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NFL Preview: Pack unanimous division pick

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The Sports Xchange

Except for that unbelievable fall-from-in-front exit in the playoffs last season, the Green Bay Packers would have gone to the Super Bowl instead of the Seattle Seahawks, the benefactors of Green Bay’s nosedive.

With that in mind, the Packers figure to have more incentive than most and were one of only three teams to get a unanimous selection from The Sports Xchange to win their division this year.

Also unanimous in the TSX survey was the Minnesota Vikings finishing second, no doubt due to the return of great running back Adrian Peterson. After them, Detroit and Chicago, in that order, are expected to battle to stay out of the cellar. The Bears were selected last by 80 percent of the voters.

Here is a closer look at the NFC North, listed in order of predicted finish by The Sports Xchange:

GREEN BAY PACKERS

2015 TSX DIVISIONAL PICK: 1st

2014 RECORD: 13-5

DIVISIONAL RECORD: 5-1

COACH: Mike McCarthy

10th season as Packers/NFL head coach

101-55-1 overall; 7-6 postseason

Strength of schedule:

Overall .529; Division .479; Non-Division .559.

–TEAM STRENGTH: Pass offense. Take away an all-star receiver for the entire season after he led the team in 2014 with monster numbers of 98 catches for 1,519 yards and 13 touchdowns, and an offense would be destined to scuffle.

Not the Packers, it would seem, never mind that Jordy Nelson won’t be playing until next summer. Aaron Rodgers’ No. 1 pass target sustained a season-ending torn ACL in Green Bay’s second preseason game. That would be a huge hit for most teams, but the Packers still have plenty in hand to continue churning out the yards and piling up the points, led by Rodgers, the reigning NFL MVP.

Of course, the continued success of Green Bay’s prolific offense will be predicated on keeping the rest of its playmakers healthy. That isn’t a given after No. 2 wideout Randall Cobb sustained a shoulder injury that isn’t considered severe in the most recent preseason game last weekend. With the anticipation that Cobb should be OK for the Sept. 13 season opener at the Chicago Bears, the burden will fall on him, the young receiver duo of second-year pro Davante Adams and rookie Ty Montgomery, plus second-year tight end Richard Rodgers to be as reliable and potent on the pass-catching end of Aaron Rodgers’ throws as Nelson has been the last few years.

–BIGGEST CONCERN: Performance of the defense. Even with the big loss of Jordy Nelson on offense, the Packers figure to put up plenty of points more often than not this season. Yet, as the outlook has been going into most recent seasons, there’s no telling whether Green Bay’s defense can keep other teams from keeping pace on the scoreboard. The Packers didn’t have their full starting group on the field for the first time in a preseason game until last weekend after enduring a slew of minor injuries. The outcome wasn’t pretty as the Philadelphia Eagles scored touchdowns on their first three possessions and built a 25-0 lead before the end of the first quarter. An offseason overhaul at inside linebacker likely means more of All-Pro outside linebacker Clay Matthews’ playing in the middle. Throw in adjustments in the secondary with Casey Hayward being promoted to replace the departed Tramon Williams at cornerback and early-season suspensions for starting defensive linemen Letroy Guion (three games) and Datone Jones (one), the Packers could be out of sorts defensively early.

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter – Aaron Rodgers. Backups – Scott Tolzien, Brett Hundley.

Carrying the torch as the NFL’s reigning two-time MVP, Rodgers enters his eighth season as the team’s starter behind center in uncharted territory. He not only was held out of the final preseason game, which hasn’t been uncommon under head coach Mike McCarthy, but Rodgers didn’t play the last two exhibition contests as McCarthy didn’t take any chances exposing Green Bay’s franchise player to even the slightest of hits. Rodgers, who turns 32 in December, doesn’t expect to have to knock off any rust when the Packers open play at the rival Chicago Bears on Sunday. Still, Rodgers will have to quickly get accustomed to working with a receiving cast minus top wideout Jordy Nelson, who suffered a season-ending torn ACL in the last preseason game played by the quarterback Aug. 23. Tolzien later left that game with a concussion and didn’t play the next outing. However, the improvements displayed by the fifth-year pro with his throwing mechanics and decision-making the first three weeks of training camp solidified the No. 2 job that became his in the spring when Green Bay didn’t re-sign veteran free agent Matt Flynn. Meanwhile, Hundley opened plenty of eyes down the stretch in the preseason, justifying general manager Ted Thompson’s decision to trade up to get him in the fifth round of this year’s draft. With Rodgers out of uniform and Tolzien limited to a quarter of play in the final preseason game, Hundley took advantage of extended work (including one start) the last two contests and wound up leading the league in touchdown passes (seven) and ranking second in passing yards (630) and passer rating (129.6) for those with at least 30 attempts.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters – Eddie Lacy, FB John Kuhn. Backups – James Starks, Alonzo Harris, FB Aaron Ripkowski.

Though he was evasive when speaking on the matter early in training camp, McCarthy seemed to be mindful about preservation for Lacy as the rugged halfback goes into his third pro season. Lacy was limited to 15 carries (for 68 yards and a touchdown) in preseason action, during which he made just a cameo appearance in what had traditionally been the all-important third game and then didn’t play the finale. To take some of the burden off the short-handed passing attack, the Packers need Lacy to shed his infamous distinction as a slow starter, which has belied the 1,100-plus rushing yards he has produced each of the last two seasons. Starks enters his sixth season as the steady, if not ultra-explosive change-of-pace complement to Lacy. A competitive camp battle for the No. 3 halfback job somewhat surprisingly went to Harris, a powerful undrafted rookie at 237 pounds who sustained a broken hand late in camp. It’s on to season No. 9 in a Green Bay uniform for the dependable and versatile Kuhn, a two-time Pro Bowl honoree. He should be a suitable mentor for Ripkowski, a sixth-round draft pick who can contribute right away on special teams.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter – Richard Rodgers. Backups – Andrew Quarless, Kennard Backman.

Once a strength not long ago before the playmaking Jermichael Finley sustained what has turned out to be a career-ending neck injury in October 2013, this could be the Packers’ weakest position as the season starts. As proof, Thompson and McCarthy kept only three players, running contrary to carrying as many as five tight ends in the recent past. The other Rodgers on the club will get an opportunity to flourish as an expected big-play pass target for his namesake. As a rookie last season, Richard Rodgers started five games and flashed at times, so the consistency must show up with an enhanced role. Quarless, the primary starter the last 1 1/2 seasons in the wake of Finley’s injury, is taking a step back in his sixth pro season with the promotion of Rodgers. What’s more, Quarless still faces possible repercussions from his arrest in July for firing a gun in public at South Beach, Fla. The athletic Backman, a sixth-round draft pick this year, made amends for being afflicted by the drops early in camp.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters – Randall Cobb, Davante Adams. Backups – Ty Montgomery, James Jones, Jeff Janis.

The Packers ended the preseason looking as though they might have to put a receiving corps on the field at Chicago on Sunday with no one having more than a season of NFL playing experience. However, the bleak outlook brought by Nelson’s season-ending knee injury became rosier with the expectation that the dynamic Cobb, with four pro seasons under his belt, would be able to play despite him being sidelined since suffering a sprained shoulder in the third preseason game Aug. 29. Add to that the return to Green Bay by Jones. The ninth-year pro signed a one-year deal Monday, two days after being cut by the New York Giants and 18 months after he left the Packers in free agency to take a lucrative three-year deal from the Oakland Raiders. The addition of Jones will allow the Packers to pair him with emerging second-year player Adams on the outside to compensate for the loss of Nelson and keep Cobb and intriguing rookie Montgomery in the slot to wreak havoc. The depth is rounded out by Janis, who essentially took a redshirt season as a seventh-round draft pick last year. Like Janis, second-year pro Myles White had a productive preseason this summer, but the arrival of Jones resulted in the release of White on Monday.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters – LT David Bakhtiari, LG Josh Sitton, C Corey Linsley, RG T.J. Lang, RT Bryan Bulaga. Backups – T/G Don Barclay, C/G JC Tretter, G Lane Taylor, G Josh Walker.

As important to Aaron Rodgers’ having to work out the kinks with a revamped pass-catching group, the first time out for real Sunday will serve as a litmus test for how the guys in front of him fare. The returning starting five on the O-line, who played all but one game together last season, played only the Aug. 13 preseason opener at New England as a full unit before a spate of injuries cropped up. Bakhtiari went out for an extended period with a knee injury. Lang and Sitton, a two-time Pro Bowl performer, made their way to the sideline with a concussion and a sore ankle, respectively. Bulaga then suffered a sprained ankle in the penultimate preseason game. Linsley, coming off a splendid rookie season, was the only one to emerge unscathed from the summer of attrition. The coaches like the depth provided by the four young backups. However, Barclay, the elder statesman of that quartet in his fourth pro season, left a lot to be desired in his return from missing all of last season because of a knee injury with pass-blocking struggles when he initially filled in for the injured Bakhtiari. Tretter and Taylor are holdovers from last season. The hulking 6-foot-5, 328-pound Walker, who spent most of last season on Green Bay’s practice squad, had an impressive camp and showed to be as capable playing tackle as he did at his natural spot of guard.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters – DLE Josh Boyd, NT B.J. Raji, DRE Mike Daniels. Backups – DT Mike Pennel, DT Bruce Gaston. Others: DE Datone Jones (starter, suspended 1 game); DT Letroy Guion (backup, suspended 3 games).

Thompson, McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers weren’t fazed by the longstanding knowledge that they wouldn’t have Jones and Guion for the start of the season after they drew suspensions from the league for violating its substance-abuse policy. The brain trust is game to go into Week 1 with only five linemen, reflective of how reliant Capers’ exotic 3-4 scheme is on having ample bodies at linebacker and in the secondary. The Packers surely can get by without the underachieving Jones, their 2013 first-round draft pick, for a game with the talented Daniels and emerging young player Boyd setting the edge. Daniels, who led the team’s linemen last season with a career-high 69 tackles and 5 1/2 sacks, is determined to cash in big as he plays in a contract season. On the inside, the healthy return of onetime standout Raji from a torn biceps that kept him out all of last season will ease the initial three-week absence of Guion, who flourished in his first season with Green Bay in 2014. The Packers also can fall back on the big-bodied duo of second-year pro Pennel and Gaston, a first-year player who joined the team toward the end of last season.

LINEBACKERS: Starters – LOLB Nick Perry, BLB Clay Matthews, MLB Sam Barrington, ROLB Julius Peppers. Backups – OLB Mike Neal, ILB Jake Ryan, OLB Andy Mulumba, OLB Jayrone Elliott, ILB Nate Palmer.

Not much was seen this preseason of Matthews, who missed chunks of time the first half of camp and the first two exhibition games because of knee and elbow soreness. Yet, after seeing his trial move of the All-Pro outside linebacker to inside linebacker down the stretch last season pay off, Capers knows just how effective Matthews can be lined up at various spots on the field. “How much we play him inside and outside will vary from one week to the next, and I kind of like that,” Capers said. Since no one jumped out in the preseason to give Capers pause on having someone other than Matthews line up beside returning starter Barrington on the inside, the Packers will be counting on their depth at outside linebacker to further generate a pass rush. Peppers fared well in his Green Bay debut last season with seven sacks and two interceptions returned for touchdowns, but the 14th-year pro and eight-time Pro Bowl honoree is 35 years old. More needs to come from the underachieving, injury-prone tandem of 2012 first-round draft pick Perry and 2010 second-round choice Neal. Young holdovers Mulumba and Elliott have value on special teams. Beyond Matthews and Barrington, a physical player who made fans forget about the ineffectiveness of longtime starter A.J. Hawk, the Packers have fourth-round rookie Ryan and converted outside ‘backer Palmer on the inside.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters – LCB Casey Hayward, RCB Sam Shields, FS Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, SS Morgan Burnett. Backups – S Micah Hyde, CB Damarious Randall, CB Quinten Rollins, CB LaDarius Gunter, S Sean Richardson, S Chris Banjo, CB Demetri Goodson.

For the first time since 2009, Green Bay’s opening-day lineup won’t include Tramon Williams at cornerback. Williams’ departure as a free agent in the offseason, when he signed with the Cleveland Browns, left the only major void for the Packers to fill on both sides of the football coming off last season when they returned to work in the spring. Hayward was tabbed for the promotion from nickel back, where he made plays when healthy his first three pro seasons. Yet, Hayward isn’t a lock to hold the starting job opposite Shields, a first-time Pro Bowl selection last season, what with the influx of fresh talent added by Thompson. The restoration of depth at cornerback includes Randall and Rollins, this year’s first- and second-round draft choices, respectively, and promising undrafted rookie Gunter. The Packers have stability at safety with the starting duo of sixth-year pro Burnett and second-year Clinton-Dix intact, along with the versatile Hyde in a nickel role and special-teams standouts Richardson and Banjo. Green Bay hung onto Goodson on the final roster cutdown, even though last year’s sixth-round draft pick was beset by calf and knee injuries in camp.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Mason Crosby, P Tim Masthay, LS Brett Goode, KOR/PR Ty Montgomery, PR Micah Hyde.

The laughingstock of the league last season, particularly with their follies that led to its colossal late-game collapse in the NFC Championship loss at the Seattle Seahawks, Green Bay’s special-teams units be under the microscope from the outset this season. McCarthy made longtime coordinator Shawn Slocum the scapegoat and canned him after the season, subsequently replacing him with former maligned college head coach Ron Zook, the Packers’ special-teams assistant last season. Green Bay has a lot of staying power with Crosby in season No. 9, Masthay in his sixth season and Goode in his eighth season. Crosby had an exceptional camp with his accuracy on kicks but went only 3-of-5 on field goals in the preseason games, though one miss was from 66 yards. Masthay weathered an offseason battle from first-year player Cody Mandell, who surprisingly was cut early in camp, but then struggled in preseason action with a gross punting average of 40.5 yards (39.4 net). The Packers are counting on electrifying rookie Montgomery to cure their prior woes on kickoff returns, but he was sidelined the last week of the preseason with a hamstring injury. Hyde, who was dealing with a neck injury late in the preseason, returned two punts for touchdowns and averaged a league-leading 15.8 yards last season.

PRACTICE SQUAD: WR Jared Abbrederis, ILB Carl Bradford, RB John Crockett, CB Robertson Daniel, TE Justin Perillo, DL Christian Ringo, G Matt Rotheram, OLB James Vaughters, T Jeremy Vujnovich, WR Ed Williams.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS

2015 TSX DIVISIONAL PICK: 2nd

2014 RECORD: 7-9

DIVISIONAL RECORD: 1-5

STADIUM: TCF Bank Stadium

COACH: Mike Zimmer

2nd season as Vikings/NFL head coach

7-9 overall

Strength of schedule:

Overall .539; Division .583; Non-Division .513.

–TEAM STRENGTH: Running back Adrian Peterson’s strength will be the team strength because it will provide the foundation upon which quarterback Teddy Bridgewater will use to take a leap forward in his already-promising career. Peterson will be running angrier than ever as he looks to make up for the 15 games he lost a year ago. Teams will have no choice but to focus on him, which will open up the field for Bridgewater to attack deep to wide receiver Mike Wallace, over the middle to tight end Kyle Rudolph or to Peterson out of the backfield.

–BIGGEST QUESTION: Is the offensive line good enough individually and as a unit? The offensive line hasn’t lived up to expectations in some time now. It underachieved in 2013 and was racked by injuries in 2014. This season, there are question marks at all five spots. Will left tackle Matt Kalil bounce back from a horrendous 2014 season? Will left guard Brandon Fusco make the transition from right guard while trying to come back from a pectoral injury that sidelined him for 12 games a year ago? Are the back spasms that knocked center John Sullivan out of two preseason games really nothing to be concerned about, as the team says? Can career tackle Mike Harris be a starter at right guard when he has played guard in only one game in his career? And, last but probably first, will rookie fourth-round draft pick T.J. Clemmings hold up as a 16-game starter with veteran right tackle Phil Loadholt out for the season because of a torn Achilles’ tendon?

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter – Teddy Bridgewater. Backups – Shaun Hill, Taylor Heinicke.

Bridgewater is ready to take the next step after a solid rookie season that saw him post the third-best completion percentage by a rookie (64.4) in NFL history. He completed a franchise preseason record 82.9 percent of his passes this preseason and showed an advanced comfort in running coordinator Norv Turner’s offense at a fast tempo with efficiency. Hill is an ideal backup in this scenario. He knows Turner’s offense, having spent the 2007 season with Turner in San Francisco. He also knows his limitations and fully understands that Bridgewater is the man. Period. Heinicke, an undrafted rookie from Old Dominion, is a small quarterback who plays fast and tough. He has a long way to go, but the Vikings don’t expect to use him anytime soon.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters – Adrian Peterson, FB Zach Line. Backups – Jerick McKinnon, Matt Asiata.

The rest of the NFL needs to batten down the helmets. Peterson will be unleashed on Sept. 14 and he’s going to be running with a vengeance after missing 15 games a year ago. He has made peace with the Vikings, thanks in part to a new deal with more guaranteed money. But he’s ticked at the league for holding him out for nearly a year as he dealt with child-abuse charges. He’s 30 and hasn’t taken a hard hit for nearly 12 months, but let’s not put him in a box based on the experiences of those who have come before him. The last time people tried that, Peterson ran for 2,097 yards and won league MVP the year after tearing his left ACL and MCL in a horrific-looking knee injury near the end of the 2011 season. Expect greatness again from No. 28. Line replaces Jerome Felton as a younger, more affordable fullback. He’s nothing special, but he’s big, strong and does what he’s told. McKinnon is an intriguing change-of-pace back who will be an extra receiving threat out of the backfield. The shifty little back with the deceptive power would really stress a defense if he’s on the field at the same time as Peterson. Asiata is underrated. He’s got power, subtle moves and doesn’t try to do too much. He rarely loses yardage or fumbles. And he’s the team’s best pass-blocking back.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter – Kyle Rudolph. Backups – Rhett Ellison, Chase Ford, MyCole Pruitt.

Rudolph is healthy again after missing 15 games with a broken foot and a sports hernia over the past two seasons. His weight is down, giving him a faster burst to go with excellent route running habits, soft hands and a knack for using his body to shield smaller defenders. If he stays healthy, expect big things from Rudolph because Turner loves to maximize tight ends. Ellison is a valuable grunt. He’s the best blocker and can line up tight, wide or in the backfield. Ford is a pass-catcher with speed to offset some attention on Rudolph when the team goes to a popular two-tight end set. Pruitt, a rookie fifth-round draft pick, was too talented to cut. Injuries slowed him later in the preseason, but he has a future.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters – Charles Johnson, Mike Wallace. Backups – Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs, Cordarrelle Patterson, Jarius Wright.

Johnson, Wallace and Wright will see a lot of work. The others will be role players who will have to scrap for snaps. Johnson is no longer the surprise player who went from the Browns’ practice squad to Vikings starter late in the 2014 season. He’s the team’s No. 1 receiver, even with Wallace on board. Bridgewater has the most trust in Johnson, a bigger, fast receiver who knows the value of being where he’s supposed to be when he’s supposed to be. Wallace will get his catches, too. And odds are there will be enough big plays to satisfy him, unlike his situation in Miami. Wallace had a quiet preseason except for one play that illustrated what he brings. In the fourth of five preseason games, Bridgewater spotted man coverage on the outside. He checked into a deep ball to Wallace, who gained a step on the defender and caught a perfectly thrown ball to his fingertips. Wright is an underrated slot guy who upgrades that spot from the aging Greg Jennings. Wright is much faster and shiftier. Patterson, the 2013 first-round draft pick, remains a work in progress because he’s not always in the right spot at the right time. But he’s too big and fast not to get some reverses, bubble screens and sweep tosses. Diggs, a rookie fifth-round pick, is a small version of Patterson, but could fill a similar role. Thielen is here for depth and excellent special teams work.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters – LT Matt Kalil, LG Brandon Fusco, C John Sullivan, RG Mike Harris, RT T.J. Clemmings. Backups – C-G Joe Berger, G-C Zac Kerin, G-T Austin Shepherd, G-T Jeremiah Serles.

Each of the five starting linemen have a question mark lingering over them. Kalil was terrible last year, when he had knee issues. Fusco missed 13 games in 2014 and switched from right guard this offseason. Back spasms caused Sullivan to miss three weeks of practice and two games he would have played in this preseason. Harris is a career tackle who has played one regular season game at guard. Clemmings is a rookie fourth-round draft pick who wouldn’t be starting if veteran Phil Loadholt hadn’t torn his Achilles’ tendon this preseason. Berger is the only backup with experience. His 99 regular-season games played are 97 more than the other backups combined. He’s invaluable as a starting-caliber backup at all three interior spots. Serles was acquired on Saturday from San Diego for a sixth-round pick. He has limited experience, but at least it’s something. An undrafted rookie in 2014, Serles played in two games with one start for the Chargers a year ago. Kerin was on the Vikings practice squad a year ago, while Shepherd was a seventh-round draft pick this year.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters – DLE Brian Robison, DT Sharrif Floyd, NT Linval Joseph, DRE Everson Griffen. Backups – LDE Scott Crichton, DT Tom Johnson, NT Shamar Stephen, RDE Justin Trattou, RDE Danielle Hunter.

Griffen had his breakout season in 2014 when he replaced Jared Allen and responded with 12 sacks in Year 1 as an NFL starter. He also played the run better than Allen did even in his younger days. This year, look for Floyd to be the breakout player. He’s in good shape, he’s healthy and he’s comfortable in the second year of Zimmer’s defense. Floyd has the quick step to overcome short arms and be a pass rushing force inside. He just needs to stay healthy. Joseph will continue to be a solid two-down tone-setter against the run. Robison is 32, but still a valuable part of the rotation. Look for Trattou and Crichton to start chipping away at Robison’s snap counts. Trattou has really turned heads with his work ethic and aggressive play this preseason and going back to last year. Johnson is an exceptional inside nickel rusher who understands and fits Zimmer’s defense perfectly. Stephen has been slowed by a preseason knee injury and won’t be much of a factor in the line rotation early on. Hunter is a rookie third-round draft pick who needs more grooming. But he’s a physical specimen who could develop into something special.

LINEBACKERS: Starters – WLB Anthony Barr, MLB Gerald Hodges, SLB Chad Greenway. Backups – MLB Audie Cole, MLB Eric Kendricks, WLB Edmond Robinson.

Barr is back from knee injuries that dogged him going back to last year, when his rookie season was cut short after 12 games. When healthy, Barr is the best defensive athlete on the field, and that’s saying something on this young defense. There are no limitations for Barr, who is expected to get even better as he heads into only his fourth season of playing the position. Hodges is a natural outside linebacker who is new to the middle. But the Vikings need to get his speed and athleticism on the field. He probably won’t be able to call or set the defenses, but he’ll bring an active presence inside. Greenway is probably in his final season and will most likely be a two-down player for the first time. He can still have a lot of value as a rusher through the A-gap or in running situations. Kendricks will likely take over Greenway’s role in the nickel. The second-round draft pick is small, but he’s fast, instinctive and a dogged tackler. He can match up in man coverage on running backs and fast tight ends. Cole can start in a pinch at any of the linebacker spots. Robinson is a seventh-round draft pick from tiny Newberry College. But he’s also a long athlete with speed and a lot of potential.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters – LCB Terence Newman, RCB Xavier Rhodes, FS Harrison Smith, SS Robert Blanton. Backups – CB Captain Munnerlyn, LCB Trae Waynes, CB Marcus Sherels, S Antone Exum, S Andrew Sendejo. Others: CB Jabari Price (backup, suspended 2 games), CB Josh Robinson (backup, PUP).

Rhodes and Smith are entering their prime and have the skills, instincts and confidence to contend for Pro Bowls and All-Pro honors. Newman knows Zimmer’s defense better than any other player on the field, but the first-year Viking also turned 37 on Sept. 4. Blanton won the starting strong safety job by default for the second straight year. The Vikings preferred Exum at strong safety, but he didn’t step up and then dealt with injuries. Munnerlyn, the starter at left corner a year ago, provides depth and a veteran presence over the slot in the nickel package. Waynes, the rookie first-round draft pick, won’t be a starter anytime soon, but he will be worked in on the nickel. When he comes in, he plays the left side while Newman slides inside. Sherels is an annual roster cutdown survivor. He made the team for his special teams abilities, but can be a sub-package corner in a pinch. Sendejo primarily a special teamer, but is valuable as a defender because of his toughness and ability to play either safety spot.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Blair Walsh, P Jeff Locke, LS Kevin McDermott, KOR Cordarrelle Patterson, PR Marcus Sherels.

Walsh’s All-Pro season of 2012 seems so, so long ago. He missed just 3 of 38 attempts and went 10-for-10 from 50-plus yards as a rookie that year. But now there’s mostly panic among Vikings fans who are tired of being told to be patient with Walsh. He made a career-low 74.3 percent of his field goals a year ago as the Vikings moved to their temporary outdoor venue. And then he really bottomed out this preseason, making just 5 of 11 field goals, including one blustery home game in which he missed three field goals and a PAT. There’s also an ongoing adjustment period with McDermott, who beat out Cullen Loeffler, who had handled the team’s long snapping duties since 2004. Locke has had two inconsistent seasons and has a lot to prove after more inconsistencies this preseason. The return games are exceptional and highlighted by good returner and solid blocking schemes designed by special teams coordinator Mike Priefer. Patterson appears to have regained the All-Pro return form he showed as a rookie in 2013. He broke a 106-yard return for a touchdown this preseason. Punt returners Sherels and rookie Stefon Diggs also alternated with impactful returns. Sherels will handle the punt return job, but Diggs might get some looks, too.

PRACTICE SQUAD: DE B.J. DuBose, OL Isame Faciane, WR Isaac Fruechte, S Anthony Harris, DE Zach Moore, OLB Brian Peters, FB Blake Renaud, OLB Brandon Watts; RB Dominique Williams, G-T David Yankey.

DETROIT LIONS

2015 TSX DIVISIONAL PICK: 3rd

2014 RECORD: 11-6

DIVISIONAL RECORD: 5-1

COACH: Jim Caldwell

2nd season with Lions

11-5 overall; postseason 0-1

5th season as NFL head coach

39-29 overall; 2-3 postseason

Strength of schedule:

Overall .527; Division.500; Non-Division .544.

–TEAM STRENGTH: Although it was inconsistent last year, the Lions’ pass offense should be their biggest strength this year. As long as wide receivers Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate stay healthy, quarterback Matthew Stafford should be able to generate big plays. With that duo on the outside, tight end Eric Ebron should become a threat over the middle, and all three of the Lions’ top running backs, including rookie Ameer Abdullah, can be dangerous as receivers.

–BIGGEST CONCERN: Will the Lions be able to generate pass rush pressure with their defensive line? After losing tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley and end George Johnson, the Lions have few proven pass rushers, which could result in more blitzes and a secondary that features 31-year-old James Ihedigbo and 35-year-old Rashean Mathis.

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter — Matthew Stafford. Backup — Dan Orlovsky.

The Lions will hope against hope that Stafford stays healthy as Orlovsky would be difficult to trust in a regular-season game. Stafford will be under pressure to balance the ball-protection skills he showed in 2014 with the deep passing ability he’s always had. He has enough weapons to be better than his average performance last year.

RUNNING BACKS: Starter — Joique Bell. Backups — Ameer Abdullah, Theo Riddick, Zach Zenner, FB Michael Burton.

After ranking 28th in rushing last year, the Lions will hope Abdullah can give a jolt to the backfield. Bell will be the starter to open the year, but the rookie could take over with his ability to be an every-down back and a consistent threat in the pass game, though Bell will always be the goal-line option. Riddick will provide some punch in the pass game while Zenner will only be active if he can play special teams.

TIGHT ENDS: Starters — Eric Ebron, Brandon Pettigrew. Backup — Tim Wright.

Ebron struggled as a rookie, both with his hands and ability to comprehend the complex playbook for his position. But he’ll be the go-to tight end in Year 2 and should be the No. 3 weapon in the passing game. Pettigrew will have a role as a blocker, and Wright will be a red-zone threat.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters — Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate. Backups — Corey Fuller, Lance Moore, TJ Jones.

With Jordy Nelson injured in Green Bay, the Lions can claim to have the top receiver duo in the NFL with Johnson and Tate. Either player is capable of taking over a game, and Tate can certainly be a No. 1 threat if Johnson deals with injuries again. Fuller will be a situational deep threat, Moore can work short and intermediate rotes and Jones can do a little of both and be an option in the return game.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — LT Riley Reiff, LG Laken Tomlinson, C Travis Swanson, RG Larry Warford, RT LaAdrian Waddle. Backups — T Cornelius Lucas, T Corey Robinson, G/C Manny Ramirez, G/C Taylor Boggs.

This group has a lot of unknown commodities, but the Lions will hope it can perform better than 2014 when the team ranked 28th in rushing and allowed 45 sacks. Reiff and Warford are reliable, and Waddle has been good when healthy. Tomlinson is a rookie, and Swanson has just one start at center in the NFL. The depth, though, is certainly better than last year.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — DLE Jason Jones, DLT Haloti Ngata, DRT Tyrunn Walker, DRE Ezekiel Ansah. Backups — DE Darryl Tapp, DE Devin Taylor, DE Phillip Hunt, DT Caraun Reid, DT Gabe Wright, DT Jermelle Cudjo.

After losing Ndamukong Suh, this unit will be under heavy scrutiny for much of the season. Ngata should prevent any fall off with the run defense, and Walker could provide some pass rush to account for the loss of Nick Fairley. The key player will be Ansah, who still has some untapped potential and is already the best edge rusher.

LINEBACKERS: Starters — MLB Stephen Tulloch, WLB DeAndre Levy, SLB Tahir Whitehead. Backups — Travis Lewis, Josh Bynes, Kyle Van Noy, Brandon Copeland.

This is the deepest position on the team as Van Noy has starting upside and Bynes contributed significantly on defense last year. Plus, Tulloch is back after missing most of 2014 with a knee injury. Levy is still the top playmaker in the group, but Whitehead can provide some good coverage skills, too.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters — LCB Darius Slay, RCB Rashean Mathis, FS Glover Quin, SS James Ihedigbo. Backups — CB Josh Wilson, CB Nevin Lawson, CB Quandre Diggs, S Isa Abdul-Quddus, S Don Carey. Others: CB Alex Carter (IR/designated for return).

The Lions return all four starters from a group that significantly exceeded expectations last season. The issue, though, is Mathis is 35 and Ihedigbo is 31, and there’s no telling when either player will start to decline. Wilson will be a better nickel option than the Lions had last season, but with Carter missing the first eight games, the Lions could have issues if Mathis or Slay suffer an injury.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Matt Prater, P Sam Martin, LS Don Muhlbach, KOR Ameer Abdullah, PR Ameer Abdullah.

Prater provides much more optimism in the kicking game compared to last season when rookie Nate Freese lasted just three games. Martin is one of the top punters, but has struggled with a couple pressure punts. Abdullah will likely be the returner unless his role on offense becomes too important, but he’s a big play waiting to happen.

PRACTICE SQUAD: G/C Braxston Cave, DT Kerry Hyder, CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste, WR Saalim Hakim, S Isaiah Johnson, WR Andrew Peacock, TE Casey Pierce, QB Ricky Stanzi, DE Larry Webster, RB George Winn.

CHICAGO BEARS

2015 TSX DIVISIONAL PICK: 4th

2014 RECORD: 5-11

DIVISIONAL RECORD: 1-5

COACH: John Fox

1st season with Bears

14th season as NFL coach

127-96 overall; 8-7 postseason

Strength of schedule:

Overall .531; Division .625; Non-Division .475.

–TEAM STRENGTH: Running back. Not only has Matt Forte looked fluid and able to run in the new blocking schemes, but rookie Jeremy Langford produced highlight-type runs against Indianapolis. In addition, free-agent acquisition Jacquizz Rodgers has been a pleasant surprise both as a third-down type back and on other downs. Senorise Perry made a case for making the team based on his special teams play, but also on his big first preseason game. The odd man out appears to be Ka’Deem Carey, but much can change still — especially if there are injuries.

–BIGGEST CONCERN: Wide receiver. No one has heard from Alshon Jeffery (calf strain) since before preseason games started. Marquess Wilson (hamstring) went out shortly after that, followed by Eddie Royal (hip). So with Kevin White already done until at least midseason, the receiver spot is a huge question mark at least for opening week. Right tackle is a close second, where three or four players still are being considered. The best option appears starting Kyle Long there, and risking Vlad Ducasse at right guard.

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter – Jay Cutler. Backups – Jimmy Clausen, David Fales.

Cutler’s preseason included no first-team touchdown passes. In fact, there were no first-team TDs of any kind. Coaches insist he has quickly picked up the new system and he has seemed to look more for the check down or the quick read, and gotten rid of the ball faster when possible. There hasn’t been a major complaint about his passing mechanics. However, without facing a really live regular-season pass rush it’s possible he just hasn’t had the chance to fall apart and it will soon follow. With Cutler at this point, anything is possible. Clausen gives the Bears someone who will try not to take a risk or make big plays. Fales wasn’t this staff’s third choice, but the mobility he showed in the final preseason game, plus play-making ability, may have won over coordinator Adam Gase and quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains.

RUNNING BACKS: Starter – Matt Forte. Backups – Jacquizz Rodgers, Jeremy Langford, Ka’Deem Carey.

Forte went through a typical preseason in which he gets little work. He’s one of the few Bears who really doesn’t seem to need it. At first glance, Forte’s running style seems less than ideal for the blocking scheme, but when he has played he made it work. Rodgers is a bit of a surprise as the backup because of his size (5-6, 195), but is versatile and runs through tackles. Langford displays potential starting skills, and even potential for more. His big plays and special teams abilities make him a probable game-day active as a rookie. Carey’s job seemed in jeopardy but he enjoyed a big final preseason game with a handful of hard runs. The lack of a real power back for short yardage among this group is still as obvious as it’s been since the middle of the last decade, but the position overall is solid.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter – Martellus Bennett. Backups – Zach Miller, Khari Lee.

They have to be praying Bennett maintains good health. One of the game’s better players at his position, his backups instill virtually no confidence. They gave up a sixth-round draft pick in 2017 for Lee, so obviously they like him. But he’s a rookie, and came in new to the system in the last week. Zach Miller has experience among backups but he isn’t a blocker and has always been injury prone. There’s talk the team may deal Bennett after this season rather than pay him, but at this point there is no one in waiting. Run blocking could suffer without a bonafide blocking tight end for short yardage or to block out of the backfield.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters – Alshon Jeffery, Eddie Royal. Backups – Marquess Wilson, Josh Bellamy, Marc Mariani, Cameron Meredith. Others: Kevin White (starter, PUP).

Normally, Cutler’s decision-making is a focus, but this time it’s whether he has had time to work with his wide receivers in training camp and preseason. The answer obviously is no, since White and Jeffery sat out all preseason with injuries and both Wilson and Royal went out, as well. Royal should be able to fit right in when he comes back due to experience and his good rapport with Cutler. Also, he’s only been out a little over a week. But Jeffery hasn’t practiced or played in over a month. Expecting him to start against the Packers and make an impact is virtually fantasy. Wilson has never proven much. The injuries and the lack of experience beyond Jeffery and Royal makes Bennett easily the best option for Cutler’s passes.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters – LT Jermon Bushrod, LG Matt Slauson, C Will Montgomery, RG Vladimir Ducasse, RT Kyle Long. Backups – C Hroniss Grasu, T Charles Leno Jr., G Patrick Omameh, T Tayo Fabuluje.

When Jordan Mills lost his starting job and was cut in a surprise move after the initial 53-man cutdown date, the Bears signaled the move of Long to right tackle. Initially, at least, it would mean Ducasse playing right guard with recently signed Omameh a potential starter there, as well. The line is in a state of flux at best heading into opening week. Slauson and Montgomery look solid and Long’s play in preseason has been at the same quality level it was his first two years. However, his move outside could lead to some initial struggles. Bushrod’s nagging back condition remains a concern. As a unit, they appear to have taken to the zone blocking scheme that does include more drive blocking than in the past few years. They averaged a rock solid 4.7 yards per rush in preseason, but how they’ll keep Cutler free of rushers when they have a right tackle who never played the position and new players at right guard is a real problem.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters – DRE Ego Ferguson, DLE Jarvis Jenkins, NT Eddie Goldman. Backups – DE Will Sutton, DE Cornelius Washington. Others: NT Jeremiah Ratliff (starter, suspended 3 games).

With Ratliff missing the first three weeks due to suspension, they’ll be severely challenged. Goldman had a concussion and will go into the opener as a question, which could mean Sutton or Ferguson playing the all-important nose. Ferguson slimmed down to play end so he doesn’t appear to be an option. Sutton has shown he can make big plays or be the reason for big plays by opponents. Jenkins has been stout, but without Ratliff this group offers little in the way of pass rush. They’re thin at the position after a couple of years when this has cost them.

LINEBACKERS: Starters – RLB Jared Allen, LLB Pernell McPhee, ILB Shea McClellin, ILB Christian Jones. Backups – OLB Sam Acho, OLB Lamarr Houston, ILB Jonathan Bostic, ILB John Timu, OLB Willie Young.

McClellin, and to a lesser extent Jones, will have much to prove against the inside run and as blitzers. No one outside of Chicken Dinner Road — where his family lives in Idaho — expected McClellin to be a starter inside after last season but here he is. He and Jones sometimes struggled against quick hitting plays up the middle. The outside looks to be the strength of the defense. McPhee and Acho came in billed as big-play types and reinforced this thought in preseason. Allen, Houston and Young all showed enough athletic ability to make it evident they’ll at least be able to provide depth as stand-up rushers if not cover occasionally. Bostic is the mystery. He made the team based on virtually nothing shown in preseason and training camp, so it must be entirely based on last year’s film.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters – RCB Kyle Fuller, LCB Alan Ball, FS Antrel Rolle, SS Adrian Amos. Backups – CB Tracy Porter, S Brock Vereen, S Harold Jones-Quartey, CB Terrance Mitchell, CB Sherrick McManis, S Demontre Hurst, CB Bryce Callahan.

Four players who did not start last year’s opener in Chicago will man the secondary. Fuller, as a second-year player who started most of last year, looks like a real vet comparatively. Rolle’s overall experience could keep the secondary from being beaten repeatedly deep, like last year when only Philadelphia gave up more pass plays longer than 20 yards. Amos will be required to be physical at strong safety and so far there’s no indication he can be that type. A young group of backups, with special teamer Sherrick McManis impressing enough for the first time in pass defense to earn a starting nickel spot. Finding a way to be physical enough and match up man to man effectively after being a zone defensive squad for so long remains a challenge.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Robbie Gould, P Pat O’Donnell, LS Thomas Gafford, KOR/PR Marc Mariani.

Mariani proved a useful player in preseason, but needs to display better breakaway speed to concern coverage units. Gould suffered through a spotty training camp and inconsistent early preseason before turning it around late in preseason. There have been some issues with Gafford’s placement snaps to O’Donnell, who holds, and it’s an area that has to be ironed out by the first game. The great number of young defensive backs and some of the linebackers give coverage units a chance to return to the higher level they held for a decade during the Dave Toub era as special teams coordinator.

PRACTICE SQUAD: LB Jonathan Anderson, LB Lamin Barrow, T Nick Becton, DE Brandon Dunn, CB Jacoby Glenn, WR Jalen Saunders, TE Gannon Sinclair, WR Ify Umodu, NT Terry Williams.

–Correspondents covering each team for The Sports Xchange contributed material for this report.


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