step he takes downfield.

[+] EnlargeGreen Bay's Donald Driver
Benny Sieu/US PRESSWIREDonald Driver is still in superb physical condition at age 37. "Age is a just a number," he said.
Driver usually returns the favor with a wave or a few words to fans in the bleachers, and at this point there is no doubt in my mind that he has a roster spot locked down despite a deep group of young receivers who would likely be lost if they are waived later this summer.

" As you can see out there, I'm having a lot of fun," Driver said. "I'm enjoying the game. When I stop enjoying the game, it's over for me. Now, I'm still having fun."

Driver produced seven 1,000-yard seasons over an eight-year stretch before dropping to 565 yards in 2010 and 445 last season. He is 37, and the Packers not only have a young receiver in Randall Cobb to get on the field, but also have two youngsters -- Tori Gurley and Diondre Borel -- who are hoping to join Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson and James Jones on the final roster.

But the Packers guaranteed him $500,000 as part of a $2.5 million contract he signed in May, and this week general manager Ted Thompson said: "Donald's an unusual athlete. Remarkable in some ways. The age doesn't necessarily tell the whole story."

Indeed, telling Driver's story at this point is easy. He has maintained superb physical condition -- "Age is a just a number," he said -- and he has once again convinced himself he is surrounded by "critics" who "doubt" him.

I don't think Driver has been criticized or doubted; simply, people who understand the how the NFL works wondered if Thompson would see fit to keep a 37-year-old receiver when he seemingly has sufficient options elsewhere.

But whatever works, right?

"In 14 years," he said, "I've never got comfortable. Anything can happen. I'm always prepared for the worst. I'm going to continue to play that way. I'm going to continue to play with a grudge. And hopefully when it's all said and done I've proven all the criticism wrong, because I've done that my whole career and I want to continue to."

This week, in fact, has proved a perfect example why the Packers weren't in a rush to part ways with a receiver who might have declined from his peak but by all accounts can still contribute. An elbow injury has sidelined receiver Greg Jennings, turning the luxury of Driver's depth into more of a necessity.

I know there are lots of Packers fans obsessing about the futures of Gurley and Borel. I say this: If they're good enough to make this team, the Packers will find a way to get them on the roster, even if it means keeping six or seven receivers in the final analysis.

Driver, it's clear, is feeling too good and having too much fun to make it easy on anyone.

"You've got to continue to feel great," he said. "That day that you don't want to get out of that bed, it's over for you. For some reason, at six o'clock, I still jump out thee bed. The day you hit the snooze button, it's over for you."

CampTour'12: Packers Day 2

July, 31, 2012
7/31/12
8:08
PM ET
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- I didn't forget ya. Yes, I realize the Green Bay Packers' practice ended about seven hours ago, but, well, a bunch of things happened in between. Without further ado, let's run through some Tuesday practice thoughts -- if I can remember back that far.
  • Second-year cornerback Davon House took his turn with the starting defense, replacing Jarrett Bush as the outside cornerback in base and nickel on the heels of a strong practice Monday. The Packers have already rotated several players into that role, but House sure seemed to have received at least a temporary promotion. Coach Mike McCarthy spoke after practice about the importance of "stacking success" for young players and ensuring that they maintained confidence gained from a good play or practice.
  • Many of you have asked about the arm of backup quarterback Graham Harrell. Sometimes on-site judgments on him can be unfair because it usually comes after seeing Aaron Rodgers rifle a pass, but Harrell's arm doesn't appear to be an impediment to running the Packers offense. Tuesday, I watched him throw an accurate pass that went about 45 yards downfield but also from one hashmark to the far sideline. That's NFL-caliber.
  • Receiver Randall Cobb put a nifty double move on cornerback Otis Merrill and hauled in a deep pass down the right sideline from Rodgers in 1-on-1 drills. Everything I've seen from Cobb suggests he's ready to take the next step in the Packers' offense.
  • Defensive end Jarius Wynn came out of nowhere to intercept a Rodgers screen pass and return it for a touchdown. Wynn has been pretty quiet in a camp that has featured a number of possible replacements for his job.
  • Receiver Donald Driver had a nice practice, beating House and Bush for touchdowns during team drills to wild applause from the crowd. Afterwards, Driver said he is going to enjoy "proving the critics wrong" this season.
  • On the last play of practice, receiver Tori Gurley made a jumping catch in the corner of the end zone over cornerback Sam Shields.
  • Today's interesting fundamental drill at Packers camp: Offensive linemen practiced diving for loose balls, which a coach tossed onto a padded mat with blocking dummies scattered about to create the sense of players standing at the line of scrimmage.
  • Earlier Tuesday, I posted some thoughts on safety Morgan Burnett, whom the Packers think is a rising star.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- We've discussed the whys and the wherefores surrounding the shift of Charles Woodson's duties in the Green Bay Packers' defense. And already this summer, we've spent some time discussing the domino effect of Woodson's move to a safety/slot cornerback role, noting the Packers are rolling through a number of candidates for Woodson's old job on the outside.

We've been so distracted, however, that we might have missed what the Packers consider the biggest revelation in their secondary during training camp. Third-year safety Morgan Burnett has emerged as a cornerstone of the defense, one who could splash onto the national scene if his development continues at its current pace.

[+] EnlargeMatt Forte
Rob Grabowski/US PresswireThe Packers believe third-year safety Morgan Burnett has the potential to make the Pro Bowl.
"I think he'll definitely be somebody that they'll be talking about throughout the league," coach Mike McCarthy said Tuesday after Burnett had a particularly active practice. "I think he's ready for that type of season."

Cornerback Tramon Williams was more blunt: "I believe personally that he has a rare skill set, and I believe he'll be a Pro Bowler, a multiple Pro Bowler, one day. Might be this year. You never know. The guy has that type of skill set and that type of energy."

The Packers have had high hopes for Burnett since trading up and making him a third-round draft choice in 2010, but a torn ACL scuttled most of his rookie season, and he struggled at times in 2011 while playing with a broken thumb. Regardless, the release of veterans Nick Collins and Charlie Peprah has catapulted Burnett into a cornerstone role.

Tuesday's practice suggested Burnett could live up to that expectation. In the span of a few plays in one drill, Burnett:

  • Tipped away a deep pass down the right sideline from quarterback Aaron Rodgers while defending receiver Jordy Nelson.
  • Aggressively ran at tight end Jermichael Finley on a crossing route, making legal contact as the ball arrived and contributing to an incompletion.
  • Intercepted a Rodgers pass after receiver Donald Driver fell.

At 6-foot-1 and 209 pounds, Burnett has the size to support the run and defend larger receivers or tight ends. The Packers also think he has exceptional ball skills for a safety, and have entrusted to him many of the defensive calls once made by Collins.

"I feel I'm still in a growing process," Burnett said. "I'm always trying to find ways to get better, and right now I still feel I've got room for improvement. Our communication is good, but I can still do better with it."

The Packers appropriately looked outside their incumbent roster to improve their pass defense during the offseason. But they also needed some internal development as well. We haven't yet seen the consistency required from Burnett to declare him the next big-time safety in the NFL, but Tuesday's practice gave us a glimpse of what is possible.

"I personally feel that Morgan has a rare skill set just like Collins had," Williams said before repeating his Pro Bowl prediction. "You can mark it down," Williams said, laughing. "Mark that down."
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- CampTour'12 is less than a week old and already we've seen significant changes to traditional training camp principles, adjustments that stem from the 2011 collective bargaining agreement (CBA). Last year's rushed training camp was confusing for everyone, but the full force of the changes is now evident.

The NFL requires all players to spend their first day of training camp in physicals and their next two without contact or pads. Beyond that, two-a-day practices as we know them have been eliminated. If a team wants to have a second practice in a given day, it must be at walk-through speed and without helmets. It must start no less than three hours after the end of the first practice and can only be long enough to bring the team's total on-field time to four hours per day.

[+] EnlargeJeff Saturday
AP Photo/Mike RoemerNew Packers center Jeff Saturday is pleased with how training-camp practices are now run under the new CBA.
In addition, players are guaranteed one day off every seven days, and curfews are limited at the end of the 24 hours off. Overall, teams must give players five days off during camp and the preseason.

The biggest change, far and away, has been the focus on one practice per day. Neither the Chicago Bears nor Green Bay Packers have held separate walk-throughs during my time with them. The Minnesota Vikings have scheduled hour-long morning walk-throughs, while the Detroit Lions' schedule suggests they are conducting only one on-field workout per day.

As recently as five years ago, I covered brutal days of double practices that took tolls on even the best-conditioned athletes. (Not to mention reporters.) The full-pads practices I've seen this summer have been as physical as ever, but players no longer have the second pounding they occasionally got under the old system and instead receive more recovery time.

Packers center Jeff Saturday, an active NFL Players Association member and one of the players who pushed for the summer limitations, is proud of the results.

"We're trying to protect guys," Saturday said. "Football is a great game. I love it. I don't want to sacrifice people's future for this game. I get back messages from older players, and players who have played this game, who say, 'Hey, look man, what a great thing to do to get guys just one practice a day.' I feel good about that. If it helps us in the future with guys not having the same issues that they're having now, then we've done a good job. We won't know for a while, but hopefully it works out that way."

Saturday recalled his first training camp in 1999, under then-Indianapolis Colts coach Jim Mora. It had multiple days of double full-pads practices, with players regularly being carted off the field for exhaustion or heat exposure.

"This is about longevity," he said. "It's about trying to keep guys around. It's not about trying to wear guys out in Year 1 or Year 2."

We've discussed some areas where NFL players fell short in the new CBA. Training camp, however, represents one of their victories.

CampTour'12: Packers Day 1

July, 30, 2012
7/30/12
5:45
PM ET
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- A few thoughts and observations after my first day with the Green Bay Packers:

  • The Packers went at it hard Monday morning: Nearly three hours in full pads in temperatures that quickly approached the high 80s. In case you're wondering, that isn't exactly standard in the NFL. Center Jeff Saturday, who played 13 seasons for the Indianapolis Colts, said: "In Indy, it was a much quicker on-and-off-the-field type tempo. You start earlier, you go through a lot more individual-type work. They go through a lot more fundamentals here, staying on top of that. It's the way they've won and you just fit in and do what you've got to do."
  • Monday was a red zone emphasis, and the Packers also worked on their two-minute drill. Plenty of action occurred, but what stood out to me was how many times cornerback Davon House showed up. He had a nice anticipatory interception of quarterback B.J. Coleman and also knocked away a pass intended for Tori Gurley in the end zone. I realize those plays came against players not expected to be front-line starters this season, but I can only tell you what I saw. Jarrett Bush continued to work with the first team at cornerback, and there are a number of other players competing for that job from Sam Shields to rookie Casey Hayward. But don't rule out House, who has held his own all camp and got some action in the dime defense Monday.
  • Receiver Greg Jennings (elbow) sat out practice, giving us an extended amount of time to watch receiver Randall Cobb in action. All I can say is that Cobb looks like a playmaker every time I see him, and I can't see how the Packers can avoid putting him in an elevated role this season. Watching Cobb run down the seam makes other defenders look like they're standing in sand.
  • Every year, the Packers seem to try new drills I've yet to see in other NFC North locales. Monday was no different. I watched offensive linemen catching footballs from a JUGS machine. The Packers also have a ball-security drill that requires a player to hold on to a ball that's attached to an elastic band and being pulled by a teammate.
  • Defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove re-joined the team after missing two days because of a personal issue. Asked whether he had any hope of his eight-game suspension being shortened or reversed, Hargrove paraphrased singer Wyclef Jean: "I'll be gone 'til November." Because of the suspension, Hargrove is working only in individual drills. "I think you have to be honest and just prioritize it," coach Mike McCarthy said. "[T]he priority is really to get the other guys ready and individuals who have the opportunity to compete for the 53 and be ready Week 1."
BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- Gabe Carimi has displayed a bounce in his step during the early days of Chicago Bears training camp, and it's not simply because he is back and healthy after a knee injury scuttled his rookie season. The right tackle capitalized on his down time during recovery to change his diet and emerged with a noticeably leaner and more athletic-looking frame this summer.

[+] EnlargeGabe Carimi
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhChicago offensive lineman Gabe Carimi changed his diet and dropped his body fat by 7 percent.
Following a diet designed to increase muscle mass, Carimi has dropped 10 pounds and weighed in here at 308 pounds. He also decreased his body fat from 26 percent to 19 percent.

"It's something I always wanted to do," Carimi said, "but honestly it costs more money in college if you want to do it right, from the amount of meals you have to eat in a day and the amount of protein and calorie intake you have to have. And it can be hard with a full schedule of school, too. So it was a lot easier now. I think I got a good amount accomplished in that area this offseason and I'm already looking forward to what I can do next offseason."

Carimi's daily diet included four meals and two shakes with a goal of consuming between 350 and 400 grams of protein per day. Foods heavy with carbohydrates were limited to post-workout time periods, although Carimi has increased his carb intake at training camp to account for the nearly three hours per day the Bears are spending on the practice field.

Carimi is among a number of NFL players to embrace similar diets, smartly steering clear of traditional thinking that bigger is always better on the offensive line. Right and left tackles are being asked to block speed rushers that weigh anywhere between 240 and 270 pounds and in many cases run the 40-yard dash between 4.5-4.7 seconds.

A lineman that bulks up might have an advantage in the running game, but the increased emphasis on NFL passing has shifted priorities. This spring, as you might recall, we engaged in a similar discussion about USC left tackle Matt Kalil, who weighed in at 306 pounds at the NFL scouting combine and plans to play around 310 pounds for the Minnesota Vikings this season.

Kalil and Carimi have similar 6-foot-7 frames.

"In this line of work," Kalil said at the time, "it's about how strong you are and how good your technique is as much as how much you weigh."

CampTour'12: Bears Day 2

July, 27, 2012
7/27/12
7:15
PM ET
BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- Let's roll through some thoughts and observations after watching the Chicago Bears' second training-camp practice:

  • One of the prettiest plays in 1-on-1 drills came when receiver Earl Bennett hauled in a long pass down the right sideline from quarterback Jay Cutler. Bennett used some crafty veteran contact with his left arm to keep cornerback Kelvin Hayden at bay.
  • After fans cheered Bennett's catch, cornerback Tim Jennings turned to the crowd and said: "Hey, we [cornerbacks] play for you guys, too." Jennings drew a laugh.
  • The Bears' three-receiver set has been pretty consistent: Brandon Marshall, Devin Hester and Bennett usually in the slot. When Hester was shaken up briefly during team drills, rookie Alshon Jeffery replaced him on the outside. So that gives you a clear sense of the depth chart as it stands now. If the Bears keep veterans Devin Thomas and Eric Weems for special-teams purposes, and that is quite possible, it will be difficult for 2011 slot receiver Dane Sanzenbacher to make the team.
  • Special-teams coordinator Dave Toub put out some interesting lineups during kickoff-return drills. Bennett was among those manning a front-line position. Two others were rookies, safety Brandon Hardin and tight end Evan Rodriguez. Historically, it's fair to make assumptions about a young player's chances to make the team based on his standing on special teams. In other words, it's looking good very early for Rodriguez, especially. Hardin was already a lock to make the team.
  • We didn't see new defensive tackle Brian Price on Friday, a day after the Bears acquired him in a trade from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, because his physical was not complete. The Bears indicated that should happen Saturday. According to the collective bargaining agreement, however, Price must ease into training camp with three unpadded practices before he can join the team fully. So it will be a bit of time before Price is up to speed.
  • For those interested in such things, during team drills, it was quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates who relayed plays via radio to Cutler. Bates stood next to offensive coordinator Mike Tice during the process.
  • In person, running back Michael Bush proved to be a much bigger dude than I thought he was. The Bears list him at 6-foot-1 and 245 pounds, but when you see him in a T-shirt on rather than a jersey, you could easily mistake him for a linebacker or even a small defensive end.
  • The Bears' first full-pads practice is scheduled for Saturday night. I won't miss it.
Mike Tice Jerry Lai/US PresswireMike Tice may have more of a role as an offensive "manager" than that of a traditional coordinator.

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- It shouldn't be this difficult. Finding Mike Tice on a football field should be easy. Just look up and listen.

Tice stands 6-foot-8 and has a deep voice he employs liberally during practices. It's hard to miss. So on the opening day of the Chicago Bears' training camp, I looked over to the spot where you normally find an NFL offensive coordinator. But as the Bears' quarterbacks warmed up, there was no Mike Tice.

I checked the receiver group. Couldn't see or hear him. Tight ends? Nope.

It wasn't until I located the offensive line that I caught a glimpse of him, my first clue that the Bears have crafted a unique -- but, I think, appropriate -- arrangement to operate their offense this season.

More than ever, NFL offensive coordinators rise from a quarterback background, developed as a player or an assistant coach or both. In the NFC North, for example, we have the Detroit Lions' Scott Linehan (college quarterback, quarterbacks coach) and the Minnesota Vikings' Bill Musgrave (NFL quarterback and quarterbacks coach). It's not a requirement for the job, but consider it a nod toward the increased importance of quarterbacks at this level.

Tice, on the other hand, will run the Bears' offense through the line -- a dream of many offensive line coaches that rarely comes to fruition. The idea, after the Bears spent two years struggling to meld their scheme with personnel, is to build an offense around quarterback Jay Cutler but operate it within the context of what the offensive line can handle.

It was an idea that initially sounded unappealing to Tice, who settled into a position coach's life over the past seven years after a rocky end to his tenure as the Minnesota Vikings' head coach. But given the opportunity to fashion the job to his strengths and expertise, Tice reconsidered.

"The more I thought about it," he said, "I thought, 'Who knows the offense we have better than I do? Who knows the line? Who knows how to protect the line better than I do? Who knows how to hide their flaws better than I do?' I've got a great relationship with the quarterback, [Devin] Hester, the tight ends, Why not?"

Based on Thursday's initial practice, and a subsequent interview, it's safe to assume Tice will spend a majority of his time with the offensive line. During practice, he'll break away only for seven-on-seven drills, leaving offensive line coach Tim Holt to run one-on-one blocking drills, and he'll spend about half of his total meeting time in the line's room. Meanwhile, newcomer Jeremy Bates will be Cutler's position coach and a key conduit of the passing game.

It would be easy to conclude, as I was prepared to, that in reality Tice is the Bears' blocking and running coordinator while Bates is the passing game coordinator. Tice, however, insisted that will not happen and said it is important "to be involved in the passing game and all facets and not just have a situation where I handle the runs and protection and someone else handles the passing game."

So how will it all work?

From what I can gather, Tice has crafted an offense that blends the power running game he learned from longtime NFL coach Joe Gibbs, elements of the West Coast passing game culled from Bates' career path and a downfield portion Tice used with the Vikings. Tice will call plays from the sideline, but he'll leave an important segment to Cutler -- who will get a pass-run option based on defensive alignments. (Tice once famously dubbed this element his "Duh offense" because it asks quarterbacks to audible to a pass when defenses are aligned against the run and vice versa.)

"We want to be able to do everything," Tice said. "We want to be able to catch and run. We want to be able to throw it deep. We want to be able to play-action, we want to be able to move the pocket. We want to be able to run the ball explosively. It's really not that different than what we did in Minnesota.

"I think Jeremy Bates has done a nice job of putting in his version of the West Coast scheme, which is nice. We melded that with the long stuff that we used to do in Minnesota and we kept our run game intact. Now we have the run game that you'll recognize. The quarterback has a lot to manage on the line of scrimmage, just like [Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper]. And we'll see what happens."

Without knowing the details, it's reasonable to be skeptical of an arrangement that shifts a longtime offensive line coach to the coordinator's role. But in this instance, I think it can work, especially if you consider Tice in the role of offensive "manager" rather than a traditional coordinator.

He'll make liberal use of Bates, an intense film rat who is best suited in a role of scheming by candlelight in his office. He'll rely heavily on Cutler, a veteran with strong opinions on what best suits his skills. And Tice will most assuredly do one thing that hasn't happened for at least two years in Chicago: He'll take into account the strengths and weaknesses of the offensive line when developing a game plan.

Is it unconventional? Sure. Does it have risks? Of course. But for this team at this time, it makes sense.

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