Ready or not, football is here: A preseason look at the NFC North
Players report to the Minnesota Vikings training camp today on the campus of Minnesota State, Mankato.
The first practice is scheduled for Friday night and the first preseason game is set for Aug. 14 at St. Louis.
Here is the?Associated Press' preseason look at the Vikings and the rest of the teams in the?NFC North division.
2009 RECORD: (12-4)
OPEN CAMP: July 30
LAST YEAR: Brett Favre's headliner appearance was the spark Vikings needed for a previously lagging passing game and a swagger they rode all the way to the NFC title game, where they lost to the Super Bowl champion Saints in stomach-churning fashion. The steady progression continued under coach Brad Childress, from 6-10 to 8-8 and 10-6 and 12-4. All-Pro running back Adrian Peterson slipped, unable to solve his fumbling problem behind an up-and-down, injury-affected offensive line. Despite a rough December, the defense finished sixth in the NFL in total yards allowed. Special teams made significant strides, with help from rookie returner Percy Harvin.
IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: CB Lito Sheppard, RB Toby Gerhart.
IMPORTANT LOSSES: RB Chester Taylor, OL Artis Hicks.
CAMP NEEDS: The first goal is to get Favre in uniform, even if it's several weeks into August while the 40-year-old mulls his future again and works his way back from ankle surgery.
Peterson also must work on his technique, with opposing defenses eager to punch the ball out whenever they can.
Middle linebacker E.J. Henderson is rehabilitating from a broken leg and cornerback Cedric Griffin is recovering from a torn-up knee, so Jasper Brinkley must make progress as Henderson's backup and the veteran Sheppard has to prove he's still fast enough to hold down a starting spot.
EXPECTATIONS: If Favre decides to play again, as widely assumed, the roster will again be ready to push for a Super Bowl with the entire starting lineup returning.
Recapturing the vibe from last fall will be difficult, and improvements will have to be made by Peterson, his blockers up front and starting safeties Tyrell Johnson and Madieu Williams to counter a possible drop-offs in Favre's performance.
The success of the defense also hinges on the healthy, productive return of Griffin and Henderson.
2009 RECORD: (2-14)
OPEN CAMP: July 31
LAST YEAR: Won just two games under first-year coach Jim Schwartz - a season after being the first NFL team to go 0-16 - and set a league record with 30 losses over two seasons. Dropped record to 33-111 since 2001, sinking to the worst nine-season stretch in the NFL since World War II that includes a 3-37 mark since midway through the 2007 season for the poorest 40-game record in the league since the 1920s. Might've finally found a franchise QB in Matthew Stafford, the No. 1 pick in the 2009 draft.
IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: DT Ndamukong Suh, the No. 2 overall pick, first-round RB Jahvid Best, DE Kyle Vanden Bosch, WR Nate Burleson, DT Corey Williams, CB Dre' Bly, OG Rob Sims, TE Tony Scheffler, QB Shaun Hill, CB Chris Houston.
IMPORTANT LOSSES: LBs Larry Foote, Ernie Sims, DE DeWayne White, QB Daunte Culpepper.
CAMP NEEDS: The revamped linebackers and secondary need to develop chemistry as does the offensive line with Sims, the newly acquired and much-needed guard. RB Kevin Smith and TE Brandon Pettigrew, coming off major knee surgeries, will be assets if they can prove to be healthy.
EXPECTATIONS: Higher than usual. The Lions are very optimistic they will (finally) be respectable this season because the Martin Mayhew-led front office seems to have figured out how to draft well and acquire talent via free agency and trades. But until Detroit shows it can be a winner, doubts will linger about the floundering franchise in the Motor City.
CHICAGO BEARS (7-9)
OPEN CAMP: July 30
LAST YEAR: The Bears had high expectations with the arrival of Jay Cutler from Denver, only to fall flat and miss the playoffs for the third straight year. Linebacker Brian Urlacher had a season-ending wrist injury at Green Bay in the opener, and the defense never showed the dominant form that led the way to the playoffs in 2005 and 2006. On offense, things were no better. Cutler threw 26 interceptions, the most by a Bears quarterback since Sid Luckman's club record 31 in 1947 and the most in the NFL since Brett Favre threw 29 for Green Bay in 2005. Blame that on poor protection and bad decisions.
IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: DE Julius Peppers, RB Chester Taylor, TE Brandon Manumaleuna.
IMPORTANT LOSSES: DE Adewale Ogunleye.
CAMP NEEDS: Time to learn new offensive coordinator Mike Martz's complex system. There are also questions on the offensive line and in the defensive backfield.
EXPECTATIONS: Coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jerry Angelo are basically operating under a win-or-else mandate from president and CEO Ted Phillips. Landing Peppers, the prized free agent, was a bold step. They also overhauled the coaching staff, particularly on offense, and have two new coordinators in Martz and Rod Marinelli. But for all the big moves, there are still some big questions. Can Urlacher stay healthy? Can the defensive backs defend? Can the offensive line block? Will the receivers mature? And will the Cutler-Martz relationship produce spectacular results or a spectacular meltdown?
GREEN BAY PACKERS (11-5)
OPEN CAMP: July 31
LAST YEAR: Aaron Rodgers shook off significant pass protection problems to have a stellar season, throwing for 4,434 yards with 30 touchdowns and only 7 interceptions. The defense took a significant step forward in coordinator Dom Capers' 3-4 scheme, although the team had to withstand season-ending injuries to cornerback Al Harris and outside linebacker Aaron Kampman. Still, pass defense issues were exposed in a playoff loss to Arizona.
IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: OL Bryan Bulaga, DE Mike Neal, S Morgan Burnett.
IMPORTANT LOSSES: OL Aaron Kampman.
CAMP NEEDS: The Packers need to settle on a starting five for their offensive line early on to improve chemistry. S Atari Bigby is a restricted free agent and has not accepted his tender offer from the team, meaning third-round pick Burnett could get snaps with the first-team defense. The Packers likely will open camp without Harris, who is still rehabilitating a knee injury, so coaches will be looking for one of their young cornerbacks to stand out. And they'll need to work on a defensive line rotation without Johnny Jolly, who is suspended for at least this season under the NFL's substance abuse policy.
EXPECTATIONS: High. If the Packers can shore up their offensive line and their defense can do a better job stopping high-powered passing offenses, there's no reason they can't make a deep playoff run and contend for the Super Bowl. Will they get another chance to beat Brett Favre?