NFC North Report: July 24

Detroit's NFC North foes begin training camp soon, and each have some looming questions, including the annual Brett Favre watch. Much more inside during this divisional news tour ...

Chicago Bears

Before quarterback Jay Cutler can flourish in new coordinator Mike Martz's offense, he'll have to get better protection than he did last year.

Mike Tice takes over as line coach for Harry Hiestand, whose group allowed 35 sacks last year and struggled to protect Cutler or create running room for the ground game, which averaged a mediocre 4.0 yards per attempt. There is expected to be more pressure on the offensive line this year in the passing game, considering Martz's frequent use of five- and seven-step drops.

Considering that by the end of last season 2008 first-round draft pick Chris Williams had already moved over from right tackle to replace Orlando Pace at left tackle, there hasn't been a lot of change in personnel on the offensive line, but there have been some alterations.  

QB Jay Cutler
AP Photo

Last year's left guard, Frank Omiyale, will start at right tackle, which is his more natural position. Center Olin Kreutz and right guard Roberto Garza are back for another year together (this will be their sixth season playing side by side), but there will be a new left guard, although it could be Josh Beekman, a 16-game starter there in 2008.

Tice is hopeful for continued improvement, which he said was apparent toward the end of last season.

"The first thing I did (after getting hired in January) was grade the line as if I was the coach last season," Tice said. "The one thing that did stand out to me is that they got better as the season went on. A couple of the guys were playing pretty decent football by the end of the season. I think that's one of the reasons the team finished up pretty good last year. The biggest thing I saw was that they got better."

Kreutz might be the key to continued improvement in 2010. He hobbled through a tough '09 season with an injured Achilles tendon that required postseason surgery and kept him sidelined until the last days of OTA practices. But he is expected to be 100 percent by the start of the season, his 13th, all with the Bears.

"Olin's one of our guys," coach Lovie Smith said of the 12-year starter and six-time Pro Bowler. "For you that have been around here a while, you know what he means and his role and that leadership. Of course, this is a new offense, and a new coach for him - a lot of different things. But he's back, he's on pace, and he feels real good looking forward to the future."

Kreutz has missed a total of one start in the past nine seasons, and that was way back in 2002, seven days after he underwent an appendectomy. It's better for everyone when Kreutz is on the field, as Cutler pointed out after the 33-year-old veteran returned to OTAs. "It was getting bad because he wants to be in there," Cutler said. "He gets a little bored, and when he gets bored he starts picking on guys. But he's going to be the anchor of the offensive line. He has been for years, so we're not worried about him."

Green Bay Packers

The Packers had a sneaking suspicion they would have to play without defensive end Johnny Jolly.

DE Johnny Jolly
Tom Dahlin/Getty

Maybe not the entire 2010 season – as is the profound case for Jolly, whom the NFL suspended indefinitely July 16 for violating its substance-abuse policy – but Green Bay braced itself for the prospect of a lengthy absence.

Now that Jolly won't be able to apply for reinstatement until after Super Bowl XLV in February, the Packers' moves during the offseason made sense.

They used a high pick on a defensive end in the April draft, taking Purdue's Mike Neal in the second round.

With Jolly nowhere in sight on the practice field, the team shifted previously entrenched nose tackle Ryan Pickett to Jolly's starting spot at left end, enabling 2009 first-round draft pick B.J. Raji to take over at the nose, his natural spot.

With that, the Packers had their Jolly-less approach in place, if indeed the league disciplined him by docking games – and pay.

"Johnny is a good player that loves everything about the game of football," general manager Ted Thompson said after the suspension was rendered. "We appreciate the contributions he has made to the Packers the past four seasons. His focus and priorities now lie elsewhere. Our thoughts are with him during this difficult personal time."

Jolly is only the second Green Bay player to be suspended for a season. Hall of Fame running back Paul Hornung was banished in 1963 for gambling.

Jolly faces up to 20 years in prison if he is convicted on a felony charge of possessing 200 grams of codeine outside a nightclub in his hometown of Houston in July 2008. The repeatedly-delayed start to the trial is scheduled for July 30, the same day Jolly's teammates will report for training camp in Green Bay.

Despite the Packers' intuition to have a backup plan ready were Jolly to be lost for any length of time, he won't be easily replaced.

Jolly was a reliable and productive starter the last two seasons after he returned from a serious shoulder injury in 2007. He didn't miss a game in 2008 and '09 and produced 82 and 75 tackles in those seasons, respectively, the latter No. 1 among the team's defensive linemen.

Green Bay is going to try to compensate by plugging in the massive-yet-mobile Pickett on the outside for the first time in his 10-year pro career and setting Raji loose on the inside to tie up blockers and provide some pass rush.

The depth behind the starting line, which includes right end Cullen Jenkins, is suspect since 2007 first-round draft pick Justin Harrell has been fragile as a pro and there's no telling what the Packers can get out of rookies Neal and possibly seventh-round choice C.J. Wilson this season.

So the season-long suspension of Jolly can't be easily dismissed and could have far-reaching ramifications for the Packers.

Minnesota Vikings

Brad Childress spent Monday in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, visiting with Brett Favre, but one thing the Vikings coach did not do was press the quarterback for a timeline on when he might make a decision about playing in 2010.

QB Brett Favre
Larry French/Getty

That was probably a wise thing considering Childress almost certainly wouldn't have gotten an answer. Favre continues to deal with issues related to his surgically repaired left ankle.

"The deadline? I don't know," Favre told USA Today. "There obviously comes a point where you've probably gone too far, where you just have to move on. He hopes I make the right decision for myself, one way or the other."

The Vikings will hold their first practice in Mankato on July 30. No one has expected Favre – healthy or not – to be at camp while the Vikings are in Southern Minnesota (they break camp on Aug. 12), but Favre made it clear to USA Today that he would like to play a 20th NFL season if the ankle gets better.

"After almost nine weeks, it's not where I would like it to be, but I'm working at it," said Favre, who had arthroscopic surgery in late May. "Maybe it never gets to where I want it to be. Forty years old... three surgeries... that's all you need to know."

This isn't like last offseason, when Favre was dealing with the effects of having surgery on a torn biceps in his throwing arm. In fact, Favre informed Childress in late July 2009 that he would not play but changed his mind on Aug. 18.

That worked out pretty well, as the Vikings went 12-4, won the NFC North and advanced to the conference championship game. Favre had one of the best seasons of his career, throwing 33 touchdown passes and a career-low seven interceptions.

It wouldn't be surprising if a similar scenario played out this year. Childress has made it clear all offseason that there is a different set of rules for Favre.

All the Vikings really want is for Favre to be ready by the Sept. 9 regular-season opener in New Orleans.

Favre, meanwhile, figures to continue throwing to receivers at Oak Grove High School in order to get his arm into shape and also test his ankle.

Meanwhile, the wait will continue.

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