Comparing the North: Special teams

The Vikings made improvements on their special teams last year and added a kickoff weapon this year. The other teams in the NFC North are also looking for upgrades at certain positions.

CHICAGO BEARS

PK Robbie Gould, P Brad Maynard, LS Pat Mannelly, KR Danieal Manning, KR Johnny Knox, PR Devin Hester.

Gould is the third-most-accurate kicker in NFL history, with an 85.9 percent success rate. Maynard remains one of the league's best directional kickers. The Bears are so deep in return men, and so well-coached by coordinator Dave Toub, that they can afford to use Hester just on punt returns. Manning led the NFL in kickoff returns in 2008 with a 29.7-yard average. Last year, Knox was second in the league at 29.0.

DETROIT LIONS

K Jason Hanson, K Aaron Pettrey, P Nick Harris, LS Don Muhlbach, KR Derrick Williams, KR Aaron Brown, KR Jahvid Best, PR Nate Burleson.

One of the few coaching changes from last season is special teams coordinator Danny Crossman replacing Stan Kwan, who was fired after the Lions' special teams struggled in 2009. Crossman's fiery, in-your-face style has upped the intensity. But the bigger change comes in personnel, with more speed on coverage units and more candidates to add a spark in the return game. The specialists are set, though Hanson and particularly Harris are trying to shake off subpar performances last season. Who will handle the return duties remains unclear. Williams was drafted to be an immediate contributor in the return game as a rookie, but struggled mightily. Brown won the job, then gave it back twice with too many miscues. Burleson and Dennis Northcutt — if he makes the roster — are veteran options on punt returns, while Best could be a dynamic kick returner if he's not playing a major role as a running back.

GREEN BAY PACKERS

PK Mason Crosby, P Chris Bryan, P Tim Masthay, LS Brett Goode, PR/KOR Will Blackmon.

Besides the battle at safety, the most scrutinized duel in the preseason will be at punter. The Packers want to see what young candidates Bryan and Masthay can do in game situations, so the showdown could last most of camp. The left-footed Bryan has a knack for directional kicking, thanks to his experience of playing in his native Australian Rules Football. The right-footed Masthay had the stronger leg in the offseason. Crosby is determined to make amends for his lackluster efficiency in 2009, when he made 27 of 36 field goals for a career-worst 75 percent. Blackmon is recovered from the season-ending knee injury he suffered in Week 4 and should give the return game a much-needed boost.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS

K Ryan Longwell, KO Rhys Lloyd, P Chris Kluwe, LS Cullen Loeffler, KR Harvin, PR Reynaud, Small, Jaymar Johnson.

Longwell remains an extremely reliable kicker (26 of 28 on field goals and 54 of 55 extra points last season), but he no longer will be handling the kickoff job. That role will go to Lloyd, who most recently had been with Carolina. The Vikings saw what kickoff specialists did last season to neutralize Harvin and decided it would be worth one of the extremely valuable game-day roster spots. Kluwe was 20th in the NFL last season with a net average of 37.8 yards on punts, but the Vikings were pleased with his ability to get enough hang time for the coverage units to get downfield. Harvin emerged as one of the NFL's most dangerous kickoff return men — he made the Pro Bowl as a returner — as he averaged 27.5 yards on 42 returns and had two touchdowns, including a long of 101 yards. Minnesota has yet to have the same luck finding a punt returner. Reynaud averaged 10.3 yards on 30 returns last season and Johnson averaged 8.4 yards on 16 returns. Small returned punts at Ohio State and could get a long look for that job in camp.

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