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NFC North Training Camps

Now is the time of year, where the words teammates and competition go hand-in-hand.  Many view professional teams as some kind of unity.  A brotherhood of sorts.  Yet when there are jobs and careers on the line, things can get testy.  There is always going to be a middle of the pack veteran who makes more than a rookie with upside and that alone can lead to the veterans downfall.  Although the picture here has been painted dark, there is some light to be shed on the topic of NFL training camps.  Big time free agent signings are finding their ways into a system, new coaches have been put in place trying to implement a new philosophy and other players are trying to work back to shed off an image or injury.  Here are some things to look out for during the NFC North’s run at training camp this year:

 

Green Bay Packers:  The Packers won the division last year, mostly due to a lot of quality “smoke in mirrors” coaching by Mike McCarthy.  This season, McCarthy is not looking to pull a rabbit out of the hat and somehow come up with a division title.  His most important player Aaron Rodgers is back at full strength and ready to lead one of the NFL’s most dangerous offenses once again.  For Rodgers, he needs to find some consistency in communication at the center and tight end positions.  Although it was against Rodgers wishes, the Packers let their center Evan Dietrich-Smith go off and sign with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  This leaves two young faces having to fight for a starting job to be the ball-handler for one of the NFL’s most valuable commodities: Aaron Rodgers. Corey Linsley was drafted in the fifth round of this years draft out of Ohio State.  Linsley is a strong kid, but lacks ideal athleticism.  His instincts, when put on the spot, seemed to be two-steps-too-slow and may need time to develop his pass protection.  The other option at center is second year man J.C. Tretter. Tretter is coming off a fibula injury but unlike Lisley, the athleticism of Tretter is not questioned.  Tretter was at one time a basketball player and before playing center, he was a tight-end. He wants to be the long-term answer but a center coming off surgery and torn ligaments in his ankles – much needs to be proven.

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The Packers also have to fill the void left at the tight end spot by Jermichael Finley. Andrew Quarless is the favorite over Ryan Taylor, but both are guys who have been in the league and haven’t left a mark, so to speak.  Quarless is raved for being quite the athlete, but something hasn’t clicked in him yet, to get it into the next gear.  Both men need to worry about undrafted rookie Coly Lyerla out of Oregon.  Colt has had some off-field trouble issues which raised flags during the draft and has had him suspended from Oregon but if he can focus on football, he has the tools to be head and shoulders the best tight end on the roster and someone who can provide immediate pay back on the “low-risk, high reward” scenario for Green Bay.

The Packers defense will be looking at three guys mainly in training camp.  The first is their star line backer Clay Matthews.  They expect Matthews to be 100% and ready to go, but he missed 4 games in 2012 and 5 games in 2013 so the team is worried about this becoming a habit.  The second is free agent signing Julius Peppers.  In a signing which seemed to be ignited more by spite than anything else, Peppers found a new home with the Bears longtime rivals, the Green Bay Packers. Peppers’ production has fallen off and the Packers will be looking to see how fresh the veteran looks and just how many consecutive downs he can keep himself into a game.  The last is another rookie, Ha-Ha Clinton Dix.  Ha-Ha is a hard hitting and extremely athletic safety who leaves a legendary college in Alabama to enter a legendary franchise in Green Bay.  They are expecting Dix to display the goods immediately in training camp because their depth at the safety position is thin and pretty much they are laying it all on him.

Detroit Lions:  The Lions are entering a new era, one which starts with new head coach Jim Caldwell. Caldwell is a coach who has something to prove and will try to do so with a roster that many call one of the most undisciplined in the league.  The Lions didn’t do much to really bolster this weak secondary and are hoping that last years draft pick, Darius Slay can be depended on. Slay struggled keeping himself in the starting line-up and showed flares of what he can do, but was not to consistent.  Slay needs to clearly separate himself from guys like Bill Bentely, Chris Greenwood and Jonte Green, who have struggled thus far in their careers to get anything going. Luckily for them, this secondary is so bad, they all have an equal chance of at least making the roster.

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Offensively the Lions have a new coordinator, Joe Lombardi, from the New Orleans Saints. This will be something to keep a close eye on as Lombardi tries to introduce an offense very similar to the pace and intensity of the Saints’.  Interesting because although Lombardi is not what they call a “QB Guru” – Matthew Stafford has said that working with a QB Guru was (in his words) “Not my thing.”  Stafford has an awkward delivery and down the stretch last season made awful decisions – he needs all the help he can get.  Lombardi will introduce a system that is nothing like the “jump ball” system that seemed to work out just find for Calvin Johnson’s numbers and if this will be a true implement of the Saints offense, the ball will not be focused on going to one main receiver (ask Marques Colston, how much fun it is to be a number one in that offense).  Will the injury prone Ryan Broyles and the “yet to have eclipsed 1000 yard receiving” addition of Golden Tate be able to take in an offense this complex?  For Broyles, someone who played in Oklahoma, there should be little doubt – but for Tate, one who played in a traditional Notre Dame offense and a run-heavy Seattle Seahawks offense, one has to wonder how his game will translate.

Chicago Bears: Marc Trestman has no doubts that his offense will continue to see success, but something the Bears can’t bank on, unfortunately, is the health of Jay Cutler.  Last season, back up Josh McCown filled in admirably for the injured Cutler and helped keep the team alive right till the end of the season.  McCown is no longer the number two in Chicago which leaves a back up competition going to Jordan Palmer, Jimmy Clausen and rookie David Fales.  Fales may have the upper hand because he’s never played in this league before. Palmer and Clausen have been in the league for 6 and 5 years, respectively, and haven’t impressed many.  Trestman is the “quarterback whisperer” though, so it will be interesting if he can revitalize the confidence and potential that once stirred in someone like Jimmy Clausen.

The Bears are probably the only team where the back-up quarterback job is reason for concern and the reason being is because there is so much talent on this offense, it’d be shame to waste it.  The one position on offense which is up for grabs is the slot-receiver.  Josh Morgan was once thought to be someone who could one day end up being a number one, or at worse a number two wide out – now it seems he has fitted himself into more of a “depth” guy.  in this offense, being the slot-receiver pretty much makes you a starter and Morgan would like to find that again at this stage in his career but it seems like he may be up against more than just second year wide out Marquess Wilson.  He may be up Wilson, Alshon Jeffrey and Brandon Marshall.  How is that, you ask?  Simple.  Marshall and Jeffrey had invited Wilson in the off-season to join them in off-season workouts, which he wisely accepted.  This is the same off-season workout that Marshall did with Jeffrey last season, and that worked out quite well for Jeffrey.

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Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker was getting a lot of heat last year for how terrible the defense was.  Although he definitely deserved some blame, the roster was battered, bruised and old.  Nobody should be more excited than Mel Tucker in the Bears training camp this year.  Tucker was once the orchestrator of a Jaguars defense that ranked 6th in 2011.  He is trying to regain that status and now he can try to mix more of his aggressive cover schemes worked in.  He has former pro-bowl corners Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings back in the fold but besides keeping an eye on the veteran Tillman, who is coming back from a triceps injury which sidelined him last season, watch for how Tillman and Jennings keep rookie Kyle Fuller up to speed in the defense. Fuller is a strong corner with a world of talent who will be looking to start at the nickel, but there is no doubt that he will eventually be taking over the job of either Tillman or Jennings in the near future.  The Bears will have to work three new free agents into the mix: Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young.  Besides being a force on the field, Allen was also brought in to add some attitude and leadership to a Bears defense that lacked that by the galloons last season.  This will be important as second year linebackers Khaseem Greene and Jon Bostic will both be looking to earn starting jobs after a rookie season which saw Bostic missing tackles and Greene just looking lost at times on the field.

Minnesota Vikings:  Similar to the Lions, the Vikings also bring aboard and new head coach and new offensive coordinator.  Mike Zimmer accepted the head coaching job after being defensive coordinator of the Bengals, and he brought along Norv Turner to blue print the offense.  Zimmer didn’t have to be head coach for a single down and already proved how smart he was by hiring Norv Turner.  All jokes aside about how Norv Turner’s as a head coach is more head scratching than anything else – the guy knows offense.

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All eyes will be on the Vikings quarterback position during training camp.  Christian Ponder will be hoping to at least be somewhere on the depth chart, as veteran Matt Cassel will be trying to fend off rookie Teddy Bridgewater.  Cassel has always proven to be the consummate professional, but this may very well be the last chance he has to ever be the starting quarterback for a team in this league and he’ll be fighting till the end on this one.  Bridgewater is an intelligent quarterback who has a knack for NOT making the mistakes.  Bridgewater is without a doubt the quarterback of Minnesota’s future (or so they hope) but that doesn’t mean the starting job will be handed over to him.  Turner loves working the ball deep and has a legit threat in second year wideout Cordarrelle Patterson.  Turner also loves working tight ends into his system (check out the resumes of Antonio Gates and Jordan Cameron while under Turner) and Kyle Rudolf will undoubtedly get his this season – but after those two, who’s next?  Veteran Greg Jennings will no doubt make the team but the question is “how much is in his tank?”  Jerome Simpson is one of those guys who has the tools, but never really puts it together. . .and behind those two are some hungry wideouts.  Jarius Wright was drafted in 2012 and was never really put in a position to display his talents – under an architect like Turner, this may be his time to show off his speed.  Rookie Cain Colter is a college fan favorite who is a good route runner and it’ll be interesting to see what comes out of the 6’5″ 220 pounder Rodney Smith who is coming into his second season.

 

G.W. Gras

twitter @GeeSteelio

 

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