NFC North News

The Packers, Vikings and Lions have opened training camp. There are several jobs up for grabs, but some are definitely more secure then others.

DETROIT LIONS
BATTLE OF THE WEEK:
The competition for the weak side linebacker position should be heated with two promising young players going after the job. James Davis, a fifth-round pick a year ago, got limited experience between injuries as a rookie but will be pushed hard by rookie Alex Lewis, this year's fifth-round pick, who has excellent speed and athletic ability.

OTHER BATTLE FRONTS: Although rookie RB Kevin Jones is considered the likely starting tailback, Artose Pinner has worked hard in the offseason and is expected to make a strong push of his own to get playing time. The Lions also expect a battle royal for the nickel and dime jobs in the defensive secondary, where Chris Cash, Andre Goodman, Rod Babers and rookie Keith Smith will compete for jobs behind starters Dre' Bly and Fernando Bryant.

PLAYER OF THE WEEK: OG Solomon Page was slow and out of shape when he worked out for the Lions in mid-July, and as a result was not convincing in his bid for a contract. Team president Matt Millen, who had spent three months looking for a starting-caliber guard, told him to come back in two weeks if he could get in shape that quickly. In that brief period of time Page lost 14 pounds, looked quicker in his workout and convinced the Lions he's serious about playing again.

ROOKIE REPORT: WR Roy Williams was not signed in time for the Friday reporting deadline but will get the first shot at the split end position, across from last year's first-round pick Charles Rogers. ... RB Kevin Jones was signed, sealed and delivered two days before the Lions reporting deadline and will get every chance to win the starting tailback position. ... LB Teddy Lehman worked throughout mini-camp at middle linebacker and will get a chance to win the job from veteran Earl Holmes. If Holmes keeps the job, Lehman might yet be switched to the weak side. ... CB Keith Smith has a lot to learn after playing in Division II but the Lions feel he can compete for the nickel and dime positions. ... LB Alex Lewis has the speed and athletic ability to compete for the starting weak side linebacker job, and some feel he can win it. ... OT Kelly Butler will probably get a year to learn and mature before the Lions expect him to contribute in a meaningful way.

INJURY REPORT: Unlike last year when they went to camp with a dozen or so players gimpy, the Lions arrived in good health. CB Chris Cash (knee) and WR Charles Rogers (broken collarbone), who caused the most concern coming off season-ending injuries last year, were pronounced fit and ready to practice by the Lions medical staff last week.

GREEN BAY PACKERS
The Packers' corps of running backs is more than just Ahman Green. Much, much, much more.

Green, William Henderson, Najeh Davenport, Nick Luchey and Tony Fisher don't make up just the best backfield in the NFL. It might be as strong and as deep a position group as there is in the entire league.

"I better not screw them up," new running backs coach Johnny Roland said. "The cupboard definitely is not bare."

Looking for a chink in the armor? There isn't any.

Looking for a roster battle? There are none.

All five jobs are spoken for, all five players know their roles and all five perform them exceedingly well.

Green & Co. proved that beautifully in 2003, seizing what had been a pass-driven offense for 11 seasons under Brett Favre and shoved it into a run-first operation.

"When the Packers say they're going to run the football they damn well run the football," said Roland, who begins his 25th season as an NFL backfield coach following stints with Philadelphia, Chicago, the New York Jets, St. Louis and Arizona.

"They believe in the running game and taking a little pressure off the quarterback and not necessarily have to have him be the guy to stir the drink. We've got capable back and an offensive line. Why not?"

Rushing on 50.8 percent of the snaps, coach Mike Sherman's power-and-misdirection ground game averaged 159.9 in the regular season and 144 in the post-season. Green was good for 116.9 in 18 games for 2,105 yards in all.

Roland referred to the group that he inherited from Sylvester Croom as "amazing." He said the only backfield that he had coached which could compare to it in terms of five-man strength belonged to the '85 Bears, who went 18-1 and won the Super Bowl.

That unit consisted of the incomparable Walter Payton, fullbacks Matt Suhey and Calvin Thomas, veteran scatback Dennis Gentry and rookie halfback Thomas Sanders.

Those five running backs helped the Bears lead the NFL in rushing. In 19 games, they carried 634 times for 2,761 yards and a 4.36-yard average.

"Ahman and Walter had different styles," Roland said. "Ahman obviously has the better speed but Walter was so quick, so strong and so powerful that once he got into the secondary he rarely got caught from behind. Ahman can take an ordinary play and make it exciting."

As testimony to their performance level, you will notice that the backs in Green Bay last season averaged almost a yard more per carry (5.18) on 541 carries for 2,800 yards.

Green, who idolized Payton, brings it to defenses with Sweetness' uncompromising toughness. All business all of the time, he ran with patience, vision, body lean, subtle inside cuts, speed to the edge and a punishing style.

Although Green did carry 619 times in three seasons at Nebraska, Roland isn't worried about wear and tear getting him any time soon because he had just 61 rushes in his first two NFL seasons in Seattle. He has rushed 1,304 times in Green Bay.

"If he had been hit like Eddie George for eight years, then possibly," Roland said. "But Ahman is smart. He suffers with that asthma problem a little bit, and when he's gassed he's gassed. He comes out and has no problem with Najeh coming in until he gets his breath back. I'll let him monitor how he wants to do it."

MINNESOTA VIKINGS
It isn't often a rookie free agent is a focal point of training camp. Of course, Brock Lesnar isn't your typical rookie free agent.

The Vikings signed the former WWE champion this week, despite the fact he hasn't played a down of football since 1995, when he was a senior at Webster High in South Dakota.

Lesnar, who signed for the rookie minimum of $230,000 but is more likely to earn about $85,000 on the practice squad, walked away from a guaranteed $1.5 million a year from the WWE. The 2000 NCAA heavyweight champion at the University of Minnesota also worked out for Baltimore, but he wanted to play for the Vikings because he lives in the Twin Cities and wanted to be near his 2-year-old daughter.

Coach Mike Tice, who originally thought the whole thing was a WWE hoax, became intrigued by the 6-3, 290-pound Lesnar during Lesnar's second workout with the team this week. Lesnar originally worked out for the Vikings last month, but a lingering groin injury from a motorcycle accident in April affected his workout. But even with the injury, he ran a 4.75 40-yard dash, plenty fast for defensive tackle, where the Vikings will start him out.

"This is no bum we're talking about," Tice said. "Is he raw? Yes, of course he is raw. But what I told him is to be patient. I know I'm going to be patient. A guy like him, you never know. It's worth the effort."

Lesnar is so raw, the Vikings will spend the first week of training camp teaching him the proper stance and basic footwork for a defensive tackle. He probably won't participate in team drills until the second week. Lesnar also will be sent to NFL Europe if he is considered good enough for a practice squad position.

Lesnar is confident he can play in the NFL. In fact, he hasn't lost some of his WWE cockiness.

Asked what he expected from his teammates, all of whom played college football, Lesnar said, "I haven't really thought about it, and I don't really care."

EXPECTED BATTLE OF THE WEEK: Mike Nattiel vs. Dontarrious Thomas for the weak-side linebacker starting position. This basically is the only one of the 22 starting positions up for grabs as camp opens. Nattiel, a second-year player who excelled as a nickel linebacker last season, has the starting job, but only by the fingertips. Thomas, the second-round draft pick from Auburn, is bigger (6-2, 241) and as fast as the 6-foot, 227-pound Nattiel.


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