NFL

NFL training camp 2019: NFC North preview

By Sports Desk July 17, 2019

The NFC North might just be the strongest division in the NFL.

It was the Chicago Bears who surprisingly took the division title in 2018 as the league's stingiest defense helped first-time head coach Matt Nagy make an immediate impact.

The Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers took steps back but, given the wealth of talent on the two teams, it would not be surprising if either or both made deep playoff runs this time around, while most of Chicago's roster remains intact.

Here is the outlook for the NFC North heading into training camp:

TEAM ON THE RISE

Green Bay Packers

Surely the only way is up for a Packers team coming off back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since 1992? Aaron Rodgers will have extra motivation to prove it was former coach Mike McCarthy and not the quarterback that was the problem in Titletown. The defense already had a fine young core in Jaire Alexander, Blake Martinez and Kenny Clark. Throw in first-round picks Rashan Gary and Darnell Savage, and free-agency acquisitions Za'Darius Smith, Preston Smith and Adrian Amos, and Mike Pettine's unit has top-10 potential.

That, coupled with some typical Rodgers magic, should be enough for the Pack to get back on track under new coach Matt LaFleur.

TEAM ON THE DECLINE

Detroit Lions

The other NFC North teams enter the 2019 season all with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations, leaving the Lions as the odd ones out. Detroit finished 6-10 in Matt Patricia's debut campaign — losing seven of nine before a meaningless Week 17 clash with Green Bay — and the dip may get sharper in 2019. 

Patricia's old-school methods reportedly rubbed some the wrong way and the murmurs of discontent will only grow louder if Detroit cannot get off to a good start, with the Los Angeles Chargers, Philadelphia Eagles, Kansas City Chiefs, Packers and Vikings all on the schedule in a tricky opening six-game stretch. Then there is quarterback Matthew Stafford, who threw for a paltry 3,777 yards across 16 starts in 2018. At 31, he is running out of time to prove he can take the next step.

ROOKIES TO WATCH

T.J. Hockenson, TE, Lions: Former Patriots defensive coordinator Patricia saw in New England how a do-it-all tight end can transform an offense and Detroit drafted Hockenson eighth overall in the hope he could have a Rob Gronkowski-like impact in the Motor City. Only one Lions receiver — Kenny Golladay (1,063 yards) — accrued more than 517 receiving yards in 2018 and Levine Toilolo (263 yards) led all tight ends so Hockenson should provide an immediate upgrade.

David Montgomery, RB, Bears: Having traded Jordan Howard to the Eagles before the draft, Chicago moved up in the third round to pick Montgomery, an elusive back seemingly more suited to Nagy's offense. Tarik Cohen will once again provide the pizzazz outside the tackles but Montgomery can do plenty of damage inside for a team that had the sixth-most rushing attempts in 2018. If Kyler Murray doesn't live up to the hype, Montgomery might walk, or run, away with the Rookie of the Year prize for a Bears team likely to lean on the rush again given Mitchell Trubisky's limitations.

PLAYER SPOTLIGHT

Kirk Cousins

He was supposed to be the man to push the Vikings over the hump but Minnesota missed the playoffs in 2018 after reaching the NFC championship game in the campaign before. Cousins begins the second season of a three-year, $84million, fully guaranteed contract desperate to prove he can be spectacular, and not just steady, and Minnesota has to find a way to better protect a QB who was sacked 40 times in 2018. In Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, Cousins has arguably the best wide receiver tandem in the NFL. If the offensive line can hold up, he has no excuses.

KEY INJURIES

Dalvin Cook, knee and hamstring: Cousins' life will become a lot easier if Minnesota's star running back can stay healthy. Cook has missed 17 games over his first two seasons in the league but has flashed plenty of ability in his time on the field. The Vikings brought in Gary Kubiak to aid their offense this season and Cook figures to thrive in his zone-blocking scheme if he can put his injury troubles behind him.

Kerryon Johnson, knee: Rookie Johnson snapped Detroit's 70-game streak of not having a 100-yard rusher, and he might have become their first 1,000-yard rusher since Reggie Bush in 2013 had a knee injury not ended his campaign prematurely. Heading into his second season, the Lions need Johnson to pick up where he left off as he will be the focus of the ground attack in an offense that might be one of the more run-oriented in the entire NFL.

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    The week comes to an end with devastating news for two teams.

    Both the New York Jets and Los Angeles Chargers have lost defensive stars to injury, and while it will not happen just yet, some offenses could look a lot different this time next year.

    One offense already will.

    Those stories and more in Friday's edition of NFL News and Notes.

     

    Three things that matter

    Defenses deteriorating due to injury

    A couple of teams took losses to their defensive units. Some, of course, are worse than others with season-ending injuries. Others could resume their duties sometime after the regular season begins on September 5. But the dwindling defenses should still be a cause for concern against the offensive powerhouses across the league.

    Two of the biggest losses came on opposite ends of the country. The Jets will be without veteran linebacker Avery Williamson after he tore his anterior cruciate ligament on Thursday, while the Chargers will miss all-pro safety Derwin James for a "significant amount of time" after suffering a foot injury in practice the same day.

    It is yet another blow to the Chargers who have already seen injuries to their defense (safety Nasir Adderley and cornerback Trevor Williams) and offense in wide receiver Keenan Allen. 

    Another aging star set to address contract

    It seems like Father Time has yet to catch up to Tom Brady, who will play out his contract with the New England Patriots. But another quarterback joins Brady in the final year of his own deal. Philip Rivers will reportedly address his status with the Chargers after the 2019 season.

    Both parties have agreed to wait to address a new deal, and according general manager Tom Telesco everyone is "on the same page."

    This matters because unlike Brady, Rivers has struggled to put together long playoff runs — something that might factor into a new deal. The 37-year-old signal-caller has admitted playing this far into a career does not have the same guarantees.

    "I think when you get to this point, you do take it one year at a time," Rivers said during training camp. "But I do expect to be playing here next year, that is the expectation. But when you're 37, you say, 'OK, let's focus on this year.' Then, 'Let's focus on next year.' Take them one at a time."

    This surely matters for the Los Angeles offense — now, with postseason success this year being a motivating factor.

    Patriots offense had a big boost

    Josh Gordon has been reinstated by the NFL after he was suspended indefinitely in December for violating the terms of his reinstatement under the league's substance abuse policy.

    The Patriots receiver will be back on a conditional basis and will not be eligible to play next week, but his return comes at the right time.

    New England's offense has been struggling with injuries as Julian Edelman (non-football injury) and Demaryius Thomas (physically unable to perform) have yet to suit up. 

    A healthy Gordon is just what the Patriots need. 

    He caught 41 passes for 737 yards and four touchdowns for the team last year after being traded to New England before the start of the season.

    Two things that don't matter

    NFL tries to explain controversial offensive pass inference call​

    Another season, another long list of botched calls ahead. 

    It starts with a controversial offensive pass interference call on Thursday.

    In the fourth quarter of the Cincinnati Bengals-Washington Redskins exhibition game, an OPI was called on Washington receiver Kelvin Harmon when he jumped and reached back for an underthrown pass over Cincinnati defensive back Davontae Harris. The call, however, was because Harmon supposedly pushed off Harris near the 50-yard line — which is outside the view of the camera angle. The Redskins challenged the call, but it was upheld.

    The official NFL Officiating Twitter account later explained why the call was not overturned. 

    "The on-field officials called OPI for a push off by WAS 13 at the 50-yard line, well before he jumped to catch the ball," the statement read. "There was no clear and obvious visual evidence from the available broadcast video that the ruling was incorrect, so the on-field ruling stands.

    "Coaches video, not available on the game broadcast, showed that CIN 35 was off balance after contact by WAS 13, which is why offensive pass interference was called on the field.​"

    Why this doesn't matter? Because it is always going to happen.

    Don't expect to see stars soon

    Preseason is not meant for the stars. It is a time where rosters are set and position players battle to make a name for themselves. It is why the Green Bay Packers will likely not play Aaron Rodgers over the next couple of weeks and also why Cam Newton still has yet to show off his hopefully healed arm.

    Another thing that does not matter? Preseason records. It is why first-year Matt LaFleur is not necessarily concerned with quarterback Rodgers seeing the field and it also explains Newton's absence. 

    "I think we'd like to see him, but you're talking about a veteran quarterback that's played a lot of football," LaFleur said Thursday after the Packers' 26-13 loss to the Baltimore Ravens. "I don't think it's a necessity, but it's certainly something that we'd like to see."

    The Carolina Panthers are taking a similar approach. While Newton may want to show off his new throwing motion, something Buffalo Bills defensive back Captain Munnerlyn (and member of the Panthers in 2018) told reporters is like "night and day" from previous seasons, he will have to wait.

    The Panthers do not want to risk any unnecessary damage, and rightfully so.

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    Friday's tweet of the day

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    The touchdown was called back due to an illegal block, but it earned praise from Rodgers and gave us one of Friday's best social media moments: Jackson hurdling over just about anything.

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    A decade on, with the eight-time Olympic champion now retired, that world-record time still stands.

    At just 22, the Jamaican obliterated a mark he had set exactly one year earlier at the Olympics in Beijing, shaving more than a tenth of a second of the time.

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    One of the biggest misconceptions of Bolt was that, due to his 6ft 5in frame, he was a slow starter. Not true, says Weyand. Particularly on that night in Germany when only Dwain Chambers was ahead of him after the first few strides.

    "The most unusual thing was how well he was able to start for somebody as big as he is," Weyand explained.

    "Normally the people that accelerate and get out of the blocks very quickly tend to be the shorter sprinters. The physics and biology of acceleration favours smaller people. In 2009, I think he started as well as anybody in that race. The start was a differentiator."

    Long legs = more force

    Though his height may have given him a slight disadvantage out of the blocks, Bolt's frame came in handy once the race opened up, allowing him to generate more power in the short steps sprinters take.

    "What limits how fast a sprinter can go is how much force they can get down in the really short periods of time they have to do it," Weyand said.

    "If you're going faster, the only way to do what you need to do to pop your body back up with a shorter contact time is to put down more force. What all elite sprinters do is put down more force in relation to their body mass than people who aren't as fast.

    "If you're Bolt and you're 6ft 5in, you have a longer leg and you have more forgiveness. He probably has six, seven, eight milliseconds more on the ground.

    "You have to put down a peak force of about five times body weight and that needs to happen in three hundredths of a second after your foot comes down.

    "He was so athletic and so tall. His long legs gave him more time on the ground."

    Fewer strides, greater success

    Believe it or not, sprinters cannot maintain their top speed for the entire 100m. Bolt, who also holds the 200m world record, had another advantage in that he needed fewer strides to cover the distances.

    "He had 41 steps usually [over 100m] and the other guys are 44, 45, some of the shorter ones are up in the high 40s," Weyand added.

    "Particularly over 200 metres, the step numbers are directly related to fatiguing. If you go through fewer steps and fewer intense muscular contractions to put force into the ground, you have a fatigue-sparing effect."

    Unique, but not perfect

    Given he was able to accelerate out of the blocks quickly – relatively for his height – and was able to use his frame to generate more force across fewer strides, Bolt might have looked like the perfect sprinter.

    But Weyand argued: "You can make a case that Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce is the best female sprinter ever and she's 5ft tall.

    "There are trade-offs in terms of being forceful when you accelerate versus having more contact time at your top-end speed."

    Will Bolt's WR ever be broken?

    No current athlete looks close to eclipsing Bolt's time in the near future, but that does not mean his record time will stand forever.

    In 2008, marathon runner and biology professor Mark Denny conducted research and predicted the fastest possible time a male sprinter could run is 9.48secs.

    "Nothing's ever perfect, Bolt's obviously a unique athlete but no race is perfect and no set of circumstances are perfect," Weyand said.

    "Certainly faster than 9.58 [is possible] but that's a question that's hard to answer without being pretty speculative."

    The only thing that is certain is for now – as has been the case for the previous 10 years too – the title of 'the fastest man on earth' belongs to Bolt.

  • Manchester City v Tottenham: The rise and rise of Kane and Sterling Manchester City v Tottenham: The rise and rise of Kane and Sterling

    Manchester City take on Tottenham in an early-season Premier League blockbuster on Saturday, pitting two of English football's surest things against one another.

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    The fact City's 5-0 rout of West Ham featured a hat-trick from Raheem Sterling also felt somewhat par for the course.

    Two leading lights in Gareth Southgate's England team, Kane and Sterling have operated at an increasingly prolific level over recent seasons – something that undoubtedly bodes well for the Three Lions with Euro 2020 on the horizon.

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    2014-15

    After doing his time in the loan ranks, Kane flourished during Mauricio Pochettino's first season in charge at Spurs. His 21 goals placed him second behind Sergio Aguero in the Golden Boot standings. Add in four assists and Kane averaged a goal involvement every 103 minutes.

    The year after Liverpool's close-shave in a title race with City (sound familiar?), Sterling chipped in with seven goals and seven assists – a goal involvement every 218 minutes as Brendan Rodgers' Anfield tenure ran into problems and speculation mounted over the winger's future.

    2015-16

    Sterling sealed an acrimonious move to City and endured a mixed campaign. Six goals and just two assists meant his goal involvement average dropped to 241 minutes.

    Kane, meanwhile, was going from strength to strength as he claimed the first of back-to-back Golden Boots.

    He only supplemented his 25 goals with a solitary assist, however, for a goal involvement every 130 minutes. This placed him below Leicester City's title-winning heroes Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez in the overall league standings for goals and assists.

     

    2016-17

    Kane bolstered his all-round game and hit a sublime level as Spurs spent a large chunk of the campaign as Chelsea's most credible title challengers. He hit 29 goals and seven assists, giving him the most goal involvements in the division – two ahead of Alexis Sanchez – at an astonishing average of one every 70 minutes.

    Sterling scored seven and set up six for a goal involvement every 193 minutes. But Pep Guardiola was in town and things were heading in the right direction.

     

    2017-18

    City stormed to the title with a record-breaking haul of 100 points, made possible by a succession of crucial late strikes by Sterling. He doubled his previous best Premier League campaign to finish with 18 goals, while 11 assists meant he was involved in a goal every 89 minutes.

    That edged Kane's average of 96, but 30 goals and two assists meant the Spurs star hit greater numbers overall, before collecting the World Cup Golden Boot playing in an England attack alongside Sterling that reached the semi-finals of Russia 2018.

    2018-19

    Sterling and City retained their remarkable levels of consistency to go back-to-back, the 24-year-old scoring 17 and laying on a further 10. His 27 goal involvements were the fifth-best in the division.

    Despite an injury-interrupted campaign, Kane also scored 17 times and assisted four. His excellent goal involvement average of 116 minutes was shy of Sterling's superb 103.

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