The NFC North still is looking up at the Packers, as has been the case for much of the Aaron Rodgers-Brett Favre era.
The Packers are coming off their fourth consecutive division title and are 19-4-1 in the NFC North over the last four seasons. They have won the division 11 of the last 20 years and general manager Ted Thompson was able to keep most of his coveted free agents, although the team is retooling at cornerback.
The Lions and Vikings both made gains under new coaches in 2014. The Lions, led by the league's No. 2-ranked defense, posted four more victories under Jim Caldwell than it had in 2013 to reach the playoffs. The Vikings were two wins better in Mike Zimmer's first season, despite missing their best player, running back Adrian Peterson, for 15 games.
The Bears are reloading again after a total overhaul delivered a new general manager in Ryan Pace with a retooled front office and coach John Fox, who assembled a strong staff of assistants. With camps set to open, here's an overview of the Bears' opponents in the division.
The Packers scored more points than any other team in 2014 but one of the first major moves coach Mike McCarthy made after the NFC championship game meltdown at Seattle was to hand off play-calling duties to longtime assistant Tom Clements. McCarthy surely will be heavily involved, but how this transition works with quarterback Aaron Rodgers is worth monitoring. There will be plenty of familiarity as all 11 starters on offense return and third receiver Davante Adams is a popular pick around the league to have a breakout second season.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers shifted linebacker Clay Matthews inside from his familiar outside position in Week 10 against the Bears, a position he played the rest of the season in the base scheme. It was a shift made to help fix a porous run defense, and the Packers got positive results. How will Matthews settle in there this season while remaining a dangerous pass rusher in the sub packages? The shift also means someone will have to step up on the outside, perhaps Mike Neal or Nick Perry. Fourth-round draft pick Jake Ryan could push for a starting spot on the inside, too, as A.J. Hawk left for the Bengals in free agency.
The most significant losses in free agency were in the secondary as cornerbacks Tramon Williams (Browns) and Davon House (Jaguars) left. There will be ample competition for the starting spot opposite Sam Shields. Veteran Casey Hayward, who has nine starts in three seasons, has the most experience but was sidelined this spring with a foot injury. The Packers used their top two draft picks on defensive backs, adding Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins. They could figure in.
There were ample questions about the defensive line a year ago and they were answered even after nose tackle B.J. Raji suffered a season-ending biceps injury in August. Letroy Guionplayed well in his absence, but Guion is appealing a three-game suspension. The run defense will get a boost if these two play well.
First practice is Thursday at Ray Nitschke Field in Green Bay.
Key losses: DT Ndamukong Suh, DT Nick Fairley, DT C.J. Mosley, DT Andre Fluellen, RB Reggie Bush, DE George Johnson.
Top camp storylines
The Lions defense rose to prominence quickly under first-year coordinator Teryl Austin, ranking second in yards allowed and third in points, but Austin faces a tall challenge as Ndamukong Suh left for the Dolphins, who made him the highest-paid defensive player in the league. Nick Fairley and C.J. Mosley, two other solid tackles, also departed, creating a massive hole in the middle of the front. Enter Haloti Ngata, the 10-year veteran acquired in a trade from the Ravens. The Lions also believe former Saints lineman Tyrunn Walker is ready for an expanded role. But opponents aren't going to fear running the ball against the Lions as they have the last few seasons.
It's a good time for the 2014 draft class to take a major step up. Tight end Eric Ebron, selected 10th overall a year ago, was a big disappointment catching only 25 balls as a rookie. There's a major role waiting for him. Outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy was limited to eight games after being drafted in the second round. He had a sports hernia and is healthy now. He needs to be an impact player on defense. Third-round pick Travis Swanson is being counted on to replace 15-year veteran Dominic Raiola at center. Fifth-round pick Caraun Reid, out of Princeton, has a chance to be in the rotation at defensive tackle. If the Lions' 2014 haul is what the team expected, that will bode very well for coach Jim Caldwell.
The 2015 draft perhaps hints at a greater commitment to the run. First-round pick Laken Tomlinson, a Lane Tech product, will be plugged in at left guard. Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah was chosen in the second round joining fifth-year player Joique Bell, who's coming off knee and Achilles tendon surgeries but has vowed to rush for more than 1,200 yards.
First practice is Aug. 3 at the Lions facility in Allen Park, Mich.
Aug. 13 Jets 6:30 p.m.
Aug. 20 @Redskins 6:30 p.m.
Aug. 28 @Jaguars 7 p.m.
Sept. 3 Bills 6:30 p.m.
Sept. 13 @Chargers 3:05 p.m.
Odds to win the NFC North
To win NFC: 20-1
Super Bowl: 45-1
Bears 16-1, 35-1 to win NFC, 60-1 Super Bowl
7-9 IN '14 (3rd)
Off. 27 Pts. 20 Def. 14 Pts. 11
8 returning starters on offense, 10 on defense
Key newcomers: WR Mike Wallace, CB Terence Newman, CB Trae Waynes, LB Eric Kendricks, DE Danielle Hunter, OT T.J. Clemmings.
Key losses: WR Greg Jennings, LB Jasper Brinkley, G Charlie Johnson, QB Matt Cassel, DL Corey Wootton, FB Jerome Felton.
Top camp storylines
An offseason of acrimony for running back Adrian Peterson was resolved when he showed up for the offseason program in early June and his future — at least through 2016 — was cemented with a restructured contract last week. The question now is what kind of player will Peterson be after missing all but one game last season? He's only three years removed from a 2,000-yard season but is 30 years old. His body will be fresh and he provides a dynamic complement to second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. The entrenched stance made by general manager Rick Spielman from the outset — that the team wouldn't trade Peterson — worked and the dimension that cannot be overlooked is he wants to play for second-year coach Mike Zimmer.
The Vikings upgraded at wide receiver by acquiring speedster Mike Wallace in a trade with the Dolphins, effectively replacing Greg Jennings. He needs to have a big season for Bridgewater to take the next step. Fourth-round pick T.J. Clemmings could be plugged in at right guard, but the bigger question is at left tackle, where Matt Kalil has regressed the last two seasons, struggling at times with injuries.
If first-round pick Trae Waynes can contribute quickly, the defense will have a nice pair of cornerbacks with Xavier Rhodes opposite him. The safety opposite Harrison Smith remains a question mark, and the team needs improved play at linebacker with the hope being second-round pick Eric Kendricks can step in immediately in the middle.
Defensive end Everson Griffen proved to be worthy of his contract last year when he had 12 sacks and the team would like Anthony Barr, the strong-side linebacker drafted in the 2014 first round, to be a bigger part of the pass rush.
The Vikings opened training camp Saturday at Minnesota State-Mankato.