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NFC North inside intel: Vital rookies, key position battles

Charley Casserly spent three decades in the NFL, starting as an unpaid intern and ultimately serving as general manager of the Washington Redskins and Houston Texans, snagging three Super Bowl rings along the way. During his rise up the scouting ranks and eventual entry into the front office, Casserly made connections across the league -- lasting connections that extend to this day and provide rare access to the team-building process.

In the Inside Intel series, our resident GM mines his sources across the league to relay the inside word on impact rookies, prominent position battles and remaining questions. You'll find the NFC North intel below.

Chicago Bears
2019 record · 8-8


Cole Kmet, tight end: A year ago, the Bears had no presence at tight end, so the rookie second-round pick fills a huge need. Chicago also added Jimmy Graham this offseason to be the "move" tight end as a player who isn't asked to block a lot on the line of scrimmage but could line up in the slot or as an H-back. However, Kmet will give the team a big, physical target who can go inside and earn YAC as a strong runner. He offers more potential as a blocker than Graham. 

Jaylon Johnson, cornerback: The rookie is a very good press and zone cornerback. The Bears have one proven corner in Kyle Fuller and look for Johnson to compete for the other spot on the outside. If he can come through, along with other parts of the defense, this unit could return to 2018 form.


Table inside Article
QB Mitchell Trubisky Nick Foles
RB Tarik Cohen David Montgomery
WR2 Anthony Miller Ted Ginn
WR3 Riley Ridley Javon Wims
RG Rashaad Coward Germain Ifedi
DE Bilal Nichols Roy Robertson-Harris
CB2 Jaylon Johnson Artie Burns Kevin Toliver


Who is the starting quarterback? This is a wide-open competition, so Trubisky and Foles might both play this season. For Trubisky to win the job, he needs to play loose and concentrate on the play at hand. The use of run-pass options (RPOs) will help him play fast, but he must be disciplined in his footwork, become a more accurate passer and make plays with his legs. He's had issues forcing the ball and needs to recognize when to pull it down and run or when to throw it away.

Foles comes in as a highly confident player and leader who has shown poise in clutch situations. He is very effective running RPOs and is surprisingly creative even though he's not a runner. To win the job, the veteran must trust his decisions and let his surrounding cast make plays. His job is to simply execute and not try to do too much.

Detroit Lions
2019 season · 3-12-1


Jeff Okudah, cornerback: The No. 3 overall pick has the potential to be an excellent cornerback at the next level, but don't expect the Lions to force him into the lineup. It's a tough position to transition to because of the speed of the NFL game. An excellent press corner with good size, Okudah will compete for a starting spot. 

D'Andre Swift, running back: Swift is explosive in the open field and has immense big-play ability. Look for the Lions to use all three running backs -- Swift, Kerryon Johnson and Bo Scarborough -- as they go through the season in an effort to keep them fresh down the stretch. 


Table inside Article
RB1 Kerryon Johnson D'Andre Swift
OG Joe Dahl Kenny Wiggins Oday Aboushi Jonah Jackson Logan Stenberg
LB1/LB2 Jamie Collins Christian Jones Reggie Ragland Jarrad Davis Jahlani Tavai
S Duron Harmon Tracy Walker Will Harris Jayron Kearse

There are two starting positions open at both offensive guard and linebacker, but all five linebackers will get playing time regardless of who earns the starting jobs.


Has the O-line improved enough to allow the offense to excel? The offensive line has been a project of Matt Patricia's since he took over in 2018. The unit will be key to the running game, which should take pressure off Matthew Stafford and afford him better protection. Lions fans have reason to be optimistic: LT Taylor Decker has shown a lot of growth as a player and leader, while C Frank Ragnow, who makes the line calls, has Pro Bowl potential. Free-agent acquisition Halapoulivaati Vaitai gives the unit a big, physical player and brings it closer to becoming a mean, nasty group. The addition of rookies Jonah Jackson and Logan Stenberg at guard should also help the O-line become more physical.

Green Bay Packers
2019 record · 13-3


Jordan Love, quarterback: Green Bay feels Aaron Rodgers can play at a high level for at least a couple more years, so the rookie passer will have the luxury of learning from the veteran. For now, Love gives the Packers a significant upgrade at QB2, putting them in a better position to win if Rodgers gets injured and can't play.

AJ Dillon, running back: He'll compete for the RB2 position and will certainly help late in the season as a big back who can pound the ball.


Table inside Article
RB2 AJ Dillon Jamaal Williams
WR3 Marquez Valdes-Scantling Equanimeous St. Brown Devin Funchess Jake Kumerow Reggie Begelton
RG/RT Billy Turner Lane Taylor Ricky Wagner
ILB1/ILB2 Oren Burks Christian Kirksey Curtis Bolton Kamal Martin

Turner will start at either the right guard or right tackle spot, and the remaining open position will go to either Taylor or Wagner. On defense, four players will compete for two ILB positions (Blake Martinez's departure in free agency left one of those spots vacant).


How will the QB room mesh? People seem to be overthinking this question, and the Packers don't expect Love's presence to be an issue. Sure, Rodgers was surprised by the pick, but they expect him to be a good teammate and take Love under his wing. From Rodgers' point of view, look for him to improve upon last year's performance because he's more familiar with Matt LaFleur's system and, thus, can make quicker decisions and play faster.

Minnesota Vikings
2019 record · 10-6


Justin Jefferson, wide receiver: The Vikings love Jefferson's versatility and competitiveness. His best assets are his run-after-catch ability and long arms, which help him win jump balls. Initially, look for Jefferson to play in the slot while Adam Thielen and potentially Bisi Johnson, who impressed last season, line up outside. 

Jeff Gladney, cornerback: With the offseason departures of Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander, the Vikings have a young cornerback group. Of all Minnesota's draft selections, Gladney is in the best position to crack the starting lineup right away as he can play man, zone and press coverage. 


Table inside Article
WR2/WR3 Justin Jefferson Bisi Johnson Tajae Sharpe Dillon Mitchell Chad Beebe Davion Davis
RDE Ifedi Odenigbo Jalyn Holmes Anthony Zettel Eddie Yarbrough
CB1/CB2/CB3 Mike Hughes Jeff Gladney Holton Hill Cameron Dantzler Harrison Hand

There's a lot to discuss in Minnesota. As I mentioned above, Jefferson and Johnson are the front-runners for the remaining two receiver spots opposite Thielen, but keep an eye on the remaining wideouts on the depth chart. I didn't mention the offensive line above, but the big question is will rookie Ezra Cleveland break into the starting five? On defense, Mike Hughes should be a starting CB on the outside or at nickel, so finding suitors for the remaining two CB spots will be sorted out in camp.


Can this team remain a contender with a younger roster? The Vikings have become a much younger team at wide receiver (traded away Stefon Diggs), defensive end (Everson Griffen opted out of his contract), and cornerback (lost the aforementioned trio of vets). After making the Divisional Round a year ago, they'll need a number of young, inexperienced players to come through to make another playoff run. Two key players are Odenigbo and Hughes. Odenigbo played 33.8% of the defensive snaps and had seven sacks last season. He'll need to bring that type of production as a full-time starter. Hughes played 45.5% of the defensive snaps in 2019, and his challenge will be staying healthy.

Follow Charley Casserly on Twitter @CharleyCasserly

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