NFC North News and Notes: Jul. 24

Will Detroit go with rookie Matthew Stafford or vet Daunte Culpepper under center? What about Aaron Kampman's switch from end to linebacker in Green Bay's new 3-4 scheme? How important to Minnesota is a totally-healthy E.J. Henderson? Get the Inside Slant from the NFL experts at Scout.com.

Detroit Lions

PLAYERS TO WATCH
QB Daunte Culpepper:
Coming off the NFL's first 0-16 season, the Lions used the No. 1-overall pick in the draft on a new franchise quarterback, Matthew Stafford. But Culpepper will have every opportunity and motivation to hold off the rookie in training camp.

The Lions say they won't play Stafford until he's ready and the best quarterback. They want to make sure they develop him the right way, and Culpepper might give them the luxury to let him sit and learn.

During the offseason program, Culpepper looked much better than he did last year, when he came out of semi-retirement and joined the Lions midseason. He's fighting to earn another contract somewhere in the NFL. He has lost 35 pounds. He is healthy. And he is reuniting with offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, with whom he had his best years in Minnesota.

DE Cliff Avril: A third-round pick last year, Avril showed a lot of potential as a rookie. He showed the athleticism to be a speed rusher off the edge, though he showed he still needs to work on a more explosive first step.

Under former coach Rod Marinelli, the Lions were a Tampa-2 team. They played a rigid system and didn't like to blitz. New coach Jim Schwartz likes multi-dimensional players, and defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham loves to attack.

After Cunningham came aboard, he talked about using Avril the way the Steelers use James Harrison. So it should be interesting to see how the Lions use Avril.

S Louis Delmas: The Lions' secondary intercepted only one pass last season and didn't distinguish itself in run defense, either. Most of the unit has been replaced, and Delmas, the first pick of the second round, might be the most interesting addition.

The rookie out of Western Michigan showed up at rookie camp challenging Stafford, the No. 1-overall pick, saying he would be the first to pick him off. Delmas didn't back down when the veterans arrived, either. He took on all comers.

More impressive than the bravado, though, was the intelligence. Schwartz said Delmas picked up the defense as quickly as any player he had ever seen in the secondary.

Positional Battle: It comes back to quarterback. Though this team needs help in many areas, it's not going to take a real step forward until it solves the quarterback issue. And though Stafford ultimately might benefit from sitting behind Culpepper, he isn't going to sit quietly.

Stafford was as advertised physically in the offseason, showing off his strong arm. But what was more impressive was how quickly he picked up the offense. Teammates raved about how he looked.

If Stafford and Culpepper can stage a true competition, the Lions will be much better for it. For years, the Lions haven't had one quarterback. It would show some progress if they actually had two.


Green Bay Packers

PLAYERS TO WATCH
LB Aaron Kampman:
The converted Pro Bowl defensive end was unusually quiet throughout the offseason about his position change, as the Packers scrapped their traditional 4-3 front in favor of trying to revive a stagnant defense with the attack-oriented 3-4. By speaking little on the matter, Kampman, who starred in the trenches with 37 sacks the last three seasons, gave the impression that he wasn't in favor of it.

After enduring a lot of ups and downs in the offseason workouts, particularly when he dropped into coverage, the acclimation process will be expedited and more scrutinized the next six weeks. If Kampman can't grasp the standing-up intricacies of his new position as he enters a contract year, the Packers' defensive struggles could continue despite the well-intended shift in philosophy.

RB Ryan Grant: Unlike this time last year, Grant is expected to be on the practice field when training camp opens this weekend. He missed the first week of camp in 2008 because of a contract squabble and then promptly suffered a hamstring injury, which cost him most of the preseason and had a profound effect on his production the first half of the season.

Grant wound up rushing for more than 1,200 yards in his first full season as a featured back, but he lacked the punch that was evident when he burst on the scene the latter part of the 2007 season. His per-carry average plummeted from 5.1 to 3.9 yards.

Grant is healthy this year and is focused on regaining the explosiveness that escaped him last year. Also, the Packers will need Grant to be durable because they want to emphasize the ground game more, targeting at least 30 run plays a game.

TE Jermichael Finley: Maturity has been the catch word for Finley, less than a year removed from a contentious rookie season that included finger pointing at the team's play calling and quarterback Aaron Rodgers' throwing ability.

Peace has been restored, and Finley in the offseason stuck to showcasing his size (6-5, 247 pounds) and athleticism as a pass catcher. The third-round draft pick out of Texas is only 22 years old, so the ceiling is high and he could overtake Donald Lee for the lead role.

Provided Finley doesn't create more waves, he could be the final piece to make the Packers a potent offense, since they're solid everywhere else at the skilled positions.

Positional Battle: The biggest camp battle will be at center. Jason Spitz, the primary starter at right guard the last three years, has the nod after Scott Wells was sidelined the entire offseason after undergoing shoulder surgery.

Wells has manned the starting spot for four seasons, but durability is a concern. No one knows how he will respond to being back on the field for the first time in more than seven months.

If Spitz holds off Wells, the Packers will have a new look on the right side. The team isn't inclined to re-sign veteran right tackle Mark Tauscher, who is a free agent and recovering from major knee surgery in January.


Minnesota Vikings

PLAYERS TO WATCH
WR Percy Harvin:
Harvin fell to the 22nd pick in the first round of the April draft because of concerns about his character and injury issues. The Vikings, though, did not shy away from him because of his ability to make things happen on the field.

Harvin has the potential to provide an explosive spark to an offense that already features Pro Bowl running back Adrian Peterson, speedy receiver Bernard Berrian, emerging tight end Visanthe Shiancoe and perhaps future Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre.

As Harvin showed during his collegiate career at the University of Florida, he has the ability to not only line up as the slot receiver but also can be used out of the backfield. Harvin had more than 1,900 receiving yards and 1,800 rushing yards in 36 games for the Gators.

That versatility makes Harvin a prime candidate to be used as the quarterback in the trendy "Wildcat" formation that the Vikings toyed with during their minicamp.

Harvin also could find himself being used on kickoff and/or punt returns. He did not hold those jobs at Florida, but with his speed he could gives the Viking the type of threat they have lacked in the return game in recent seasons.

The key for Harvin will be staying on the field. He missed the Vikings' mandatory rookie minicamp shortly after the draft because of illness and also was sent home from the NFL's rookie symposium after becoming ill.

LB E.J. Henderson: Henderson had a Pro Bowl-caliber season in 2007 after moving back to his natural position of middle linebacker following two seasons on the outside.

Not surprisingly, Henderson entered 2008 with big-time expectations. Those came to a sudden halt when he suffered dislocated toes on his left foot in the fourth game of the season. He spent the rest of the year on injured reserve as the Vikings had to bring in veteran Napoleon Harris to take over in the middle.

Harris was not brought back after the season, and Henderson will return to his position playing between Chad Greenway and Ben Leber in 2009. That should be a major boost, considering Henderson handled many of the defensive calls and stayed on the field in most situations.

Coach Brad Childress said Henderson actually could have returned late last year, but the team did not want to risk him doing any further damage and thus put him on the IR.

Positional Battle: The competition for the nickel role in the Vikings' defense should be spirited with incumbent Benny Sapp going up against free-agent signee Karl Paymah, third-round rookie Asher Allen, veteran Marcus McCauley and potentially Charles Gordon.

And that's assuming a guy like Marcus Walker doesn't enter the mix after spending last season on the practice squad.

Gordon actually held the job early in 2008, but was lost to a gruesome leg injury in November against the Packers and it's not clear if he will be ready to go when camp starts. Sapp finished with two interceptions and four pass breakups.

Paymah was signed after four seasons in Denver. He's expected to contribute on special teams but will get a chance to beat out Sapp.


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