NFC North training camp preview: Will Justin Fields show out? Will Aaron Rodgers show up?

With the unified start to training camp right around the corner on Tuesday, July 27, it’s time to get up to speed on all 32 NFL teams. Below, Tom Blair has the lowdown on position battles, key players and notable subplots across the NFC North.

Location: Halas Hall, Lake Forest, Illinois.

Most important position battle: Cornerback. Kyle Fuller would surely be anchoring the back end of new coordinator Sean Desai’s defense if not for the financial realities of the offseasonJaylon Johnson (who logged 15 passes defensed in 2020, more than any other rookie Bears cornerback since 1999) is healthy and excited to take on CB1 duties — but who will step up on the other side? While reclamation projects Desmond Trufant (about to turn 31) and Artie Burns (coming off a torn ACL) could theoretically find the reset button, the candidate with the most juice might be second-year pro Kindle Vildor, who earned praise from coaches and media alike in minicamp. Finding someone to help keep Chicago’s pass defense in the middle to upper ranges of the league sure would do a lot to ease the transition to the Desai era, and potentially help take some of the burden off a pass rush that Khalil Mack mostly carried by himself last season.

Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: Justin Fields, quarterback. Fields’ development will be the story in Chicago — in camp, during the regular season, for the next half-decade. It’s not a stretch to say his fate means even more to Bears fans, who have spent what feels like millennia in the quarterbacking wilderness, than it does to coach Matt Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace, who are likely in danger of losing their jobs if he busts. All eyes will be on the No. 11 overall pick. Now, I know hanging on every one of a player’s first few professional throws can bad for your health; the sober, sensible thing to do would be to assume Andy Dalton’s steady-if-uninspiring hand will be on the tiller to begin 2021, just as Nagy has been stressing all along. Then again … if Fields is going to have a Justin Herbert-esque rookie campaign for the ages, the spark could first flash in camp. So why not breathlessly scan every tweet and camp notebook and practice clip for proof that Fields is on the verge of dazzling the coaching staff into making him The Man in Week 1? Go wild. Enjoy it.

Other subplots to track:

  • If second-round pick Teven Jenkins can perform well in camp, it would bode extremely well for an offensive line that was ranked 20th by Pro Football Focus at the end of 2020. It’s tough to imagine better insurance for Nagy and Pace than hitting on a cornerstone QB and LT in one draft.
  • Darnell Mooney has buzz on his side. It would be huge for Chicago if the second-year receiver were to really click with Dalton (or, better yet, Fields) and firmly establish himself as a young offensive weapon with upside, someone who could grow with Fields and potentially replace the franchise-tagged Allen Robinson down the road.
  • Three seasons in, I think it’s safe to call the Mack trade a win. But the Bears also haven’t advanced beyond the Wild Card Round since bringing him aboard. It would help if someone else proved capable of bugging opposing QBs. Can Robert Quinn find some best-shape-of-his-life mojo and chip in like he was expected to last year?

Location: Allen Park, Michigan.

Most important position battle: Wide receiver. Essentially punting on the position this offseason was probably fine in the big picture of the Lions’ rebuild, but it’s going to be tough to gauge whether Jared Goff can be saved if he doesn’t at least form a solid working relationship with a pass catcher or two. Breshad Perriman and Tyrell Williams are the most obvious options, and it’s important to see the vets figure out their rapport with Goff. But the ideal outcome for Detroit might be for a youngster with theoretically unrealized potential — say, fourth-rounder Amon-Ra St. Brown, or offseason darling Victor Bolden, or even Quintez Cephus — to pop in camp as a pleasant surprise capable of generating eye-catching chemistry with the quarterback.

Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: Jeff Okudah, cornerback. Taking Okudah third overall last year was not the current regime’s gamble. Still, he’s the highest-drafted Lions player since Ndamukong Suh was chosen No. 2 overall in 2010, and it would be good for everyone involved if Okudah could shake off a ragged rookie season and become a real asset to build around. Okudah missed the season-opener in 2020 with a hamstring injury, then lost the last six weeks to a shoulder injury and groin surgery. In between, he garnered the worst coverage grade given by PFF to any cornerback who logged at least 100 coverage snaps in 2020. The Lions are focused on building his confidence, and Okudah says he’s operating at “a different level.” Can those positive vibes translate to a healthy, strong camp performance?

Other subplots to track:

  • Jared Goff’s ups and downs have been nowhere near as dramatic as Carson Wentz’s, but Goff’s career prospects are facing greater immediate peril in Detroit. The best-case scenario would be to show the brass he’s worth keeping around for when the Lions are ready to compete again, but I’m not sure that’s something we’ll be able to measure with the usual external markers of good QB play.
  • Jamaal Williams and D’Andre Swift should make Lions fans feel better about the running back picture than they have in years.
  • New offensive tackle Penei Sewell doesn’t have to dominate right away, but the stakes are still somewhat high for the seventh overall pick — showing he’s at least developing will go a long way toward establishing an upbeat tone for the Brad Holmes/Dan Campbell era.
  • I’m not going to talk about kneecaps. I’m not gonna do it. Am I a hero for this? Maybe. Mostly I want to give Campbell the benefit of the doubt over an approach that at least promises to provide this organization with some needed zing.

Location: Ray Nitschke Field, Ashwaubenon, Wisconsin.

Most important position battle: Cornerback. When you’re the latest in a never-ending line of non-WRs drafted in the first round by a team whose MVP QB is feeling underappreciated, people are going to be, let’s say, interested in how quickly you’re able to contribute. Especially when you have a chance to solidify a spot that caused Packer fans considerable consternation the last time we saw Green Bay in a game that counts. The Packers took a bit of a swing on Eric Stokes, who was ranked 50th overall on Daniel Jeremiah’s top 150 heading into the draft, with the 29th overall pick. Kevin King, playing on a one-year deal, should be plenty motivated to make up for his wretched outing vs. Tampa in the NFC title game. But if Stokes were to supplant King — who allowed a passer rating of 97.8 and completion percentage of 63.2 last season (per Next Gen Stats) — opposite Jaire Alexander, that would be a triumph for a front office that might need to start savoring wins.

Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: Josh Myers, center. Maintaining strong play up front will smooth the waters in 2021, whether the O-line is getting back to business as usual with Aaron Rodgers or shielding Jordan Love through a baptism-by-fire. Though he’s a new face, Myers could be the key to continuity for Green Bay’s offense. He’s in line to take over for All-Pro pivot Corey Linsley, who signed with the Chargers — but the second-round pick still has to officially earn the job. If the rookie confirms he’s ready, the unit will be in good position to provide at least one area of stability on the roster. If he falters, then this becomes one more potential point of vulnerability, another spot where chaos could seep through and knock the prohibitive division favorites off track.

Other subplots to track:

  • This is just a reminder to keep an eye on that Rodgers situation! If one of the best quarterbacks of our time decides not to play for the Packers, well, I’m not sure I’m going to like their Super Bowl odds.
  • Seriously, the Rodgers drama has been roiling for so long, it is easy to forget that nothing has really happened yet. The start of camp is when this hypothetical disaster could begin to morph into a real catastrophe for Green Bay.
  • Did you enjoy the whiplash-inducing reactions to Love’s bad first day and good second day of minicamp? If so, you should be PUMPED for the potential of a Rodgers-less training camp.
  • How will a defense that includes strong pieces like Rashan Gary, Za’Darius Smith and Alexander take shape under new coordinator Joe Barry? If Love does end up starting, Barry’s group will become even more important.

Location: TCO Performance Center, Eagan, Minnesota.

Most important position battle: Cornerback. If you love cornerback battles, I guess this is the division for you. The Vikings could use serious spice at the position coming off a season in which their cornerbacks were graded by PFF as the 27th-worst coverage group in the NFL. Marquee addition Patrick Peterson is at a career crossroads, but his job is presumably secure. As for the slot opposite Peterson, ex-Chief Bashaud Breeland brings experience and a solid résumé, while Cameron Dantzler nabbed two picks and posted the third-best coverage grade among rookie CBs with 100-plus coverage snaps, per PFF. Pop 2020 fifth-rounder Harrison Hand onto your radar as a minicamp head-turner to track. (The fate of 2020 first-rounder Jeff Gladney remains undecided after he was arrested on a charge of felony family violence assault in April.)

Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: Danielle Hunter, defensive end. Football is supposed to be a team sport, but then you have players like Hunter, the pass-rushing extraordinaire whose absence with a neck injury in 2020 basically torpedoed the Vikings. One of those non-quarterbacks who can shape the course of an organization, Hunter is now healthy and (presumably) happy. He’s still just 26 and would need only to post one relatively strong campaign to reclaim his place as a young star on the come-up. An uneventful camp would mark a nice contrast to last year’s doom-inflected march to injured reserve — and it would help sell the idea that this Vikings defense really will be “completely different,” as Mike Zimmer recently promised, from the group that rated as the worst of Zimmer’s tenure as head coach last season.

Other subplots to track:

  • Kellen Mond‘s snaps will matter with regard to his future, the team’s immediate depth and Minnesota’s long-term options at QB, but the rookie’s camp performance should really be kept isolated from the ever-churning Kirk Cousins narrative. I understand why some Vikings fans might be antsy for someone new, but it is exceedingly FINE — good, even — to roll into 2021 with Cousins directing the offense.
  • I have no doubt Zimmer means it when he says Christian Darrisaw must earn the starting left tackle job, but if the 23rd overall pick is not able to at least provide serviceable play on the blind side while learning the ropes, the offensive line could be even more of a liability than it was in 2020, when it was ranked 26th by PFF.
  • Adam Thielen, who is about to turn 31 and hasn’t reached the 1,000-yard mark since 2018, could use a bounceback year.
  • Only Derrick Henry (681) has more rushing attempts than Dalvin Cook (562) over the past two seasons. The Vikings must protect their gamebreaking running back at all costs.

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