Today we move another day closer to the start of training camp, as well as the 2012 season. This means it’s time for another article in our training camp battle series. This time around we’re looking at the NFC North.
Over the past six years, the division has been won twice each by the Bears, Packers and Vikings. This year the Packers will try to defend the crown, the Bears will try to get the division back, the Lions will aim for their first division title since 1993, and the Vikings will try to make this more than a rebuilding year.
For each of the following camp battles, there are one or more players that are returning to the team going up against one or more free agent pickups. In each case, the team will hope it’s an upgrade over what they had in 2011.
Position: Right Guard
The Players: Lance Louis and Chilo Rachal
The Battle: Lance Louis began the 2011 season at right guard, but he lasted just 20 snaps before he was injured. So, for the majority the season, the job went to Chris Spencer. Louis would later recover and take over at right tackle for Gabe Carimi, who also went down with injury. All this trauma will result in a game of musical offensive linemen in 2012, as Carimi should return to right tackle, Louis can return to right guard, and Chris Spencer will play left guard.
It’s hard to judge how Louis will fair at right guard because the majority of his playing time has come at tackle. What we do know is tackle definitely wasn’t the position for him. He finished the season with a -20.9 pass block rating, as well as a -13.2 run block rating. It should be said that in the two seasons he has had playing time, he has missed games due to injury. That means free agent acquisition, and former 49er, Chilo Rachal will serve either as his replacement or injury insurance.
After some good but not great seasons, Rachal lost his job to Adam Snyder last year. The final cut came at halftime in Week 3 after Rachal had attracted three penalties and given up a sack. Rachal continued to play throughout the remainder of the season in various six-offensive linemen formations.
The Verdict: While neither played extensively at right guard in 2011, Rachal was our highest-rated run blocking right guard in 2010. The year before, he put together a 10-week stretch where he allowed just eight overall pressures. If he can make good on his potential the Bears could have a very competent right side of the line. Rachal has lost some weight, which could help his play, and playing under a one-year contract should serve as a chip on his shoulder.
The Players: Aaron Berry and Jacob Lacey
The Battle: One of the most confusing moves of free agency was the Buccaneers’ decision to give a lot of money to Eric Wright, who was underwhelming at best in his 2011 season as a Lion. While Chris Houston will likely retain his starting job in Detroit, the spot opposite of him is up for grabs.
For most of the season when the Lions were in a nickel defense Aaron Berry took one of the cornerback spots. While he was somewhat of a liability in his first game–when he allowed eight catches and a touchdown–for most of the rest of the season he was reliable. Even though he didn’t have an interception, he had six passes defended. Outside games against the elite passing attacks from the Packers and Saints, he didn’t allow a single pass longer than 18 yards.
His competition this offseason comes from free agent pickup Jacob Lacey. He had his struggles early in the 2011 campaign with the Colts, including negative coverage grades in seven of his first eight games. Despite the lack of early success Lacey pulled it together and had coverage grades ranging from -0.2 to +3.9 in his last six games. The loser of this battle will likely come in for nickel situations, although there is a chance third-round rookie Dwight Bentley will impress enough to snag the nickel spot or even start.
The Verdict: With Berry’s quick rise up the depth chart from undrafted rookie in 2010 to significant playing time in 2011, it would be a little surprising if the Lions didn’t give him a chance to continue his upsurge. For the most part, Lacey’s play has been full of below-average performances, with a few spurts of good games. It appears Berry would have to take a step backwards in year three of his career, and Lacey to really shine in camp for former not to be the starter. Regardless, whoever wins will be an upgrade to Wright and the 879 passing yards he allowed last year.
Position: Defensive End
The Players: Mike Daniels, Anthony Hargrove, Phillip Merling, Mike Neal, C.J. Wilson, Jerel Worthy, and Jarius Wynn
The Battle: The Packers’ defense suffered a big step backwards last year, in part due to their inability to find an interior pass rusher to replace Cullen Jenkins. Ryan Pickett will remain a starter and play in run situations, and B.J. Raji will likely be over-used again despite his lack of production last year. This leaves a spot open in the base defense as well as a spot as an interior pass rusher in the nickel defense.
Green Bay very rarely makes free agent additions, but this time around they broke that trend and added Anthony Hargrove and Phillip Merling. They also spent two early draft picks on defensive linemen to go along with returning players Jarius Wynn, C.J. Wilson, and the often-injured Mike Neal. Not only are all of these players fighting for the starting job and playing time, they are also simply fighting for a spot on the team, as Green Bay typically just keeps five or six linemen.
To make the decision easier, at least to begin the season, both Hargrove and Neal will be fighting league suspensions.
The Verdict: In terms of the base defense and finding someone who can stop the run, I like C.J. Wilson to win the job. Late in the season he had more strong games against the run then not, including a three-stop performance against the Lions, and a four-stop performance against the Bears. This might be Phillip Merling’s best opportunity to make an impact if he can win the job.
As for an interior pass rusher, the Packers are hopeful that rookie Jerel Worthy does enough to take those snaps. Once Anthony Hargrove returns from suspension, he will likely get added to the rotation. Both Jarius Wynn and Mike Neal look like the most likely odd men out in terms of making the roster.
Position: Right Guard
The Players: Brandon Fusco and Geoff Schwartz
The Battle: The Vikings made it very clear that their offense is about getting younger, letting go of both starting guards Steve Hutchinson–who actually enjoyed a good year–and Anthony Herrera. The addition of top-five draft pick Matt Kalil as the potential franchise left tackle has led the Vikings to move last year’s man Charlie Johnson to left guard.
This leaves an open competition at right guard. The in-house candidate is Brandon Fusco, who was a sixth round pick in 2011. During the season, he saw 14 snaps against the Packers in Week 7, and 12 snaps against the Redskins in Week 14. In that short time, he didn’t allow a single pressure, and looked solid in the very small sample size against the run, althoguh he did pick up a penalty.
His competition comes from free agent addition Geoff Schwartz. He missed the entire 2011 season due to injury, but was a starter in Carolina in 2010. That year he began the season at right tackle, and then moved over to right guard. He played very well in his one year as a starter, and only struggled for a two week[eriod when switching positions. As a guard, he never allowed more than three pressures in a game, and had a three-week stretch without allowing any pressure. He was great at run blocking as a right tackle, and after he got used to being back at right guard he had far more positive games than negative.
The Verdict: Assuming Schwartz makes a full recovery from his injury, he should return to the great play of 2010 that led him to be one of the best guards available in free agency. There are a lot of ‘what-if’s’, but the Vikings could have a great offensive line in the near future, if Kalil lives up to his hype, Charlie Johnson plays better at guard than tackle, and Schwartz makes a full recovery. They would be joined by John Sullivan who emerged as an excellent center in 2011, and Phil Loadholt, who had the highest run block grade for tackles in 2011. To be fair to Fusco, he does have a chance to win the job and could potentially play very well; we just haven’t seen enough of him to make a verdict, while we have seen enough of Schwartz to know he can play.