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NFC North training camp preview: Key players, battles to watch

By the end of this month, training camps will open across the NFL. Where are the looming position battles to keep tabs on? Who are the critical players to watch? We'll provide each team's keys in this division-by-division series. Today, Grant Gordon digs into the NFC North:

Chicago Bears

Training camp report dates: rookies (July 22) and veterans (July 25).

Location: Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Illinois.

Most important position battle: kicker. From a double-doink to a disastrous offseason of kicking comedy and futility, the Bears' search for a new kicker has spiraled from a moderately amusing side note to a worrisome storyline for the Chicago faithful. Currently, Eddy Pineiro and Elliott Fry are on the roster hoping to conjure up a super kick party that not only earns one of them a job, but also allows the Bears to move past this subplot. Neither has any NFL kicking experience. Fry fired perfectly on his 14 field goal attempts for the greatest Alliance of American Football team of all time, the Orlando Apollos, en route to his signing by the Bears. The South Carolina product is that program's all-time leading scorer. Pineiro came to Chicago via trade with Oakland for a conditional seventh-round pick. In his sophomore season with Florida, Pineiro nailed 17 of 18 field goals. Should he prove that accurate in training camp, the job is his. However, by most accounts of kicking competitions gone awry, neither Pineiro nor Fry has separated himself from the other. It's a position battle that's not just crucial, but one that really needs to be decided sooner than later. Then again, who knows if Pineiro or Fry emerges with the job? After all, Robbie Gouldstill calls Chicago home.

Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: Cordarrelle Patterson, wide receiver/returner. A 6-foot-2, 228-pound Swiss Army Knife for the Super Bowl titlists last season, Patterson not only lined up at receiver and returned kickoffs, but he took reps at running back. Short of driving the team bus, he did it all when called upon for the Patriots. As the Bears' Mitchell Trubisky-led offense continues to mature, looking for consistency and big-play potential, Patterson can help in a variety of ways. Another weapon for Trubisky in the passing game, he could provide depth if needed (or just a different look) in the backfield and should be a huge help on special teams. (Patterson averaged 28.8 yards per kick return in 2018, while four Bears combined for a 19.1 average.) Perhaps overlooked is the experience Patterson brings, as well. Not just a former two-time All-Pro, he also won a Super Bowl -- and for a team that believes it can contend for a Lombardi Trophy, having an experienced big-game player is a welcome addition.

Looming camp question: Can the reigning NFL Coach of the Year and the Bears move past last season's bitter end? Terrific as the turnaround 2018 campaign was for the Bears, with the franchise's first division title and playoff berth since 2010, Chicago's season-ending loss to the Eagles on Wild Card Weekend -- and how the game concluded, with Cody Parkey's fateful miss -- has lingered. And lingered. Coach Matt Nagy has the team replaying the defeat rather than turning the page. A common take for quarterbacks is to forget about the interception they just threw, to "flush it," move on and keep slinging. Many believe that's the best way to handle a heartbreaking loss. With a swarming, Khalil Mack-led defense and a young, burgeoning offense, the Bears have the talent to contend for a Super Bowl. The looming question is whether holding on to and replaying 2018's heartache will hold back the Bears or prove to be the right path in building upon the success founded an autumn ago.

Detroit Lions

Training camp report dates: rookies (July 18) and veterans (July 24).

Location: Detroit Lions Training Facility in Allen Park, Michigan.

Most important position battle: cornerback. An intriguing competition for reps at cornerback was likely to play out in Detroit regardless, but with two-time Pro Bowler Darius Slay flirting with a training camp holdout, it's an all-the-more-important battle. The Lions made former Patriots and Seahawks DB Justin Coleman the highest-paid nickel corner with a $36 million deal across four years. They also drafted Amani Oruwariye in the fifth round, a selection seen as a steal, getting the Penn State product when they did. Former Raider Rashaan Melvin could be the front-runner to start opposite Slay, when or if he returns, and Teez Tabor, who had a handful of starts with the Lions last year, is also in the mix. The good news: One could argue the Lions are deep at the cornerback spot. With the bad news being that -- other than Slay, whose presence is still TBD -- finding a reliable No. 2 cornerback is very much up in the air.

Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: Trey Flowers, defensive end. Former New England assistant (and second-year Lions head coach) Matt Patricia has noticeably steered Detroit into a hopeful Patriots 2.0 with the addition of myriad former Pats, such as receiver Danny Amendola, defensive back Justin Coleman and Flowers. However, in very un-Patriots-like fashion, the Lions wrote a very large check for Flowers, who inked a five-year, $90 million deal with $56 million guaranteed. Pass rushers get paid -- such is the way of the NFL world -- but Flowers' four-year career has never seen him produce more than the 7.5 sacks he logged in 2018. Still, he's viewed by most as being better than his numbers and will be relied upon to lead a Lions front that statistically returns of its top three pass rushers from last season (defensive end Romeo Okwara, 7.5 sacks; linebacker Devon Kennard, seven sacks; and inside linebacker Jarrad Davis, six sacks). Flowers, 25, has the potential to lead a surprisingly savage pass rush and reach a new level individually, or he could produce the 6.0-7.5 sacks he did over his last three seasons in New England and be seen as a bust, given his hefty contract haul.

Looming camp question: Will Matthew Stafford bounce back? As durable as they come, Stafford has been a fixture as the Lions quarterback basically since he was drafted No. 1 overall in 2009 and beat out Daunte Culpepper for the starting job. It's a bit difficult to fathom that at the onset he might have seemed injury prone, ending his rookie campaign on injured reserve after 10 games with a knee ailment and concluding his second season following just three games due to a re-injured shoulder. Since then, Stafford has been the dude in Detroit, making 128 straight starts in the regular season. However, this offseason, it was revealed that Stafford somehow, some way played through a broken back. Shoe-leather toughness aside, it was also his first season under Patricia. Now, he has a new offensive coordinator in Darrell Bevell. Perhaps most trying of all, Stafford's wife was diagnosed with a brain tumor in April and underwent surgery. It was a successful surgery, but there's been much ado surrounding Stafford. Though he soldiered through 2018, the Lions went 6-10 as Stafford's 3,777 yards passing snapped a streak of seven straight seasons of 4,000-plus yards. His 21 touchdown tosses were his least since 2012 and his 555 attempts were fewer than any previous 16-start year. Heading into the 2019 campaign, questions abound. Will Stafford be able to continue his ironman ways? Can he acclimate himself in the second season of the Patricia era and the first with Bevell steering the offense? And ultimately, can the 31-year-old play at a peak level, or is his prime behind him?

Green Bay Packers

Training camp report date: rookies (July 22) and veterans (July 24).

Location: Green Bay Packers Training Facility in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Most important position battle: No. 2 receiver.Davante Adams established himself as one of the best receivers in the NFL in 2018 (see: 111 catches for 1,386 yards and 13 TDs in 15 games). However, Aaron Rodgers' second-favorite option at wideout is still up for discussion -- or competition, as it were. While his production had drastically dwindled, Randall Cobb was a mainstay for the Pack, and his departure to the Cowboys signifies a changing of the guard if nothing else. Marquez Valdes-Scantling ended the year tied with Cobb with 38 catches, which was third on the team and second among receivers. Valdes-Scantling did far more with his receptions, though, averaging 15.3 yards a catch. The rookie's production came in conjunction with an injury to Geronimo Allison. Allison was off to a solid start last season, hauling in 19 catches for 289 yards and a pair of scores over the initial four games. A torn adductor muscle put Allison on IR, though. So, Allison (25 years old) and Valdes-Scantling (24) have each shown potential and built a rapport with Rodgers. Chances are, both will develop into more productive targets. Even younger is the 22-year-old Equanimeous St. Brown, who had five catches for 94 yards in Week 15 against the Jets. There's no shortage of young, promising options at receiver for the Packers. Somebody will emerge as the WR2, with Allison as the probable front-runner, but it likely won't matter if they're all contributing and getting open for Rodgers.

Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: Adrian Amos, safety. Consistent, versatile and affordable might not scream sexy, but the addition of Amos checks all those boxes. Historically, the Packers hibernate through free agency, but in one fateful day, Green Bay's impending signings of Amos and pass rushers Za'Darius Smith and Preston Smith changed that and improved the outlook for 2019. All three were great gets for Green Bay, improving upon weaknesses and bolstering the team as a whole. In Amos, though, the Packers have a safety who will provide leadership and stability for a defensive backfield that's been a hindrance for a while. Still just 26, Amos and first-round selection Darnell Savage could provide a top-tier safety tandem for seasons to come -- and Amos is likely to be a welcome mentor to the rookie. Signing Amos for four years and $36 million has to be viewed as a bargain, considering what some bigger names at the position garnered, guys like Landon Collins, Earl Thomas and Tyrann Mathieu. Lastly, he's an ex-Bear, which makes the reigning division champions weaker and stokes the rivalry that the Packers dominated until recently.

Looming camp question: Will Aaron Rodgers and rookie head coach Matt LaFleur build a good rapport? In the land of Lombardi, celebrity women want to be with him and Cheeseheaded-men want to be him. Indeed, Aaron Rodgers is very much the man who stirs the Green Bay drink. Enter LaFleur, who is taking on his first head-coaching gig with just one leg. Currently recovering from a torn Achilles sustained during a basketball game, LaFleur is not only learning the ropes as a first-year head coach, but he's implementing his offense with an all-everything quarterback tasked with leading it. Scuttlebutt regarding Rodgers handling audibles at the line of scrimmage has already reared its head. Following two seasons of postseason absence for the Packers and the firing of Mike McCarthy, this might be the first year for LaFleur, but it's still a hugely pivotal one. Rodgers is turning 36 in December. His prime days and unbelievable ways cannot be wasted any longer. It's imperative that the relationship between Rodgers and LaFleur is a good one, just as it always should be with a head coach and his QB1, even more so when said coach is an offensive-minded one. As Rodgers goes, so goes the Packers' offense, but it's now a LaFleur-designed attack. On the heels of a losing season, the Packers are still rife with talent and a return to the playoffs would hardly be stunning. For that to come to fruition, the rookie coach and the venerable superstar quarterback must find cohesion by the time the summer burns through training camp.

Minnesota Vikings

Training camp report dates: rookies (July 22) and veterans (July 25).

Location: TCO Performance Center in Eagan, Minnesota.

Most important position battle: No. 3 wide receiver. Statistically speaking, Laquon Treadwell was the No. 3 wideout in 2018, but his 35 receptions were fifth on the team behind tight end Kyle Rudolph, running back Dalvin Cook and, of course, the stellar duo of Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, who each racked up more than 100 catches. Treadwell is a former first-round pick whose career marks of 56 catches for 517 yards and one touchdown would be pedestrian one-season totals. There's no guarantee Treadwell will even make the roster, but he will be part of an intriguing competition for No. 3 receiver behind arguably the NFL's most established receiving tandem. Fan favorite Chad Beebe could be the clubhouse leader, while 6-foot-5 addition Jordan Taylor could be a sleeper, along with Brandon Zylstra. Seventh-round picks Dillon Mitchell and Olabisi Johnson could surprise.

Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: Garrett Bradbury, center. With the second-round selection of tight end Irv Smith Jr. and the subsequent saga that played out with Kyle Rudolph, the Alabama product proved to be the rookie garnering the most notice this offseason. However, first-round pick Bradbury instantly improves a Vikings offensive line that offered up a half-dozen starting combinations in 2018 -- combos that added up to quarterback Kirk Cousins getting sacked 40 times. The North Carolina State product's workmanlike approach and head for the game has drawn quick acclaim within the Vikings' ranks and hurried along development of the critically important relationship between the center and quarterback. While it's still oh-so-early in Bradbury's career, it wouldn't be all that startling to see this guy centering the Minnesota offensive line for a long time to come.

Looming camp question: Will Kirk Cousins shed his rep for falling short in big games and return the Vikings to contender status? Thirty touchdowns to 10 interceptions, a 70.1 completion percentage and 4,298 yards passing. Those are some pretty impressive numbers. Alas, for Kirk Cousins, a hefty contract and a lackluster Vikings record spoke louder in the ears of many. Presumed Super Bowl contenders at this time last year, the Vikings fell short of even qualifying for the playoffs -- and Cousins' reputation for failing to win big games grew. Over seven seasons, the best record for a Cousins-quarterbacked team is 9-7. He's 34-37-2 for his career in the regular season and 0-2 in his only postseason forays. Cousins has had a laundry list of offensive coordinators lately and is currently adjusting to another new one in Kevin Stefanski (as well as assistant head coach Gary Kubiak). While that's a notable change, Cousins leads a formidable offense that has the key pieces at receiver (Diggs and Thielen), tight end (Rudolph and Smith) and running back (Cook) along with an improved O-line. Predicting Cousins will once more find individual statistical splendor is safe, but whether he can lead the Vikings back into the realm of contender status is the prevailing question.

Follow Grant Gordon on Twitter @TCNGrantGordon.

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