Preseason Watchlist - NFC North
By Jason Wood
July 27th, 2012

Chicago Bears

  • Link: http://www.chicagobears.com/team/TrainingCampSchedule.asp
  • Location: Olivet Nazarene University (Bourbonnais, IL)
  • Dates: July 26 August 17
  • Open to the public? YES (free of charge)
  • The Bears return to Olivet Nazarene University on July 26th with a sense of urgency after a disappointing 8-8 season a year ago. Lovie Smith made a necessary change at offensive coordinator, promoting Mike Tice in place of "Mad" Mike Martz. While the need for improvement on offense was well documents, the defense also finished a disappointing 14th in yards and 17th in points allowed. Many pundits believe the Bears can return to playoff contention this year, and that all starts with an efficient and healthy camp.

    Preseason Game Schedule

  • Thu, Aug 9 - vs Denver - 8:30 PM
  • Sat, Aug 18 - vs Washington - 8:00 PM
  • Fri, Aug 24 - @ New York - 8:00 PM
  • Thu, Aug 30 - @ Cleveland - 7:30 PM
  • What We're Watching

  • Can QB Jay Cutler thrive in Mike Tice's offense? Jay Cutler missed six games last year after thumb surgery and made his frustration with Martz' offense and lack of protection very clear this offseason. Now that the Bears have given him an offensive coordinator with historical expertise in coaching offensive lines, and reunited him with WR Brandon Marshall, can Cutler deliver a big season? He hasn't had a top-10 season since 2008, but at an ADP of QB14, there's clearly upside if the dominoes fall into place.

  • Will the Bears give RB Michael Bush a big role to keep Matt Forte fresh? Matt Forte got his long-term contract before camp, which puts a potential distraction and risk ahead. There's no question Forte will be a focal point of the offense (and a fantasy star), but what role will Michael Bush play? Look for hints about whether Bush is viewed as a pure backup, or someone that's going to see 30%-40% of the RB snaps.

  • Does the offensive line come together? The offensive line is going to be helped by scheme (for example, the Vikings are eliminating seven step drops), but the offensive tackles MUST play better this year. Gabe Carimi appears healthy for the start of camp after missing his rookie year. He should stabilize the right side, but the left tackle position remains a worry given the abysmal performance of J'Marcus Webb last year, and the up-and-down play of Chris Williams.

  • Finding a complementary starter opposite WR Brandon Marshall Fantasy owners are all-in on Brandon Marshall returning to the 100+ reception pace he had with Cutler in Denver. But the Bears need a complementary starter that's effective enough to keep defenses honest. Rookie Alshon Jeffrey is the odds on favorite, but he's a rookie and not necessarily polished. Whoever gets the starting nod has sleeper value.

  • Will the tight end position become relevant again? Mike Martz had such distaste for the tight end position that the Bears traded away Greg Olsen even though he was probably their best pass catcher at the time. With Tice at the helm, some believe Kellen Davis is a savvy deep sleeper. The 5th year receiver has the athleticism to contribute more, and perhaps his 5 touchdowns in 18 receptions last year hints at the potential.

  • CBs Tim Jennings vs. Kelvin Hayden The Bears gave up more than 4,000 yards passing last season and need better cornerback play. Charles Tillman is locked down on one side, but Tim Jennings and Kelvin Hayden both have designs on the other starting spot.
  • Detroit Lions

  • Link: Lions Training Camp Practice FAQ
  • Location: Detroit Lions Training Facility (Allen Park, MI)
  • Dates: July 28 August 19
  • Open to the public? NO
  • The Lions enter training camp with a new perspective. After years of struggling, the Lions won 10 games last season and Matthew Stafford established himself as a franchise quarterback. Many believe that continued maturation of the younger players on defense and in the running game are all that's keeping this team from contending for a Super Bowl. In spite of last year's success, there are major question marks both on and off the field, particularly with so many Lions players getting into legal troubles during the offseason.

    Preseason Game Schedule

  • Fri, Aug 10 - vs Cleveland - 7:30 PM
  • Fri, Aug 17 - @ Baltimore - 8:00 PM
  • Sat, Aug 25 - @ Oakland - 7:00 PM
  • Thu, Aug 30 - vs Buffalo - 7:00 PM
  • What We're Watching

  • Has QB Matthew Stafford permanently ascended into the league's elite? Fantasy owners who waited until the middle rounds last year felt great if they chose Matthew Stafford. Stafford finally stayed healthy and delivered Top 5 numbers with a monstrous 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns. Is that the new baseline for the young signal caller, or did things fall perfectly? His 663 attempts were among the highest single-season totals in league history, and the Lions coaches want a more balanced attack.

  • Establishing the ground game Detroit ranked 4th in passing yards (and 3rd in TDs) last year while finishing 29th in rushing yards (23rd in rushing TDs). The Lions want, and need, more balance to achieve their postseason goals. Last year's leading rush was Jahvid Best, with 390 yards (in 6 games). Entering camp, the Lions hope that an answer will emerge from Best (still not cleared from his concussions), Mikel Leshoure (legal issues and injuries), and Kevin Smith (injuries and age).

  • Is WR Titus Young ready to displace Nate Burleson? Thirty-year old Nate Burleson is a reliable part of the Lions' offense, but his upside is capped. 2nd year Titus Young quietly had an excellent rookie year as the 3rd receiver and projects as a future impact starter. Is this the year Young overtakes Burleson, or will the coaches keep everyone's roles in place from last year given how effective the team threw the ball a year ago.

  • Finding a role for OL Riley Reiff The Lions have enough questions on the offensive line to believe rookie 1st rounder Riley Reiff needs to be on the field in some capacity. What's not clear is whether he will be given the right tackle spot, or will be asked to play inside for a season or two.

  • Getting DE Cliff Avril back into the fold Cliff Avril and the Lions couldn't come to an agreement on a long-term extension leaving Avril to play under the one-year franchise tender. Avril led the team with 11 sacks and is the anchor on the defensive line, but may stage a protracted hold out.

  • Can the Lions field a competent secondary? Safety Louis Delmas is a fixture, but the rest of the secondary is a question mark that needs answers over the next few weeks. The release of talented-yet-troubled CB Aaron Berry further stretches an already thin cornerback position. Chris Houston is assured a starting spot, but rookie Dwight Bentley will compete with Jacob Lacey and Alphonso Smith all have designs on the #2 position.
  • Green Bay Packers

  • Link: http://www.packers.com/news-and-events/training-camp/practice-schedule.html
  • Location: St. Norbert College (De Pere, WI)
  • Dates: July 26 August 29
  • Open to the public? YES (free of charge)
  • The Packers return to St. Norbert College the 55th year on July 26th. Green Bay won 15 games last season and was considered a favorite to win the Super Bowl. And yet, an early playoff loss exposed the oddity of the Packers' 2011 team. In spite of the 15 wins, and MVP caliber play by Aaron Rodgers, the Packers were one of the league's worst defensive units (32nd in yards allowed, 30th in sacks) and inconsistent on the ground (27th in rushing yards, 26th in yards per attempt). Aside from keeping the veterans healthy, the coaches need to figure out a way to improve both trouble spots with essentially the same personnel from a season ago.

    Preseason Game Schedule

  • Thu, Aug 9 - @ San Diego - 8:00 PM
  • Thu, Aug 16 - vs Cleveland - 8:00 PM
  • Thu, Aug 23 - @ Cincinnati - 7:00 PM
  • Thu, Aug 30 - vs Kansas City - 7:00 PM
  • What We're Watching

  • Have we seen the best from QB Aaron Rodgers? Aaron Rodgers led his team to 15 wins, was named the league's MVP, and has been the 1st or 2nd best fantasy quarterback in each of the last four seasons. Can he get any better? Ultimately the question fantasy owners need to figure out is whether they're comfortable using a first round pick on a signal caller, otherwise Rodgers won't be a consideration for them in 2012.

  • Who runs the ball this year? In spite of ranking 27th in rushing yards last year, the Packers made no effort to bolster the position. Ryan Grant second on the team with 559 yards is gone, leaving James Starks (578 yards in 13 games) as the only clear contributor. But Starks struggled with health and consistency, and only scored one touchdown in 133 carries. John Kuhn and Brandon Saine are bruising options, but neither is versatile enough to play a major role. That leaves second year Alex Green, who missed the majority of 2011 with a knee injury. Green was a 3rd rounder last year and shouldn't be forgotten, particularly if he's healthy throughout camp.

  • Will WR Randall Cobb force himself onto the field? Randall Cobb scored two touchdowns in his first NFL game but did precious little beyond that (25 receptions for 375 yards) as the Packers had exceptional veteran options ahead of the rookie on the depth chart. Entering his second season, there's belief that a strong camp can push Cobb into a major role perhaps the WR3 spot ahead of Donald Driver and James Jones. Cobb has the makings of a future every week fantasy star, even if the presence of Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson limit his immediate opportunity.

  • Is TE Jermichael Finley a fantasy difference maker? Finley flashed brilliance in his 2nd season (2009) but missed the majority of the 2010 season. Last year he finally put it all together (55 receptions for 767 yards and 8 touchdowns) and finished as the #5 fantasy tight end. Does he deserve to be considered alongside the truly elite like Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski? Fantasy owners are drafting Finley as the 7th tight end (70th overall), which means that he represents great value if you think he's close to Graham and Gronkowski (who are both late 1st, early 2nd rounders).

  • Re-discovering the pass rush Packers ranked 3rd worst in sacks (29) last year What happened last season? Dom Capers known for his dominant, aggressive defenses struggled to scheme his way out of some personnel holes in 2011 and the Packers managed a meager 29 sacks. The only major change is the addition of Nick Perry who will push Erik Walden for the OLB spot opposite Clay Matthews. Is that enough to change the tenor of the defense?
  • Minnesota Vikings

  • Link: http://www.vikings.com/schedule/training-camp/2012/index.html
  • Location: Minnesota State University (Mankato, MN)
  • Dates: July 26 August 15
  • Open to the public? YES (free of charge)
  • Head coach Leslie Frazier returns to Minnesota State University with a clear sense of urgency, realizing that his job is probably on the line after a horrific 3-13 season characterized by an inept passing attack and a defense that failed to stop many (28th in points allowed). Frazier and his coaches will be without Adrian Peterson for most (if not all) of training camp and must focus on getting 2nd year Christian Ponder comfortable while giving a lot of new faces opportunities to earn major roles. Few teams have more uncertainty entering 2012.

    Preseason Game Schedule

  • Fri, Aug 10 - @ San Francisco 9:00 PM
  • Fri, Aug 17 - vs Buffalo - 8:00 PM
  • Fri, Aug 24 - vs San Diego - 8:00 PM
  • Thu, Aug 30 - @ Houston - 7:00 PM
  • What We're Watching

  • Is QB Christian Ponder the answer? Ponder was overshadowed by fellow rookie QBs Cam Newton and Andy Dalton, but the Vikings appear committed to building around the former Florida State Seminole. Does Ponder have what it takes, and do the Vikings have the offensive line and skill players to give Ponder a fighting chance? Fantasy owners aren't convinced, as Ponder is being drafted 217th overall (QB27).

  • Tracking RB Adrian Peterson's progress Adrian Peterson is a hard worker and is a good bet to recover as fast as humanly possible from last year's knee injuries. Yet, it's unclear whether he will be a participant in training camp or possibly even the first six games of the season (if they place him on the PUP list). Fantasy owners are going to have to take a leap of faith on draft day, and currently the concerns have dropped him from a sure-fire top 5 pick to the end of the 2nd round (27th overall, RB13). If Peterson returns to form for a majority of the season, he's a steal at his current ADP but the pick is not without risk.

  • Is WR Percy Harvin a happy camper? Harvin had an odd preseason culminating in reports that he demanded a trade; only to be rebuked a day later. What's not in question is Harvin's value to the Vikings. He's the team's only difference maker in the passing game, and his versatility is critical particularly in the early season if Peterson is unable to take the field.

  • Is WR Jerome Simpson a sleeper? Simpson was signed to a modest free agent contract, and will be suspended for the first three games, but all accounts have him lining up as a starter once he returns. Is the 6'2", 190-lb. former Cincinnati Bengal a real difference maker? In 14 starts last year, Simpson caught 50 receptions for 725 yards and four touchdowns 47th among fantasy receivers.

  • TEs Kyle Rudolph vs. John Carlson? Two former Notre Dame tight ends are going to battle for the starting role. Rudolph is the more intriguing option entering his second year, and could be a highly productive "move" tight end if the Vikings are smart. Carlson got a large contract (5 years, $25mm) and OC Bill Musgrave believes he will be a major weapon in the red zone. There's a good chance one of these guys will far outperform their average draft position look at camp reports for clues as to which bet to make.

  • Building confidence in a new secondary The Vikings defense has plenty of questions, but the need to find a cohesive back four is top of mind. Two rookies (Harrison Smith and Robert Blanton) and a 2nd year pro (Mistral Raymond) are the odds on favorites at safety. At corner, it's a mixture of aging veterans (Chris Carr and Antoine Winfield), a talented yet oft-injured 3rd year pro (Chris Cook), and a raw but physical rookie (Josh Robinson).
  • Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to wood@footballguys.com.

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