When it comes to predicting the winner of the NFC North, the conversation has to start with the defending division champion Packers. The Packers return all the core pieces of the league’s third-ranked offense, including reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers.
Coming off a 15-1 season, the Packers are certainly the early favorites to win the division again in 2012. But the conversation doesn't end with the Packers, according to Sirius NFL Radio host and former NFL quarterback Jim Miller. He thinks the gap behind the Packers and some other teams in the division isn’t as wide as some might think.
Miller and co-host Keith Bulluck are touring NFL training camps and after stops in Minnesota, Chicago and Detroit, Miller says the NFC North could be a gauntlet.
“A lot of people are trying to give Green Bay the tip of the cap but I think it’s a lot closer than that,” Miller said. “The Lions can challenge and I certainly think the Bears can challenge as well.
2011 record: 8-8
Key additions: WR Brandon Marshall, RB Michael Bush, QB Jason Campbell, LB Blake Costanzo, WR/KR Eric Weems.
Key losses: RB Marion Barber, CB Zack Bowman, CB Corey Graham.
Draft picks: DE Shea McClellin, WR Alshon Jeffery, S Brandon Hardin, TE Evan Rodriguez, CB Isaiah Frey, CB Greg McCoy
Miller comment: “If the Bears sure up their offensive line they have the weapons. Brandon Marshall is the real deal. This kid who they drafted – Alshon Jeffery – is the real deal and Earl Bennett is a good slot player. I think they’ll get more production in the run game with the more practical approach by new offensive coordinator Mike Tice.
“The defense is going to be the defense. Urlacher will be there. I played with the guy and he’s accountable and he’ll line up. I think the defense will still be good. That’s why I think they can challenge.”
2011 record: 10-6
Key losses: CB Eric Wright
Miller comment: “I’m always amazed at just how hard working this team is under Jim Schwartz. When you go out to practice, they get after it. They are out there accomplishing something and they are preparing themselves for what they are going to see on Sunday. What I mean by that is that you have to stress your body and you have to gruel your way through some things and that’s what this team has done. These players know they are packing a lunch and bringing a flashlight and going to work.
“This team can challenge in this division. They have upgraded the talent and this team is dangerous to go far into the postseason.”
2011 record: 4-12
Key additions: Tight end John Carlson, cornerback Zack Bowman, offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz.
Key losses: Defensive tackle Remi Ayodele, guard Anthony Herrera, guard Steve Hutchinson, tight end Jim Kleinsasser
Draft picks: OT Matt Kalil, S Harrison Smith, CB Josh Robinson, WR Jarius Wright, TE/FB Rhett Ellison, WR Greg Childs, CB Robert Blanton, K Blair Walsh, LB Audie Cole, DE Trevor Guyton
Miller comment: “When you look at Minnesota they are just a very young team. They’re probably realistically going to start six rookies. For them it truly is a rebuilding approach. They are going to protect a quarterback in Christian Ponder who’s still learning too. They are going to run it a lot and Adrian Peterson will be back healthy. I saw him (Monday) and he didn’t have a knee brace on. They’ve been holding this guy back and he’s 100-percent and he’s ready to go.
“It’s going to be almost like San Francisco. Let’s not turn it over. Let’s control the clock. Let’s play good defense – if they can – because they do have a good pass rush that had 50 sacks last year.
“Are those young players going to get caught up to speed quickly? We all know young players make mistakes and that’s what they’re going to be going through.”
Around the NFC North
Bears backups will sort themselves out on defensive line
Brad Biggs –Tribune
So far, Bears' Brandon Marshall earning raves as leader
Joe Cowley – Sun-Times
A look inside the Bears' essentials at training camp
Sean Jensen – Sun-Times
Sum up Bears offense? Open to about everything
Michael C. Wright — ESPNChicago.com
Competition continues at left tackle
Larry Mayer – chicagobears.com
Benson's contract call for league minimum, no incentives
Pete Dougherty – Press-Gazette
WR Curenski Gilleylen hoping versatility lands him spot on roster
Wes Hodkiewicz – Press-Gazette
Packers' Smith moves up on linebacker list
Bob McGinn – Journal Sentinel
Ponder's goal: 75 percent completion percentage on first and second down
Mark Craig – Star Tribune
Reason for optimism, concern as Vikings camp ends
Dan Wiederer – Star Tribune
Ponder thinking playoffs
Brian Murphy – Pioneer Press
Vikings hoping hard work enough to make up for deficiencies
Tom Pelissero – 1500ESPN
Harrison Smith continues progression
Mike Wobschall – Vikings.com