NFC North Tour: Key Camps Ahead

These seven players from the Packers' division rivals will help determine how the NFC North race unfolds this season.

In an accompanying piece, Packer Report's Matt Tevsh listed a six-pack of Packers who must jump to the next level. In this piece, our colleagues at The Sports Xchange tell you some of the key players who will help determine the NFC North race.

Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher: The six-time Pro Bowler entered the 2009 regular season healthier than he had been in years, thanks to a surgery-free offseason. But he didn't make it to halftime of the season opener before suffering a dislocated wrist that sidelined him for the remainder of 2010.

Urlacher will enter training camp fully recovered from the wrist injury with no restrictions, but he hasn't been to the Pro Bowl since after the 2006 season and, at 32, there's a good chance that his best years are behind him. But the Bears are still a much better defense with Urlacher on the field, and he does not have a history of being injured. Prior to last season, he had played in all 16 games in eight of his first nine seasons, staring 135 of 137 games.

Bears tight end Greg Olsen: Olsen led the Bears with 60 receptions last season, but new offensive coordinator Mike Martz has traditionally not incorporated the tight end position into his explosive passing attacks. In order to get on the field often enough to catch another 60 passes, Olsen will have to demonstrate that he is a better blocker than he has been in his first three years in the league. Martz wants his tight ends to be blockers first and pass catchers second. Martz admits Olsen is more skilled as a receiver than the tight ends he coached in St. Louis, and the coordinator his scheme is flexible enough to get the ball to the tight end, but he will not compromise on the importance of blocking at that position. For his part, Olsen is adamant that he can block well enough to suit Martz and remain the Bears' No. 1 tight end despite the addition of massive tight end Brandon Manumaleuna, a Martz favorite from his days in St. Louis, who was brought in as a free agent.

Bears quarterback Jay Cutler: The "franchise quarterback," didn't play like one last season, leading the NFL with 26 interceptions in his first year with the Bears.

But the man with the golden arm did fling eight TD passes while allowing just one interception in the final two games, as a young WR corps showed signs of maturing. All the top pass catchers are back this season, and the arrow on each of them is still be pointing up. But, in order for Cutler to return the Bears' investment, he and his receivers will have to have a firm grasp of Martz's thick playbook from the get-go. Cutler will also need better protection than he had last year, and it remains to be seen if the offensive line is improved.

Lions tight ends Tony Scheffler and Brandon Pettigrew: Some wondered why the Lions decided to use a first-round pick on a tight end (Pettigrew) in 2009. The decision to trade away a starting linebacker (Ernie Sims) for another tight end (Scheffler) also raised a few eyebrows this spring.

But the master plan will be in plain sight in August as the Lions' new-look offense leans heavily on the ability of the tight ends — and Scheffler in particular — to create mismatches for opposing defenses. And while the additions of receiver Nate Burleson and running back Jahvid Best add two more playmakers to the mix, the two-tight end sets clearly will be a big part of things.

Scheffler is an athletic, 6-foot-5 target who thrived in Mike Shanahan's offense in Denver, catching 89 passes for 1194 yards and eight touchdowns in 2007 and 2008. Pettigrew tore the ACL in his left knee in the Thanksgiving game against Green Bay. He caught 30 passes for 36 yards and two touchdowns in 11 games. "It just makes defenses declare what they're going to do," quarterback Matthew Stafford said. "If they're going to play nickel against you, then you're going to run the football. If they play base (defense), then you've got good matchups with your tight ends and you can go to the passing game and expose it. If you've got guys that are athletic enough to block and run and catch then it puts defenses in a bind as to what kind of personnel they're going to put out on the field."

Vikings cornerback Benny Sapp: The Vikings signed Sapp to a two-year contract extension this offseason but that doesn't mean he has a primary role nailed down. Sapp has become the Vikings' primary nickel back but will be challenged by corner Asher Allen, a third-round pick in 2009. Allen impressed the coaches with his work this offseason and figures to get a real shot to challenge Sapp. The Vikings need one or both to step up with Cedric Griffin coming off an ACL torn during the NFC title game.

Vikings linebacker E.J. Henderson: Jasper Brinkley filled in admirably last season when Henderson was lost to a broken leg in December. Coach Brad Childress said Henderson is "attacking" his rehabilitation from the injury but it is optimistic to believe he'll be full speed in early August. Henderson is targeting the Sept. 9 opener against New Orleans and said he's likely to participate in most of training camp. Brinkley, though, is one of the most improved players on the defense according to coordinator Leslie Frazier. While he's often a liability in pass coverage, he is a solid run-stuffer and might force his way onto the field on first and second downs.

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

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