By Nick Shook
Around The NFL writer
Read full post on NFL.com
Training camp is quickly approaching, which means it’s time to preview the most exciting part of the summer. With camps opening later this month, Jeremy Bergman, Herbie Teope, Nick Shook and Marc Sessler are examining the key issues for each team in this division-by-division series. Here’s the NFC North camp primer:
Training camp report dates: rookies (July 16) and veterans (July 19).
Location: Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Illinois.
Most important position battle: Anthony Miller vs. Taylor Gabriel. Gabriel was cut by Cleveland in 2016 and became the diminutive darling of Atlanta’s passing attack alongside Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu, contributing at a clip of 16.5 yards per catch and snagging six touchdowns. His production dropped a bit in 2017 (11.5 yards per catch, one touchdown), eventually leading to his departure for Chicago, where he joins an uncertain receiving corps with a chance to make an impact. Miller, a second-round pick who is drawing praise from new head coach Matt Nagy for his intuitive route-running ability, looms. Should Miller have an impressive camp, he might find himself in the opening-day starting lineup outside or in the slot. The same goes for Gabriel, who will have to battle for a starting job from the jump, the kind of challenge with which he isn’t unfamiliar, having been an undrafted free agent back in 2014.
Newcomer to watch: LB Roquan Smith. Smith was my favorite linebacker in the 2018 draft class. The No. 8 overall pick plays as a downhill defender who packs a wallop when he makes contact with the opposition. He projects to replace Nick Kwiatkoski in Chicago’s linebacking corps, with the veteran potentially being used as a situational pass rusher instead of manning one of the middle linebacker spots. Smith is equipped to be an every-down impact linebacker and future leader of this defense. His first camp will go a long way toward determining just how quickly he can be a difference-maker for the Bears.
Looming camp question: Is Mitch Trubisky ready to make the leap in Year 2? The No. 2 overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft was handed the keys to the franchise after just four games last season, giving him three-fourths of a season to get his feet wet as a rookie. On a similar path to that taken by Philadelphia’s Carson Wentz, Trubisky enters his second season as the unquestioned starter at the position. Can he take advantage of the opportunity? The Bears‘ fortunes ride on how much Trubisky can improve from Year 1 to Year 2, which begins with his first camp under Nagy, a coach who has a history of scheming offenses to fit his quarterback’s strengths.
Training camp report dates: rookies (July 19) and veterans (July 26).
Location: Detroit Lions Training Facility in Allen Park, Michigan.
Most important position battle: Interior offensive line. This one isn’t so much about having a starter and bench player face off; rather, it’s about figuring out who starts where. Detroit landed one of the top interior linemen in the draft in Frank Ragnow (No. 20 overall pick). Ragnow lined up at left guard during OTAs, but should they start him at center (his position during his last two years in college), Graham Glasgow will start at guard. The opposite can also be said. Joe Dahl and Kenny Wiggins are present to push Ragnow and Glasgow in camp and can provide depth if they don’t earn a starting gig.
Newcomer to watch: RB Kerryon Johnson. Theo Riddick has admirably carried a good portion of the load in Detroit’s backfield alongside Ameer Abdullah, who’s largely been a disappointment since the Lionsselected him in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft. Still, Detroit ranked last in the league in rushing last season. The Lions are hoping the solution to their backfield problem is Johnson, the second-round pick who has drawn rave reviews from those who have taken the time to go back and watch his Auburn film. Riddick will continue to be the pass-catching threat in the backfield, but Johnson enters camp with a good chance to earn the lead role on the ground. Should he live up to expectations, Detroit will have itself a versatile backfield, between Johnson, Riddick and free-agent signee LeGarrette Blount.
Looming camp question: How does the defensive line shake out? Detroit traded away Akeem Spence, which opened up opportunities for those still on the roster not named Ezekiel Ansah, whose job is secure. Depth is important to Detroit’s defensive scheme, but little is determined as of now in terms of starters and rotational players. Sylvester Williams arrives as a viable candidate for competition with A’Shawn Robinson and Jeremiah Ledbetter, while undrafted free agent Josh Fatu could also get a chance to work his way to a roster spot.
Green Bay Packers
Training camp report date: rookies and veterans (July 25).
Location: St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin.
Most important position battle: Tramon Williams vs. Josh Jackson. The veteran Williams, who was with the Packers from 2006 to 2014, returns to Green Bay following a resurgent year in Arizona, but there’s no overlooking his age (35). With the Packers spending their top two picks on standout corners Jaire Alexander (18th overall) and Jackson (45th), the new era is upon us at the position. Will Jackson win the job out of camp, or will Williams hold onto it for a final go-around in Green Bay before the youngsters officially take over? The bonus: No matter who wins this job, Green Bay is about as deep at the position as it has been since its last run to a Lombardi Trophy.
Newcomer to watch: TE Jimmy Graham. How could it be anyone but Graham? A year after the Martellus Bennett experiment fell flat, Green Bay upgrades in a big way by adding Graham. Tight ends have generally flourished when paired with Aaron Rodgers (see: Richard Rodgers, Jared Cook and Jermichael Finley), and Graham stands to be the best one yet. The five-time Pro Bowler should have an even better chance to make an impact than he did with the Seahawks, and he adds another big-play threat to the Packers‘ receiving corps. His rapport with Rodgers begins in earnest with camp.
Looming camp question: Will new additions to Green Bay’s secondary improve a pass defense that ranked 23rd last season and 31st the year before? Speaking of the youth infusion at corner, Green Bay needs the help in the secondary. No matter who is lining up at quarterback on the opposite side of the ball, the Packers will need to be better than they were against the pass over the last couple seasons. A quick acclimation to the pro game from Alexander, Jackson and second-year corner Kevin King (who appeared in just nine games last season while dealing with a shoulder injury) will go a long way toward rectifying this concern.
Training camp report dates: rookies (July 24) and veterans (July 27).
Location: TCO Performance Center in Eagan, Minnesota.
Most important position battle: Right side of the offensive line. While the rest of the offensive line is largely set, right guard remains an interesting position for the Vikings, with a few candidates to replace the retired Joe Berger. Second-round pick Brian O’Neill could fill the void, but he could also end up starting at right tackle, making Mike Remmers available to start at guard. There’s also second-year lineman Danny Isidora and off-season addition Tom Compton. Rashod Hill is also in the mix at tackle, making this a crowded field — but one that has the promise of providing both a solid starting tackle and guard.
Newcomer to watch: CB Mike Hughes.Minnesota boasts a solid secondary, with established starters in Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes (with ageless wonder Terence Newmanproviding depth and leadership as he nears his 40th birthday), but the Vikings still went with Hughes with the No. 30 overall pick, due to his upside. Hughes will likely make his earliest impact on special teams as a returner, but if he develops faster than expected, he could also add another level of depth to Minnesota’s stellar defense.
Looming camp question: You guessed it — how does Kirk Cousins improve this offense? The Vikings were the beneficiaries of an unexpectedly strong season from Case Keenum at quarterback in 2017, but the signal-caller is off to Denver as the Broncos‘ new anointed starter. All eyes are now focused on Cousins, the fully guaranteed big fish of free agency who chose to head north after proving his worth in the nation’s capital. When I spoke with Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr last month, he had nothing but great things to say about Cousins’ impact, telling me that the QB brings an added element of capability to Minnesota’s offense that was missed at times during close calls last season. His performance will be one of the preseason’s greatest draws.
Follow Nick Shook on Twitter @TheNickShook.