As training camp approaches, we take a look at the players on each team who will be most heavily scrutinized. The list contains a fair amount of quarterbacks — no stunner there — but we tried to highlight as many non-QBs as we could. The players highlighted range from rookies to veterans with 10 or more years of experience.
In the sixth of an eight-part series, we look at the NFC North from the 2011 order of finish:
Packers OLB Nick Perry
The Packers drafted Perry and DE Jerel Worthy to help reinvigorate a defense that fell from grace last season, ranking last in yards allowed and sacks. Clay Matthews was the one true rusher in the front seven, and the hope is that Perry’s electric speed and athleticism will translate into sacks and pressures right away. If he can be a one-trick pony as a rookie and get after opposing quarterbacks, a la the Niners’ Aldon Smith last season, the pick will be hailed as a success. None of the Packers' other linebackers possesses the edge-heating ability of the first-rounder from USC.
Others worth mentioning: C Jeff Saturday, CB Tramon Williams.
Lions DT Ndamukong Suh
Are we seeing a softer side of Suh? Is that a good thing? Much has been made of Suh’s involvement in a Fox-produced dating show called “The Choice” set to hit TV screens this June. But more pressing on the minds of Lions fans is whether their third-year havoc wreaker is going to play more in line with the way he did as a rookie, notching 10 sacks and making the Pro Bowl, and less as he did last season, which saw a dip in production (four sacks) and a proneness to lose his cool. Suh is the Lions’ defensive centerpiece, and having a healthy Nick Fairley available to sub in more often could make it a more devastating front. The Lions are counting on Suh making the choice to be more dominant.
Others worth mentioning: RB Jahvid Best, CB Bill Bentley.
Bears WR Brandon Marshall
The Bears are pinning their hopes on Marshall to transform an offense that was strong at times, decent at others but completely ineffective once QB Jay Cutler and RB Matt Forte went down. Simply put, they lacked a receiver who dictated coverage and could make plays downfield consistently. Now they have one in Marshall, but he attracts more than just safety help. Trouble seems to find him, and though the Bears have defended Marshall’s character, it will be up to Cutler (his cohort from Denver) and Bears leaders to keep the talented wideout in line. And just because Marshall might be out of the woods with his most recent legal troubles, that doesn’t mean he will escape discipline from the league office — we’ve seen it before.
Others worth mentioning: ORT Gabe Carimi, SS Major Wright.
Vikings QB Christian Ponder
Adrian Peterson always will be the big dog in Minnesota, and the progress of his rehabilitation from ACL surgery no doubt will be the biggest story to follow as training camp approaches. But from that point on, and really regardless of Peterson’s condition, Ponder must step up and show that his regression down the stretch last season will be reversed. Too often, he came off his spots, got too turnover-happy and appeared to lose confidence. But a new left tackle (Matt Kalil) and deep receiver (Jerome Simpson) and some added depth at tight end should improve the support staff and allow Ponder to display more of the franchise-QB traits he teased the Vikings with in 10 mixed-bag starts (2-8 record) as a rookie.
Others worth mentioning: Peterson, Kalil.