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Training Camp

NFC North training camp preview: Packers aim to repeat; Vikings reload

With training camps scheduled to begin this month, it's time to get up to speed on all 32 NFL teams. Below his intro, Grant Gordon has the lowdown on position battles, strengths, weaknesses and newcomers in the NFC North.

Chicago Bears
2019 record: 8-8

Most important position battle: Quarterback. An offseason ago, many believed the Bears were en route to becoming a Super Bowl contender -- perhaps only the right kicker away. Alas, Chicago fell from reigning division champ to playoff outsider as its offense sputtered thanks to many factors, with the grizzly's share of blame falling upon much-maligned ex-first-round pick Mitchell Trubisky. So, the Bears pulled off a swap for well-traveled former Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles, and a battle began that day. Neither has played a full regular season, so numbers suggest each of them will start at some point, as Trubisky looks to jump-start a career that never really got going at a high level and Foles takes one more shot at becoming a franchise QB. Foles (never mind that he went 0-4 for a 6-10 Jaguars team last year) is seen by some as the favorite, but perhaps he will kindle a fire in Trubisky that Matt Nagy's offense has yet to do. Either way, this is one of the most high-profile position battles that lies ahead, not just as it relates to Chicago, but the NFL landscape.

Biggest strength: The Khalil Mack-led defensive front. When Mack joined the Bears in 2018, he made an immediate impact, bringing a ferociousness and a legitimacy that had long been absent from the unit. With a certified monster back in the Midway, the Bears' defense was suddenly a dominant and fearsome force they would surely write songs about decades down the line following a collection of titles. Nope -- instead, 2019 happened. Mack's stats waned, but he's still one of the most talented players around, and he impacts a game like few others. The addition of pass rusher Robert Quinn should increase the sack numbers, and the return of a healthy Akiem Hicks might even be more important. Nose tackle Eddie Goldman is an underrated asset up front, having started 46 games over the last three seasons, going about his work in lunch-pail fashion. Sacks (50 to 32) and takeaways (36 to 19) dropped for the Bears in a big way in 2019, though they still allowed less than 20 points per game. Throw in the returns of linebackers Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan from injury, and those numbers figure to trend upward.

Biggest weakness: Offensive line. Despite the cavalcade of criticism heaped upon Trubisky, the Bears' offense was wholly atrocious last season in every which way that wasn't Allen Robinson. That includes the offensive line. Great offensive lines are taken for granted. Bad offensive lines are almost equally overlooked, because standout skill players still somehow succeed or lesser players flounder and draw criticism. In the case of Trubisky, the Bears traded up to select him ahead of Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson in one of the most quickly realized classic blunders of all time. That doesn't change the offensive line's woes, though. Drawing depressing ratings of 29th and 25th from Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus, respectively, the Bears' offensive front allowed 45 sacks (21st in the NFL), and the running game averaged only 3.7 yards per rush (30th). This was a major ill for the Bears that doesn't appear to have been remedied.

Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: Tight ends Jimmy Graham/Cole Kmet. This spot could've been taken by Foles, as well, but for the sake of mixing it up, let's go with two of the 27 (or so) Bears tight ends (it's only nine on the latest depth chart). Trey Burton, who turned a Super Bowl win with the Eagles into a four-year, $32 million deal in Chicago, somehow led all Bears tight ends with just 14 catches in eight games, leading to his release this offseason. Chicago puzzled many with the signing of Graham, whose glory days seem to have come and gone a couple teams ago. The addition became an even greater head-scratcher when the Bears used their first pick of the draft on Notre Dame's Cole Kmet. Kmet feels like he's meant to be with Chicago, though, as a big-bodied, versatile presence who grew up rooting for Da Bears. Note that Trubisky's Pro Bowl 2018 campaign was Burton's best year. And when Foles won the Super Bowl MVP award with the Eagles, he threw the game-winning score to tight end Zach Ertz. Translation: No matter who's quarterbacking the Bears, there's a better chance of success with production from the tight end(s).

Detroit Lions
2019 record: 3-12-1

Most important position battle: Running back. Running back is a position in need of consistent production and contribution if the Lions are to alleviate the burden on Matthew Stafford's shoulders. Last season was emblematic of Detroit's long-standing problems with the running game, as Kerryon Johnson -- who missed eight games -- led the team with a meager 403 yards rushing. Bo Scarbrough, J.D. McKissic and Ty Johnson each got starts in the absence of Kerryon, who's missed 14 games in his two seasons. On the heels of back-to-back 1,000-yard college campaigns, D'Andre Swift offers up fresh legs, fresh potential and a fresh chance at locating a consistent threat out of the backfield. Swift and Kerryon Johnson are each likely to get their share of carries as they vie for lead-back status -- and to end the Lions' streak without a 1,000-yard rusher, which dates back to 2013 (Reggie Bush).

Biggest strength on roster: Quarterback Matthew Stafford. Going 3-4-1 is hardly sensational, but it's in another universe compared to 0-8. That was how the 2019 Lions fared with Stafford and without. Eleven seasons in, Stafford is the Lions' all-time leader in passing yards and touchdowns by spectacular margins. He has been the face of the franchise for some time -- and he's the Lions' best and most important player. Can he remain so after a back injury halted a streak of 136 straight starts? Before his season was interrupted by the injury, he'd compiled a 106.0 quarterback rating and a yards-per-attempt mark of 8.6 -- each career highs -- to go with 312.4 yards and 2.4 touchdowns per outing, which were his best showings since 2011. For the first time since 1952, a Detroit Lion led the league in touchdown catches, as Kenny Golladay hauled in 11, with seven coming over the first eight weeks from Stafford. With Stafford slinging it, the Lions have a shot at moving up and making noise. Without him ... well, the last half of last year can speak to that.

Biggest weakness: Defensive backfield. An NFL-worst 284.4 passing yards per game were allowed by the Lions a season ago. Three-win teams will have weaknesses aplenty, but the Detroit defense came away with an NFL-low seven interceptions and saw its secondary ranked 28th by PFF. During an offseason that featured myriad roster changes, trading away perennial Pro Bowler Darius Slay garnered the most notice, but Slay had a largely lackluster season -- he drew a 56.4 overall grade from PFF. Bringing in Desmond Trufant (who earned a 70.2 grade from PFF) was a very underrated addition that could even be an upgrade in the short term and a larger boon when considering the economics (the Eagles are paying Slay $16.7 million per year over three years, while the Lions are paying Trufant $10.5 million per year over two). And, of course, there's the selection of Ohio State's Jeff Okudah at No. 3 overall. How quickly Okudah can turn around a struggling secondary remains to be seen.

Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: Linebacker Jamie Collins. The addition of Collins is as important as it is symbolic. Coach Matt Patricia's vision of a Patriots redux in Motown has thus far floundered, and his job is on the line. A year ago, Trey Flowers was the most notable of multiple former New England players to be brought on board by the ex-Pats defensive coordinator. Flowers' seven-sack debut hardly seems like a resounding success. In Collins, the Lions get a versatile 30-year-old linebacker who began 2019 looking like an NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidate, though by the end of the year, he wasn't even a starter in the playoffs. The three-year, $30 million signing could pay large dividends -- or he could be another former Patriot who doesn't pan out, providing all the more reason for a Patricia departure.

Green Bay Packers
2019 record: 13-3

Most important position battle: Wide receiver No. 2. The 2020 NFL Draft came and went with the Packers perplexing many by choosing Utah State quarterback Jordan Love in the first round and selecting nary a single wide receiver to aid Aaron Rodgers or Davante Adams in the quest to repeat as NFC North champs and make another deep playoff run. So a familiar quandary exists: Who will be the No. 2 receiver opposite Adams? On paper, 6-foot-4 speedster Marquez Valdes-Scantling seems like a viable option, but after two pedestrian seasons, it might be time to turn the page. It's likely to come down to second-year pro Allan Lazard and free-agent acquisition Devin Funchess. Both are big targets, with Lazard seemingly having more upside due to his youth and a budding chemistry with Rodgers, while Funchess is coming off a one-game, one-year stay in Indianapolis.

Biggest strength on roster: Offensive line. Mr. Rodgers isn't the same scrambling, gunslinging wonder he once was. He's still the face of the franchise, though, and he's still able to scramble and sling it well, in large part because he sets up behind a stellar O-line. Anchored by David Bakhtiari -- one of the best pass-protectors around -- the unit is also highlighted by the impressive center play of Corey Linsley. Second-year player Elgton Jenkins could develop into a top-tier guard, too. There are questions on the right side, with Lane Taylor and Billy Turner likely fighting it out at guard, and Rick Wagner aiming to come off a down year and replace Bryan Bulaga (who signed with the Chargers) at tackle.

Biggest weakness: Wide receiver depth. It's arduous to call the receiving corps a weakness when you have Adams, who's established himself as one of the premier players at his position. However, the storyline of limited options beyond Adams has become comically redundant for the Pack. The best hope is that Lazard emerges as a special talent. Regardless, something needs to change, as Adams has led Green Bay by huge margins in every notable receiving category for too long. Since 2017, Adams has paced the team in targets, receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns in each season. Though he missed four games last year, he still had 48 more catches and 520 more yards than any other wideout on the roster.

Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: Running back AJ Dillon. Love was the most high-profile addition to the Packers, and though that's likely to be a storyline for much of 2020, he's unlikely to play a relevant down (barring injury). Dillon's selection was also a bit confusing, considering veteran back Aaron Jones finally had that huge season many have been waiting to see in 2019. Dillon is a hoss, measuring 6-feet, 247 pounds. With coach Matt LaFleur's past coaching Derrick Henry with the Titans, at the very least, it's a curious predicament. Jones and Henry led the football world with 16 rushing touchdowns apiece a year ago, so aid on the goal line doesn't seem like a huge need for the Packers, and Jones is still only 25. He is entering the last year of his contract, though. Much has been made about the options Rodgers has to throw to, but it will be very interesting to see who he's handing off to as the season carries on.

Minnesota Vikings
2019 record: 10-6

Most important position battle: Offensive line. With all the unpredictability and changes to the offseason schedule, it's unlikely that a project such as second-round tackle Ezra Cleveland will displace Riley Reiff as Kirk Cousins' blind-side protector. The real area of concern is the interior of the offensive line. Projected starting guards Dakota Dozier and Pat Elflein will likely have to show some improvement in camp, with Dru Samia, Aviante Collins and possibly (and most interestingly) Cleveland sliding inside as the top contenders to cede them. Minnesota has ample talent at the skill positions but needs to solidify the line.

Biggest strength on roster: Safeties. Harrison Smith has been picked for five straight Pro Bowls -- the longest streak among defensive backs, per NFL Research. Somehow, Anthony Harris, who tied for the league lead with six picks, didn't make the Pro Bowl in 2019. Together, they formed a safety duo so impressive that PFF ranked the Vikings as the No. 3 coverage unit of 2019 despite none of the team's cornerbacks drawing a top-25 rating. Mike Zimmer defenses seem to excel every season; right now, the terrific tandem of Harris (PFF's top-ranked safety) and Smith (PFF's second-ranked safety) is a major reason and a major strength.

Biggest weakness: Cornerbacks. Xavier Rhodes, Mackensie Alexander and Trae Waynes are all gone from a cornerback corps that struggled mightily a season ago, depending largely on phenomenal safety play to bail them out. Neither Rhodes, who allowed the highest completion percentage (84.3) when targeted in the league, per PFF, nor Waynes (65.1 PFF overall grade) or Alexander (65.7) graded in the top 25 of their position, with Rhodes grading out at 46.4, his puzzling Pro Bowl selection notwithstanding. First-round pick Jeff Gladney should step in and step up right away, perhaps offering an immediate improvement despite his rookie status. One of the few returners, former first-rounder Mike Hughes, is likely to start opposite Gladney, but after earning a PFF grade of 58.7 last year, Hughes will have to avoid sputtering again if he is to hold off rookies Cameron Dantzler (a third-round pick) and Harrison Hand (a fifth-rounder) and third-year pro Holton Hill.

Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: Wide receivers Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson. Stefon Diggs' departure via trade will be a sizable one to overcome. Thielen missed six games a season ago and was hindered throughout with a nagging hamstring injury. With Thielen having averaged 102 catches and 1,324 yards the previous two seasons when he played full 16-game slates (2017 and '18), and having showcased chemistry with Cousins, his return will be anticipated, as will his pairing with first-rounder Justin Jefferson. Jefferson's coming off an astounding campaign at LSU -- 111 catches for 1,540 yards and 18 touchdowns -- and is a bit bigger, a bit faster and obviously younger than Diggs. Dating back to when he took over as the full-time starter in Washington in 2015, Cousins has never had the same leading receiver two seasons in a row. That'll continue in 2020, as a returning Thielen and a debuting Jefferson look to replace the production of Diggs.

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