Keeping an Eye on the Competition

Last week, we reviewed the Bears' offensive changes this off-season and their outlook heading into training camp, but how well do you know what's gone on with the other teams in the NFC North division? We take a look at the newbies and the offensive potential of the Lions, Packers and Vikings.

The Detroit Lions' offensive outlook entering training camp:
The Lions' biggest offensive changes from last year are right at the top -- offensive coordinator Mike Martz replaces former head coach Steve Mariucci as the man running the offense and the "Greatest Show on Turf" replaces the West Coast offense.

But those are not the only changes that will be showing up at Ford Field this fall. Far from it.

Jon Kitna, an 11-year veteran, is the frontrunner to win the quarterback job, replacing Joey Harrington, who decided four years of misery and abuse from fans, coaches and teammates was all he could stomach. Harrington was traded to Miami.

There will be at least one change in the offensive line. It appears likely Ross Verba will take over at left guard, a position left vacant when Kyle Kosier left during free agency, and there is an even-money chance that Rex Tucker will take the right tackle job from Kelly Butler.

And it can be safely assumed that the receivers -- whoever the starters turn out to be -- will be better prepared and will execute better than they did in last year's disappointing 5-11 season.

Roy Williams is the only one of the three first-round receivers who is locked in as a starter. Charles Rogers is showing signs of improvement after three troubled seasons with injuries and a drug suspension, but Mike Williams still has to prove he's disciplined and fit enough to win a starting job.

The disciplined approach of coach Rod Marinelli and Martz have brought a whole new realization to the Lions offensive unit.

"He's very demanding," Roy Williams said, referring to Martz. "I don't know if I can say it but I jokingly said to myself he's like a terrorist on a football field. He can blow things up at any time he feels like it and that falls on our shoulders. He can dial it up and we've just got to execute it.

"I'm making no predictions this year. I just want to go out there and play and see (what happens). We've got the best offensive coordinator/head coach/mastermind in the country. As long as we do what he tells us to do there's no stopping us."

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think the fact we stunk it up the last five years might have something to do with it." - Fullback Cory Schlesinger explaining why most of the Lions players have bought into the aggressive, disciplined approach of coach Rod Marinelli and his staff

The Green Bay Packers' offensive outlook entering training camp:
An offense that plummeted to 18th in the league for total yards and 22nd for scoring lost its top playmaker in wide receiver Javon Walker (traded to Denver), Pro Bowl center Mike Flanagan (free agent-Houston), third-down back Tony Fisher (free agent-St. Louis) and the franchise's all-time scoring leader in kicker Ryan Longwell (free agent-Minnesota).

Green Bay did little of note to replace them, though, opting instead to mostly replenish through the draft and go with a change in offensive philosophy under new head coach Mike McCarthy.

The Packers are spicing up their longstanding West Coast system with a zone-blocking scheme intended to bolster a once-formidable rushing attack that ranked 30th in 2005 with an averaged of only 84.5 yards per game.

The shift to lighter, athletic blockers along the line dictated the selections of Daryn Colledge and Jason Spitz in the first three rounds of the draft. Colledge is all but a lock to be the opening-day starter at left guard, while Spitz has moved ahead of second-year Junius Coston for the job at right guard. Scott Wells gets a full-time shot at center as Flanagan's replacement.

Despite giving in to Walker's trade demand, the Packers have assembled potentially a deeper corps of talented receivers for Brett Favre's 15th -- and final? -- year at quarterback.

Greg Jennings was a second-round draft pick and seemed to be ahead of the learning curve in off-season workouts. He could push Robert Ferguson and Rod Gardner for the No. 2 spot, with Donald Driver entrenched as Favre's go-to receiver.

Fourth-round draftee Cory Rodgers and veteran free-agent signee Marc Boerigter will challenge for situational roles.

Identifying even an adequate replacement for Longwell is the big unknown heading into training camp. Dallas castoff Billy Cundiff and kickoff specialist Dave Rayner are the candidates at the moment, though neither is assured of still being on the roster in early September. The Packers missed out in free agency on signing Adam Vinatieri, perhaps the only kicker who can handle crummy weather conditions as deftly as Longwell did for nine years.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "You never know when your body is going to give out. I've been so fortunate after 15 years, this will be 16, that I've been able to play every game. You figure it's just a matter of time before something gives out. It's like driving a car -- eventually, you're going to have a blowout. I don't want that to happen. I've had a lot of success. I don't need to play. I'm playing because I like to play; I love the game." -- Quarterback Brett Favre while he was in Chicago on June 27 to shoot a commercial for Sensodyne toothpaste.

The Minnesota Vikings' offensive outlook entering training camp:
The Vikings, who entered free agency with an NFL-high $31 million in salary-cap space, elected to make their biggest splash by giving record money to Pro Bowl guard Steve Hutchinson. Hutchinson signed a seven-year, $49 million contract that included $16 million in guaranteed cash to play alongside left tackle Bryant McKinnie and center Matt Birk.

That trio will be expected to open up plenty of holes for running back Chester Taylor, who bolted from a backup role in Baltimore to sign a four-year, $14.1 million contract that calls for $5.6 million guaranteed. Taylor's addition bumps Mewelde Moore to a backup role.

Taylor's lead blocker will be another new addition, fullback Tony Richardson. The veteran left Kansas City after 11 seasons to fill a position the Vikings rarely used in the offensive scheme employed by former coach Mike Tice.

Brad Childress, hired to replace Tice in January, also brought in three players from his former team, the Philadelphia Eagles. Artis Hicks was acquired in a draft-weekend trade and will enter training camp as the starting right guard. Receiver Billy McMullen also was obtained in a trade and will compete for a spot on the roster. Veteran Mike McMahon, meanwhile, left Philadelphia to sign with the Vikings as a free agent and will serve as the backup to Brad Johnson. McMahon's tenure with the Vikings might be short.

Tarvaris Jackson was taken in the second round of the April draft and will spend this season learning. If the Alabama State product proves to be a quick study, he could move up the depth chart in quick fashion.

One player who won't have to worry about competition is kicker Ryan Longwell, another of the team's free-agent investments. The longtime Green Bay Packers kicker received a five-year, $10 million contract that contained a $3 million signing bonus. Longwell holds several Packers team records, including career scoring (1,054) and field goals made (226).

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Football is played in pads. We've got some shorts All-Americans out here and we'll see if they can play with those hats on come a month or so." -- Defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin, who is looking forward to training camp.


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