NFC North best bets to break through in 2011

Posted June 22, 2011 @ 10 a.m.
Posted By PFW staff

Pro Football Weekly presents the sixth of an eight-part divisional breakdown of the players most likely to be attending 2011 coming-out parties in the NFC North.

Chicago Bears

DT Henry Melton — With DT Tommie Harris gone, the Bears are looking to fill the void at the three-technique spot, and Melton could help answer the call as the primary player at the position. He reportedly has added about 30 pounds of muscle this offseason in preparation for the role, and he apparently is weighing in at a little less than 300 pounds (he was listed at 260 pounds last season). Because of the lockout, it remains to be seen whether the added bulk has cost Melton any speed or explosiveness on the practice field, but head coach Lovie Smith and GM Jerry Angelo have been speaking highly of Melton all offseason, and they seem confident that he's in for a big campaign. Melton, who began his college career as a running back, showed flashes in ’10 as a situational pass rusher. If the added muscle doesn't cost him any of the great burst he has showed, Melton could become the Bears' top player on the interior.

Detroit Lions

QB Matthew Stafford — This is somewhat of an obvious choice considering Stafford has missed the majority of the past two seasons, starting only 13 of 32 career games, including only three this past season. But the reports on the health of Stafford's rehabilitated shoulder and his arm strength have been good this offseason, as the receivers who have caught his passes say the zip and accuracy are better than they ever could have expected. Plus, Stafford's supporting cast is the best the Lions have had in maybe a decade or more. They have built up the offense around him, adding RB Mikel Leshoure and WR Titus Young in the draft to an already impressive group of skill-position talent. But the pressure is on for Stafford to impress this season, too.

Green Bay Packers

DE Mike Neal — Having started to come on strong last season after overcoming an abdominal strain that forced him to miss the first three games, Neal was lost for the year a week after an excellent Week Five performance against the Redskins, when he tore his rotator cuff in practice. The Packers believe Neal has the potential to replace Cullen Jenkins, a free agent who is not expected to return, as a quality inside pass rusher and make the same kind of significant progress as '09 No. 1 draft pick B.J. Raji did at nose tackle in his second season. The muscle-bound 2010 second-round draft pick is explosive and can play up and down the defensive line. He has enormous upper-body strength, a low center of gravity, a wide but surprisingly agile body and a great work ethic. He practically lives in the weight room. But there are genuine concerns about his ability to stay healthy.

Minnesota Vikings

DE Brian Robison — A part-time player who has flashed in a limited role his first four NFL seasons (63 career games, but only seven starts), the Vikings gave Robison a surprising contract extension (three years, $14.1 million) prior to the lockout and appear willing to let former starter Ray Edwards walk to another team. Robison might not be a three-down end. He can rush the passer, but it remains to be seen if he can be a great edge setter against the run. Still, the Vikings expect Robison's motor to give a boost to the defense and perhaps combine with second-year DE Everson Griffen to help fill the void in Edwards' expected absence. Remember: Robison is hitting his physical prime at age 28 and has bulked up well and maintained his weight.