Summer Scramble 2010: NFC North Players to Watch
Coming July 15: NFC North Burning Questions, Bold Predictions
Chicago Bears -- Brian Urlacher
It's tempting to just write "Jay Cutler" here and let the lines go about interceptions, maturity, "the lack of receivers" and Mike Martz. However, we know Cutler's talented, we know what he's capable of when he's playing well (see: Week 16 vs. Minnesota), and we know what he's capable of when he's a tick off (see: Week 1 at Green Bay). What isn't known is how much of the Bears' 2009 defensive decline was due to Urlacher's Week 1 wrist injury that cost him the rest of the season. We also don't know how good he'll be as he tries to finish off another comeback from a devastating injury. At age 32, it's not going to be as easy as it sounds.
If Urlacher is actually the straw that stirs the drink for the Chicago defense, the Bears may face some serious struggles again. Lately, Urlacher has indeed been that straw. They're better statistically when he plays, and they're 7-15 without Urlacher since Lovie Smith took over as head coach. Like it or not, the Bears appear to go as Urlacher goes. That's why there is so much uncertainty in Chicago as the season approaches.
Detroit -- Kyle Vanden Bosch
This isn't meant to dispute the importance of rookie Ndamukong Suh. He's a big part of what the Lions will be doing, but let's not forget that head coach Jim Schwartz was knocking on Vanden Bosch's door as free agency began in early March. He was there for a reason, and it wasn't to visit. He wanted Vanden Bosch for his defense. Some panned the contract Detroit gave the big defensive end, who last played for the Tennessee Titans. What is known is that he will add to their pass rush, but many wonder what Vanden Bosch, who turns 32 during the regular season, has left in the tank. Will he be an overpriced and underperforming player, or will he play a huge role in Detroit's defensive resurgence? While Suh progresses as a rookie and eventually becomes a star, he won't be able to do it by himself. He needs a tag-team partner on the outside, and Vanden Bosch has the first chance to be that guy.
Green Bay -- Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher
It was fitting that Green Bay's season ended on a play where Aaron Rodgers was hit before he could release the ball, forcing a fumble that led to the game-winning touchdown. After the season, the team overpaid to keep left tackle Clifton around, then re-signed Tauscher -- a veteran right tackle -- as well. The hope was that the two could hold down the fort until younger players are ready. In Clifton's case, this means rookie Bryan Bulaga, a first-round pick. Clifton and Tauscher might not play an entire 16-game season together, but they're likely to start in Week 1 at Philadelphia. The longer they stay on the field, the better off the Packers -- and, more importantly, Rodgers-- will be. They can't afford to let Rodgers get hit in 2010 like he was in 2009. It's not just about beating Minnesota -- should Green Bay really have Super Bowl aspirations, they must protect Rodgers better and more consistently.
Minnesota -- Bryant McKinnie and Steve Hutchinson
Long an overrated left tackle, McKinnie's attitude soured at the Pro Bowl. His experience in Miami ended with him getting the boot from the NFC squad. That came after a season in which McKinnie often struggled against speed rushers, and was actually benched for a time during a Sunday night loss at Carolina. The guy who was whipping him that night was Julius Peppers, and you might be aware that he plays for the Bears now.
As for Hutchinson, there are fewer concerns. He played through a bum shoulder last year, and he had offseason surgery. He's expected to be fine, and any hiccups he experienced in 2009 shouldn't resurface again. However, Hutchinson will be 33 in November, and he's played a lot of physical football over the course of his NFL career. He should be better, but no one would be surprised if he regressed some. Should that happen, Brett Favre's life won't be any easier than it was in the NFC championship game. Running backs Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart could struggle, too.