NFL pre-camp previews: NFC North

Today’s Pre-Camp Two-a-days: NFC North | AFC North


Current Vegas Super Bowl Odds: 30-1

Training Camp: Olivet Nazarene University, Bourbonnais, Ill., July 30

The Looming Question: “Forget Martz and Cutler for a second. Who’s catching the football this season?”

It’s been nothing short of a fairy-tale summertime romance between first-year offensive coordinator Mike Martz and quarterback Jay Cutler. They’re both getting to know each other, loving what the other brings to the table, and talking the other one up in the media with every available opportunity. After every Martz or Cutler interview, you expect them to break into a John Travolta/Olivia Newton-John rendition of “Summer Nights.”

But Olivet Nazerene University isn’t Rydell High, and regardless of how well Cutler masters the Martz fast-break offense, none of it will matter if the wideouts aren’t up to speed. There aren’t any Torry Holt or Isaac Bruces on the Chicago roster. Hell, there aren’t any Ricky Proehls or Az-Zahir Hakims. But there is some young receiving talent.

Devin Aromashodu, a former Colt who had a breakout game on Monday Night Football last year, is the youngster everyone’s most excited about. Juaquin Iglesias, a second-year pro out of Oklahoma, has reportedly made tremendous strides this offseason. Devin Hester’s still a capable, if not unique, No. 1, while Earl Bennett, Johnny Knox and Rashied Davis should jockey for the No. 2 wideout gig throughout camp. Add in Matt Forte and Chester Taylor out of the backfield and Greg Olsen at tight end, and there are conceivably nine receiving options for Cutler.

Are any of them reliable go-to targets? The Bears certainly hope so.

Key Camp Battle: Outside linebacker: Pisa Tinoisamoa vs. Hunter Hillenmeyer vs. Nick Roach

Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher make up quite a linebacker duo. The third man in the unit will likely come down to these three veterans. Hillenmeyer has the most experience, Tinoisamoa is likely the most versatile and Roach has the most potential.

Early Edge: Hunter Hillenmeyer

New Veteran in Town: Julius Peppers, DE

“When you see him up close in person, it’s a 300-pound man that moves like a defensive back," Bears head coach Lovie Smith said of Peppers last month. The Bears’ biggest offseason acquisition has recorded double-digit sack seasons in six of his eight years in the NFL. He’ll be expected to provide the pressure up front in Rod Marinelli’s 4-3 defense in 2010. Anything less than double digit sacks would be a disappointment.

Young Gun to Watch: Major Wright, S

The Bears didn’t have a draft pick until the third round of April’s draft, but made the most of that pick in selecting Wright. With the Bears starting an estimated 41— yes, 41 — safety combinations since Lovie Smith took over as coach in 2005, the position remains the Achilles’ heel of the defense. Wright provides an exciting, versatile young option at both free and strong safety for the future.


Current Vegas Super Bowl Odds: 90-1

Training Camp: Allen Park Headquarters, Allen Park, Mich., July 30

The Looming Question: “Will the Lions field an actual NFL defense this season?”

Detroit ranked last in the league in both points and yards against last season, finished with a 2-14 record, and gave up 48, 45 and 37 points (twice) in 2009 games. Brady Quinn and the Browns — yes, that Brady Quinn — scored 37 points on Detroit last season.

But there’s reason for optimism about the defense in Motown this year. Stop laughing. I’m not kidding.

Jim Schwartz, a noted defensive guru during his time as defensive coordinator Tennessee, inherited a heinous unit last season. Both he and team president Tom Lewand made drastic roster moves to the D this offseason. They traded top LB Ernie Sims to Philadelphia, cut Grady Jackson and let aging veterans Larry Foote and Philip Buchanan leave without a fight in free agency.

In the draft, Schwartz took the top collegiate DT prospect to enter the NFL  since Warren Sapp in Ndamukong Suh and CB Amari Spievey out of Iowa. The whole organization is high on 2009 second-rounder Louis Delmas and fellow ’09 draft picks Sammie Lee Hill and DeAndre Levy. Schwartz and Lewand also signed former Pro Bowlers Kyle Vanden Bosch and Dre Bly in free agency, and brought in veterans C.C. Brown, Corey Williams, Landon Johnson and Chris Houston for added depth.

There’s a completely new look to the Lions defense. From the sound of it, the organization is excited about the extreme makeover. At the very least, they should be much improved from the 2009 version.

Then again, that’s not saying much.

Key Camp Battle: Left Defensive End: Jared Devries vs. Cliff Avril vs. Jason Hunter vs. Turk McBride

In Suh, Williams, Hill, and Vanden Bosch, the Lions D-line appears to be have actual talent for the first time in years. The starting LDE spot will be a training camp fight between these guys. There’s a lot of love for Devries and Avril on the Lions message boards, but I think Hunter — an underappreciated five-year vet out of Appalachian State — ultimately wins the job.

Early Edge: Jason Hunter

New Veteran in Town: Dre’ Bly, CB

At age 33, Bly returns “home” to Detroit in 2010, where he made two Pro Bowls in 2003 and 2004. Bly’s 19 interceptions with the Lions in 2003-06 marked the best four-season total of his career. But just ask Lindsay Lohan — 2006 was a long time ago. The Lions are hoping Bly has at least one more year in him.

Young Gun to Watch: Jahvid Best, RB

Everyone’s raving about Best, the lightning fast RB selected 30th overall in April’s draft. He did it all at minicamp last month. New wide receiver Nate Burleson told reporters, "You hear about how explosive Best is, and then you see him catch a ball in the flat, stick his foot in the ground and get up the field like a Mustang. He’s just extremely explosive." If Kevin Smith is back and healthy, he and Best could make for a very exciting backfield duo.


Current Vegas Super Bowl Odds: 14-1

Training Camp: St. Norbert College, Green Bay, Wis., July 30

The Looming Question: “Everyone’s talking Super Bowl, but has that dreadful offensive line improved?”

Aaron Rodgers may have thrown for 4,000 yards and made his first Pro Bowl last season, but he was also sacked an unbelievable 50 times. When your backup options at QB are Matt Flynn and Graham Harrell, 50 sacks is a lot to be concerned about. It’s a miracle Rodgers didn’t miss anytime under center in 2009.

According to Football Outsiders, the Packers O-line was No. 30 in the NFL in pass protection in ’09. Green Bay spent a first-round pick on Iowa standout tackle Bryan Bulaga, but it’s unlikely he’ll be thrust into a starting role right out of the gates in his rookie year. Veterans Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher will likely start at left and right tackle spots, with Darren Colledge and Josh Sitton manning the guard positions. At center, expect Jason Spitz to get the starting nod. That leaves Bulaga, second-year man T.J. Lang, Scott Wells and Allen Barbre as the top reserves. Of those nine, there are no Pro Bowl-caliber players, but there’s depth and a mix of experience and youth.

Hopefully they can do a decent enough job keeping their Pro Bowl-caliber QB upright for 16 games. Rest assured, Matt Flynn isn’t leading anyone to the Super Bowl in 2010.

Key Camp Battle: Strong safety: Atari Bigby vs. Charlie Peprah vs. Morgan Burnett vs. Will Blackmon

Bigby’s the longtime veteran who’s started since 2007, but he has been inconsistent and hampered with injuries in recent years. Peprah and Blackmon could get some action at strong safety in camp, but don’t be shocked if rookie third-rounder Burnett gets the starting job.

Early Edge: Morgan Burnett

New Veteran in Town: Charlie Peprah, FS

Green Bay was just about silent during the March free-agency period. The safety spot has been an area of concern in Green Bay for a few years now. The position’s lack of depth was evident in 2009 and was put on display for the entire league to see when Kurt Warner went nuts in the Packers’ 51-45 loss to the Cardinals in the playoffs. Peprah might not even make it off the practice squad this season, but he’ll get an opportunity to make the squad in training camp.

Young Gun to Watch: Morgan Burnett, SS

It’s tough not getting excited over Burnett, a do-everything ballhawk out of Georgia Tech. A star in the ACC, Burnett had 14 interceptions in college. I fully expect him to be the Pack’s starting strong safety to start the season.


Current Vegas Super Bowl Odds: 12-1

Training Camp: Minnesota State University, Mankato, Minn., July 30

The Looming Question: “Forget Favre, what’s this we hear about Adrian Peterson being unhappy with his current contract?”

There have been some quiet rumblings around the league that Peterson, still playing out his rookie contract that he signed in 2007, could be the league’s next big star to demand an extension. Michael Lombardi of the NFL Network mentioned the situation in a column Sunday, setting the Vikings blogs aflame on Monday.

Peterson opted to skip the team’s mandatory minicamp last month so he could attend the annual Adrian Peterson Day in his hometown. Though no one said anything publicly, such a decision likely wasn’t applauded within the organization. Peterson has three years left on the six-year, $40.5 million deal, but the reality is the final year (2012) of the deal is going to void. He’s already hit most of his incentive clauses and should make around $7 million in ’10, and $11 million in 2011. With a looming 2011 lockout, though, Peterson and his power agent Ben Dogra could be looking for a long term deal to be reached before the end of the 2010 season.

Again, this is currently all a bit of hearsay and built on speculation. No one from either side has indicated publicly any such friction. But where there’s smoke, there tends to be fire. And in this case, it makes a bit of sense.

Key Camp Battle: Third-string QB: Sage Rosenfels vs. Joe Webb

Favre will show up at some point. We know that. I refuse to devote more than a sentence on that situation (wait, I just did, dang it!). The real issue is the depth chart behind him. Jackson’s likely done enough over the past few seasons to solidify himself as the No. 2 and Rosenfels was brought in for big money in 2009, but there is a lot of positive buzz around rookie Joe Webb. Taken in the sixth round, most folks around the league expected the Vikes to move Webb — who played QB and WR at UAB — to receiver. But Minny is using Webb as a quarterback thus far. I loved watching the kid in college and think he could serve as an exciting No. 3. If that’s the case, Rosenfels could be the odd man out in training camp. Stranger things— remember, Jeff Garcia was waived by Oakland last August — have happened.

New Veteran in Town: Lito Sheppard, CB

Fresh off a forgettable year with the Jets, Sheppard comes to Minnesota with a chance to crack the starting lineup to start the season. The Vikings will likely start Cedric Griffin and Antoine Winfield at corner, but if Griffin’s not fully back from his injury right away, Sheppard could be the guy. That is, of course, unless they want to throw rookie Chris Cook into the fire.

Young Gun to Watch: Everson Griffen, DE

Whether it was because of his noted consistency issues or questions about maturity,  Griffen inexplicably slipped to the fourth round of  the draft. Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier told a Minneapolis radio station last week that Griffen "could be the next great pass rusher in our league." He’ll learn from one of the best in the game in Jared Allen.