LAST YEAR: Withstood injuries to QB Aaron Rodgers, LB Clay Matthews and other key players to win third straight NFC North title before losing to 49ers again in playoffs. Rookie RB Eddie Lacy emerged to complement passing game, but defense slipped in second half while Rodgers (collarbone) was sidelined. Safeties didn’t have an interception, and defense lacked big plays.
IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: DE/LB Julius Peppers; S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix; WR Davante Adams.
IMPORTANT LOSSES: WR James Jones; C Evan Dietrich-Smith.
CAMP NEEDS: Top priority is keeping team healthy. After that, coach Mike McCarthy has promised to improve defense. Playbook has been pared down in hopes of simplifying scheme and using more players while adding dose of deception. Packers looking for fourth starting center in four years. Jermichael Finley (neck) still unsigned after getting hurt in October; can Andrew Quarless take firm hold of TE position? Adams and Jarrett Boykin to be counted on to replace Jones’ reliable production.
EXPECTATIONS: Rodgers, 30, is in his prime and missed half of 2013 season. Even with injuries, Packers seemed primed for 12-win season before he went down. A full year of Rodgers and Lacy could make Green Bay even more dangerous. Another division title appears well within reach, defense must improve to make deeper run in playoffs.
CHICAGO BEARS (8-8)
OPEN CAMP: July 24, Bourbonnais, Illinois.
LAST YEAR: Bears made huge jump on offense in first season under coach Marc Trestman. Main problem was on other side of ball. With injuries and poor play in general, Chicago’s defense ranked among league’s worst, allowed next-to-worst 478 points.
IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: DEs Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young; CB Kyle Fuller; Ss Adrian Wilson, Ryan Mundy, and M.D. Jennings.
IMPORTANT LOSSES: DE Julius Peppers; DT Henry Melton; QB Josh McCown.
CAMP NEEDS: Time for an overhauled defense to come together; someone to establish himself as backup QB to Jay Cutler.
EXPECTATIONS: Most significant move was not signing Allen. It was giving Cutler seven-year contract instead of letting him hit free agency. Allen, however, is most significant addition. Bears hope five-time Pro Bowler can ignite pass rush and help stabilize unit that struggled in big way. ”Monsters of the Midway” ranked 30th overall and 32nd against run. If defense can make leap to respectability, Chicago figures to challenge in division, maybe make playoff run after missing out six of past seven years. That’s assuming offense that returns all starters does not take unexpected step back.
DETROIT LIONS (7-9)
OPEN CAMP: July 27; Allen Park, Michigan.
LAST YEAR: Detroit missed playoffs after dropping six of final seven games, and coach Jim Schwartz was fired. Jim Caldwell takes over mistake-prone team that still has plenty of offensive talent. Matthew Stafford threw for 4,650 yards last season, but was intercepted 12 times in those final seven games.
IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: WR Golden Tate; S James Ihedigbo; CB Cassius Vaughn; QB Dan Orlovsky; TE Eric Ebron.
IMPORTANT LOSSES: S Louis Delmas; WR Nate Burleson; CB Chris Houston; DE Willie Young; QB Shaun Hill; K David Akers.
CAMP NEEDS: Caldwell is charged with helping Stafford refine considerable talents and avoid mistakes that plagued him during slide last year. Lions even added another offensive target for Stafford when they drafted Ebron. On defense, secondary is concern, especially with Houston and Delmas gone. Did Detroit do enough to address it?
EXPECTATIONS: After wasting great chance at playoffs last year, there’s pressure to produce under Caldwell, especially with DT Ndamukong Suh’s future with Lions in doubt as he enters final season of contract. Stafford and WR Calvin Johnson are in their primes, so this is potentially formidable offense if Lions can avoid turnovers. Suh and DT Nick Fairley combined for 11 1/2 sacks in 2013, DE Ziggy Ansah added eight.
MINNESOTA VIKINGS (5-10-1)
OPEN CAMP: July 25, Mankato, Minnesota.
LAST YEAR: Stumbled to 1-7 start with leaky secondary and persistent QB struggles, sealing fate of coach Leslie Frazier, who was fired day after season. RB Adrian Peterson fought injuries after MVP 2012 season. Allowed league-high average of 30 points per game, overshadowing second-half emergence of rookie WR Cordarrelle Patterson.
IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: Coach Mike Zimmer; QB Teddy Bridgewater; LBs Anthony Barr and Jasper Brinkley; CB Captain Munnerlyn; DT Linval Joseph; DE Corey Wootton; SS Kurt Coleman; RB Jerick McKinnon.
IMPORTANT LOSSES: DE Jared Allen; DTs Kevin Williams and Letroy Guion; RB Toby Gerhart; LB Erin Henderson; CB Chris Cook.
CAMP NEEDS: For ninth consecutive camp, since Daunte Culpepper’s last turn, QB situation is fluid. But outlook is brighter with Bridgewater and return of Matt Cassel, who was on field at end of all five 2013 wins. Must establish reliable, productive complement to Peterson. Barr, ninth overall pick, must prove he’s ready to start. Someone other than slot man Munnerlyn has to consistently cover receivers.
EXPECTATIONS: Despite dismal 2013, Vikings had lead in final minute of five games, losing four, tying one. Zimmer inherited roster with plenty of talent, and offseason moves enhanced resources. With merely modest improvement on defense, where veteran Munnerlyn ought to be major boost to young DB group, Vikings should be competitive in division Packers won last year at 8-7-1. Remember, Vikes went 10-6 in 2012 after 3-13 in 2011.
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