NFC North Camp Report: Rookie updates, more

North Report: Devin Hester stars for the Bears, Green Bay still shaking off rust, and Ponder throwing picks in Minnesota. A whole slew of training camp notes from around the NFC North.

Chicago Bears - Hester stars for Bears

Player Notes
  • WR Roy Williams was brought in to give the Bears (QB Jay Cutler) a big target who can win jump balls downfield.
  • DT Marcus Harrison is back at practice after being held out for nearly a week so he could get down to his prescribed weight of 316 pounds. He reported at 327, the second time in three years he showed up too heavy.
  • RB Matt Forte says he is considering sitting out some preseason game(s) until he gets a contract extension, which general manager Jerry Angelo says is a priority.
  • DE Vernon Gholston, a bust first-rounder with the Jets, was signed specifically to provide a pass-rush threat from a defensive end position after being moved back and forth between DE and OLB by the Jets and failing to register a sack in his three seasons.
  • TE Desmond Clark, a UFA whom the Bears had little use for last season, was brought back for a 13th season to provide depth after Greg Olsen was traded and Brandon Manumaleuna was cut.

Rookie Watch

  • ORT Gabe Carimi has been given the starting job, and he's getting schooled by Julius Peppers and Israel Idonije, which should be a valuable lesson.
  • DT Stephen Paea has yet to make a strong statement at either three-technique or nose, but he should be in the rotation at both spots.
  • S Chris Conte has gotten a few snaps with the ones, but most of his work has come with the second team.
  • QB Nathan Enderle has not impressed in limited snaps.
  • LB J.T. Thomas has gotten much practice time because he plays a depth-poor position, and he has been solid, although he suffered a minor leg injury that kept him out of Saturday's practice.

Injury Watch

  • LB J.T. Thomas (leg) is expected back soon.
  • WR Johnny Knox (general soreness) will be back soon after missing two practices.

The addition of veteran free agents like wide receiver Roy Williams and Sam Hurd, along with running back Marion Barber has piqued interest in a Bears offense that was essentially along for the ride last season during the journey to the NFC title game.

But it's Devin Hester's improvement at wide receiver in his second year in offensive coordinator Mike Martz's scheme that has teammates and coaches psyched.

"Devin Hester is having an unbelievable camp," quarterback Jay Cutler said. "He's so much more comfortable in the system. In this system, if you think, you're not going to be very effective. He's not thinking, he's just out there reacting, and he's running super fast like he always does. I'm happy with him, and I think he's happy where he's at right now, too."

In 2009, Hester posted career bests with 57 catches for 757 yards. But his production dipped last season, when he finished with 40 receptions for 475 yards, averaging a career-low 11.9 yards per grab.

Williams has temporarily taken Knox's spot in the starting lineup, but considering he led the team with 960 receiving yards last season and is a legitimate deep threat, Knox will get a lot of snaps regardless of who starts. Earl Bennett is the most reliable of all the wide receivers, meaning that the top four targets could all have similar numbers.

Cutler also appears much more at ease in his second year in the system, although his performances have been up and down, which isn't surprising given the influx of new talent.

On the maligned O-line, fallout from the Bears' failure to re-sign six-time Pro Bowl center Olin Kreutz was significant, and it's likely to be a season-long issue, depending on how well his replacement, Chris Spencer, performs.

"It's sad," said linebacker Brian Urlacher. "I learned a lot from Olin. I don't play O-line, but just from watching him when I was a rookie and the last 11 years watching the way he works. He plays hurt, plays injured, never complains, just goes out there and practices and does his job. It's too bad they couldn't get it done."

Right guard Roberto Garza played shoulder-to-shoulder with Kreutz for seven years, and he might be the player who is most affected by the 13-year veteran's departure.

"It's tough to see him go," Garza said. "He means a lot to this entire team, to this organization, and we're going to miss him. He taught us a lot of things about how to play football and how to go about doing the every-day grind. We're going to take that and keep using what he taught us."

On defense, tackle Henry Melton has been one of the most impressive players in camp so far, looking nearly unblockable at times from the three-technique position. And defensive ends Israel Idonije and Julius Peppers have also dominated, but that could be partially due to the ineffectiveness of the young offensive line.

Free agent linebacker Nick Roach was re-signed to play on the strong side, but the Bears were reportedly interested in Lofa Tatupu.

The secondary appears settled, except for one cornerback spot, which will go to either Tim Jennings or Zack Bowman. Strong safety Chris Harris and free safety Major Wright appear set as the other starters.
 
Urlacher makes plea for FieldTurf

If Bears players had any say in the surface on which they competed, the "grass" at Soldier Field would have already been dug up and replaced with FieldTurf.

The 10,000 fans who purchased tickets for Friday night's Family Fest at Soldier Field were understandably upset when the practice was canceled. Unsafe playing conditions arose when dangerous seams occurred between rolls of recently laid sod, the result of a lack of water.

"It was a joke," said Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher. "I don't understand how they can't have the field ready. It (stinks) for the fans because I'm sure it was a pain in the butt to get down there with all the (Lollapalooza) traffic and everything. But I think coach (Lovie Smith) did the right thing not letting us practice on that stuff. We ended up getting a late practice in (Friday) night (at Olivet Nazarene University), but it's just too bad that it had to be that way."

The installation of FieldTurf would eliminate situations like the one that existed Friday night and also the deplorable condition of the field that occurs near the end of every season.

"I don't understand why we don't have FieldTurf yet," Urlacher said. "We're a fast team. We play fast on FieldTurf. The injury issues aren't as bad as they used to be. They've gone down a lot in the last few years with the way they've made the turf, so I don't understand it. (We should) use our speed because we know we can run. Let us get out there and run."

Camp Battle of the Week

One of the more interesting position battles in camp is at left cornerback, where Tim Jennings unseated Zack Bowman last season after three games.

On paper the 6-foot-1, 193-pound Bowman seems to have an advantage over the 5-foot-8, 185-pound Jennings, but the smaller man played with a lot of feistiness and toughness against the run last year, qualities the Bears value in their corners. It's too soon to predict a winner this year.

"That's what camp's about," defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. "Camp is a lot of fun in terms of that; for these men, too. If you're competitor, you love to come into those situations. When you get that type of competition, somebody is going to constantly get better, and your depth is going to get better. So we just let the men go out and work on their stuff and put it on tape. This game is still about just putting it on tape."

Other Battles

Amobi Okoye never panned out in Houston, and when they switched to a 3-4 he became expendable, but he and Henry Melton should have an interesting fight for the starting job, with second-round pick Stephen Paea lurking.

Green Bay Packers - Still playing catch-up

Getting a feel for his team hasn't come easy for head coach Mike McCarthy in the early stages of training camp.

Robbed of a critical three months of offseason workouts for player development and system implementation thanks to the lockout, McCarthy and his staff have been pressed into teaching on the fly. They had to devote the first nine practices of camp to the installations for the offense and defense, leaving them just one day on the field to prep for Saturday's preseason opener at the Cleveland Browns

Player Watch

  • S Brandon Underwood suffered a severe injury to his right leg during the abbreviated Family Night practice Saturday and was on crutches afterward. The extent of the injury wasn't immediately known.
  • WR James Jones drew big cheers from the Lambeau Field crowd of more than 43,000 at Family Night after he hung onto a laser from Aaron Rodgers for a 21-yard reception in the red zone. Jones is vowing to eliminate the big drops that dampened his 50-catch season in 2010.
  • TE Andrew Quarless is in catch-up mode after being out the first four days of camp with an injury similar to TE Tom Crabtree's. The second-year player figured to be No. 2 on the depth chart, but rookies D.J. Williams and Ryan Taylor have flashed early and created a veritable logjam with Quarless and Crabtree behind starter Jermichael Finley.
  • CB Jarrett Bush is working at his natural position again after being moved to safety last season. He is off to a good start in camp backing up Charles Woodson on the left side and being a key contributor on special teams.

Rookie Watch

  • OL Derek Sherrod (first round) has been up and down as the starter at LG a week into camp and isn't a shoo-in to stay there. Sherrod also has taken reps at his natural spot of left tackle in spelling veteran starter Chad Clifton.
  • WR Randall Cobb (second round) has been one of the early stars of camp, being relentless in running routes over the middle and exhibiting sure hands. He's the No. 1 choice on punt returns, so a roster spot is all but locked up.
  • RB Alex Green (third) has a tough nut to crack for playing time in the backfield behind Ryan Grant, James Starks and the versatile John Kuhn, but he could get a shot to contribute on game day as the top kickoff returner.
  • CB Davon House (fourth) dropped out of practice Aug. 5 with a hamstring injury and is out indefinitely.
  • DE Lawrence Guy (seventh) suffered a concussion in practice Aug. 3 and hadn't been cleared to return to the field through the weekend.
  • CB Brandian Ross (undrafted) made a name for himself by stepping in front of wideout James Jones and picking off a pass from Aaron Rodgers that turned into a 24-yard touchdown.
Injury Watch
  • WR Greg Jennings suffered a hip injury in practice Aug. 4 and was held out through the weekend.
  • CB Tramon Williams also was beset by a hip injury Aug. 4 and spent the rest of the week on the sideline.
  • OLB Clay Matthews tweaked his glute in practice Aug. 5 and was held out of the abbreviated Family Night practice the next day.
  • K Mason Crosby sustained an ankle injury in the Aug. 5 practice. Crosby is the only kicker on the camp roster.
  • LB Diyral Briggs, a third-year player, still hasn't been cleared on his conditioning test to participate in camp practices because of a hamstring injury.

In previous years, the schemes were installed during organized team activities in the spring and then reviewed at the start of training camp.
Having to start from square one this summer has created a disjointed beginning for the Packers as they set out to defend their Super Bowl title.

"We're not in football shape, and I think that's to be expected at this point in camp," McCarthy lamented.

Compounding the ragged matters is the Packers had to call their Family Night practice before a crowd of 43,048 at Lambeau Field on Saturday after only 20 minutes of action. That left the Packers with a nearly football-free weekend since McCarthy gave the players off Sunday.

Not that they minded more time away from the field, especially the older players.

"I think it can hopefully keep us fresh, even though people will say well, yeah, we've had five months off, so we should all be fresh," linebacker A.J. Hawk said.

After quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the skilled players on offense didn't bother to get together for workouts during the lockout, breakdowns in timing on pass plays came to the fore in the initial days of camp.

Rodgers and recently re-signed wide receiver James Jones weren't on the same page on an interception undrafted rookie cornerback Brandian Ross returned for a touchdown on the first play of the truncated Family Night practice.

Rodgers said it was "just another practice" as he walked quietly out of the locker room after the team was done early on the stormy evening.

"I need the reps," 13th-year receiver Donald Driver said. "You want to get as many reps as possible, get into the flow of the game, because you know the season's going to be started. We have to all be on the same page if we want to go back to where we finished last year."

McCarthy announced after the practice his goal is to go into the season with a two-back rotation of Ryan Grant and James Starks.

"It's a long season," McCarthy said. "Sixteen games, carrying the ball 20, 25 times a game, that's a lot for one individual to go through. So, I hope we can spread that ball around at every position."

While Grant is trying to find his stride after being out almost a year with an ankle injury, Starks is performing like a player who wants to gobble up all of the carries. He followed his breakthrough as a rookie in the playoffs by going on a gluten-free diet this offseason and adding nearly 10 pounds of strength to his body.

"If I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing, everything will work out," said the 225-pound Starks, who has been bowling over defensive backs in practice.

Camp Battles:

Frank Zombo vs. Erik Walden vs. Brad Jones at right outside linebacker. This is one of possibly only two starting spots Green Bay needs to fill on defense before the season starts. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers isn't in a rush to peg the guy who will start opposite the dynamic Clay Matthews, so he's giving all three contenders ample opportunity to make their best case for the job by alternating them as the starter every three days. Zombo, who had the most starts (nine) among the trio last season, appears to be the early front-runner based on him being No. 1 in the rotation lineup.

Other Battle Fronts: Derek Sherrod vs. T.J. Lang at left guard. Sherrod, the team's first-round draft pick this year, has endured growing pains a week into camp at a position predominantly foreign to the natural left tackle. Further slip-ups by Sherrod with the preseason games about to start would have the coaches' giving strong consideration to going with Lang, a third-year player with starting experience inside.

Ryan Grant vs. James Starks at halfback. Head coach Mike McCarthy acknowledged going with a two-back system is his preference to start the season. Still, a strong performance by the young Starks at the outset of camp can't be overlooked and could wind up costing Grant, who is trying to bounce back from ankle surgery nearly a year ago, touches on the field.

Morgan Burnett vs. Charlie Peprah at strong safety. Peprah held the starting job all but the first four weeks of last season and then the first few days of camp this year until Burnett was cleared for full action less than a year after suffering a torn ACL. All signs point to Burnett, who made an impact in those first four games as rookie, to staying put as the starter barring another setback.

 

Minnesota Vikings - McKinnie release adds another hurdle

After an offseason wiped out by the NFL lockout, the Vikings knew there would be plenty of quick work needed on offense once training camp got underway.

New coordinator Bill Musgrave is installing a new system, Donovan McNabb is now the quarterback and the wide receiver situation is going to have to sort itself out.

Player Notes
  • RB Adrian Peterson is entering the final season of his contract and while he has no plans to holdout he also sounds like a guy who would be willing to explore the market. "Let the chips fall where they may," he said. "The only thing I can do is control what I can control, and that's coming out and making sure that I'm prepared."
  • QB Christian Ponder is definitely learning on the job. He had a good day of camp on Thursday but then threw two interceptions on Friday in seven-on-seven drills. Both were intended for seventh-round wide receiver Stephen Burton, but Ponder refused to blame the picks on Burton's route running.
  • WR Jaymar Johnson has looked good early in camp, something that doesn't come as a surprise considering he spent most of his offseason working out with Arizona Cardinals Pro Bowl receiver Larry Fitzgerald Jr.
  • LT Charlie Johnson, who is taking over for the recently released Bryant McKinnie, had a rough first day of practice. Of course, he was going against Pro Bowl right end Jared Allen. "It was ugly, man," Johnson said. "You could tell I hadn't done anything since January. You can do as much (blocking) as you want against air, but it's a whole different thing against live bullets."
  • DE Jared Allen described last season's 6-10 finish as "gross" and said he worked hard this offseason.
  • RT Phil Loadholt could be a candidate to move to left tackle if Johnson doesn't work out, but coach Leslie Frazier said he wants to keep Loadholt on the right side and develop him there.
  • RB Lorenzo Booker could find himself returning kickoffs this season, depending on the circumstance of how much Percy Harvin is used in a game. Booker returned kicks after being signed by the Vikings last season.
  • WR Ryan Lincoln was the first player to be released by the Vikings off the 90-man roster. Defensive tackle Colby Whitlock (Texas Tech) was signed to take his place.
  • LB Ben Leber remains on the free-agent market and it appears he won't be returning to Minnesota.
  • NT Pat Williams also is still a free agent and it's very unlikely he will be back.

Rookie Watch

  • QB Christian Ponder, the 12th overall pick in the draft, has had his ups and downs so far but that's to be expected. Ponder did make a positive impression by taking the blame on himself and not placing it on the receiver after throwing two interceptions in seven-on-seven Friday.
  • TE Kyle Rudolph (second round) has shown good hands early in camp and should be a big part of the passing game.
  • DL Christian Ballard (fourth round) is working with the third-team at this point, as is CB Brandon Burton (fifth round).
  • DeMarcus Love, the first of the Vikings' four sixth-round picks, is working as the third-team left tackle.
  • C Brandon Fusco appeared to be a work in progress early in camp.
  • LB Ross Homan is working at outside linebacker with the second unit.
  • Seventh-round DE D'Aundre Reed flashed at times early in camp and showed potential. Reed is 6-4, 260 pounds so he certainly has the build to be successful.
  • Seventh-round wide receiver Stephen Burton dropped a sure touchdown pass in Saturday night's practice and has struggled in camp.

 
Injury Watch

  • Cedric Griffin has torn the ACL in both knees the past two seasons and will be looking to rebound and reclaim his job as the starting right cornerback.
  • RG Anthony Herrera is on the physically-unable-to-perform list after suffering a torn left ACL last season against Green Bay. The Vikings would like for Herrera to be ready by their Sept. 11 home opener at San Diego but it's unclear if that will happen.
  • LB Kenny Onatolu suffered a stress fracture in his left foot early in training camp and is day-to-day.

What new coach Leslie Frazier didn't expect was he would have to be looking for a left tackle.

That became the case when the Vikings decided to jettison veteran Bryant McKinnie after he arrived at camp weighing nearly 400 pounds. The move was drastic but one the Vikings felt was necessary for a guy who was set to make $4.9 million in base salary this season and count $5.4 million against the salary cap.

McKinnie had worn out his welcome with the Vikings for a string of missteps, including his participation in the embarrassing incident on a boat on Lake Minnetonka in 2005. He was fined a game check for that and then suspended by the NFL for the first four games of 2008 after getting into a street fight in Miami. He then bolted from the Pro Bowl in 2010.

The Vikings had forgiven all of McKinnie's previous transgressions but Frazier and company decided they had to send a message. They weren't going to allow all of the disruptions that derailed the 2010 season begin again. Plus, McKinnie's weight and conditioning likely made it dangerous to put him on the field anytime soon.

The move, however, comes with a healthy amount of risk because for all of McKinnie's shortcomings, which included being inconsistent at times, he was an above-average left tackle and was athletically gifted as far his foot movement.

The Vikings will turn to veteran Charlie Johnson, who had been the Colts left tackle before being signed as a free agent by the Vikings. Indianapolis had planned to move Johnson to guard.

Johnson struggled in the Vikings' early practices going up against Pro Bowl right end Jared Allen but that also could have been the product of trying to learn a new system on the go.

If Johnson doesn't prove to be the answer, the Vikings could consider moving right tackle Phil Loadholt to the left side. Frazier said he doesn't want to do that.

However, Frazier's preference also is to not get McNabb injured and if the left tackle isn't playing well there is a chance the 34-year-old will end up on the sideline.

McNabb, who has a one-year contract with the Vikings for a base salary of $5.05 million, is in the process of attempting to digest a Musgrave-designed offense that appears as if it will feature plenty of passes to the tight ends and running backs.

The system appears to be very similar to what Musgrave was involved in with the Atlanta Falcons when he served as that team's quarterbacks coach.

"Bill Musgrave's bringing in a mentality that he's willing to do whatever it takes in order for the team to be successful," McNabb said. "That's what you ask of a coach. You want a coach that you can build a relationship where you're finding ways to get guys the ball. ... Not just dialing in plays. Bill has done it and been successful and we want to make sure we continue that."

Camp Battle: Tyrell Johnson and Jamarca Sanford are competing to start at free safety now that Madieu Williams has been released and signed with San Francisco. This should be one of the most intriguing battles in training camp. Johnson was a starter but lost that job last season after being a second-round pick in 2008. Sanford was a seventh-round pick in 2009 but has shown potential and is a very aggressive player.

Other Camp Battles: Chris DeGeare is playing left guard with the first team with Anthony Herrera on the PUP list. Now that Ryan Cook has been re-signed he also should get a chance to compete for the job he held at the end of last season after Herrera suffered an ACL injury.

Erin Henderson is the starting weak-side linebacker with Ben Leber gone but Jasper Brinkley is getting an opportunity to push him. Brinkley is considered more of a middle linebacker.

The wide receiver competition exists at the No. 4 and 5 spots, with Bernard Berrian, Michael Jenkins and Percy Harvin pretty much set at the top three spots. Among those competing are Devin Aromashodu, Jaymar Johnson, Emmanuel Arceneaux, Juaquin Iglesias and Greg Camarillo 


 


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