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Speed, Athleticism Abound In NFC North


With NFL training camps due to open later this month, Vic Carucci has put together an eight-part series highlighting how each division shapes up in the aftermath of offseason personnel moves and organized workouts.

Here's a look at the NFC North.

Most Influential Offseason Moves

The Lions have taken more than their share of criticism in recent years, but this offseason they deserve credit for doing quite a bit right. They drafted well, using a pair of first-round picks for explosive receiver Roy Williams and explosive running back Kevin Jones. They also picked up substantial offensive help in free-agent guard Damien Woody and receiver Tai Streets. In addition, the Lions enhanced themselves defensively by hiring new coordinator Dick Jauron and making their strongest unit -- the secondary -- even stronger with the additions of cornerback Fernando Bryant and safety Brock Marion. Williams gives the Lions perhaps their greatest hope yet of getting the most out of third-year quarterback Joey Harrington and the rest of the passing game that Steve Mariucci set out to resurrect last year. Williams is big, strong, runs well after the catch and has hands that are large and soft. One of his most beneficial qualities is an exceptional leaping ability that allows him to catch the ball at its highest point. Although he is built and plays like a finesse-style runner, the 6-foot, 227-pound Jones tends to be quicker to deliver a blow than to take one. He can turn the corner quickly and is capable of going the distance when he finds an opening. Jones worked in college to improve his pass-catching skills, but will need to take it to a higher level in a scheme that calls for the back to do a good deal of receiving. In San Francisco, Streets was overshadowed by Terrell Owens and never received enough recognition for being a solid, steady receiver and a willing blocker downfield. Woody carried a hefty price tag, but should give the Lions the best inside blocking they've had in a while. Jauron likes big, physical defenses that cause turnovers. He might not have the ideal talent up front to do so, but adding Bryant and Marion to a secondary that already has an outstanding cornerback in Dre' Bly likely will provide the kind of tight coverage that should force opposing quarterbacks to hold the ball longer.

The Vikings dedicated their offseason to improving a defense that had plenty to do with the 3-7 collapse that followed their 6-0 start last season. They struggled with fundamental problems, such as poor tackling, to go along with deficiencies at cornerback and defensive end. One of their biggest moves was hiring Ted Cottrell as their defensive coordinator after he was let go by the Jets. Cottrell likes to create confusion for the opponent by using a variety of fronts, and he will make good use of the quickness and athleticism in the Vikings' front seven. He also has the relative comfort of an explosive offense that consistently provides a nice point cushion. The Vikings acquired one of the most expensive cornerbacks in free agency, Antoine Winfield, whose contribution is likely to be more in run support than coverage. Winfield has his problems when trying to cover larger receivers and doesn't make many interceptions. However, he hits with the authority of a linebacker, and the Vikings desperately need that sort of toughness on defense. The Vikings also look forward to immediate contributions from the defensive players they selected with their first three draft choices -- first-round end Kenechi Udeze, second-round linebacker Dontarrious Thomas, and third-round end Darrion Scott. Udeze combines power with quickness, making him a good fit as a 3-4 end because he can play the run as well as generate good pressure on the quarterback. He has great anticipation of the snap and exceptional body control. The Vikings' notable offensive move was picking up receiver Marcus Robinson, who provided he can stay healthy, should help give Randy Moss a little more room to operate and Daunte Culpepper a little more time to throw.

Now it is Lovie Smith's turn to try and return the Bears to the glory they last enjoyed when Mike Ditka was their coach, an era that ended a dozen years ago. Smith's emphasis is on defensive speed and aggressiveness. He uses some of the cover-two concepts that he learned while working as an assistant coach in Tampa Bay. He also uses some of the blitz-happy approach the Eagles employ, as well as a little of the "46" scheme made famous by former Bears defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan. Smith's mandate is to generate much more pressure and force turnovers, areas where the Bears fell woefully short in 2003. Consequently, many veteran players spent the offseason focusing on getting leaner and improving their overall physical conditioning so that they can play faster. The Bears feel good that they will see strong immediate contributions from the defensive linemen they selected with their first two draft picks, Tommie Harris and Terry Johnson. Harris is a tackle, but showed enough natural pass-rushing skills during offseason workouts to convince the coaches that he should occasionally rush from the edge and avoid constant double teams in the middle. Johnson also has been impressive during offseason workouts and should, at a minimum, be involved in a rotation at tackle. New offensive coordinator Terry Shea brings a horizontal-style passing scheme that often will make use of three receivers and ask young quarterback Rex Grossman to fire away, just as the quarterbacks in St. Louis and Kansas City are asked to do. Newcomer Thomas Jones is expected to be the focal point of the running game and should find openings from a pair of fellow free agents -- tackle John Tait and guard Ruben Brown.

An ever-present storm cloud -- in the form of cornerback Mike McKenzie insisting on a new contract and receiving permission to seek a trade -- has hovered over the Packers' offseason. There is a chance it will remain unresolved because the Packers' reported asking price of first- and fifth-round draft picks is likely more than another team would be willing to offer. Coach Mike Sherman has maintained he would still like to keep McKenzie, and held out hope his contractual differences could be resolved. Meanwhile, the Packers have options. Granted, none is as good as having McKenzie start on one corner and Al Harris start on the other, but there are options. One is veteran Michael Hawthorne, who did a decent job filling in when McKenzie was injured and playing in nickel and dime packages, utilizing his long arms well in the press coverage the Packers like to play. Another option is first-round draft pick Ahmad Carroll, who has great speed but whose inexperience is a drawback. Carroll struggled in early offseason workouts, but improved in later sessions. Yet another option is third-rounder and second choice overall Joey Thomas, who is an inch taller than the 5-9 Carroll but has a giant leap to make from Div. I-AA Montana State to the NFL. The Packers' only notable free-agent acquisition is Mark Roman, who will compete with Marques Anderson for the safety spot next to Darren Sharper.

Positional Showdowns

Bobby Gray and Mike Green should stage a spirited fight for the Bears' starting strong safety job. Gray is a bigger hitter and provides better run support, but could be a liability in pass coverage. Green is more athletic and covers well, qualities that could end up serving him well in the speed-oriented scheme of new coach Lovie Smith.

The Lions drafted Kevin Jones to start, but second-year pro Artose Pinner has no intention of simply giving him a free pass to the No. 1 job. Pinner has recovered from the sore foot that slowed him as a rookie and his edge in experience and understanding of the offense could at least temporarily delay Jones from being a starter.

Dontarrious Thomas, the Vikings' second-round draft pick, figures to unseat Mike Nattiel at weak-side linebacker. Nattiel's athleticism makes him good in pursuit, but he doesn't have Thomas' bulk and strength to stop the run.

Trouble Spots To Address

The Packers have a lot of defensive question marks, particularly in their secondary, that could undermine their offensive explosiveness.

Marty Booker gives the Bears a solid, though unspectacular, No. 1 receiver. The problem is, there isn't a consistently effective player in the second spot. David Terrell and Justin Gage are the leading candidates, but each has plenty of flaws. Third-round draft pick Bernard Berrian is worth watching because of his abundance of speed.

Rookies To Watch

Nathan Vasher, the first of the Bears' two fourth-round draft picks, figures to make an immediate impact in nickel situations. Vasher has good instincts and ball skills, so it wouldn't be a shock if he works his way into the starting lineup this season.

The Packers are in dire need of depth at nose tackle, and mammoth Donnell Washington -- the second of their three third-round draft picks -- should be able to provide it.

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