NFC North Players to Watch

The Vikings have their own question marks heading into training camp, but so do each of the other teams in the NFC North. See what beat writers in each of those towns think about the players to watch and the key battles in their respective training camps.


Players to watch

Quarterback Rex Grossman: As a first-time, full-year starter in 2006, Grossman might have been the NFL's most inconsistent player. He enjoyed dizzying highs when he resembled the franchise player the Bears hope they drafted in the first round in 2003, but he suffered through embarrassing lows when bad decisions left many observers questioning whether he would ever become a quality NFL starter.

Suffice it to say that Grossman will not remain the Bears' starter if he duplicates the 20 interceptions he threw last season, even if he matches the 23 touchdown passes from ‘06. Grossman's expected maturation should benefit from the addition of rookie tight end Greg Olsen, the Bears' first-round draft pick, and the addition of extraordinary return specialist Devin Hester, who has moved from cornerback to wide receiver.

Defensive tackle: Tommie Harris: Still only 24, Harris has already been voted to two Pro Bowls and is regarded among the NFL's elite players at his position. However, he's coming off upper-leg surgery for a torn tendon that ended his ‘06 season after 12 games. In addition, most of his supporting cast from last season is gone. Run-stuffers Ian Scott and Alfonso Boone left as unrestricted free agents and talented but troubled Tank Johnson was released after testing the Bears' patience once too often. The Bears added former 49ers starter Anthony Adams, and they expect solid contributions from Dusty Dvoracek, a third-round pick last year who missed the season with a foot injury.

But, maybe even more so than six-time Pro Bowl MLB Brian Urlacher, Harris is the key to the success of the Bears' defense. If he's back to 100 percent, as expected, Harris commands frequent double teams and can be equally effective against the run and providing pass-rush pressure up the middle.

Running back Cedric Benson: The fourth player selected in the 2005 draft finally has the job of featured runner all to himself after playing behind Thomas Jones the past two seasons. There are two concerns: Benson has been hampered by injuries throughout his NFL career even though he wasn't the starter, and the Bears no longer have the luxury of a backup runner with proven talent.

Benson came on strong in the second half of last season, averaging 5.0 yards per carry over the final seven games of the regular season, but he suffered a sprained knee early in the first quarter of Super Bowl XLI and didn't return.

Key positional battle

Nine-year veteran tight end Desmond Clark is coming off what was arguably the best season of his career, when he was third on the team with 45 catches and 626 yards while tying for the lead with six touchdowns.

But the Bears used their first-round pick on Miami's Greg Olsen, who is bigger and faster with the receiving skills of a wide receiver.

CAMP CALENDAR: The Bears report to Olivet Nazarene University in far south suburban Bourbonnais on July 26, and their first practice is at 3 pm., Friday, July 27. Camp concludes after an 11 a.m. practice on Saturday, Aug. 18. They will return to Chicago on Saturday, Aug. 4, for a 7 p.m. practice at Soldier Field.


Players to watch

Running back Kevin Jones: No one will really know how Jones has recovered from his serious foot injury until he starts cutting hard — and sees how he feels the next morning.

Jones suffered a Lisfranc injury late last season. He tore the tissues that connect the bones in the middle of his left foot. He had everything screwed back together in surgery.

Off-season reports were positive. Jones said he was a little ahead of schedule and hoped to be ready for the season opener Sept. 9 at Oakland.

But this is a tricky injury, and even if Jones is ready for the start of training camp, he will be behind because he missed the off-season program. And he will be battling with new arrivals Tatum Bell and T.J. Duckett.

Guard Damien Woody: Before Woody steps on the field, he will step on the scales. And that will tell us a lot.

Woody has battled weight problems and hasn't been the Pro Bowl player he once was in New England. He went to a weight-loss program at Duke University this off-season and said his goal was to go from 378 pounds to 315.

The last time we saw Woody, he had dropped a significant amount of weight but still had a ways to go. If Woody comes to camp in shape, if he shows good stamina and mobility, he could help improve the offensive line. If not, he could be gone.

The Lions brought in free agent Edwin Mulitalo, and they like the development of Stephen Peterman.

Wide receiver Calvin Johnson: First, the Lions have to sign Johnson. They have been talking to his agent, but they might have to wait for Oakland to sign quarterback JaMarcus Russell first. Though Russell was the No. 1 pick and Johnson No. 2, Johnson was widely considered the best player in the draft. His agent won't forget that.

But whether Johnson is in camp on Day 1 or Day 10, he must be ready to perform right away. The Lions are counting on him to help open up this offense. With Johnson and Roy Williams on the outside, and Mike Furrey and Shaun McDonald inside, offensive coordinator Mike Martz should have a lot of fun.

Key positional battle

Veteran Fernando Bryant is slated to start at right cornerback, but he has been plagued by injuries. Stanley Wilson is slated to start on the left, but he is inexperienced.

There is plenty of opportunity for everyone from veteran Travis Fisher, who played this Tampa Two defense in St. Louis, to a rookie like A.J. Davis.

CAMP CALENDAR: Players report July 25. Practice begins July 26. Camp breaks Aug. 19.


Players to watch

Running back Vernand Morency: He has the skills and intangibles - quickness, vision, elusiveness, tenacity - to be an effective one-cut halfback in Green Bay's zone-blocking scheme. As such, management wasn't compelled to engage in a high-priced bidding battle with Houston for Ahman Green, the Packers' No. 2 all-time leading rusher who bolted for the Texans in free agency.

Still, the Packers went ahead and took Nebraska's Brandon Jackson in the second round of the draft because there's just as many uncertainties attached to Morency.

He lacks experience as a pro with only two years and 142 carries under his belt. He's had little exposure to being a featured back with just three starts, two games with 20-plus carries and one 100-yard outing. Durability is a question mark after being beset with a back injury for a few weeks last season.

Consequently, a platoon between Morency and Jackson, who was only a part-time starter in 2006, seems likely at the start of the season until one can prove capable of toting a full load.

Wide receiver Greg Jennings: Jennings was poised to be among the elite of the 2006 draft class with 20 receptions, three touchdowns and a pair of 100-yard games through Week 5. A subsequent ankle injury sustained at Miami, though, dogged him for the rest of the season, which the second-round pick ended in pedestrian fashion (totals of 45 catches for 632 yards and three touchdowns).

The injury bug cropped up again in the off-season this year, as Jennings missed a chunk of the organized team activities in June because of a hip flexor.

In lieu of the team's not following through on a speculated trade for Randy Moss, Jennings must stay healthy in the No. 2 role to divert blanket coverage from Donald Driver. The Packers don't have a deep target for Brett Favre, so Jennings is the closest thing because of his separation and breakaway speed.

Key positional battle

The kicking job is a toss-up and probably won't be resolved until the end of the preseason. Incumbent Dave Rayner and rookie Mason Crosby are strong-legged equals, so the outcome will ride on who can best harness his power and consistently put the football between the uprights.

Rayner was serviceable in 2006 in the unenviable role of replacement for Ryan Longwell, the Packers' all-time scoring leader. However, Rayner struggled down the stretch when the weather turned miserable, missing six of 20 field-goal attempts in the second half of the season. His season-ending field-goal percentage of 74.3 ranked 26th in the league.

Crosby is the owner of 31 school records at Colorado, including a 60-yard field goal, but kicking in the thin-air environment wasn't always in his favor. He tumbled from being a projected Day 1 pick on draft weekend to the sixth round, where the Packers grabbed him, in the wake of an unbecoming senior season. Crosby made only 19 of 28 field-goal tries, including 2-for-9 from 50-plus yards.

CAMP CALENDAR: Opens July 28 in Green Bay, closes Aug. 28. Like last year, there are eight evening practices on the camp schedule, including July 31 at Green Bay East High School's City Stadium, where the Packers played their home games from 1925 to 1956. A sold-out intrasquad scrimmage is Aug. 4 at Lambeau Field.

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