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Preseason Watch List: NFC North

A detailed look at the key questions facing each team in the preseason

CHICAGO BEARS

For a team coming off a 3-13 season that saw both the offense (28th) and defense (24th) struggle, there were remarkably few changes this offseason. John Fox returns in spite of a 9-23 record, as do both coordinators. Analyzing the roster, most of last year's starters remain and are favored to keep their jobs. The question Bears fans are asking is how this coaching staff and roster can vault back into contention? General manager Ryan Pace made it clear he's taking a long-term view after drafting Mitchell Trubisky in the first round instead of players who would contribute immediately. Pace gave Mike Glennon $16 million guaranteed shortly before drafting Trubisky, further confusing the team's priorities. 

Camp Details:

  • When: 7/19 (Rookies) / 7/26 (Veterans)
  • Where: Olivet Nazarene University (Bourbonnais, IL)
  • Open to Public: Yes (See Website)

Preseason Game Schedule:

  • Aug 10 -- Denver 7:00 pm EDT
  • Aug 19 -- @Arizona 9:00 pm
  • Aug 27 -- @Tennessee 12:00 pm
  • Aug 31 -- Cleveland 7:00 pm

What We're Watching:

  • Getting a look at Mike Glennon and Mitchell Trubisky -- Glennon was serviceable as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers starter before giving way to Jameis Winston, and the Bears opted to give Glennon $16mm guaranteed instead of keeping Jay Cutler. Pace then handed over a 2017 third round, 2017 fourth round and 2018 third round pick to swap one spot with the 49ers to select Trubisky. No matter what he or the coaches say, if Trubisky plays well in the preseason, the public pressure to start him over Glennon will be intense. 
  • Who replaces Alshon Jeffery atop the receiver depth chart? -- The surest receiver on the roster is Cameron Meredith, a surprise starter last season who caught 66 passes for 888 yards in 14 games. It's anyone's guess who starts on the other side. The Bears hope Kevin White will emerge in the preseason, but he's missed 28 games in two seasons. Veterans Kendall Wright and Victor Cruz have designs of re-living past successes, but both are past their primes. Which leaves Markus Wheaton, who got $6 million guaranteed to join the Bears after a forgettable career in Pittsburgh.
  • Who starts at tight end? -- Zach Miller is talented and productive, when healthy. He's rarely healthy and is rumored to be on the chopping block, as a result. Would the Bears turn the reins over to free agent Dion Sims, or can rookie 2nd rounder Adam Shaheen impress quickly enough to crack the lineup? 
  • The defensive end and safety battles -- Most of the starting roles are set barring injury, but Mitch Unrein and Jonathan Bullard will duke it out at defensive end while Adrian Amos and rookie Eddie Jackson vie for the free safety role. 

DETROIT LIONS

The Lions made the playoffs last season with a 9-7 record but ended the season with four straight losses including the 26-6 drubbing by the Seahawks in the Wild Card round. The coaching staff returns intact and will look to recapture the form that led to a 9-4 start before the late season collapse. On defense, the team made progress allowing just 22 points per game (13th in the league), but the offense (21 points per game, 20th in the league) struggled. Of particular concern is the continued struggle to run the ball (30th in rushing yards, 27th in yards per rush) which creates an imbalance and makes it easier for opposing defenses to key on Matthew Stafford

Camp Details:

  • When: 7/24 (Rookies) / 7/29 (Veterans)
  • Where: Detroit Lions Training Facility (Allen Park, MI)
  • Open to Public: Yes (See Website)

Preseason Game Schedule:

  • Aug 13 -- @Indianapolis 1:30 pm EDT
  • Aug 19 -- New York Jets 7:30 pm
  • Aug 25 -- New England 7:00 pm
  • Aug 31 -- @Buffalo 7:00 pm

What We're Watching:

  • Is Ameer Abdullah finally ready to shoulder the load? -- Ameer Abdullah was set to dominate in his second season before suffering a foot injury in Week Two and missing the rest of the season. This offseason Abdullah admitted the injury was a Lisfranc tear but insists he's 100% healthy. To his credit, Abdullah wowed onlookers during OTAs and his general manager insists Abdullah will be given one more chance to earn the feature role. 
  • Is Theo Riddick set for an increased role? -- Riddick missed six games last year but still had 53 receptions. Over the last two season, Riddick has averaged more than five catches per game and has been particularly effective as a receiver in the red zone. With Anquan Boldin gone, Riddick stands a chance to exceed his 2015 highs of 99 targets and 80 receptions. 
  • Can rookie Kenny Golladay make an immediate impact? -- Rookie Kenny Golladay impressed the coaching staff in mini-camp and the 6'4", 218-pound receiver will compete for a starting role immediately. He'll need to fend off Jared Abbrederis and T.J. Jones. If he wins a job, Golladay has a profile evocative of Anquan Boldin; which should excite fantasy owners who remember what Boldin accomplished as a rookie.
  • Will the offense really utilize more two-tight end sets? --  Jim Bob Cooter insists the team will use two-TE sets more frequently this year after running the formation only 12% of snaps in 2016. It would make sense to increase tight end usage given the team's signing of Darren Fells in free agency and the selection of Michael Roberts in the 4th round of this year's draft. 
  • Sorting out the left side of the line -- Greg Robinson was a bust with the Rams, but Detroit is counting on him to play left tackle. Graham Glasgow returns at left guard, but former "can't miss" prospect Laken Tomlinson should push for playing time in the preseason. 

GREEN BAY PACKERS

The Packers return to St. Norbert College as one of the NFC favorites after a division-winning (10-6) season that culminated in a loss to the Falcons in the NFC Championship game. While we're used to seeing the Packers in contention, it's important to remember Green Bay's road to the playoffs was rocky. The team fell to 4-6 after a November loss to Washington, but Aaron Rodgers and Company rattled off six consecutive victories to secure the division crown. The momentum continued into the playoffs with wins over the Giants and Cowboys. The offense was electric (4th in points scored) even though the team struggled to find a reliable ground game. The defense was below average (21st in points allowed) but made big plays (39 sacks, 17 interceptions, 18 fumble recoveries).  GM Ted Thompson broke from the script this offseason by signing three free agents projected to start at their respective positions; is that a sign the Super Bowl window is closing? Don't be on it, at least not this season. 

Camp Details:

  • When: 7/26 (Rookies and Veterans)
  • Where: St. Norbert College (De Pere, WI)
  • Open to Public: Yes (See Website)

Preseason Game Schedule:

  • Aug 10 -- Philadelphia 7:00 pm EDT
  • Aug 19 -- @Washington 6:30 pm
  • Aug 26 -- @Denver 8:00 pm
  • Aug 31 -- Los Angeles Rams 6:00 pm

What We're Watching:

  • Can Aaron Rodgers start off hot? -- Aaron Rodgers wasn't right in 2015, and it looked like his career was taking an unexpected downturn a month into the 2016 season. Through five games, Rodgers was averaging 235 yards (6.6 yards per attempt), 2 touchdowns and 0.8 interceptions. Over the final eleven games, Rodgers averaged 296 yards (7.8 yards per attempt), 2.7 touchdowns and 0.3 interceptions. He returned to MVP form. Can the all-time great stay healthy in the preseason and pick up where he left off? 
  • Is Ty Montgomery the clear-cut starting running back? -- Fantasy owners are drafting Ty Montgomery as though he's assured the feature-back role. That's a bold assumption for the converted receiver after a 77-carry season. He impressed in limited touches (5.9 yards per rush) but did nothing to illustrate an ability to handle 15-20 touches per game over 16 games. The Packers drafted Jamaal Williams (4th round) and Aaron Jones (5th round) to compete for the job. Both flashed NFL starting potential in college. 
  • Davante Adams versus Randall Cobb -- Davante Adams out snapped Randall Cobb 915 to 681 last season, but both have their merits. Adams outplayed Cobb last year, but in the three years they've played together, Cobb has the edge in targets (340 to 279), receptions (230 to 163), yards (2,726 to 1,926) and touchdowns (22 to 16). 
  • Integrating Martellus Bennett into the offense -- Ted Thompson never spends money on other people's free agents, except when it comes to tight ends. Last year he brought in Jared Cook, to no avail. This year Thompson signed Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks, and both should play a lot. Can Bennett supplant either Cobb or Adams in the passing target pecking order? 
  • Davon House versus Kevin King -- The Packers ranked 31st in pass defense last year and will let a returning veteran (House) and a promising rookie (King) vie for the top cornerback spot. It's possible both could start in which case Damarious Randall would move to nickel. 

MINNESOTA VIKINGS

The Vikings lost Teddy Bridgewater in the preseason, made a last minute trade for Sam Bradford, and then started off the season 5-0. The defense was dominant (12.6 points per game) and the offense efficient; the team appeared to be a title contender. Minnesota would lose 8 of their final 11 games to fall out of contention and finish a disappointing 8-8. As the team heads back to Minnesota State University for camp, all eyes will be on finding more offensive firepower to match a dominant defense. 

Camp Details:

  • When: 7/23 (Rookies) / 7/26 (Veterans)
  • Where: Minnesota State University, Mankato (Mankato, MN)
  • Open to Public: Yes (See Website)

Preseason Game Schedule:

  • Aug 10 -- @Buffalo 7:00 pm EDT
  • Aug 18 -- @Seattle 10:00 pm
  • Aug 27 -- San Francisco 8:00 pm
  • Aug 31 -- Miami 8:00 pm

What We're Watching:

  • Finalizing Pat Shurmur's offense -- Norv Turner shocked everyone by quitting midseason, and Pat Shurmur took over but couldn't tweak much given the situation. This year he'll have the opportunity to install his full offense, and the hope is Minnesota can finish better than 23rd in points scored under his watch. The crux of the problem is a rushing attack that mustered 1,205 yards (3.2 per carry) last season. The concern is Shurmur's offenses have ranked near the bottom of the league in St. Louis, Cleveland, and Minnesota. His only "success" came in Philadelphia, but head coach Chip Kelly deserves most of the credit for those seasons. 
  • Dalvin Cook versus Latavius Murray -- Latavius Murray signed a 3-year, $15 million contract to replace Adrian Peterson but only $3.4 million is guaranteed. The team is saying all the right things about Murray's role, but he will instantly be looking over his shoulder at rookie Dalvin Cook. Cook, in spite of a fumbling problem, is an explosive playmaker and the far more exciting player. Cook will have a role, and it could be the lead role, depending on how the preseason unfolds. 
  • Adam Thielen versus Stefon Diggs -- Diggs was the surprise breakout in 2015, and Thielen followed suit last year. Both are poised to start, but it's a question as to which player sits atop the depth chart. Thielen is bigger (6'3", 200-pounds vs 6'0", 195-pounds) and has better measurables. He also has the higher touchdown rate (4.5% vs. 3.5%), catch rate (73% vs. 70%), and yards per reception (13.7 vs. 11.9), but Diggs has a longer history of productivity and is more versatile as a route runner. 
  • Rebuilding the offensive line -- The front office made fixing the offensive line a priority, including a free agent bonanza to acquire Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers. Reiff will start at left tackle and Remmers (a former Viking returned after a stint in Carolina) will play right tackle. Nick Easton and Joe Berger will be pressured by rookie 3rd rounder Pat Elflein for their respective jobs.