NFC North Breakdown: Part II

With the Lions, Packers and Vikings all using their first round selections on linebackers there are holes to fill on the defensive side of the ball. Here's an in depth look at each defense in the division.

DETROIT LIONS
DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LE Cory Redding, LT Shaun Rogers, RT Shaun Cody, RE James Hall. Backups -- DE Jared DeVries, DE Kalimba Edwards, DT Marcus Bell, DE Bill Swancutt, DE Damian Gregory, DT Tyoka Jackson, DT Cleveland Pinkney.

This is a group that will be watched closely for several reasons. Most notably, Rogers might be the most talented player on the team but he's a big man who doesn't always lay it on the line on the practice field. Marinelli and defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson had to push him at times in off-season workouts but if he buys into the system, he could add to his Pro Bowl reputation and become a truly dominating player. With the departure of Dan Wilkinson, Cody moves into the front four, bringing less bulk and strength but adding speed, quickness and athletic ability inside. The other key man in this group is Edwards, a long and lean DE who never quite fit in his previous four NFL seasons. With Henderson's penchant for attacking the quarterback, Edwards will have a well-defined role this year. Hall had a career year with 11.5 sacks in 2004 but is a blue collar worker more than a sack producer. In DeVries and Bell, the Lions have role players who fit nicely and play well in the d-line rotation.

LINEBACKERS: Starters -- SLB Teddy Lehman, MLB Boss Bailey, WLB Ernie Sims. Backups -- James Davis, Alex Lewis, LeVar Woods, Andrew Battle, Donte' Curry, Paris Lenon.

Henderson and linebacker coach Phil Snow know who their linebackers will be but they're still uncertain how they're going to line up on Sept. 10 in the season opener against Seattle. Bailey and Lehman are coming off off-season surgeries and were unable to participate in the off-season mini-camps, so they're starting from scratch, possibly in new positions. With a premium on running to the ball and going sideline to sideline in Henderson's system, the Lions plan to move Bailey from SLB to MLB. Lehman, who was originally projected as an MLB, could play at SLB or backup Bailey. The big question is whether Sims, the No. 1 pick in the April draft, will be ready to take over the WLB job which has been occupied by Davis. Lewis has the speed and athleticism to handle coverage responsibilities in the nickel and dime packages.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Fernando Bryant, RCB Dre' Bly, FS Terrene Holt, SS Kenoy Kennedy. Backups -- CB Jamar Fletcher, CB Keith Smith, CB Stanley Wilson, S Jon McGraw, S Idrees Brashir, S Daniel Bullocks, S Vernon Fox, CB Dee McCann, CB Marcus Hicks, CB Antonio Malone, CB Harrison Smith, S Marcus Demps.

Although he missed the Pro Bowl last year for the first time in his three seasons with the Lions, Bly remains the ringleader of the defensive secondary. He had six interceptions and is a playmaker, inevitably matched up with the opponent's top receiver. Bryant has to stay healthy, something he has been unable to do in his two seasons with the Lions, so this is an important year for him. He will be challenged by Henderson and has to make plays. The Lions parted company with veteran CBs Andre Goodman and R.W. McQuarters, preferring to go with youngsters Smith and Wilson, with Fletcher providing some veteran influence as well. Kennedy didn't have the impact expected of him in his first season in Detroit but should flourish in Henderson's system. Holt is the incumbent at FS but could face a stiff challenge for his job from Brashir or second-round draft pick Bullocks.

GREEN BAY PACKERS
DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LDE Aaron Kampman, RDE Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, DT Ryan Pickett, DT Cullen Jenkins. Backups -- DE Michael Montgomery, Dave Tollefson; DT Corey Williams, Colin Cole, Kenderick Allen, Kenny Peterson, Johnny Jolly, Jerome Nichols.

Pickett was one of the team's few noteworthy off-season acquisitions. The former first-rounder bolted St. Louis in free agency for a four-year, $14 million contract that included $5 million in bonus money to fill the wide gap inside when the Packers chose not to re-sign Grady Jackson. Pickett, though, was dealing with weight issues in the off-season and acknowledged that he had to shed about 10 pounds to get under 320. The lighter, the better because Pickett has pass-rushing capabilities to go with his proven run-stopping prowess. He's part of a stout interior that has numerous combination possibilities that will include Jenkins, Williams, Cole and Allen, formerly of the New York Giants who was a late signee in free agency. Peterson, an interchangeable lineman who has contributed mostly from the tackle spot, is on the bubble to make the team. Kampman is the heart and soul of the line and was rewarded with a four-year, $21 million deal with $8 million in bonuses as an unrestricted free agent. The team's pass rush, though, languished last year with only 35 sacks and just eight by specialist Gbaja-Biamila. Since he's a liability against the run, new coordinator Bob Sanders will give consideration to using Gbaja-Biamila strictly on passing downs. That would allow the lengthy Montgomery to get on the field in early situations.

LINEBACKERS: Starters -- WLB A.J. Hawk, MLB Nick Barnett, SLB Ben Taylor. Backups -- Roy Manning, Brady Poppinga, Abdul Hodge, Tracy White, Kurt Campbell.

The strength of the defense figures to lie here. The team surrounded Barnett, its enforcer his first three years in the league, with an equal by taking Hawk fifth overall in the draft and adding the gritty Taylor in free agency. As expected, Hawk adjusted well to his indoctrination to the pro game in the off-season workouts he was able to attend as he juggled completing his studies at Ohio State. He's a natural playmaker, and Sanders is inclined to have him on the field on a full-time basis, along with Barnett. Taylor, formerly of Cleveland, emerged as the top candidate to start on the strong side. He's well-versed at all three positions in the 4-3 scheme and is coming off his first injury-free season. Manning, Poppinga and White also will challenge for the job, though Poppinga is iffy to participate in camp as he continues to recover from a late-season ACL injury. Hodge, a third-round pick, enters camp as the understudy to Barnett. Like Hawk, Hodge has been a quick study with a nose for the football and could give Sanders pause about moving Barnett outside in order to get a second rookie in the lineup.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Charles Woodson, RCB Al Harris, FS Nick Collins, SS Marquand Manuel. Backups -- CB Ahmad Carroll, Jason Horton, Mike Hawkins, Patrick Dendy, Jerron Wishom, Will Blackmon, Therrian Fontenot; S Mark Roman, Marviel Underwood, Tyrone Culver, Tra Boger, Atari Bigby.

The Packers have perhaps the best shutdown tandem in the league after signing four-time Pro Bowler Woodson to a seven-year contract worth more than $39 million in free agency to pair with Harris. However, most of the off-season workouts didn't include the two veterans. Woodson was jet-setting overseas and didn't bother participating in any of the voluntary practices, thus putting into question whether the talented, yet eccentric former Oakland Raider is committed to resurrecting a career marred by injury issues the last few years. Harris, meanwhile, deliberately skipped the non-mandatory workouts because he's demanding a new contract and has gone so far to threaten being a no-show for camp. The prolonged absences of the two high-profile players meant valuable reps for a stable of young cornerbacks, including Carroll, the demoted 2004 first-round pick who's resigned to playing nickel back. Roman, conversely, wasn't warm to the free-agent signing of Manuel, whose five-year, $10 million inheritance signaled a change at strong safety. Roman, though, will be given an opportunity to win the job back in camp, which could spell the difference between him sticking with the team and possibly being released. Collins left little doubt as a tenacious rookie starter last year that he's a keeper at free safety.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS
DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LDE Kenechi Udeze, UT Kevin Williams, NT Pat Williams, RDE Erasmus James. Backups - LDE Darrion Scott, Ray Edwards, Khreem Smith, UT Spencer Johnson, Ross Kolodziej, Manase Hopoi, NT C.J. Mosley, Eric Taylor, RDE DeQuincy Scott, Jayme Mitchell.

Pressure, pressure, pressure will be the key for this group. The Vikings will need the line to make life miserable for opposing quarterbacks and that likely will have to happen without a lot of blitzing. James tied for second on the team last season as a rookie with four sacks and figures to be that much better this time around. The first-round pick's progress was slowed by a holdout early in training camp and he seemed to show greater maturity as the season progressed. Udeze is coming off microfracture knee surgery that many thought would slow him at least until training camp and might be career threatening. However, he took part in all the minicamps and Organized Team Activities and appears to be at full strength. A first-round pick in 2004, the Vikings will be looking for Udeze to prove he deserved such a lofty draft status. The team also is hoping Kevin Williams can rebound after his sack total decreased to four in 2005. He had recorded 22 sacks combined in 2003 and 2004, the most by an NFL defensive tackle in that time. Williams entered last season out of shape after being unable to do much conditioning because of knee surgery following 2004. Pat Williams, meanwhile, is coming off a standout campaign in which he led Vikings linemen with 88 tackles and led the team with nine tackles for loss. But it remains to be seen how the 6-3, 317-pound Williams fits into the Tampa-2 system. Darrion Scott, who saw extensive playing time a year ago, and free-agent DeQuincy Scott figure to get on the field in various packages. C.J. Mosley, who showed flashes while subbing for the injured Kevin Williams in two games in 2005, could find himself playing a role in the middle.

LINEBACKERS: Starters -- WLB E.J. Henderson, MLB Napoleon Harris, SLB Ben Leber. Backups - WLB Chad Greenway, Marcus Lawrence, MLB Dontarrious Thomas, Rod Davis, SLB Heath Farwell, Kyle McKenzie.

No roster group on this team has as much uncertainty as this one. About the only sure thing is Leber -- and that's assuming the free agent from San Diego can stay healthy after being bothered by a foot injury last season. Henderson assumed the starting weak-side role in 2005, but could shift back to the middle if Harris or Thomas struggle to win the job. Henderson played in the middle two seasons ago but struggled with some of the responsibilities. If Henderson does have to move, the Vikings will look for Greenway to assume the starting weak-side spot in his rookie campaign. That might be a lot to ask, at least in the early going, for the 17th overall pick in the draft.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Antoine Winfield, SS Tank Williams, FS Darren Sharper, RCB Fred Smoot. Backups -- LCB Dovonte Edwards, Cedric Griffin, Ronyell Whitaker, Charles Gordon, SS Willie Offord, Greg Blue, FS Will Hunter, RCB Dustin Fox, Ukee Dozier, R.J. Cobbs.

The Tampa-2 not only will insist that members of the secondary play an aggressive, physical style, it also will call for some of them to alter their traditional coverage techniques by constantly looking to read the quarterback as they cover receivers. Williams was signed as a free agent from Tennessee largely because of his ability to lay big hits on opponents. Sharper had nine interceptions last season after leaving Green Bay to sign with the Vikings and earned a starting spot in the Pro Bowl. He could have another big season in interceptions. Smoot, unlike Sharper, struggled after signing as a free agent from Washington. His season took a turn for the worse when he was named as one of the players on the Vikings' infamous Love Boat cruise. He then missed five games because of a broken collarbone and was unable to reclaim his starting position when he returned. Smoot has gained about 15 pounds this offseason in an effort to stay healthy and become more physical. Winfield has no problems with physical play, despite being only 5-9, 180 pounds. He finished third on the team with 100 tackles in 2005 and is one of the top-hitting cornerbacks in the NFL. Edwards and Griffin, a second-round choice this past April, figure to battle for the job at nickel back. Whitaker, coming off an outstanding NFL Europe performance, also could work his way into the mix. Offord, who missed much of last season because of a knee injury, should be the top backup at both safety spots.


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