NFC North Tour: Around the Camps

Team insiders update you on the key battles, the top players from last week and a rundown of the rookies. Leading off: the battle at tight end in Green Bay.

Green Bay Packers

BATTLE OF THE WEEK: Coach Mike McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson made the unusual decision to keep five tight ends on the roster at the start of last season. Such a radical move isn't expected when the 53-man list is formed in a few weeks. Beyond standout Jermichael Finley, who has been nicked up most of the preseason thus far with initially a concussion and then a thigh injury, fellow holdovers Tom Crabtree, Ryan Taylor and D.J. Williams have been jostling for playing time. Williams has stood out as a complementary downfield threat to Finley. Crabtree and Taylor, who recently was out with a concussion, are blue-collar players. Andrew Quarless could be the odd man out as he recovers from a severe knee injury sustained eight months ago.

PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Wide receiver Randall Cobb. On the heels of being a playmaker in a dual role as a rookie last season, the opportunities for Cobb to be a multidimensional weapon figure to be greater this season. The speedy and heady Cobb has been on the receiving end of some big throws from Aaron Rodgers the first half of training camp. Cobb led the Packers with four catches for 58 yards, including a 3-yard touchdown reception on a throw from backup Graham Harrell, in the exhibition loss to the Chargers. Cobb will be utilized as a breakaway threat in the slot, and the former college quarterback also gives the Packers ball-carrying potential out of the backfield. What's more, he proved to be one of the league's top kick returners with two runbacks for touchdowns in 2011.

ROOKIE REPORT: Outside linebacker Nick Perry (first round) sacked Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers on the second play of the game Aug. 9 and finished with three tackles in extended playing time. Perry is entrenched as the starter on the left side. ... Cornerback Casey Hayward (second) will have an enhanced role with House sidelined possibly the rest of the preseason. Hayward was getting first-team reps at the right-side spot in practice after the first game. ... Defensive tackle Mike Daniels (fourth) returned to practice Saturday after being out since July 31 because of knee and groin injuries. ... Tackle Andrew Datko (seventh) was getting some first-team looks at left tackle in practice in a rotation with Herb Taylor after the latter struggled as the starting replacement for injured Marshall Newhouse against the Chargers.

Chicago Bears

BATTLE OF THE WEEK: The competition for the starting left tackle job may be back on, after it appeared J'Marcus Webb had won the job, almost by default, from Chris Williams. Webb had gotten all the first-team reps in the week leading up to last Thursday's preseason opener. But he did not impress offensive coordinator Mike Tice with his performance in the game, so much so that he played into the fourth quarter, long after every other starter was resting on the sideline. So Saturday, Williams got some reps on the left side with the first team. He had been occasionally spelling starting right tackle Gabe Carimi, and he played there with the second team Thursday night. Williams has started for the Bears at both tackle positions and at left guard.

PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning shredded the Bears' defense on the opening possession in Thursday night's opener, completing four of six passes for 44 yards. But Bears strong safety Major Wright picked off Manning's seventh pass. It was slightly behind Brandon Stokley and deflected from his grasp where it was picked off the ground by Wright at the 4-yard line. "I feel like I know what I'm doing," Wright said. "I'm just ready for the regular season to kick off." That's significant in that Wright, who is gifted athletically, has not made a habit of being positioned properly in his first two seasons, when he has been in and out of the lineup because of minor injuries and lapses in concentration, alignment and technique.

ROOKIE REPORT: Wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, the second-round pick from South Carolina has been one of the most impressive players in camp from Day One. He led the Bears with four catches and 35 yards in an otherwise lame team effort in the preseason opener. "He was one of the few guys we were pleased with as far as his effort and being able to make plays," coach Lovie Smith said of Thursday night's fiasco. ... On the final play from scrimmage in Thursday's first quarter, first-round pick Shea McClellin chased down Broncos backup quarterback Caleb Hanie for a 10-yard sack. Late in the second quarter, McClellin had a quarterback pressure but, on the next play, he was flagged for a blow to the head when he struck Hanie in the facemask with the crown of his helmet while the quarterback was being sacked by Nate Collins. Late in the third quarter, McClellin's hit on rookie quarterback Brock Osweiler nearly resulted in an interception.

Detroit Lions

BATTLE OF THE WEEK: It's not the most dynamic position battle, but it is important. Veteran Ben Graham and second-year man Ryan Donahue made their initial arguments for the punting job Friday and neither was overly convincing. Donahue got first crack. He had three punts for a 38.7-yard average and 38.7 yard net - but again, he showed the inconsistency that plagued him last season. He had one shank (a 25-yarder) and one blast (48 yards). Graham had four punts for a 38.5 average, but his net was just 25.5 yards. One of his punts was returned for 45 yards. He did stick one inside the 20.

PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Rookie cornerback Bill Bentley has emerged as the likely starter at right cornerback - at least it's his position to lose halfway through camp. He had an eventful first exhibition game Friday, getting burned for 34 yards on the third play from scrimmage, setting up a Lions score with an interception and dropping a sure pick-six. "I was trying to run before I got the ball," he said of the drop. "It wasn't a good play, so I don't want to talk about it. It was supposed to be a good play, but it wasn't. I have to make up for it. I have a lot to improve on in my first NFL game - I have plenty more to go before the regular season." Bentley's fiery competitiveness and unflagging confidence has impressed the coaches. When asked about the Browns coming right after him, he said, "That's a good thing for me, I want them to go at me. I haven't done anything to solidify myself as a shutdown cornerback yet, so I knew they were coming at me. I had to prepare myself to be ready to make plays."

ROOKIE REPORT: Offensive tackle Riley Reiff played left tackle with the second and third units Friday and had mixed results. He was dominant at times on running plays but was less so in pass protection. ... Cornerback Jonte Green showed why he was a late draft pick (sixth round) and why the Lions are still intrigued. He's fast and he can run with just about any receiver. But he's so raw. He hasn't mastered the art of finding the ball in the air. ... Undrafted quarterback Kellen Moore, fighting to convince the Lions they should keep three quarterbacks, didn't make a very strong opening argument. He played the final two series of the first half and the entire second half and generated just three points. He was 4 for 14 for 40 yards with one interception. He was under duress a lot but he also held on to the ball too long. Though he does seem to have command of what he's supposed to do, there's still a gap between knowing what to do and getting it done. ... Rookie linebackers Tahir Whitehead and Travis Lewis played with the second-team defense, an indication that both are ahead of second-year player Doug Hogue.

Minnesota Vikings

BATTLE OF THE WEEK: Second-year receiver Stephen Burton is being given the first crack to start in place of Jerome Simpson when the latter serves his three-game, league-imposed suspension to start the season. That's why he started alongside Simpson as the Vikings chose to sit star receiver Percy Harvin during Friday's 17-6 preseason-opening loss at San Francisco. Burton responded by making a nice 52-yard grab on quarterback Christian Ponder's first pass attempt of the night. "It was good for his confidence that he did that," coach Leslie Frazier said. "Stephen is a guy we really want to be able to take a look at and see how he will respond in game situations. And for him to stay alive on that route when things are covered on the other side is encouraging as well. That wasn't an easy catch that he made. If Christian can deliver the ball on target, that's kind of what you want to see happen." Burton is a player to watch because of how much he's improved since his rookie camp a year ago. Granted, he was awful last summer. But Burton is catching the ball well, running crisp routes and understanding his blocking duties this summer. Burton stands to gain most since rookie Greg Childs went down for the season and possibly his career with torn patellar tendons in both knees a week ago. It also helps that he's younger and cheaper than veteran Michael Jenkins, a 30-year-old who is due to make $2.5 million this year. "With the injury to Greg, we really felt like we needed to find out more about Stephen," Frazier said of the decision to start Burton. "And we need to get more work from him in these remaining preseason games. But that was the thought process. We need to learn more about Stephen in these game situations."

PLAYER OF THE WEEK: We're a long, long way from declaring quarterback Christian Ponder worthy of the 12th overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft. However, he clearly is ahead of where he was last season, when he went 2-8 as a starter while throwing as many interceptions (13) as touchdowns. In Friday's 17-6 preseason-opening loss at San Francisco, Ponder directed scoring drives on the team's first two possessions. Yes, they were field goals. But Ponder also was without running back Adrian Peterson, who is on the physically-unable-to-perform list, and his best receiver, Percy Harvin, who was rested. Ponder was in better control of the offense in practice. He then completed 4 of 9 passes for 80 yards, including a 52-yarder to Stephen Burton on his first attempt. Two players dropped balls.

ROOKIE REPORT: Left tackle Matt Kalil continues to perform beyond his youth. The fourth overall draft pick was exceptional in his preseason debut, a 17-6 loss at San Francisco. Quarterback Christian Ponder had enough time to go to his third option on a 52-yard completion on his first pass. ... Safety Harrison Smith continues to show a nasty side that this defense desperately needs. The first skirmish of camp came when Smith refused to back down when star receiver Percy Harvin got upset with him during a practice. ... Kicker Blair Walsh passed another test as he tries to convince everybody that the team made the right decision by releasing Ryan Longwell. Walsh, a sixth-round pick, made field goals of 26 and 39 yards and also booted a kickoff through the end zone in the preseason opener.


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