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Carucci: A Glance At The NFC North


Barnett is a 'rookie to watch' in 2003.

Most influential offseason moves: The Minnesota Vikings helped a defense that has ranked as one of the NFL's worst in recent seasons. Denard Walker, a free agent from Denver, gives them the first quality cornerback they've had in five years. Chris Claiborne, a free agent from Detroit, gives them a tackling machine at linebacker. And 6-foot-4, 304-pound tackle Kevin Williams, a first-round draft pick from Oklahoma State, gives them much needed size and strength for the middle of their line.

In February, when the Detroit Lions made Steve Mariucci their fourth coach in 28 months, there was plenty of excitement in Detroit. And why not? Mariucci brought credibility for having helped turn around the salary-cap gutted San Francisco 49ers and for his expertise in working with young quarterbacks. He could be just what the Lions, after a 3-13 season that saw Joey Harrington mostly struggle as a rookie quarterback, need. But Mariucci and Harrington will need the immediate help of the Lions' top pick, wide receiver Charles Rogers from Michigan State, and a defense that should be improved by the additions of second-rounder Boss Bailey (linebacker, Georgia), third-rounder Cory Redding (end, Texas), free-agent cornerback Dre' Bly (St. Louis) and free-agent linebacker Earl Holmes (Cleveland).

Positional showdowns: Although Harrington likely will be the starter when the season begins, his performance last year leaves some room for Mike McMahon to push for the No. 1 spot this summer. If McMahon can become a more accurate passer and minimize his mistakes, he has an outside chance of supplanting Harrington.

The Green Bay Packers have one of the NFL's best blocking fullbacks in William Henderson, but he was slowed by injuries last year and Nick Luchey, a free agent from Cincinnati, has a chance to unseat him in camp. Akili Smith, another former Bengal, is battling Doug Pederson, Craig Nall and Eric Crouch for the backup quarterback spot behind Brett Favre. Having entered the league as the third overall pick of the 1999 draft, Smith has the greatest potential to position himself as the starter when Favre decides to retire, which could be in a year or so.

The Chicago Bears have a fullback battle of their own between Daimon Shelton and Stanley Pritchett, who is a better receiver than blocker. The loser might not make the team if the Bears decide to keep four tight ends, where there is strong competition between Desmond Clark (free agent, Miami), Dustin Lyman, John Gilmore, John Davis and Robert Johnson. With Bryan Robinson nailing down one defensive tackle spot, Keith Traylor and Ted Washington will compete for the other this summer.

Trouble spots to address: If Michael Bennett's recent setback to his surgically repaired foot keeps him out for most or all of the season, the Vikings would suddenly have a significant hole at running back. Backup Moe Williams, a hard inside runner and effective third-down specialist, is a solid replacement, but he doesn't have Bennett's breakaway speed. Depth also would be a concern. The Vikings could find out sooner than they would prefer if, in fact, fourth-round draft pick Onterrio Smith was the steal some members of their hierarchy believed. The Vikes had another problem area recently surface at tight end, thanks to Byron Chamberlain's suspension for the first four games of the season for violating the league's policy on banned substances. Jim Kleinsasser and Hunter Goodwin must pick up the slack.

Once again, questions hover over the Bears' quarterback position. Most of the concern in recent years has been about whether they would have a healthy starter for a full season. Now, the issue is whether free-agent newcomer Kordell Stewart, who had some impressive stretches during eight seasons in Pittsburgh, will be revitalized by a change of scenery. If he isn't, veteran backup Chris Chandler is a solid, but fragile, option. Rex Grossman, the second of Chicago's two first-round picks, might also be pushed into the lineup, although the Bears would prefer him to sit for a year or two.

The Packers can only hope that starting tackles Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher can return from serious injuries they suffered last season, or they could be in serious trouble on their offensive line. Both players were held out of offseason practices and won't do much on-field work this summer until they are deemed fully healthy. Kevin Barry, Jerry Wisne and free-agent acquisitions Grey Ruegamer (New England), David Brandt (Washington) and Marcus Spriggs (Miami) provide solid depth, but the line simply isn't the same without Clifton and Tauscher healthy.

The Lions won't have defensive tackle Luther Elliss on the field when they open camp on July 26. Elliss, who has had a string of bad luck with injuries in recent years, suffered a pectoral injury two weeks ago while working out at his offseason home in Utah. He is likely to miss much of the preseason, but the Lions hope to have him back in time for the start of the regular season.

Rookies to watch: As the second overall pick of the draft, Rogers is expected to give the Lions an instant deep threat. However, as he discovered in offseason workouts, he has a lot to learn about coverage recognition, which NFL defenses make difficult by disguising their schemes so well. Redding impressed the Lions' hierarchy during offseason practices and could split time between end and tackle. Bailey needs to improve his strength to be effective at strong-side linebacker, but his speed should allow him to contribute.

Linebacker Nick Barnett, the Packers' first-round pick from Oregon State, will compete to start or see significant playing time inside or outside. As a former safety, he has the toughness and speed to help in both areas.

Defensive end Michael Haynes, the Bears' top choice from Penn State, will push to start and, at the very least, be part of a rotation with Phillip Daniels and Alex Brown.

If Williams can consistently occupy blockers with his bulk and power, fellow Vikings defensive tackle Chris Hovan should be able to avoid frequent double-teaming and perhaps receive the Pro Bowl recognition he deserves.

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