Green Bay Packers:
Position to Watch: Defensive Line
Last season the Green Bay Packers set records both on offense and defense. However the records the Packers defensive unit set wasn’t the type of records 3rd year defensive coordinator Dom Capers was hoping for. Green Bay set an NFL record for passing yards allowed (4.796) and it resulted in their early exit against the eventual Super Bowl Champion New York Giants. While the Packers secondary struggled, the biggest problem on this defense is the defensive line. The team ranked 3rd worst in the NFL with only 29 Sacks last season and much of that blame goes on the D-Line. B.J “The Freezer” Raji was a disappointment in 2011, after breaking onto the stage in the team’s 2010 Super Bowl run. While Raji didn’t live up to expectations even his play surpassed that of his teammates on the line. Ryan Pickett was serviceable at best on the right side, and the constant rotation on the left side just made things more difficult. Green Bay went full force to fix the issue in the off season by drafting Jerel Worthy in the 2nd Round and adding Anthony Hargrove and Phillip Merling in Free Agency. There will be plenty of depth in Training Camp for Dom Capers to work with, and if all goes well this defense could return to form in 2012.
Player to Watch: Casey Heyward CB
Packers General Manager Ted Thompson wasn’t afraid to give up his 3rd and 5th round pick during the draft if it meant getting CB Casey Heyward. Heyward the 5’11 185 lb. out of Vanderbilt came as a sign to Packers fans that changes were coming. That message became even clearer when the Packers let go of last years S Charlie Peprah. The decision to trade up for Heyward and the release of Peprah, bare a strong indication that Green Bay is moving Charles Woodson to Strong Safety. If that indeed is the plan, Heyward has a fair chance at starting the season at Cornerback opposite of Tramon Williams. What the determining factor for Heyward will be is how he will fare in Training Camp and in the Pre Season. Heyward will be given plenty of opportunities to earn playing time, and should provide more depth for the Packers secondary.
Position to Watch: Offensive Line
Despite all the additions made by the Bears in the off-season, the biggest weakness on this offense remains the offensive line. The Bears failed to address the Offensive Line in the Draft or Free Agency and now must head into camp with the same group that ranked 27th in the NFL last year with 49 Sacks Allowed. While the Bears move to reunite WR Brandon Marshall with QB Jay Cutler was a brilliant one, it will be useless if the line won’t give Cutler enough time to throw the football. Chris Williams and Gabe Carimi will man the two Tackle spots, and are ready to answer all the questions surrounding their play, but talk isn’t enough, the time has come to see them back it up on the field. The Bears can’t have the protection issues they did last year, because if they do their NFC North rival Packers, Vikings and Lions, worked hard to enhance their pass rushing ability, and will be ready to exploit the Bears in 2012 if they can’t fix their problem. The Chicago Bears have one of the most balanced teams in the NFC, with pieces like Julius Peppers, Lance Briggs, and Brian Urlacher on defense, and Cutler, Matt Forte and Marshall on offense, the talent is there to fight it out with the Packers. In the end the Bears success will come down to the Offensive Line, and what they will do differently in 2012.
Player to Watch: Shea McClellin DE
The Bears 1st Round pick out of Boise State, Shea McClellin was the player who rose from the unknown up towards the top of everyone’s draft boards. I admit I was skeptical of the Bears selection of McClellin simply because I didn’t see it as a fit. The Bears plan to start McClellin opposite Julius Peppers at DE, after he played OLB in college. I’m going to give the Bears a chance with this though, McClellin will not see much attention with Peppers drawing double teams, and therefore should have plenty of chances to get a free shot at the QB. The test for McClellin will be how he can adjust to the NFL and if he will be able to handle the 1 on 1’s against much stronger OT’s on every play. McClellin has a bright future, but time will tell if that will be at DE or OLB.
Position to Watch: Running Backs
You would think a team with Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure wouldn’t have to many question marks surrounding the position. Unfortunately for the Lions, Best has never gotten past his numerous concussions from a year ago, as rumors swirl he may have to medically retire, Best says he is ready to play football. As for Leshoure, the 2nd year RB is coming off a Torn ACL and is facing a 2 game suspension for an arrest in the offseason. Leshoure will have all of Training Camp to prove himself, while Best waits on medical clearance (Concussions) so he can start practicing again. That leaves the Lions with Kevin Smith who showed flashes late last season after making his way back to the NFL. To begin camp Smith will get carries with the first team, while Leshoure and Best try to stay healthy. Despite the great passing game the Lions have, they have titanic sized questions at RB that will need to be solved if they want to keep up with the Bears and the Packers in the NFC North.
Player to Watch: Titus Young
Speaking of talented young Lions players who find trouble, the player I will be keeping an eye on in Training Camp and the Pre Season is 2nd year WR Titus Young. While Young has been the star of OTA’s Training Camp and Pre Season will be the true test for Titus. There is no question Young is incredibly talented, with his ability to stretch the field he is an excellent compliment to Calvin “Megatron” Johnson Jr. My questions about Young are more about his maturity, and if he can avoid conflicts both off the field and on it with teammates. As long as Young stays out of trouble, the Lions have one of the better WR duo’s in the NFL.
Position to Watch: Wide Receivers
When I look at the Minnesota Vikings WR depth chart one thing stands out to me, “Who is the No.2 WR?” Percy Harvin has the No.1 job down, even contract problems aside he will suit up for the Vikings and be Ponder’s go to guy. The rest of the Vikings WR’s are all question marks, with Michael Jenkins set up as the No.3 and as the No.2, there is no player that you can trust every Sunday. The Vikings will head into camp with a plethora of options, and have them battle it out until Week 1 of the regular season, but there isn’t much to like. Devin Aromashodu has never been anything more then average for their offense. While Jerome Simpson may seem like a quality No.2 he is facing a 4 game suspension, and I think he is a better No.3 WR then a No.2. 2 players I will keep an eye on, are rookies Greg Childs and Jarius Wright, both in hopes they can start out as the team’s No.4 WR and slowly make their way up the depth chart. There is no question this team needs help at WR, Training Camp will just show how much help they need and give everyone a chance to see how the rookies can do.
Player to Watch: Christian Ponder
After the Vikings selected Christian Ponder with the 12th pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, many football minds wondered if it was a reach. Ponder was an accurate QB, with tremendous athleticism but really lacked the arm strength you look for in a franchise QB. After weeks of Donovan McNabb incompetence as the starter, the Vikings decided the time had arrived to hand Ponder the reigns and let him learn on the fly. It didn’t work well for Minnesota as Ponder struggled as a rookie, and the Vikings didn’t look any better. Ponder showed flashes as a rookie, but often had to sue his athleticism to avoid sacks rather then show his passing ability. Fortunately for Ponder the Vikings took Matt Kalil with the 3rd pick and started to piece together some protection for their QB. Heading into Training Camp, this is now Ponder’s team, and he will have a full training camp and pre season to build chemistry with his teammates. If Ponder can prove he is ready to be an NFL QB, and has a healthy Adrian Peterson behind him, Ponder should have a good sophomore season.