NFL 2012: NFC North preseason capsules
GREEN BAY PACKERS (15-2)
OPEN CAMP: July 25.
LAST YEAR: Despite defence that gave up far too many big plays, Packers flirted with perfect season, winning first 13 games before losing at Kansas City. Aaron Rodgers solidified place among tops quarterbacks, winning league MVP honours. Still, team fell short of expectations in playoffs, getting overpowered by Giants at home in divisional round.
IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: C Jeff Saturday, DE Phillip Merling, DE Anthony Hargrove, DT Daniel Muir.
IMPORTANT LOSSES: S Nick Collins, C Scott Wells, LT Chad Clifton, QB Matt Flynn, RB Ryan Grant.
CAMP NEEDS: Must find way to replace Collins, released in off-season in wake of season-ending neck injury. Returning Charlie Peprah will face competition, while CB Charles Woodson may see his role change slightly. Large crop of rookies on defence must show they can make difference. Saturday expected to quickly establish chemistry with new teammates, while Marshall Newhouse needs to show he can live up to faith coaches have shown in him at left tackle. Donald Driver might have a trophy for dancing exploits, but what will his role be in deep and talented group of receivers?
EXPECTATIONS: Hoping to plug significant holes on defence, Packers chose defensive players with their first six draft picks. If players such as first-round outside linebacker Nick Perry and second-round defensive tackle Jerel Worthy show they can make difference, Packers will be expected to contend for another Super Bowl (Detroit and Chicago won't make it easy in rugged NFC North). Newhouse and RB James Starks must show they can be counted on. And if Rodgers gets injured, can backup Graham Harrell fill in as well as Matt Flynn?
DETROIT LIONS (10-7)
OPEN CAMP: July 26.
LAST YEAR: Snapped 11-year playoff drought, earning spot in post-season with a double-digit win season for first time since 1995. All-Pro WR Calvin Johnson had one of best seasons for player at his position, taking advantage of QB Matthew Stafford, who threw for 5,000-plus yards and stayed healthy for first time in his three seasons. DT Ndamukong Suh suspended by NFL for two games for stomping on a Packers player in front of national TV audience.
IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: OT Riley Reiff, WR Ryan Broyles, CB Dwight Bentley.
IMPORTANT LOSSES: CB Eric Wright.
CAMP NEEDS: Develop a running game with a banged-up backfield. Jahvid Best limited to six games because of concussions and Mikel LeShoure tore left Achilles tendon last year in training camp. Secondary play, without Wright starting opposite CB Chris Houston, will also be a key after Green Bay and New Orleans exposed Detroit's DBs during losses in regular-season finale and wild-card game.
EXPECATIONS: Should have shot at returning to playoffs in consecutive years for first time since mid-1990s if they can stay disciplined and relatively healthy. Handful of players marred an off-season by getting arrested, leading to at least LeShoure getting suspended for first two games. DT Nick Fairley will likely have to sit out as well at start of season. If emotionally charged coach Jim Schwartz can help players keep their cool on field, and they stay in trouble off it, Detroit might match high hopes some have for former league laughingstock.
CHICAGO BEARS (8-8)
OPEN CAMP: July 25.
LAST YEAR: Bears seemed poised to return to playoffs after reaching NFC title game in previous season. Instead, they missed out for fourth time in five years. QB Jay Cutler broke right thumb, and Bears went into tailspin, dropping five straight before winning finale. It didn't help that they also lost Pro Bowl RB Matt Forte to season-ending knee injury after Cutler went down.
IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: WR Brandon Marshall, RB Michael Bush, QB Jason Campbell, KR/WR Eric Weems, DE Shea McClellin (first-round draft pick).
IMPORTANT LOSSES: None.
CAMP NEEDS: Biggest issue resolved with Forte agreeing to a four-year, $32 million deal. Team will have to adjust to new offence after Mike Tice got promoted from line coach to replace Mike Martz. Helps that Cutler and Marshall have history together from days in Denver.
EXPECTATIONS: Expectations are soaring. Even so, it remains to be seen: Can they catch Green Bay? Or, for that matter, Detroit? One thing that can't be questioned is buzz surrounding this team. It's certainly strong after one of busiest off-season's in recent memory. Phil Emery replaced fired Jerry Angelo as general manager and addressed some of team's biggest needs, but there are lingering questions about both lines, not to mention age on defence.
MINNESOTA VIKINGS (3-13)
OPEN CAMP: July 26.
LAST YEAR: Burned by lost practice time during lockout as much as any NFL team and matched worst record in franchise history. Blew healthy halftime leads in each of first three games and never recovered in deep NFC North division under first-year coach Leslie Frazier. Jared Allen's 22 sacks were among the scant bright spots. Adrian Peterson's torn ACL in second-to-last game was fittingly painful finish.
IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: LT Matt Kalil, WR Jerome Simpson, TE John Carlson, SS Harrison Smith, CB Chris Carr, CB Zack Bowman, RG Geoff Schwartz.
IMPORTANT LOSSES: LG Steve Hutchinson, PK Ryan Longwell, LB E.J. Henderson, TE Visanthe Shiancoe, TE Jim Kleinsasser, RG Anthony Herrera, CB Cedric Griffin.
CAMP NEEDS: Get Peterson back to full speed. Hasten QB Christian Ponder's development. Ensure LB Jasper Brinkley is healthy and fast enough to replace Henderson in the middle. Keep moody WR Percy Harvin happy. Help rookie PK Blair Walsh get comfortable. Find DBs who can collect interceptions.
EXPECTATIONS: Given the young stars Packers, Lions and Bears still boast and how ineffective both offence and defence were for the Vikings at different times during last season, winning record would be remarkable feat. Rebuilding mode obvious over winter and spring with stalwarts like Hutchinson and Longwell let go to save salary cap space. Frazier needs to preside over significant improvement to keep job safe.