Three NFC North teams, three goals each

The Vikings' competition in the NFC North will be looking to unseat them from their divisional crown. It starts with training camp, where we list three goals for each of the Vikings' NFC North competition.


  • Find a left guard: Last season it was Frank Omiyale, but he was so unimpressive that Josh Beekman was given a four-week look-see in the middle of the season. This year, Omiyale has been moved to right tackle, leaving Beekman as the favorite to reclaim the spot he held for all 16 weeks in 2008. But Johan Asiata, an undrafted rookie free agent last year who spent the season on the practice squad, and Lance Louis, a seventh-round pick in 2009, will get long looks during training camp. Even veteran tackle Kevin Shaffer took some snaps at left guard in the offseason, but he is expected to remain strictly a backup tackle. While Beekman is listed as 6-2 and 310 pounds, he appears undersized, and the Bears would like a bigger body and a more physical presence at that spot. If Beekman is to claim the job, he'll have to do it by playing to his strengths, which are smarts, technique and tenacity. The 6-3, 305-pound Louis is a better athlete and appears to have more room for growth and a bigger upside, but he's still pretty raw. Asiata, a 6-4, 300-pounder out of UNLV, could surprise if he continues the improvement he has shown in the past year.

  • Get some continuity at safety: Since Lovie Smith took over in 2004, there have been 40 lineup changes at safety - 20 at free and 20 at strong. The position appears no more settled heading into training camp after an offseason in which trade acquisition Chris Harris spent most of his time starting at free safety, even though he's been a strong safety most of his career. Danieal Manning spent the offseason lining up with the starters at strong safety, even though he's almost always been a free safety. Third-round draft pick Major Wright is also in the mix and will have a chance to win a starting job in camp. As a rookie last year, Al Afalava started 13 games, 10 at strong safety and three at free. He seemed to fall out of favor late in the season, but he's still a contender, along with Craig Steltz, a fourth-round pick in 2008. The problem has been and remains that most of the Bears' safeties are better playing in the box and less effective in pass coverage, where they lack athleticism and the ability to make plays on the ball.

  • Determine a pecking order at wide receiver: Devin Hester and Earl Bennett posted nearly identical numbers last year, but rookie Johnny Knox had as many touchdown catches (five) as both of them combined. And Devin Aromashodu was the team's leading receiver in the final four games of 2009 by a wide margin, with 22 catches, 282 yards and four touchdowns. Undersized Rashied Davis has more experience than any of them and is the most precise route runner, while 2009 third-round pick Juaquin Iglesias made strides in the offseason after playing in just one game as a rookie. Hester and Knox are the fastest and have the most big-play ability, but Aromashodu is almost as fast and, at 6-2, provides the kind of big target that quarterback Jay Cutler craves. Bennett and Iglesias have the size and strength for working underneath that the others lack.


  • Finding a rhythm on offense: Last season, Matthew Stafford became the first rookie quarterback to start a season opener for the Lions since 1968. But his season was derailed by injuries, first with a knee injury in Week 4 at Chicago and later with a separated shoulder initially suffered in the comeback win over Cleveland on Nov. 22.

    Stafford still made 10 starts as a rookie, but his practice time was severely limited after October. And coupled with nagging injuries to No. 1 receiver Calvin Johnson that began in training camp, the offensive trigger men barely had time to get a feel for each other in 2009. Nurturing the chemistry developed in their first full offseason together will be a priority in camp for the Lions.

    "He's communicating with the receivers more; I think that's big," general manager Martin Mayhew said of Stafford. "And he's developing a good rapport with Calvin, which is important."

    He's starting to do the same with three other new pieces in rookie running back Jahvid Best, receiver Nate Burleson and tight end Tony Scheffler. Training camp also will be the first chance for running back Kevin Smith and tight end Brandon Pettigrew to join team drills after undergoing ACL surgeries last December.

  • Someone has to be the safety valve: The Lions' overhauled secondary is the team's primary concern heading into training camp. Nowhere is that more evident than at strong safety, one of the weakest links last season in a defense that ranked last in the NFL.

    Louis Delmas, coming off an impressive rookie season, looks like an emerging young star at free safety. But finding a starter opposite him is imperative if the Lions are to capitalize on the offseason upgrades in their front four.

    "We need someone to step up and really grab hold of that position," coach Jim Schwartz said.

    C.C. Brown was signed as a free agent after getting cut by the Giants. And though he had his struggles in New York, he could be the choice once he's comfortable in the new scheme in Detroit. Jonathan Hefney, a CFL rookie standout last fall, also got a long look with the first unit in OTAs this spring. Ko Simpson, Marvin White and Marquand Manuel all are back after starting at different times last season, but Simpson is still working his way back from microfracture knee surgery in January.

  • Time to man up: The faces are almost completely new at cornerback. Gone are three of last year's top four corners in Phillip Buchanon, Anthony Henry and Will James.

    The Lions traded for a three-year starter in Chris Houston, who'd fallen out of favor in Atlanta, and he was paired with free-agent signee Jonathan Wade for most of the offseason as the first-team tandem. That could change with the recent signing of veteran Dre' Bly, who joins holdover Eric King and rookie third-round pick Amari Spievey in competing for playing time.

    But what'll be interesting to watch in camp - and especially in preseason games - is how much more aggressive the Lions are in utilizing press coverage. That was a point of emphasis all offseason, and the moves the team made were designed to add cornerbacks with more speed and better man-to-man coverage skills.

    "If you let a receiver run free, he'll find a way to beat you," Wade said. "In press, you're right there with him and get ‘involved' with him. It's a more aggressive way to play."


  • Handle with care: Wide receiver Donald Driver, the longest-tenured Packer entering his 12th season, called quarterback Aaron Rodgers the face of the franchise this summer. Veteran cornerback Charles Woodson followed by saying Rodgers is the best quarterback in the game, with a disclaimer that he must have time to throw the football.

    If the Packers are going to make a run toward the NFC championship and a berth in the Super Bowl, they can't have a repeat of the league-high 50 sacks Rodgers endured last season. Rodgers still managed to throw for career highs of 4,434 yards and 30 touchdowns with only seven interceptions and earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl.

    All of the pieces seemingly are in place up front to better protect Rodgers — he says the offensive line is the deepest in his six years with the club. Yet, the Packers still need to solidify their starting five.

    Up for grabs is left guard between incumbent Daryn Colledge and good friend Jason Spitz, who missed most of last season with a back injury.

  • In a rush: An inconsistent pass rush haunted an otherwise solid Green Bay defense down the stretch last season, when it was gashed for big pass plays by the Pittsburgh Steelers and, ultimately, the Arizona Cardinals in a first-round playoff loss.

    The Packers mustered 37 sacks in 2009 after having only 27 the previous season. Aaron Kampman accounted for more than a fifth of those with 13 sacks in the two years.

    Kampman isn't a Packer anymore, however, after a decorated eight-year career that included two Pro Bowl selections and 54 sacks, including 40.5 since 2006. Kampman bolted as a free agent for the Jacksonville Jaguars, who have him back at defensive end after his lukewarm move to outside linebacker last season.

    Green Bay is leaning toward Brad Jones to succeed Kampman on the left side, but Jones lacks the pass-rush pizzazz needed to divert some of the opponent's attention that will be given to Clay Matthews on the right side.

    The Packers toyed in the offseason with having starting defensive end Cullen Jenkins play outside linebacker in passing situations in an effort to turn up the pressure on the quarterback.

    Green Bay already is short-handed on the defensive line with starting end Johnny Jolly suspended by the league for the entire season for a violation of the substance-abuse policy.

  • An overdue kick-start: The Packers were far from special on special teams in ‘09, and the most glaring sore spot was punting, which has been an Achilles' heel for the team since it let strong-legged Jon Ryan get away before the 2008 season.

    Jeremy Kapinos averaged just 43.8 gross yards and ranked last in the league with a net average of 34.1 last season.

    Green Bay bid adieu to Kapinos and is left with a camp battle between two young and unproven candidates: Chris Bryan and Tim Masthay. Neither has kicked in an NFL game, including the preseason.

    The left-footed Bryan is a product of the Australian Rules Football league, which has given him a leg up in directional kicking. The right-footed Masthay, a top kicker in college at Kentucky, had a cup of coffee with the Indianapolis Colts last preseason.

  • Viking Update Top Stories