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Preseason Watch List: NFC North

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

Chicago Bears

The Bears head back to Olivet Nazarene University on July 25th for training camp ready to usher in a new era.  In spite of a 10-6 finish last season, head coach Lovie Smith and his staff were jettisoned in favor of offensive-minded Marc Trestman. Trestman will look to ignite a limp offense (28th in yards) while maintaining the excellence that Smith and his staff established on the defensive side (5th in yards allowed) of the ball. For the most part the on-field personnel remain intact from last season save for the departure of stalwart LB Brian Urlacher. Much needed additions were added on the offensive line, which will be key in getting Jay Cutler to flourish under Trestman's watch. 

Preseason Game Schedule

  • 8/9 -- @Carolina (8:00 ET)
  • 8/15 -- San Diego (8:00 ET)
  • 8/23 -- @Oakland (10:00 ET)
  • 8/29 -- Cleveland (8:00 ET)

What We're Watching

  • Installing Trestman's offense -- Trestman's system borrows heavily from the traditional West Coast offense, but it's a complex, exacting system that relies on meticulous attention to detail. No team in the league will have as much pressure this preseason in mastering a new system, because it's only going to be successful if QB Jay Cutler can handle all the minutiae involved. 
  • Rebuilding the offensive line -- OC Aaron Kromer has the job of rebuilding an offensive line that allowed 44 sacks (8% of attempts) and found difficultly opening holes in the running game.  Free agent LT Jermon Bushrod and OG Eben Britton join rookie 1st rounder Kyle Long as key pieces in putting the puzzle together. 
  • Cultivating the receiving corps -- Alshon Jeffery struggled with conditioning, a sore knee and a broken hand as a rookie and must improve by leaps and bounds this season to give the Bears balance and keep defenders from mugging Brandon Marshall. With Earl Bennett as the #3, it's possible the Bears will look to add a veteran to the mix as camp unfolds. 
  • Is Martellus Bennett a difference maker? -- The Bears didn't make use of the tight end effectively under Lovie Smith, but the new coaches view the position as a key component of the passing attack. Martellus Bennett -- fresh off one season in New York -- signed a big free agent deal to become an offensive fixture. If he flashes in the preseason, fantasy owners should take note. 
  • Revamping the linebacking corps -- Brian Urlacher's retirement and Nick Roach's departure open the door for two new starters alongside Lance Briggs. The Bears added veterans (D.J. Williams and James Anderson) as well as rookies (Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene) to fight for roles in camp. 

Detroit Lions

The Lions enter camp with as many questions as answers, and the coaches understand that this is probably a win-or-bust season after a disappointing 4-12 finish last year. Head coach Jim Schwartz has emphasized competition at every level of the roster, and the Lions have a handful of key jobs up for grabs. The offensive and defensive schemes aren't changing, but the Lions believe health and some personnel upgrades will be the difference between last season's woes and a return to the playoffs. 

Preseason Game Schedule

  • 8/09 -- New York Jets (7:30 ET)
  • 8/15 -- @Cleveland (7:30 ET)
  • 8/22 -- New England (7:30 ET)
  • 8/29 -- @Buffalo (7:00 ET)

What We're Watching

  • Deciphering the RB roles -- Reggie Bush was brought in to be the multi-dimensional playmaker that Jahvid Best was meant to be, but Bush probably isn't ideally suited to be an every down back. The Lions have Mikel Leshoure and Joique Bell vying for roles alongside Bush. Leshoure has the pedigree but his health and conditioning left something to be desired, while Bell was highly productive yet didn't seem to earn the full faith of the coaches last year. 
  • Can Ryan Broyles unseat Nate Burleson? -- Ryan Broyles tore his ACL seven months ago yet was a full participant in mini-camps. Not only was he a participant, he looked fantastic. If Broyles can be ready for the start of the season, he has the talent and upside to displace Nate Burleson as a starter. For a team that throws the ball 650+ times, that makes Broyles a key fantasy sleeper to watch. 
  • Setting the offensive line -- The Lions are moving Riley Reiff to left tackle, but nothing else is settled.  Jason Fox and Corey Hilliard are considered even money to win the RT slot, while the interior has a quintet of players all vying for starting roles (Rob Sims, Dom Raiola, Larry Warford, Dylan Gandy and Bill Nagy). 
  • Finding a pass rush -- The Lions only sacked opposing quarterbacks 34 times last year, and lost 17.5 of those sacks this offseason.  Only DTs Ndamukong Suh (8.0) and Nick Fairley (5.5) return and the Lions must get rookie 1st round Ziggy Ansah and free agent Jason Jones up to speed quickly or it could be a long season for DC Gunther Cunningham. 
  • Whitehead vs. Lewis vs. Palmer -- Strong side linebacker Justin Durant is gone, and the Lions are looking for a new starter to emerge from the trio of Travis Lewis (2nd year), Tahir Whitehead (2nd year) and Ashlee Palmer (5th year).
  • Is David Akers still an impact kicker? -- Two seasons ago David Akers set an NFL record for points scored in San Francisco, but fell off a cliff last season as he battled a groin injury. If Akers is limited in camp, he could be pushed by rookie Havard Rugland. 
  • Who will handle the punt and kick return duties? -- The returner jobs are up for grabs, and the Lions are going to try out a lot of players in camp. Patrick Edwards and Steven Miller appear to be the favorite based on mini-camps, but Lance Long, Theo Riddick, Joique Bell and Mike Thomas are also in the mix.

Green Bay Packers

The Packers return to St. Norbert College on July 26th for another training camp. The veteran team is coming off a division title (11-5) and made very few substantive changes to the roster this offseason. The Packers keys for this preseason will be keeping their key players healthy while working on re-establishing a rushing attack that has fallen by the wayside (20th yards, 22nd in yards per rush) in recent seasons. The team must also try to fix an offensive line that gave up 51 sacks a season ago. 

Preseason Game Schedule

  • 8/9 -- Arizona (8:00 ET)
  • 8/17 -- @St. Louis (8:00 ET)
  • 8/23 -- Seattle (8:00 ET)
  • 8/29 -- @Kansas City (8:00 ET)

What We're Watching

  • Will a viable fantasy RB emerge? -- The Packers have had a revolving door of ineffectiveness at the RB position in recent seasons, which is why GM Ted Thompson used 2nd (Eddie Lacy) and 4th (Johnathan Franklin) round picks on runners in April's draft. Lacy has the talent to be a feature back but a discouraging injury history, whereas Franklin might be too small to be an every down contributor but could be lethal as part of a committee. 
  • Stabilizing right tackle -- The Packers want Marshall Newhouse to lock up the RT job in camp, but won't simply hand him the job. Don Barclay, David Bakhtiari and Derrick Sherrod will all push Newhouse for the role. 
  • Is Jermichael Finley capable of greatness? -- Finley posted 55 receptions for 767 yards and 8 touchdowns in 2011 and many expected 2012 would cement him as one of the NFL's top receiving tight ends. Instead he regressed in every way and now his future with the team is in question. Can Finley re-assert himself and, in turn, become a key target for Aaron Rodgers
  • Does Randall Cobb take another step forward? -- The Packers let Greg Jennings depart in free agency mainly because of their confidence in 3rd year Randall Cobb. Aaron Rodgers believes Cobb can catch 100+ balls every year, which would make Cobb an elite fantasy option in all formats. 
  • Integrating younger players into the defense -- Nick Perry was hampered by injuries as a rookie, but is being handed one of the starting OLB positions this year. Meanwhile this year's 1st rounder, Datone Jones, will be given every opportunity to earn a starting end role by outplaying Mike Neal and C.J. Wilson in camp. Last but not least, 3rd year CB Davon House looks ready to contribute and will give the Packers the best cornerback quartet in the NFC. 

Minnesota Vikings

The Vikings will make their 48th consecutive trip to Mankato State University for training camp, with players reporting on July 25th. The Vikings are coming off a surprising 10-6 season that led to a playoff appearance, but have plenty of questions to answer this preseason if they're to have a realistic shot at repeating last year's success. The Vikings revamped the receiving corps this year, putting the onus on QB Christian Ponder to elevate his play; the Vikings ranked 31st in passing yards last year. On defense the Vikings need to improve a secondary that gave up too many big plays last year. 

Preseason Game Schedule

  • 8/9 -- Houston (8:00 ET)
  • 8/16 -- @Buffalo (7:00 ET)
  • 8/25 -- @San Francisco (8:00 ET)
  • 8/29 -- Tennessee (8:00 ET)

What We're Watching

  • Is Christian Ponder's job secure? -- When the Vikings first acquired Matt Cassel this offseason most viewed the move as a logical addition of an experienced veteran backup. But Christian Ponder's struggles in mini-camps have opened the door for some to speculate that Cassel could be in the mix to start at some point. Fantasy owners need to hope Ponder locks down the job because we know Cassel is the antithesis of dynamic. 
  • Where does Kyle Rudolph fit in the pantheon of tight ends? -- Rudolph's red zone dominance (9 TDs) and Pro Bowl MVP honors hint at further growth, while the addition of legitimate WR targets and the unusually high TD-to-target rate last year argue for regression. Hopefully training camp will offer some hints to point fantasy owners in the right direction. 
  • Who starts opposite Greg Jennings? -- Jennings was the big free agent signing, and will immediately become the Vikings top target. But will 1st rounder Cordarelle Patterson be ready to start immediately or will Jarius Wright and Jerome Simpson hold him off for a season? 
  • Guion vs. Evans -- The Pat Williams era is a bygone memory, and veterans Fred Evans and Letroy Guion enter camp in a even competition to start at nose tackle. 
  • Is Desmond Bishop healthy? -- The Vikings signed former Packer Desmond Bishop to a 1-year deal and plan on inserting him into the middle, which will allow Erin Henderson to stay on the weak side (Henderson was moved inside earlier in the preseason). If Bishop is healthy that's a significant improvement in the LB corps, but Bishop missed the entire 2012 season with a torn hamstring and the Packers opted against keeping him due to medical concerns. 
  • How quickly will Xavier Rhodes earn a starting role? -- The Vikings secondary needs more consistency, which is why the Vikings used a first round selection on the tough cornerback from Florida State. The sooner Rhodes displaces Josh Robinson in the starting lineup the better. 

More from Jason Wood:

On Second Thought: Defenses and Kickers - August 28
On Second Thought: Running Backs - August 28
On Second Thought: Tight Ends - August 28
On Second Thought: Quarterbacks - August 28
On Second Thought: Wide Receivers - August 28
What If Roddy White or Julio Jones Are Lost for the Season? - August 19
What If Robert Griffin III Is Lost for the Season? - August 19
What If Cecil Shorts Is Lost for the Season? - August 19
Player Spotlight: Philip Rivers - August 8
Player Spotlight: Jordan Cameron - August 7