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NFC North preview: Rodgers, Packers are team to beat

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With a healthy Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, the Green Bay Packers should out-gun Chicago’s Jay Cutler and his raft of receivers for the NFC North division title.

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That was the opinion in a survey of Reuters’ football staff, although the Bears did receive support to finish on top.

Despite having the best receiver in football in Calvin Johnson and a formidable defensive front, the Detroit Lions were picked for third and the misery should continue in Minnesota based on the Vikings being picked last by a unanimous vote.

Here is a closer look at NFC North teams as training camps begin (teams listed alphabetically):

Chicago Bears

  • Prediction: 2nd in NFC North
  • 2013: 8-8, 2nd in NFC North
  • Training camp: Both rookies and vets report today at Olivet Nazarene University, Bourbonnais, Ill.
  • Strength: Starting wide receivers. Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery combined for 2,716 receiving yards last year during Jeffery’s breakout year, and unlike last year both enter training camp 100 percent healthy. Marshall last year was coming off hip surgery and took until at least a month into the season before he felt at or approaching 100 percent. Jeffery now has two years’ experience.

Few teams have one receiver with the combination speed and athletic ability of one of these two, and with two the Bears always seem to have an open option. With tight end Martellus Bennett and with Marquess Wilson starting to assert himself, it’s possible one or both could have fewer catches. However, if this happens, it’s possible the big-play threat will increase and their yards-per-catch average will go up.         If Jay Cutler is able to go the entire season, their touchdown totals could increase, as well.

  • Weakness: Safety. The Bears are hurting at both safety spots. Former Giant Ryan Mundy has been steady enough that coaches are keeping him on the field the longest. The team is playing a regular rotation of safeties with the first team now and last week gave rookie Brock Vereen a chance with the first unit. The fourth-round pick from Minnesota is lining up at free safety, while Mundy was at strong safety.

With Chris Conte (shoulder) and Craig Steltz (torn pectoral tendon) still recovering after surgeries and unable to practice, Mundy, Vereen and M.D. Jennings get the first-team reps.

Detroit Lions

  • Prediction: 3rd in NFC North
  • 2013: 7-9, 3rd in NFC North
  • Training camp: Rookies reported Tuesday, vets report Sunday at the Detroit Lions Training Facility, Allen Park, Mich.
  • Strength: Wide receiver Calvin Johnson. All-Pro receiver Calvin Johnson remains the Lions’ best and most impactful player. The Lions’ best positional groups are the lines on both sides, but when it comes to affecting the game, nobody on this team comes close to Johnson.

With three straight seasons of at least 1,492 receiving yards, Johnson has proven capable of carrying an offense with an otherwise lackluster receiving corps, but his presence combined with the other additions the Lions made this offseason should give this team hope to contend for the NFC North in 2014.

The Lions signed free-agent receiver Golden Tate and drafted tight end Eric Ebron in the first round, and they will automatically be the No. 2 and No. 3 targets in the receiving game, not including running backs Joique Bell and Reggie Bush. And with Johnson commanding double teams, all of quarterback Matthew Stafford’s other weapons should have no problem getting open.

  • Weakness: Cornerback. This remains a sore spot, as it has been for a decade and it is the biggest concern despite worries at kicker, defensive end, and right tackle.

In an NFC North filled with dangerous receivers, cornerbacks are crucial. Reason for optimism is the improvement 2013 second-round pick Darius Slay has shown this offseason. But behind him, there are veterans with questionable upside. Chris Houston, a starter the past four years, struggled last season, and after undergoing toe surgery in May, was released in early June.

Rashean Mathis started 13 games and is running with the first-team defense, but he turns 34 in August. Free agent Cassius Vaughn will compete, but he started four games in the Indianapolis Colts’ subpar secondary in 2013. Third-year cornerback Bill Bentley and fourth-rounder Nevin Lawson will compete for nickel duties, but both are undersized.

Green Bay Packers

  • Predection: 1st in NFC North
  • 2013: 8-7-1, 1st in NFC North
  • Training camp: Rookies and vets report Friday at St. Norbert College, Green Bay.
  • Strength: Quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Just what the rest of the NFL needed to hear when Packers head coach Mike McCarthy uttered these words in the final week of the team’s offseason program: “I think Aaron’s had probably his best spring (since McCarthy’s first season in 2006). ... He’s in great shape.”

As he religiously worked out doing yoga the last few months, Rodgers not only limbered up but lost more than 10 pounds. The 30-year-old star should head into training camp in late July at less than 220 pounds, the lightest he’s been in his 10-year career. An extremely fit Rodgers also is fully healed in the upper body after he missed seven games because of a broken collarbone on his non-throwing left side before returning in triumphant fashion the final regular-season game to get the Packers back in the playoffs.

Arguably the league’s best quarterback at full strength is a scary proposition for opposing defenses, which also now has to contend with the explosive running by Eddie Lacy, the reigning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.

  • Weakness: Tight end. Green Bay shut the door on bringing back Jermichael Finley, although his nameplate stayed above the free agent’s locker this offseason. However, the chances of Finley playing football again — and doing so with the Packers — after he sustained a career-threatening bruised spinal cord on a helmet-to-helmet hit last fall are not good.

Minus Finley, the Packers don’t have a formidable over-the-middle tight end on the roster. A serviceable Andrew Quarless is penciled in as the starter, but he has been relegated to bystander wearing a cap during the open spring workouts thus far. That merely increases the urgency for Green Bay to get second-year prospect Brandon Bostick and athletic rookie Richard Rodgers, a third-round draft pick out of Cal, ready as Finley’s potential successors.

Minnesota Vikings

  • Prediction: 4th in NFC North
  • 2013: 5-10-1, 4th in NFC North
  • Training camp: Rookies and vets report today at Minnesota State University, Mankato, Minn.
  • Strength: Running back. Adrian Peterson is the best running back in the league. He is healthy after offseason groin surgery. And he has that same me-versus-the-world mentality going now that people are starting to question his age (29) following what was a down season by his lofty standards.

The last time everyone assumed the worst for Peterson, he ran for 2,097 yards eight months after ACL surgery. The fact he ran for 1,266 yards in 14 games last season - six of them with the groin injury - should be a sign of his greatness, rather than a red flag that he’s on the downside of the traditional career path for a running back.

Peterson also should benefit from his first season under offensive coordinator Norv Turner, who obviously is a significant upgrade over Bill Musgrave. Look for Peterson to have more room to run because of a better conceived attack as well as Peterson’s increased role in the passing game.

Toby Gerhart, Peterson’s dependable backup the past four seasons is gone. But rookie third-round draft pick Jerick McKinnon is the change-of-pace back that Gerhart wasn’t and Turner covets for his passing attack.

  • Weakness: Linebacker. If not the weakest position, it will be at least suspect unless or until first-round draft pick Anthony Barr proves himself. Even if Barr does contribute immediately, the unit is thin and so far there are more questions than obvious answers.

Nine-year veteran Chad Greenway is steady and healthy, but can he keep pace and do all of the things head coach Mike Zimmer will ask of him as a three-down player at age 31? Will Barr be able to transform freakish physical tools into a productive NFL linebacker? Can Jasper Brinkley play well enough to fill the gaping hole at middle linebacker? And who among the several intriguing but unproven prospects — Audie Cole, Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges, among others — will step forward to provide reliable depth and/or push Brinkley and Barr?

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