Football is back!
The four teams in the NFC North begin training camp this week, kickstarting the long journey each team hopes ends at Super Bowl LIV.
With the Bears, Vikings, Packers and Lions back to work, let’s take a quick look at where all four teams currently stand heading into camp:
New faces: K Elliott Fry, S Ha Ha Clinton Dix, RB Mike Davis, CB Buster Skrine, WR Cordarrelle Patterson
Key losses: RB Jordan Howard, CB Bryce Callahan, S Adrian Amos
Draft picks: Rd 3 – RB David Montgomery (Iowa State), Rd 4 – WR Riley Ridley (Georgia), Rd 6 – CB Duke Shelley (Kansas State), Rd 7 – RB Kerrith Whyte (FAU), Rd 7 – CB Stephen Denmark (Valdosta St.)
Training camp battle to watch: The kicking battle between Fry and Eddy Pineiro will get a lot of attention, but it will also be interesting to see how the carries are distributed at the running back spot.
Aside from Tarik Cohen, the Bears backfield underwent a significant overhaul this offseason. Howard is now in Philadelphia, and the backfield consists of Cohen, rookie David Montgomery, veteran Mike Davis and rookie Kerrith Whyte Jr.
Will the Bears use a running back by committee approach? Or will someone emerge to lead the way?
Twentyman’s take: Up and down, Chicago arguably has the most complete roster in the division. We’ll have to wait and see what the loss of defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who is now Denver’s head coach, has on the defense, but all the main components of that unit are back, so I don’t expect much regression.
Offensively, Chicago’s added some pieces that better fit head coach Matt Nagy’s scheme. The Bears’ success in 2019 will come down to the continued development of quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and their ability to find a consistent kicking game.
Quotable: “To be honest, it’s even,” Bears general manager Ryan Pace told the Chicago Sun-Times of the kicker competition heading into camp. “It’s close. That’s why we’re excited about that battle going into training camp, along with a lot of other battles. But, obviously, we’ll be watching that one.”
New additions: G Josh Kline, DT Shamar Steven
Key losses: DT Sheldon Richardson, RB Latavius Murray, S Andrew Sendejo, CB Marcus Sherels, OL Nick Easton, OL Tom Compton
Draft picks: Rd 1 – C Garrett Bradbury (NC State), Rd 2 – TE Irv Smith Jr. (Alabama), Rd 3 – RB Alexander Mattison (Boise State), Rd 4 – G Dru Samia (Oklahoma), Rd 5 – LB Cameron Smith (USC), Rd 6 – DT Armon Watts (Arkansas), Rd 6 – DB Marcus Epps (Wyoming), Rd 6 – T Olisaemeka Udoh (Elon), Rd 7 – DB Kris Boyd (Texas), Rd 7 – WR Dillon Mitchell (Oregon), Rd 7 – WR Olabisi Johnson (Colorado State), Rd 7 – LS Austin Cutting (Air Force)
Training camp battle to watch: Who fits into the three-technique defensive tackle role made vacant by the loss of Richardson in free agency? Danielle Hunter, Everson Griffen and Linval Joseph are a dominant top three. Who fits in as the fourth starter upfront?
Stephen figures to have the lead to land the job based on the contract he signed with the Vikings in the offseason, but Jalyn Holmes will throw his hat into the competition, and Hercules Mata’afa could be a wild card in the battle.
Twentyman’s take: For as much talent as the Vikings have on the roster, an 8-7-1 finish last season was rather disappointing. Quarterback Kirk Cousins enters his second season under center, and it’s expected the Vikings won’t put so much pressure on him to be everything on offense.
The Vikings will continue to be good on defense with the talent they have and pressure scheme developed by head coach Mike Zimmer. If Minnesota can just find some balance and consistency on offense, they should be right there with the Bears competing for a division title.
Quotable: "They’re doing a good job ... I think it fits our offensive line better, the scheme that we’re running now – and we still have to find out when we get in pads, and we’re blocking people for real,” Zimmer told the Minneapolis Star Tribune of the offense being installed under OC Kevin Stefanski. “It may not look great against the defense (in camp), because we’re not cutting people. We’re going to try to get some guys on the ground when we’re playing somebody else.
“As far as the offensive coaches coming together, it’s been great. They’re very communicative. They do a really good job of talking about things that work in the past, and combinations with what we’ve done here – and again, I think (they’re) trying to use our players in better positions, using them more to their skill set.”
New additions: OLB Za’Darius Smith, OLB Preston Smith, S Adrian Amos
Key losses: OLB Nick Perry, OLB Clay Matthews, CB Bashaud Breeland, WR Randall Cobb, ILB Jake Ryan
Draft picks: Rd 1 – DE Rashan Gary (Michigan), Rd 1 – S Darnell Savage Jr. (Maryland), Rd 2 – G/C Elgton Jenkins (Mississippi State), Rd 3 – TE Jace Sternberger (Texas A&M), Rd 5 – DT Kingsley Keke (Texas A&M), Rd 6 – CB Ka’Dar Hollman (Toledo), Rd 6 – RB Dexter Williams (Notre Dame), Rd 7 – ILB Ty Summers (TCU)
Training camp battle to watch: How does the talent the Packers have acquired at cornerback over the last couple years fall into line?
Green Bay has spent draft capital at the position in recent seasons on Kevin King, Josh Jackson and Jaire Alexander. Don’t count out veteran Tramon Williams either. King and Alexander probably have the edge heading into camp. Williams also played a little safety for the Packers last season, and could potentially see the field there as well.
It will be a good competition at cornerback throughout camp.
Twentyman’s take: Green Bay has a new young head coach in Matt LaFleur and has spent considerable resources revamping the defense this offseason.
With Aaron Rodgers, the Packers always have a shot to win the division, but they had to do something about the defense if they are going to take the next step.
It can’t always be about Rodgers putting the team on his back. He needs help, and the Packers think they’ve addressed it.
Quotable: "I expect him to be an extension of the coaching staff," LaFleur said to ESPN.com of his expectations of Rodgers running his new offense. "I expect him to be a leader, to communicate and be the commander out on that field, and I think he’s demonstrated a really good job of that. It’s hard to learn a whole offense in an offseason, to have the ownership that you’re looking for, but I think he’s got a really solid foundation."
Key losses: DE Ziggy Ansah, S Glover Quin, G T.J. Lang, CB Nevin Lawson
Draft picks: Rd 1 – TE T.J. Hockenson (Iowa), Rd 2 – LB Jahlani Tavai (Hawaii), Rd 3 – DB Will Harris (Boston College), Rd 4 – DE Austin Bryant (Clemson), Rd 5 – CB Amani Oruwariye (Penn State), Rd. 6 WR Travis Fulgham (Old Dominion), Rd 6 – RB Ty Johnson (Maryland), Rd 7 – TE Isaac Nauta (Georgia), Rd 7 – DT P.J. Johnson (Arizona)
Training camp battle to watch: Detroit has a number of good ones, including cornerback, but the battle for the starting left guard spot will be interesting to watch develop.
Veteran Kenny Wiggins is the favorite to win the job entering camp, but veterans Oday Aboushi and Joe Dahl will try to push him. Who knows, maybe a rookie like Beau Benzschawel can find a way into the mix too.
Twentyman’s take: This will be the most interesting camp in Detroit in recent memory. Defensively, Detroit should be very strong this year after finishing in the top 10 in just about every major statistical category on that side of the ball last season.
How much Detroit can improve from their 6-10 record last season will depend a lot on how quickly the offense picks up Darrell Bevell’s new scheme. Bevell’s expected to run the ball more in 2019 and probably lean more on the tight end position, but how that looks and comes together will be interesting to watch in camp.
If Matthew Stafford has a bounce-back season, and the defense continues to play the way it did the second half of last season, Detroit can put itself into the conversation in the NFC North.
Quotable: “Matthew Stafford is an unbelievable guy,” head coach Matt Patricia said earlier this offseason during OTAs. “This is a guy that has come to work every single day and has done everything he can to help this team. Obviously, like we all do in life, trying to deal with life outside the building. He’s done an amazing job of that, like he does every single day that he’s here.
“Just couldn’t be more blessed, more happy to have a guy like that. His desire to be in this building and handle everything that he has to handle off the field but come in here ready to work, that’s just a true professional.”