Burning issues and big battles

Our NFC North insiders take us on a tour to preview training camp for the Packers, Bears, Lions and Vikings.

Green Bay Packers

Players report Friday, July 31, to the team's facilities in Green Bay. Camp opens Saturday, Aug. 1. An intrasquad scrimmage will be held at Lambeau Field on Saturday night, Aug. 8. The team has seven two-a-days scheduled in the first 20 days of camp, which will close Sept. 1.

Players to watch

Outside linebacker 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.

Running back 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.

Tight end Jermichael Finley: Maturity has been the catchword 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-feet-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.

Chicago Bears

Players reported to Olivet Nazarene University in far south suburban Bourbonnais on Thursday, July 30. The first practice is Friday, July 31, at 3 p.m. The Bears return to Chicago briefly for a noon practice on Saturday, Aug. 8, and break camp following a 3 p.m. practice on Thursday, Aug. 20.

Players to watch

Brian Urlacher
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher: At 31 years old and entering his 10th NFL season, can Urlacher recapture the form that got him voted to six Pro Bowls in a seven-year stretch from 2000-06?

The Bears certainly seem to think so. And it's not as if the 6-foot-4, 258-pound middle linebacker has fallen on hard times in the past two years. He missed out on the trip to Hawaii in 2007, but led the Bears in tackles and became just the third Chicago player since 1982 to have five sacks and five interceptions in the same season.

Last season was a bit of a downer, though. Urlacher had just 93 tackles, third best on the Bears, and for just the second time in his career he did not finish first or second on the team. The only other time that happened was in 2004, when he missed seven games with various injuries.

His interception total in '08 dropped to two, and he failed to get a single sack for just the second time in his career.

But coach Lovie Smith was pleased with what he saw from Urlacher in the offseason, while admitting that last season was far from his best effort.

"When I say he's back to old form," Smith said, "we haven't performed the way we need to (as a team), period. Brian has been a part of that. But all you can do in the offseason is get your body ready to go. There are no issues with his neck, back or anything like that. He is excited about where our football team is. We feel like we're going to be pretty good and he's one of our leaders."

Urlacher has been dogged by neck and back injuries the past two seasons, and the neck problem required offseason surgery in 2008. But he started all 32 games in '07 and '08, although he has frequently missed practice time to heal nicks and nagging injuries.

The 2009 version of Urlacher could be the healthiest model in some time, and general manager Jerry Angelo believes he could be back to his old Pro Bowl self this year.

"Brian spent the whole offseason here, and that's a big thing to have him train with us," Angelo said. "When he played his best football for us, he was here in the offseason. I feel he can get back to a Pro Bowl level."

This is defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Bob Babich's sixth season with Urlacher, and he's enthused about the possibilities for the coming season.

"Brian Urlacher's had the best spring since I've been here," Babich said on the Bears' website. "I'm very excited about him going into the season. He's a dominant football player, and we feel like he's going to play dominant football this year."

That would go a long way in helping the Bears' defense regain its Super Bowl form of 2006. In 2008 the defense plummeted all the way to No. 30 in passing yards allowed, No. 29 in sacks and No. 21 in total yards allowed.

Cornerback Nate Vasher: "The Interceptor," was rewarded with a Pro Bowl trip following a 2005 season in which he picked off eight passes, and he signed a five-year, $28 million contract extension before the 2007 season.

But, ever since getting the big money, the former fourth-round pick has been a major disappointment. He started just two games in 2007 because of a torn groin muscle and had just one interception. Last season was more of the same, when injuries limited him to seven starts and one pick. He also did not seem nearly as willing to help in run support as he did before cashing in.

In order to secure a spot on the roster, Vasher needs to regain his starting job and the form that helped him pick off 16 passes in his first three seasons.

Positional battle

The Bears are probably deeper in talent at the linebacker spot than anywhere else, and with middle linebacker Brian Urlacher and weak-side Lance Briggs entrenched, that leaves several contenders battling for the starting spot on the strong side.

Pisa Tinoisamoa, who was signed after being cut by the Rams, is the leading contender considering he has been a productive starter in all six of his NFL seasons. But he'll have to win the job, and that might not be easy.

Hunter Hillenmeyer started for four consecutive seasons along with Urlacher and Briggs before losing the job to Nick Roach last season. Roach started the final nine games of the season and displayed the speed and athleticism that the Bears value in their linebackers.

Another contender is fourth-year player Jamar Williams, who was considered a starter in waiting the past two seasons until he was passed by Roach on the depth chart. But the 25-year-old Williams had one of the best offseasons on the team according to coaches, and he wants to do more than excel on special teams, which he has done the past two seasons.

Detroit Lions

The Lions' first practice is on Saturday, Aug. 1. They will practice at Ford Field on Saturday, Aug. 8, and break camp on Wednesday, Aug. 26.

Players to watch

Matthew Stafford
Paul Sancya/Getty Images
Quarterback 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 semiretirement 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.

Defensive end 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-Two team. They played a rigid system and didn't like to blitz. New coach Jim Schwartz likes multidimensional 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.

Safety 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.

Minnesota Vikings

The Vikings reported to training camp in Mankato, Minn., on Wednesday, July 29, and began practices on Thursday, July 31. Training camp will break after practice on Wednesday, Aug. 12. Night practices will be held in Mankato on Aug. 1 and Aug. 7, but there are no scrimmages scheduled.

Players to watch

Percy Harvin
Tom Dahlin/Viking Update
Wide receiver 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.

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

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.

Agree or disagree?: Discuss hot Packers topics in our, free forums. Leave Bill a question in the subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum.

Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.

Packer Report Top Stories