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2016 NFL training camp previews: NFC North

Training camp is quickly approaching, which means it's time to preview the most exciting part of the summer. Over the next month, Around The NFL's Conor Orr will break down all 32 teams and give us something to look for in late July.

Today, we take a look at the NFC North. For the rest of the NFL, click here.


Training camp report date: Rookies and veterans, July 28.

Training camp location: Minnesota State University, Mankato, Minnesota.

Offseason in a nutshell: Last year's Vikings were the best football team Minnesota has seen since the Brad Childress/Brett Favre-led unit that lost to the Saints in the 2009 NFC title game. This incarnation has so much more hype, thanks to the enticing young core, fiery head coach and bulky defensive line. So what is different about 2016? Minnesota theoretically could have one of the best offensive lines in football this year -- an important vehicle to maximize the remaining years of Adrian Peterson's prime. Alex Boone -- one of the tougher run-blockers in the NFL -- and former Bengals first-round pick Andre Smith both signed up to join mainstays Matt Kalil and the seemingly undefeatable John Sullivan, who plans to play in 2016 after missing the entire 2015 season with a back injury.

Player to watch: Wide receiver Laquon Treadwell. The Vikings might not have much need for three-receiver sets if all goes according to plan with the offensive line. (Last year on first-and-10, the Vikings were almost as likely to go with a two-tight end formation as they were a three-wide formation, with the three-wide formation just slightly edging out double-tight, 130 to 123. They ran more than 50 percent of the time on first-and-10.) Treadwell is one person who might be able to get them to alter their approach. As much as the Vikings will pound the football, the hope is that Teddy Bridgewater takes another step forward and can make the combination of Treadwell, Stefon Diggs and Jarius Wright hell for opposing defensive coordinators.


1. Who wins each of the high-profile O-line gigs?

The Vikings have an open battle at center between Sullivan and Joe Berger, and they're pitting Phil Loadholt against Andre Smith for the right tackle job. In each case, the team could move on from the incumbent without much of a financial penalty (Sullivan and Loadholt would account for less than $2.5 million in dead money if they were released), even if it would make more sense to retain all their best talent as a safeguard against injury. While training camp tends to allow for these situations to work themselves out naturally, we should have an early indication of preference.

2. Is this the end of the road for Cordarrelle Patterson?

The Vikings have shown they don't care much about a rookie lagging behind, and they will continuously throw resources at their biggest problems instead of waiting for a development that might never come. Trae Waynesfound that out the hard way, falling to the margins during a disappointing rookie season, and Patterson, who recently admitted that he needs to work harder and sometimes felt entitled as a first-round pick, is about to. Treadwell's youth should leave the window slightly cracked for Patterson, but the Vikings' offense looks ready to move on, with or without him.

3. Will the Vikings spice up their running game a bit?

Just like quarterbacks can squeeze new life out of their careers by working in new offensive wrinkles, so can running backs. How's this for a Mike Zimmer stat? The Vikings were third in the NFL in runs straight up the middle (157 attempts) and ran up the gut 100 times more than they ran behind or around any offensive lineman, with the exception of right tackle (66 plays off RT). A more improved unit could lead to more diversity in Peterson's run locations and could free up the Vikings legend for more yards downfield.

Way-too-early season prediction: The NFC North is one of the few divisions with two legitimate heavyweights primed to duke it out. The Vikings are better than their 12-win counterparts from 2009, so what does that lead us to believe about this season? Assuming Bridgewater continues to improve, there's no reason this Vikings team can't win between 11 and 13 games.


Training camp report date: Rookies and veterans, July 25.

Training camp location: St. Norbert College, De Pere, Wisconsin.

Offseason in a nutshell:This section can typically be left blank in the Ted Thompson era, but we're not the next people in line to give the Packers general manager flak about his window-shopping-only tendencies in free agency. The approach works, and it's smart. The interesting part? Buzz this offseason suggested that Green Bay was planning on being more active than usual if the actual value lined up a bit better with the perceived value -- especially when it came to adding someone who could serve as a third or fourth option for Aaron Rodgers. One solution, apparently, was tight end Jared Cook. Cook, 29, might end up having the highest ratio of production to salary out of all the free agents this offseason after inking a team-friendly deal for one year and $2.75 million (plus almost another million dollars in available incentives). Rodgers has his most versatile tight end option since Jermichael Finley. If, in his return from the ACL tear that robbed him of his 2015 season, Jordy Nelson is 80 percent of the receiver he was in 2014, I don't think we'll be spending our time pondering the demise of the Mike McCarthy era anymore.

Player to watch: Pass rusher Datone Jones. Jones benefitted from a hurried move to situational stand-up outside linebacker last year and was thrilled when Mike McCarthy confirmed that the team would use him in a similar spot this year. He even has a six-pack now. If he even marginally improves the Packers' pass rush this season, the potential lineup alterations could reignite some of the more creative looks we've seen over the years from defensive coordinator Dom Capers -- especially if Jones remains heavy enough to rush on the inside, as well (which we expect). Reading the tea leaves, their draft picks in 2016 (specifically Kyler Fackrell and Dean Lowry) suggest the team might be looking to break in more of these Swiss Army Knife-type rushers.


1. Will there be a noticeable focus on defensive toughness?

This might induce eye rolls (and for good reason), but this is the time of year when coaching staffs search high and low for motivation, especially when it comes to established veterans. The Packers are well aware that the Vikings just assembled the most expensive offensive line in football with the express purpose of running over the rest of the NFC North. While that isn't new information for the Packers, we wonder if it will be a rallying cry of sorts for a defense that is still very dependent on Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers for its identity and production.

2. Will everyone relax about Eddie Lacy's weight now?

Lacy is a smart person. He acknowledges that he had great success during his first two seasons (the best rookie and sophomore seasons for a tailback in Packers history) and thought he could keep the same eating and exercising habits during that time and still be just as good. But as people get older, habits need to change. Lacy knows that now. There are about 500 other successful NFL players throughout history who will recount a finding religion moment when it comes to grilled chicken, fish, brutal workouts and lots of water, and they all got credit for prolonging their career. After having his weight issue blasted into the headlines, Lacy will get the chance to put all doubts to rest during camp.

3. Does Jared Abbrederis benefit the most from Mike McCarthy's minicamp moves?

As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel noted last month, Abbrederis received significantly more reps in camp after veterans like Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson were excused, and he might've made the most of his opportunity. Watching the Packers during the playoffs last year, it became crystal clear how much more the system values being on time and on target over individual ability (see: James Jonesagainst the Redskins) and neither Rodgers nor McCarthy are in the position of turning down dependable hands.

Way-too-early season prediction: Ask us on Sept. 19, the morning after an epic Sunday Nighter between the Packers and Vikings. In a lot of ways, I think the Packers' success depends on how quickly Minnesota's offensive linemen can gel, and if they stay healthy. Green Bay is built to win another 10 or 11 games this year, but how significant will the hurdles in their way be?


Training camp report date: Rookies July 23, veterans July 28.

Training camp location:Detroit Lions Training Facility, Allen Park, Michigan.

Offseason in a nutshell: A new GM, the same coach and a clear focus on the future of this offensive line. Detroit now has a first-round pick at left tackle (Taylor Decker), right tackle (Riley Reiff) and left guard (Laken Tomlinson). They have third-round picks at center (Travis Swanson) and right guard (Larry Warford) and a third-round pick in Graham Glasgow waiting to compete along the interior, as well. The team inked Geoff Schwartz for depth and is hoping to change the perception of a razor-thin front five.

Player to watch: Running back Ameer Abdullah. For this question, we consulted ace Around The NFL correspondent and long-time Lions observer Kevin Patra. His answer? Last year's preseason darling, who is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery for a labrum issue. Abdullah has been very quiet about his ailment, but the team expects him to return for training camp. Recovery from this issue is hit or miss for players at the position, with Doug Martin being an example for the hopeful. But here's why we're a bit skeptical: Abdullah, by the process of elimination, has ascended to No. 1 on the team's depth chart and will be tasked with a significant amount of pass protection, which isn't ideal to begin with given his frame (5-foot-8, 203 pounds). Still, Abdullah has been bucking conventional wisdom when it comes to smaller speed backs for years (his inside running in college was powerful), so Detroit is hoping he can do as much coming off surgery.


1. Which defensive tackles will make the team?

The Lions may have a bit of a two-quarterback conundrum ... but at defensive tackle. Normally, depth is good, but how many -- out of the group containing Haloti Ngata, Tyrunn Walker, A'Shawn Robinson, Caraun Reid, Stefan Charles, Gabe Wright and Khyri Thornton -- are good enough to be dominant every-down players, and how many are just good enough to make a roster decision difficult? Adding to the confusion, the Lions will have to factor in support for slotted starter Ngata, who heads into the season at age 32. Pride of Detroit has an excellent -- and more optimistic -- breakdown of the defensive tackle position for those of you looking to dig deeper.

2. How will the new offense take shape?

When you lose a game-changing, 6-foot-5 receiver who compiled more than 1,000 yards in each of his last six seasons, your offense is going to change. Plain and simple. Matt Staffordthinks it might be better, but everyone knows there is no use waiting around for Calvin Johnson to change his mind about retirement. Detroit now lacks a supreme jump-ball target who can gobble up two or three defenders on deep routes, deciding to replace him with a cadre of smaller speed options. Golden Tate will catch close to 100 balls this year, but during camp, the microscope will be on free-agent acquisition Marvin Jones and how fluid he looks in a system that could reward his skill set. When Jim Bob Cooter took over as offensive coordinator last season, he seemed to accentuate Stafford's ability to hit on timing routes to his quicker wide receivers, winning matchups on the inside. Loop tight end Eric Ebron into the equation, and we seem to have a theme developing: Maybe no one receiver is dominant enough to take over a game, but Detroit has a group of players who are all capable of winning matchups down to down.

3. Is this Nevin Lawson's time to make a move?

The Lions have one of the best cornerbacks in the NFC (Darius Slay) and a question mark on the opposite side. Lawson clawed his way into the starting lineup last year and finished the season with 47 tackles and seven pass breakups. His games against the Packers, Raiders and Eagles were some of his best and lead us to believe that we might be hearing from him quite a bit this summer.

Way-too-early season prediction: A team always comes out of nowhere and surprises, and the Lions certainly have that capability if their offense can retain some of the arena league charm it had in the past. At the moment, we think 8-8 makes sense with the potential to make some of their divisional battles against the Packers and Vikings very interesting.


Training camp report date: Rookies and veterans, July 27.

Training camp location: Olivet Nazarene University, Bourbonnais, Illinois.

Offseason in a nutshell: General manager Ryan Pace and head coach John Fox are in Year 2 of a roster remake. The team brought in linebackers familiar with the system, like Danny Trevathan (who played under Fox in Denver), and high-production vets like Jerrell Freeman to add a consistent punch to Fox's defense. The Bears also smartly inked Bobby Massie on the first day of free agency in order to free their best offensive lineman, Kyle Long, for a move back to guard. This should be the year we see the fruits of Pace's labor across the offensive line, as Massie joins Long, 2015 third-round pick Hroniss Grasu, 2016 second-rounder Cody Whitehair and Charles Leno, who was essentially christened the team's left tackle this offseason. The Bears are hoping a younger backfield, led by Jeremy Langford, gels with the line up front to make life easier for Jay Cutler and yet another new offensive coordinator.

Player to watch: Wide receiver Alshon Jeffery. Jeffery is in between a rock and a hard place here. The wideout did not get a long-term deal done before the deadline to do so for franchise-tagged players, leaving him a very well-compensated receiver for the 2016 season, but not beyond. Some receivers flourish in this type of situation, and others (former Giants first-round pick Hakeem Nicks comes to mind) end up doing more damage to their open-market worth than ever expected. People in Jeffery's position need to balance diplomacy with their obvious unhappiness. They need to balance aggression on the field with the fear that they are not financially secure beyond the current season. We'll get a feel for how Jeffery will approach this early on as he keeps one eye on March 2017.


1. How much of a "committee approach" will the Bears actually use in the backfield?

Fox told the Chicago Tribune that he'll ride the hot hand between Jeremy Langford, Ka'Deem Carey and Jacquizz Rodgers, with fifth-round pick Jordan Howard potentially mixing in. That's a fairly standard line at this point in the year -- it dangles the reward in front of all running backs and keeps them working hard -- but we'll see how serious Fox is about "limiting the workload" throughout the season and preparing up to four backs for regular roles.

2. Will Kevin White continue to drop passes?

White, Chicago's first-round pick in 2015, missed all of last season with an injury, but debuted his raw skill set during minicamp this year. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, though, drops were a major part of his first lengthy stretch as a full-time starter, which is a problem that will need addressing early on in camp.

3. Will Jay Cutler secure his future in Chicago?

Despite the growing sentiment that Cutler was on his way out, the cannon-armed passer had a decent season last year. Dowell Loggains, his quarterbacks coach in 2015, has been elevated to offensive coordinator, and Cutler's offense theoretically gets better with the addition of a healthy White. We've thrown platitudes at Cutler throughout his career, accusing him of a lack of leadership and poise and gusto, but he has all the tools for a late-career bounce-back. Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger all got better in their mid-30s -- can Cutler?

Way-too-early season prediction: While Chicago does not seem to possess the talent to contribute in a crowded NFC North, we like the Bears' chances of winning some big games against division rivals and being more of a nagging presence than they were in Fox's first season.

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