NFC North Players to Follow

The next three weeks will be telling for teams around the division as they try to assess their talent in full-pad practices for the first time since the end of the 2005 season. From aging veterans to injury-prone players to rookies trying to establish themselves, we've got the top scenarios to watch as training camps unfold in the NFC North.

CHICAGO BEARS PLAYERS TO WATCH

  • RB Cedric Benson: The fourth overall pick in 2005 was promoted to the first team for most of the off-season — but only because incumbent Thomas Jones boycotted all "voluntary" activities in an effort to force a trade or get a restructured deal.

    Last season Benson started at a huge disadvantage because of a month-long holdout and never challenged Jones for the job, as the veteran compiled his most productive NFL season, rushing for 1,335 yards. Benson carried just 67 times for 272 yards, as his freshman season was further retarded by a sprained knee in his first start that caused him to miss the next six games. Now, Benson is healthy, he'll be at camp on time, and he knows the offense. But Benson still is not the favorite. There is no chance that Jones won't be in tip-top shape regardless of how much of the off-season program he missed. Jones is a legendary weight room worker, and Benson's mere presence last season seemed to inspire him to new heights.

    Nevertheless, the Bears didn't use such a lofty pick to employ Benson as a backup or a change-of-pace guy. He has always been a workhorse back, and he has always been very productive. Jones enters camp as No. 1, but Benson is probably no worse than 1A, and he could take the job with an impressive preseason.

    Unless Benson is a total bust, he should at least wind up splitting carries in a Bears offense that aspires to be heavily run-oriented.

  • WR Mark Bradley: As a rookie who was originally considered extremely raw because he played just two years of D-1 football and was never a starter, Bradley made huge strides as a pro and was a starter by Week Four. He emerged as a legitimate threat two games later with five catches for 88 yards in the first half, but he suffered a torn ACL later in the game and missed the remainder of the season. He has bounced back well ahead of schedule but is currently behind Bernard Berrian on the depth chart, although that could change as soon as Bradley is 100 percent. Unlike most of the Bears' other receivers, Bradley has all the skills to be a complete receiver and take some attention away from Muhsin Muhammad, who showed his age last season and dropped more passes than a go-to guy should. Bradley is big, strong and fast, and his home-run ability could go a long way toward giving the Bears a legitimate passing game.

  • CB Rickey Manning Jr.: The Bears overpaid for a 5-foot-9 nickel corner with some questionable off-the-field concerns, but if Manning can prevent the kind of torchings that the team suffered at the hands of Steve Smith, maybe he's worth $21 million. Manning believes he is capable of starting, although it would be difficult imagining him playing ahead of Charles Tillman and especially Pro Bowler Nate Vasher. He's a pricey insurance policy, but if he turns out to be the piece that elevates the Bears' defense from excellent to Super Bowl quality, he'll be worth the money.

  • QB Brian Griese: Brought in as the backup to Rex Grossman, Griese could be playing sooner than later if the starter's injury history is any indication. Griese brings a much greater level of experience to the table, and his past performance as a starter has some team observers believing he's already better qualified to be the Bears' starter.


    DETROIT LIONS PLAYERS TO WATCH

  • LB Ernie Sims: The issue is not whether Sims is capable of playing at an NFL level as much as whether he will be able to avoid the string of concussions that marked his career at Florida State.

    The Lions say that Sims was cleared by the team of medics that examined him and his medical records during the NFL scouting combine. Team president Matt Millen said he would not have drafted Sims in the first round if he had not been cleared by the Lions medical staff.

    The fact remains, however, that Sims had no less than five concussions at Florida State and his aggressive, hard-nosed style of play makes him a candidate for head injuries.

    If he can indeed avoid additional injuries, Sims brings the type of play the Lions have been lacking in recent years and the style that is sure to be appreciated by coach Rod Marinelli.

    Sims has been compared to Tampa Bay All-Pro linebacker Derrick Brooks and the Lions defensive staff feels he can be extremely effective as a weak-side linebacker, capable of running down plays all over the field and also handling coverage assignments.

    Sims still has to win a job, however. Marinelli and defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson didn't give him the No. 1 job in mini-camp and he won't get it in training camp unless they feel he has earned it.

  • RB Kevin Jones: Jones had an impressive rookie season in 2004 with 1,133 yards rushing, including 906 in the final eight games of the season, but he has yet to prove he is a consistent, every-down threat with the football.

    Jones has been nicked with minor injuries in his first two seasons and the previous coaching staff never quite bought into him as the back capable of carrying the load. He shared playing time with Shawn Bryson and Artose Pinner, even when he was healthy.

    Bryson is still expected to get playing time because he does the best job in blitz pickup and is also a capable receiver coming out of the backfield.

    Although some still see him as a one-cut running back, Jones seems to give the Lions the best big-play potential and it is expected he will get a chance to establish himself in the Mike Martz offense, which relies greatly on the running game.

  • WR Charles Rogers: This is probably the make-or-break season for Rogers, the former Michigan State receiver who was taken by the Lions with the second pick in the 2003 draft.

    His first three seasons have been a huge disappointment, in part because of elements beyond his control and in part due to his own poor decisions. He suffered a broken collarbone five games into his rookie season and missed the rest of the year; he suffered another broken collarbone in the 2004 season opener and didn't play again all year; and last season he missed four games for violating the NFL's substance abuse rules, then came back with a lackadaisical attitude that didn't endear him to anyone in the franchise.

    It adds up to minimal production (36 catches for 440 yards and four touchdowns in three seasons).

    Despite speculation that the Lions might dump him, it seems Rogers will get at least one more chance. Martz apparently sees in him some of the things Millen thought he saw three years ago — the speed, the ability to make acrobatic catches and the potential for big plays.

    It he doesn't show it quickly, however, and if he doesn't show more effort, it could be the end of his Lions career.

  • DT Shaun Cody: With Dan Wilkinson playing beside Shaun Rogers the Lions had one of the most effective defensive tackle combinations in the NFL last season, but Wilkinson didn't want to start over with a new coach, a new coordinator and new demands on his aging body.

    So Millen reluctantly gave Wilkinson his freedom and now the Lions look to Cody to move into the starting lineup.

    Although the Lions will miss Wilkinson, his mass and his experience, there is an unspoken feeling around the Allen Park headquarters that Cody might actually fit better into Marinelli and Henderson's aggressive defensive system.

    He's young, is quicker and more athletic than Wilkinson could be at this stage of his career, and he can probably do more of the things Marinelli wants from his defensive linemen. And with Rogers getting most of the attention from opposing offensive linemen, Cody will have a chance to show his stuff.


    GREEN BAY PACKERS PLAYERS TO WATCH

  • RB Ahman Green: Perhaps the biggest piece in the Packers' jumbled puzzle on offense won't be ready for the start of camp July 28. Green still is healing from surgery for a torn thigh muscle sustained nine months ago, and it's a precarious injury from which to try to return for a football player.

    The Packers figure to have Green up to speed by mid-August, if not sooner, but there's no telling if he'll bear any resemblance to the four-time Pro Bowl back who was the league's leading ground gainer from 2000 to ‘04. There were signs that Green was beginning to tail off before he got hurt, as he averaged a career-low 3.3 yards — a substantial drop-off of 1.4 yards from what he compiled his first seven years as a pro.

    Green Bay showed good faith that Green, 29, can return to form by re-signing him to a one-year, incentive-laden contract in free agency. If Green can give the Packers a good return on the investment, their foundering running game should be back up to snuff and Brett Favre won't feel obligated to do everything himself, which was the team's undoing in 2005.

  • CB Charles Woodson: Forget about Carmen Sandiego. The burning question in Green Bay the last two months has been, "Where in the world is Charles Woodson?"

    Just a few weeks after getting the Packers to open the coffers and sign the prized free agent to a seven-year, $39 million contract, Woodson bailed on the club after making a cameo appearance at the post-draft minicamp. Supposedly, he was traveling overseas and didn't bother reporting for a second minicamp as well as organized team activities.

    The first order of business for the Packers in camp will be to check Woodson's frame of mind. They need his undivided commitment for at least this season, when Woodson could earn as much as $10 million if he's on his best behavior and on top of his game.

    The latter scenario is as up in the air as the first because Woodson has been damaged goods the last few years, with the production following suit. Keeping Woodson healthy, both physically and mentally, is a must to make Al Harris happy on the other side.

  • WR Greg Jennings: One of the top battles in camp will be for the No. 2 receiver spot. The Packers' trade of disgruntled Javon Walker to Denver on the first day of the draft meant Donald Driver is Favre's go-to guy, but a big void was left to be filled.

    Veterans Robert Ferguson and Rod Gardner will get first crack at being the complementary receiver to Driver, but Jennings is an intriguing rookie prospect. Standing 5-foot-11, he doesn't fit the prototype for receiver in first-year coach Mike McCarthy's version of the West Coast offense. The second-round draft pick out of Western Michigan, though, stood out in off-season workouts with quickness and for being a quick study.

  • P Jon Ryan: The import from Canada will look to pick up at the start of camp where he left off in the off-season work, when he clearly out-kicked incumbent B.J. Sander. Ryan's strong right leg is beyond reproach — he set a Canadian Football League record with a gross average of 50.6 yards last year.

    If Ryan can make headway in fine-tuning his get-off and hang times, Sander's shaky stay in Green Bay won't be much longer.


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