NFC North Training Camp Battles

The rest of the NFC North joins the Vikings in starting training camp this weekend. We take an in-depth look at the positional breakdowns for each of the division's teams.

CHICAGO BEARS


QUARTERBACK: Starter — Rex Grossman. Backups — Jonathan Quinn, Craig Krenzel, Ryan Dinwiddie.

A total of six NFL starts among all four QBs does not inspire a great deal of confidence. Grossman appears to possess the winning QB characteristics that have been in short supply for most of the last 15 years, or since Jim McMahon's short-lived prime. Grossman lacks prototypical size and doesn't have a rocket arm, but he showed the ability to throw almost every type of pass necessary last season and with timing and touch. He won't be a factor as a runner, but he has enough agility to escape the initial rush and buy time in the pocket. Quinn knows the system, having spent two years practicing it in Kansas City, although he rarely took a snap in a regular-season game. Krenzel has the smarts to pick up the system quickly and says he's committed to playing in the NFL despite possessing the intelligence to flourish in more cerebral professions.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters — RB Thomas Jones, FB Bryan Johnson. Backups — RB Anthony Thomas, RB Brock Forsey, RB Rabih Abdullah, RB Adrian Peterson, FB Jason McKie.

The stocky and speedy Jones will have an opportunity to play the Priest Holmes role in offensive coordinator Terry Shea's version of the Chiefs' offense. That means he'll be a frequent target in the passing game, although not necessarily as a down-the-field receiver. Coaches insist there is a job for Thomas, a 1,000-yard rusher in two of his three seasons, but it may not be one that will satisfy the workhorse's appetite for action. He could be used as a short-yardage runner since he lacks the explosiveness of Jones but is capable of moving the pile. Forsey and Abdullah have value as special-teams players but are strictly backup types as runners. Peterson has some wiggle but didn't show much toughness last season when he missed the final 10 games with a sprained ankle.

TIGHT END/H-BACK: Starter — Desmond Clark. Backups — Dustin Lyman, John Gilmore, Robert Johnson.

Clark is the best pass catcher of the bunch, easily capable of exceeding the 44 catches and 433 yards he had last season. Lyman seems to get hurt every time he starts playing well. Last season it was a bruised spleen that knocked him out of the final seven games. Gilmore has enough size to block effectively, and his hands aren't bad. Johnson has more size and maybe more potential than any of the group but seems to always be hurt.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters — Marty Booker, David Terrell. Backups — Justin Gage, Bobby Wade, Jamin Elliott, Daryl Jones, Bernard Berrian, Ahmad Merritt.

Booker has been the go-to guy the last three years, but he hobbled through much of last season with a sprained ankle and fractured ribs. It remains to be seen if he will be as integral in the new scheme, but for now he's clearly the No. 1 option. Terrell is a starter waiting to be replaced because he's never played as good of a game as he talks. Terrell may just be too lacking in speed and quickness to get separation at the NFL level. His work habits have also been questioned. As rookies last season, Gage showed a propensity for getting open deep and Wade appeared to have a knack for working underneath. Elliott was originally a Bears seventh-round draft choice in 2002. He spent most of last season on the Patriots practice squad and is still somewhat of a project, but he has excellent speed. Jones and the rookie Berrian could provide the speed factor that the Bears have missed recently. Merritt is also a deep threat but has been an inconsistent catcher.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters — LT Qasim Mitchell, LG Rex Tucker, C Olin Kreutz, RG Ruben Brown, RT John Tait. Backups — T-G Steve Edwards, T Aaron Gibson, G-T Mike Gandy, G-T Terrence Metcalf, C-G Josh Warner.

The front line has been strengthened with the addition of coveted UFA Tait, who could be switched over to LT if Mitchell, the only question mark, falters. Brown adds the experience of a seven-time Pro Bowler while taking over for free-agent departee Chris Villarrial. Tucker will be a welcome addition if he can stay healthy after two years of injuries. Kreutz is among the best in the NFL at his position and the inspirational leader of the line. Tait is a standout at RT and more than solid at LT. Because of injuries last season, several of this year's backups received extensive playing time. Edwards started all 16 games at left guard after Tucker was hurt in the preseason finale. Gibson started all 16 games at right tackle. Gandy, normally a guard, started 10 games at left tackle.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters — LE Michael Haynes, LT Alfonso Boone, RT Bryan Robinson, RE Alex Brown. Backups — T Tommie Harris, T Tank Johnson, E Joe Tafoya, E Claude Harriott, T Tron LaFavor, T Ian Scott.

Haynes gets a chance to be the man after seeing spot duty and showing only flashes last season following his selection in the first round of the 2003 draft. Boone is a journeyman and a stopgap starter who should be replaced by one of this year's top two choices. Ditto Robinson, whose best days appear to be in the past but is still a solid run defender. Brown could be special if his weight loss provides added quickness and helps him take the next step as a pass rusher. He has been much better than advertised as a run defender. Harris and Johnson are the quick, athletic DTs that the Bears' new defensive scheme craves. They should be significant contributors sooner rather than later. Tafoya is a try-hard, pass-rush type, and Harriott is capable of providing a pass-rush presence.

LINEBACKERS: Starters — SLB Joe Odom, MLB Brian Urlacher, WLB Lance Briggs. Backups — Bryan Knight, Hunter Hillenmeyer, Leon Joe.

Briggs' aggressive hitting was a pleasant surprise last season when he started 13 games as a rookie. Urlacher went to his fourth straight Pro Bowl, but the big plays that have characterized his game were absent for most of the season. Odom is well suited to play in the offense because he has excellent speed and cover ability, but it remains to be seen if the 2003 sixth-round pick is the long-range answer. He played better than expected last season in three starts while filling in for injured Warrick Holdman. More big plays are expected in the new scheme from Urlacher and from all the linebackers. Knight was a flop as a starter last season because he lacks strength and size at the point, but he can run and play special teams. Hillenmeyer led the nation in tackles in his senior season at Vanderbilt and has gotten lots of playing time in situational defenses in the offseason. Joe is another player geared to the new system. He's undersized but can fly.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters — CB Charles Tillman, CB Jerry Azumah, FS Mike Brown, SS Mike Green. Backups — CB R.W. McQuarters, S Bobby Gray, CB Nathan Vasher, CB Todd McMillon, CB Brock Williams.

With McQuarters, the Bears figure they have three starting-caliber corners, and he could end up playing ahead of Azumah. Both of them were benched at one time last season, while rookie Charles Tillman emerged as the team's best cover corner and a player to build around. Brown is looking for a rebound to his 2002 form, when he seemed always to be around the ball. Gray could end up taking Green's spot, especially if the Bears can afford to play him near the line of scrimmage like an extra linebacker, which is how he plays best. Green is the better player in coverage. If Vasher steps up early as a rookie, McQuarters and his big contract could be vulnerable. McMillon and Williams have both played well as extra DBs in passing situations, and McMillon is an excellent special-teams player.

SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Paul Edinger, P Brad Maynard, LS Pat Mannelly, H Maynard, KOR Jerry Azumah, PR R.W. McQuarters.

Edinger and Maynard are both looking to bounce back after subpar seasons in which both struggled with consistency. Edinger's rare failures on routine kicks played a major role in two narrow defeats, but he has always been a clutch performer in the past and has shown a strong leg on long field goals, even though his kickoffs lack distance and hang time. Mannelly is one of the best in the business and also contributes as a tackler on special teams. Azumah went to the Pro Bowl and is a legitimate home run threat, as is McQuarters. The Bears will stick with them if they continue to show that they are clearly superior to the competition, but they would like to have a young non-starter emerge to challenge the veterans or at least give them a breather now and then. Rookies Bernard Berrian and Nathan Vasher are the top candidates.



DETROIT LIONS

QUARTERBACK: Starter — Joey Harrington. Backups — Mike McMahon, Rick Mirer, Curt Anes, Jason Fife.

It is generally agreed that Harrington has to step up his play in his third NFL season after a generally bland first two years in the NFL. With the addition of rookie RB Kevin Jones and young WRs Charles Rogers and Roy Williams, he will have more weapons than he has had the first two seasons, and that should make a difference. If he can play as well as he did when coach Steve Mariucci challenged him in the final game of the 2003 season (26 of 36 for 238 yards and three touchdowns with one interception), Harrington could be a good one. He might have to become more of a risk-taker, however, and he has not shown a tendency to do that very often. McMahon remains an intriguing player because of his swagger and his ability to keep a play alive by running, but his passing accuracy has been horrible (42.3 percent), which makes him a liability in the West Coast offense. Mirer replaces Ty Detmer as the veteran No. 3 quarterback.

RUNNING BACKS: Starter — Kevin Jones, FB Cory Schlesinger. Backups — Artose Pinner, Shawn Bryson, Olandis Gary, Paul Smith, Avon Cobourne, FB Stephen Trejo, FB Keith Belton.

With James Stewart gone, the Lions will take their chances with two young, inexperienced running backs — Jones, a first-round draft pick last April, and Pinner, a fourth-round pick a year ago. Because of his speed and quickness, Jones could be something special, a worthy successor to former Lions first-round running backs Billy Sims and Barry Sanders. Pinner missed most of the 2003 season recovering from a broken leg but could be a good change-of-pace back. He's big, strong and runs hard. Bryson could help on third-down situations. Schlesinger's bruising style as a blocking back is taking its toll, but he should be good for at least one more season.

TIGHT END/H-BACK: Starter — Stephen Alexander. Backups — Casey FitzSimmons, John Owens, Matt Brandt.

The addition of Alexander, signed as a free agent late in the spring, gives the Lions the closest thing to a full-service tight end they've had in several years. He has the ability to find a seam and get down the field as a receiver, and he is an adequate-to-good blocker. FitzSimmons catches the ball well in the short-to-medium routes, and Owens is used primarily as a blocker.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters — Charles Rogers and Roy Williams. Backups — Tai Streets, Scotty Anderson, Az-Zahir Hakim, David Kircus, Reggie Swinton, Eddie Drummond, Trevor Gaylor, Tim Van Zant, George Wilson.

The Lions believe they have the makings of a set of receivers capable of thriving in the West Coast offense. Rogers got off to a good start as a rookie but suffered a broken collarbone and didn't play after the first five games. If the break was an individual incident and not an indication that he is fragile, the Lions will breathe easier. Williams, like Rogers a high first-round pick, is considered a can't-miss prospect with size, speed and big-play ability. Although he has much to learn, the Lions believe he'll be ready for the season opener Sept. 12 at Chicago. Streets, a veteran of Mariucci's offensive system in San Francisco, provides a good No. 3 threat, and Hakim, whose injuries and temperament have limited his effectiveness the last two years, will be used in three- or four-receiver sets.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters — LT Jeff Backus, LG Matt Joyce, C Dominic Raiola, RG Damien Woody, RT Stockar McDougle. Backups — C/G Tyrone Hopson, G Josh Lovelady, G David Loverne, G David Miller, T Kelly Butler, T Ben Johnson, T Victor Rogers, C Dave Pearson, G Branden Hall, G Kaulana Noa, G Zach Wilson, T Matt McCoy.

The Lions had to improve their running game, which explains why president Matt Millen made Woody his top free-agent target of the past offseason. Woody's ability to pull and lead the play should make the Lions more explosive, especially if rookie RB Kevin Jones lives up to expectations. The only question mark is at LG with Joyce, a veteran who has filled in at several OL positions. The rest of the line is solid. The Lions gave up an NFL-low 11 sacks last season, but that was as much the result of Harrington getting rid of the ball on time as it was good pass blocking. Depth could be a problem. Aside from Loverne, the Lions have very little experience among the backup players.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters — LE Robert Porcher, DT Dan Wilkinson, DT Shaun Rogers, RE James Hall. Backups — DE Kalimba Edwards, DE Jared DeVries, DT Kelvin Pritchett, DT Cory Redding, DE Patrick Kabongo, DE Andrew Shull, DT Ahmad Childress, DT Colin Cole.

The most settled area of the team. The inside pair of Wilkinson and Rogers gives the Lions approximately 700 pounds of run-stopping ability and, although he's 34 years old, Pritchett is still a capable backup in the D-line rotation. Porcher is back for his 13th NFL season but is likely to get less playing time this year. Hall has developed into a solid NFL player, capable of playing at either end of the line and holds up well against the run. The Lions need Edwards to deliver the pass rush they were lacking last year. DeVries is a blue-collar backup who is seldom out of position, and Redding is expected to get increased playing time in his second NFL season.

LINEBACKER: Starters — OLB Boss Bailey, MLB Earl Holmes, OLB James Davis. Backups — Teddy Lehman, Wali Rainer, Donte' Curry, Alex Lewis, Andrew Battle, Scott Genord.

Except for Holmes, the linebacking corps figures to be extremely young and fairly inexperienced. Bailey, a prize pick in the 2003 draft, started all 16 games as a rookie and — if he continues to improve as well as he has — could be very good. He is extremely athletic, runs well and makes plays. Lehman, a second-round pick this year, has the athletic ability to push Holmes for the Mike position but still has a lot to learn. The Will OLB job is up for grabs, with second-year man James Davis lining up with the No. 1 unit going into training camp. Lewis has the speed the Lions like and could compete with Davis.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters — LCB Fernando Bryant, RCB Dre' Bly, SS Brian Walker, FS Brock Marion. Backups — S Terrence Holt, CB Chris Cash, CB Andre Goodman, CB Rod Babers, CB Charles Drake, CB Kenny Heatley, CB Chris Kern, CB Jeff Sanchez, CB Dainon Sidney, CB Keith Smith, S Julius Curry, S Bracy Walker, S Clifford Johnson.

The addition of veterans Bryant and Marion give the Lions some depth and stability in an area that became a major cause for concern last season. Bly, who was selected as a Pro Bowl starter in his first year with the Lions, has emerged as the natural leader and a very confident playmaker. Brian Walker has not given the Lions the quality play they expected, but perhaps he will be more productive now that he's paired again with his former Miami teammate, Brock Marion. Holt, Cash and Goodman provide more depth than the Lions had last year, when both Cash and Goodman were on injured reserve. Babers and Smith, a third-round draft pick, are young players with some potential. Sidney and Bracy Walker are experienced backups.

SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Jason Hanson; P Nick Harris; LS Bradford Banta; H Nick Harris; KOR Eddie Drummond; PR Eddie Drummond. Backups — LS Jody Littleton; PR/KOR Reggie Swinton.

Hanson, starting his 13th season, has shown no signs of weakening either on kickoffs or with his field goal accuracy. Harris wasn't particularly impressive as last year's replacement for John Jett (retired after a calf injury), but special teams coach Chuck Priefer believes in him and Hanson has confidence in him as a holder, so he's solid as the punter. Drummond is lightning in a bottle when he's healthy enough to return kicks and punts; when Drummond is hurt Swinton gives them an all-or-nothing backup.




GREEN BAY PACKERS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter — Brett Favre. Backups — Tim Couch, Doug Pederson, Craig Nall.

Favre will be 35 in October and is coming off a streaky season. He still forces too many passes and was at fault for 18 1/2 of his 22 interceptions in 18 games last year. His 18-game rating of 90.8 was one of his best in recent years. Did a lot of handing off in midseason but proved he still had the nerve and accuracy to go downtown in the final month. The signing of Couch, a former Browns starter, means Pederson, 36, and Nall, a third-year man, will be battling for one job. Pederson's edge is that he holds for placekicker Ryan Longwell. Nall had an up-and-down offseason. Don't be surprised if Pederson makes the team and is active on game days to hold even though Couch would be the long-term replacement if Favre were to go down.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters — RB Ahman Green, FB William Henderson. Backups — RB Najeh Davenport, RB Tony Fisher, FB Nick Luchey, RB Dahrran Diedrick.

This is the strongest position on the roster. Green is coming off another Pro Bowl season. Power, speed, toughness, blitz pickup — he has it all. He even curtailed his fumbling in the second half of the season. Davenport proved to be a beast in 2003 when used in limited fashion. He's a 250-pound banger with more wiggle and elusiveness than tacklers realize. Fisher is a rock-solid No. 3. Henderson withstood the challenge of Luchey in ‘03 and looked better in the minicamps. Henderson blocked better than he did in ‘02 but started to drop too many passes. Luchey just needs to get in better shape. He has everything else.

TIGHT END/H-BACKS: Starter — Bubba Franks. Backups — David Martin, Steve Bush, Tony Donald.

West Coast teams would prefer a better down-the-field threat than Franks, but the Packers seem stuck with him long-term. He hasn't had a reception longer than 24 yards since November 2001. Great hands and concentration. Able to block defensive ends but misses too many blocks at the point and backside. Martin is blocking better than he did earlier in his career, but his promise as a deep threat has never materialized. Bush, the former Cardinal, also can long snap. Donald tore it up in NFL Europe but remains raw. He played linebacker in Green Bay's camp last summer.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters — SE Robert Ferguson, FL Donald Driver. Backups — Javon Walker, Carl Ford, Antonio Chatman, Scottie Vines, Frank Rice, Devin Lewis.

Driver had an excellent season in 2002 but was a non-factor a year ago as the nominal No. 1 receiver in an offense quarterbacked by Brett Favre. Didn't make the tough catch on a consistent basis and offered next to nothing after the catch. Walker, a first-round pick in 2002, made big plays down the field in the second half of the season. His average per catch of 17.5 yards was second in the NFL among players with more than 25 receptions. He's a long strider who tends to bump into defenders and gets knocked off against zone coverage. Big, fast and strong. Ferguson has improved each of his three seasons. He is fearless in traffic, runs better than average on the deep patterns and has nice hands. He just isn't polished. There is no other wideout of merit on the roster. Chatman, a kick returner only in ‘03, showed some spark as a receiver in minicamps.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters — LT Chad Clifton, LG Mike Wahle, C Mike Flanagan, RG Marco Rivera, RT Mark Tauscher. Backups — T-G Kevin Barry, G-C Grey Ruegamer, T Steve Morley, C Scott Wells, T Brennan Curtin, G Atlas Herrion.

This might be the finest group in the NFL. There is no weak link. Clifton probably is the least effective run blocker but makes up for it by being a very, very talented pass blocker. He's agile, graceful and extremely quick in his pass sets. The Packers never have to give him double-team help. Rivera went to the Pro Bowl for the second straight season after playing at a phenomenally high level for the first 11 games. He was merely good after that. He pretty much owned Philadelphia's Corey Simon, San Francisco's Bryant Young and Tampa Bay's Warren Sapp near midseason. Rivera is known for his legendary toughness, but each year he has gotten better in protection. Wahle is a much better athlete than Wahle and might well have been the best offensive lineman in the NFC North last season. He runs well, packs a big punch coming around the corner on counters and anchors better now against bull rushers. Tauscher bounced back from ACL surgery and started every game. He didn't move quite as well as he had in the past but made no excuses and did a decent job. Flanagan is a cerebral player with bountiful athletic ability. He sorts out all the movement at the line and doesn't make many pre-snap mistakes. Barry operated mainly as the second tight end in run packages and meted out more punishment on a down-to-down basis than anyone else on the roster. He worked mostly at guard in the spring. The Packers would like to find someone better than Ruegamer as an interior backup. Wells, a seventh-round pick from Tennessee, has short arms but is strong as a bull.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters — LE Aaron Kampman, NT Grady Jackson, 3T Cletidus Hunt, RE Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila. Backups — LE Chukie Nwokorie, 3T Kenny Peterson, NT James Lee, DT Donnell Washington, LE Corey Williams, E Tyrone Rogers, 3T Cullen Jenkins.

Joe Johnson was cut and Jamal Reynolds was cut after his trade to Indianapolis was voided after a failed physical. Also gone are nose tackles Gilbert Brown and Rod Walker. Kampman played much better than Johnson at power end and is fairly entrenched as a starter. He plays hard and diagnoses plays exceptionally well. The Packers just wish he had more pass rush. Gbaja-Biamila played way too many plays (87 percent) and faded late in games. He is a one-dimensional speed rusher who is relentless in his approach. His run defense is shaky. Nwokorie can play both ends but is coming off a serious wrist injury. Williams, a sixth-round pick from Arkansas State, is a pretty good athlete and has nice size. He figures at power end or three technique. Clearly, it's a thin list at both end and tackle. Hunt was a disruptive force in the backfield on one or two plays every quarter. What drives coaches up the wall is he doesn't do it all the time. He has big-time ability. Jackson might have been the most valuable player on the entire defense after being claimed on waivers Nov. 3. He has great short-area burst and enormous power. However, he also had arthroscopic knee surgery in February and wasn't able to do much this offseason. Peterson, a third-round pick in ‘03, is on the small side and has marginal ability. Lee sat out the year after being injured in the first practice of training camp but worked hard in the weight room. Washington, a third-round pick from Clemson, has all-world ability but doesn't know how to use it. Rogers is a hard worker with more pass rush than run-stop ability.

LINEBACKERS: Starters — SLB Hannibal Navies, MLB Nick Barnett, WLB Na'il Diggs. Backups — WLB Marcus Wilkins, SLB Paris Lenon, MLB Torrance Marshall, MLB Armegis Spearman, WLB Steve Josue, MLB Tyreo Harrison.

Everyone returns. The starters are adequate. The backups are weak. Navies stayed healthy for the first time in his five-year career in ‘03 and held up well over the tight end. Injuries and the adjustment factor caused Diggs to have somewhat of a disappointing season in his first year on the weak side. He is a linear athlete who must improve in both man and zone coverage. Barnett led the team in tackles with 134 and played almost every snap. He had speed to a semi-slow defense, made more than his share of big plays and tackled OK. However, he's small and gets bounced against the interior run, and his coverage was too inconsistent. Harrison will get a chance to win the backup job in the middle because he's smart and was productive as a senior at Notre Dame.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters — LC Mike McKenzie, RC Al Harris, SS Darren Sharper, FS Mark Roman. Backups — FS Marques Anderson, CB Ahmad Carroll, CB Michael Hawthorne, CB Joey Thomas, CB Chris Johnson, SS James Whitely, SS Bhawoh Jue, FS Curtis Fuller.

McKenzie, a rugged face-up tackler and competitor, has threatened to sit out the season if he isn't traded. The Packers hope that cooler heads prevail and he returns in time for the start of regular-season paychecks in September. Harris, 29, is a lost step away from being out of the league. He loves to push and pester in the bump zone but gets in trouble when playing off. Carroll, a first-round pick, and Thomas, a third-round choice, were drafted as protection against the loss of McKenzie. Carroll is a shade under 5-10 but runs well and competes. Thomas has prototypical size but played in Division I-AA at Montana State and has a long way to go. Both can run. Hawthorne comes back after holding up well as dime back from Week 5 on. Sharper is one of the premier safeties on paper but didn't have one of his better years. Roman, a former Bengal, has been a more accurate tackler than Anderson and should win the job as a result. Neither one makes big plays, although Anderson did fall into a few as a rookie. Jue, a converted corner, was impressive at safety in minicamps.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Starters — K Ryan Longwell, P B.J. Sander, H Doug Pederson, LS Rob Davis. Backup — P Travis Dorsch.

Longwell is coming off one of his finest years. He is deadly accurate despite the conditions. His only shortcoming is kickoffs. The Packers let Josh Bidwell sign with Tampa Bay and traded up to draft Sander in the third round. Sander started only as a senior at Ohio State. He's better directionally than in terms of leg strength. Dorsch, a former fourth-round pick, has a stronger leg than Sander but wasn't as consistent or as controlled as Sander in minicamps. Pederson and Davis handle their jobs well.



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