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NFC North preview: Is it still down to Packers, Vikings?

Time to take a division by division look at the teams the 49ers will not play. We move on to the NFC North.

Over the last two weeks, we put together a look at each of the San Francisco 49ers 13 opponents with a little help from SB Nation’s network of bloggers. Each person answered a few questions, providing a nice, basic rundown to help preview training camp. We got through that on Monday with the Seattle Seahawks. You can find the rest in our opponents section on the site.

Since we still have two weeks until the 49ers report to training camp, I thought why not use the 18 non-49ers previews to take a look at the rest of the league. The 49ers will not play the 18 teams outside of the playoffs and preseason, but it is always interesting to know more about the rest of the league. And so, we’re going to look at each division over the next week, combing four team previews for each post. We started with the AFC North, AFC South, AFC West, AFC East, and NFC East, and today we move on to the NFC North. We broke down each team individually, but I thought I’d combine them together so people can compare and contrast all four teams together.

The biggest story for the division is Calvin Johnson’s retirement. The Lions added Marvin Jones, but Golden Tate is the guy they’ll be looking to take another step forward. The other big question for me is how the Chicago Bears offense, and Jay Cutler in particular looks with offensive coordinator Adam Gase taking over as head coach of the Miami Dolphins.

Green Bay Packers

Notable free-agent additions:

  • TE Jared Cook
  • OLB Lerentee McCray

Notable free-agent departures:

  • CB Casey Hayward (Chargers)
  • DT B.J. Raji (retirement)
  • WR James Jones (FA)
  • QB Scott Tolzien (Colts)
  • FB John Kuhn (ascended to heaven)


  • Packers send Nos. 57, 125 and 248 picks in 2016 draft to Colts for No. 48 pick (OT Jason Spriggs)

Draft picks expected to contribute as rookies:

  • DT Kenny Clark: With Raji retiring, Mike Pennel suspended for the first quarter of the season and Datone Jones moving to outside linebacker, the team expects Clark to play a lot early on, likely as the starting nose tackle or five-tech.
  • ILB Blake Martinez: With Clay Matthews moving back to outside linebacker, veteran Sam Barrington and rookie Blake Martinez will battle for the starting inside spot next to second-year man Jake Ryan. Head coach Mike McCarthy already praised Martinez for his minicamp work, particularly his coverage ability. With Barrington still recovering from last year's foot injury, Martinez holds the early lead. Even if he doesn't win the job, Martinez should play extensively in the nickel, dime and sub packages.

Biggest offseason addition:

  • DT Kenny Clark: While Jared Cook garnered plenty of attention given the Packers' offensive struggles last season, Clark should end up playing a more significant role in 2016 and in future years. If not immediately, Clark should at some point become the team's new starter at nose tackle, a critical position in Dom Capers' defense.

Biggest storyline heading into training camp:

  • Eddie Lacy's weight loss: After playing most of the 2015 campaign visibly out of shape, Lacy has worked this offseason to remodel his body. Though hardly svelte, the running back looks closer to his 2013-14 figure. If his production can also return to form, the Packers offense should avoid the inconsistencies it dealt with most of last season.

Under-the-radar storyline heading into training camp:

  • Defensive line depth: Mike Daniels and Letroy Guion have carved out niches along the defensive front, but the other starting spot as well as the depth behind them remains unsettled. Mike Pennel could become the starter at the five-tech once he returns from suspension, but until then the Packers have to decide between fourth-round rookie Dean Lowry, Datone Jones (who has mainly moved to an outside linebacker role) and a mostly faceless group of undrafted rookies and second-year players.

Notable injuries heading into training camp:

  • Jared Cook's foot surgery: Just added this offseason as a street free agent, Jared Cook has already undergone surgery on his foot. Though he has expressed confidence that the situation should resolve itself by training camp, the offense could endure some hardships if his injury lingers. The Packers don't have another tight end with both his experience and athleticism on the roster, and they need as many big bodies capable of exploiting the middle of the field as possible.

Jordy Nelson’s knee: The Packers expects Nelson to return by the start of training camp, but after missing all of 2015 the team has taken a very cautious approach (you likely won't see him in the Hall of Fame game in August).

Minnesota Vikings

Notable free agent additions: G Alex Boone, OT Andre Smith, LB Emmanuel Lamur

Notable free agent departures: WR Mike Wallace (entirely dependent on one’s definition of “notable”)

Trades: Did not make any notable trades involving players this offseason; acquired two 2017 draft choices (3rd round and conditional 4th round) from Miami during the 2016 draft

Draft picks expected to contribute as rookies: WR Laquon Treadwell - All the quibbling about his 40-yard dash time aside, Treadwell projects to be the sort of big-bodied receiver the Vikings have been missing for a very long time. He should immediately become the go-to target for Teddy Bridgewater in the red zone.

CB Mackensie Alexander - Alexander was slotted by many to go in the tail end of Round 1, but the Vikings got him with the 54th pick (second round). He projects as a slot corner in the NFL, and with Captain Munnerlyn playing in a contract year, the Vikings may be anxious to see what they have in the Clemson product. . .or, they could do much the same as they did with last year’s first round pick, Trae Waynes, and give him a season to adjust to the NFL game before throwing him out there.

TE David Morgan - Rhett Ellison, the Vikings’ regular “blocking” tight end, tore his patellar tendon in the regular season finale, and though he’s stated he’ll be ready for Training Camp, there’s a very good chance that he will start the season on the PUP list. That’s where Morgan should come in. The first player from noted football powerhouse Texas-San Antonio to be drafted into the NFL, the Vikings said after the draft that Morgan was the best blocking tight end available in this year’s class. With the Vikings’ love for multiple tight end sets, Morgan could see himself making an early contribution to the Minnesota offense.

Biggest offseason addition: It has to be Boone. . .or, at least, the Vikings better hope that it’s Boone. He figures to slot in at left guard after Brandon Fusco’s shift from the right side in 2015 turned out to be a disaster. He’s shown the ability to play at a high level, and hopefully he’ll be teaming with Matt Kalil to improve Bridgewater’s blind-side protection and clear holes for the defending NFL rushing champion, Adrian Peterson.

Biggest storyline heading into training camp: The competition along the offensive line. The offensive line was the biggest weak spot on the Minnesota roster by a considerable margin in 2015, and with Tony Sparano now coaching the offensive line, the Vikings went out and gave him plenty of able bodies to grade during camp. The Vikings currently have nine offensive lineman on the roster that have each started for a full 16-game season in the NFL (Kalil, Boone, John Sullivan, Fusco, Phil Loadholt, Joe Berger, Andre Smith, Mike Harris, T.J. Clemmings), and they also have some young players that they thought highly enough of to trade draft picks and/or players for. Outside of Boone, nobody. . .not even Kalil. . .appears to be guaranteed a starting spot on the offensive line at this point, and hopefully the competition will lead to a much better unit than the team had in 2015.

Under-the-radar storyline heading into training camp: Adrian Peterson’s role in the offense. Yes, Peterson is still the best pure rusher in the National Football League, but he still has the same limitations in his tenth season that he had when he came into the league in 2007. He can’t run out of the shotgun, he can’t (or won’t) pass block, and he’s not that great a threat as a receiver. Those things place severe limitations on the Vikings offense, making them among the most predictable in the league. The Vikings have a dynamic, athletic young understudy for Peterson in third-year man Jerick McKinnon, and with Peterson due to see an outrageous amount of money in 2017 ($18 million), the Vikings could look to expand McKinnon’s role in the offense to see if the former option quarterback can be the man in the backfield going forward. It would probably be best for the Vikings’ offense if they did.

Notable injuries heading into training camp: A few players that finished last season with nagging injuries, notably linebacker Anthony Barr and defensive tackle Linval Joseph, were held out of portions of OTAs and mini-camp as a precaution. Mike Zimmer said that he fully expects them to be ready for the start of camp. The other significant injury is Ellison’s knee issue that we mentioned earlier, with the tight end likely to start the regular season on the Physically Unable to Perform List.

Detroit Lions

Notable free agent additions:

WR Marvin Jones, OT Geoff Schwartz, DB Tavon Wilson, DE Wallace Gilberry, RB Stevan Ridley, SS Rafael Bush

Notable free agent departures:

WR Calvin Johnson (retirement), SS Isa Abdul-Quddus, RB Joique Bell, DE Jason Jones

Trades: Received LB Jon Bostic for a conditional 2017 seventh-round pick

Draft picks expected to contribute as rookies:

1st round - OT - Taylor Decker (expected to start at left tackle)2nd round - DT - A’Shawn Robinson (rotational player)3rd round - C - Graham Glasgow - not currently slated as the starting center, but could take over sometime during the 2016 season.4th round - SS - Miles Killebrew - Also not slated to be the starter, but Lions are weak at the position, so Killebrew could take over, or at least get some snaps during the season.

Biggest offseason addition:

WR - Marvin Jones. With Calvin Johnson’s retirement, the Lions’ No. 1 priority was to find a compliment to Golden Tate. The Lions wasted no time in grabbing Jones, signing him within a day of Johnson’s retirement announcement. Taylor Decker is an honorable mention here, as the Lions’ offensive line was atrocious in 2015.

Biggest storyline heading into training camp:

Will the emphasis on improving the offensive line pay off in 2016? The Lions offense hasn’t been good in a while, but the Lions spent three of their first five draft picks on offensive linemen in 2016. It appears the Lions will be moving former left tackle Riley Reiff to the right side, while plugging in first-round draft pick Taylor Decker on the left. The Lions desperately need to get a running game going, and the shuffling of the offensive line could potentially help.

Under-the-radar storyline heading into training camp:

Is DeAndre Levy fully healthy, and if so, will his return improve the defense to its 2014 level of play? Levy had a mysterious hip injury in 2015, and while it appears he was fully healthy during OTAs and minicamp, still very little is known about the injury and his current health.

Notable injuries heading into training camp:

RB Ameer Abdullah - Had shoulder surgery in January, is expected to be ready for training camp.

TE Brandon Pettigrew - Tore his ACL in December. Did not participate in OTAs. Probably headed for PUP.

RB Stevan Ridley - Limited participation in OTAs; injury undisclosed, severity unknown

WR Corey Fuller - Underwent foot surgery in early June. Could cause him to miss the cut.

Chicago Bears

Notable free agent additions: ILB Danny Trevathan, ILB Jerrell Freeman, DL Akiem Hicks, RT Bobby Massie, QB Brian Hoyer

Notable free agent departures: RB Matt Forte

Trades: TE Martellus Bennett

Draft picks expected to contribute as rookies:

1st Round OLB Leonard Floyd will at the very least be in on passing downs to rush the passer. His coverage skills could be put to use as well.

2nd Round OL Cody Whitehair is in line to start at left guard.

3rd Round DL Jonathan Bullard will be in the defensive line rotation.

5th Round RB Jordan Howard will be part of the Bears’ backfield by committee. The power element he adds could give him the edge on short yardage and goal line situations.

Biggest offseason addition: The two free agent inside linebackers will help get the Bears defense back to being respectable. Trevathan and Freeman are so much better (like really, really, better) than last year’s duo of Shea McClellin and Christian Jones.

Biggest storyline heading into training camp: There are a lot of story lines to pick from, but I think most fans are excited to see 2015 first round draft pick Kevin White finally healthy. He missed all of last season with a shin injury, and if he’s all he’s cracked up to be, he will add a huge playmaker to the offense.

Under-the-radar storyline heading into training camp: So many to choose from, like the revamped front seven gelling, the running back by committee taking shape, the safety position figuring itself out, Jay Cutler meshing with new offensive coordinator, but a more obscure storyline could be 7th round pick Daniel Braverman. He’s a smallish and shifty slot receiver that Bears’ fans are already rooting for. If he has a good camp then follows it up was a decent preseason, some fans will have their new favorite player.

Notable injuries heading into training camp: Fourth wide out Marquess Wilson broke his foot again and may end up on the PUP list. Outside linebacker Pernell McPhee is recovering from offseason knee surgery, but he should be 100% for training camp.