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NFC NORTH


GREEN BAY PACKERS (8-8-1)


OPEN CAMP: July 26, Green Bay, Wisconsin.


LAST YEAR: Withstood injuries to QB Aaron Rodgers, LB Clay Matthews and other key players to win third straight NFC North title before losing to 49ers again in playoffs. Rookie RB Eddie Lacy emerged to complement passing game, but defense slipped in second half while Rodgers (collarbone) was sidelined. Safeties didn’t have an interception, and defense lacked big plays.


IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: DE/LB Julius Peppers; S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix; WR Davante Adams.


IMPORTANT LOSSES: WR James Jones; C Evan Dietrich-Smith.


CAMP NEEDS: Top priority is keeping team healthy. After that, coach Mike McCarthy has promised to improve defense. Playbook has been pared down in hopes of simplifying scheme and using more players while adding dose of deception. Packers looking for fourth starting center in four years. Jermichael Finley (neck) still unsigned after getting hurt in October; can Andrew Quarless take firm hold of TE position? Adams and Jarrett Boykin to be counted on to replace Jones’ reliable production.


EXPECTATIONS: Rodgers, 30, is in his prime and missed half of 2013 season. Even with injuries, Packers seemed primed for 12-win season before he went down. A full year of Rodgers and Lacy could make Green Bay even more dangerous. Another division title appears well within reach, defense must improve to make deeper run in playoffs.


CHICAGO BEARS (8-8)


OPEN CAMP: July 24, Bourbonnais, Illinois.


LAST YEAR: Bears made huge jump on offense in first season under coach Marc Trestman. Main problem was on other side of ball. With injuries and poor play in general, Chicago’s defense ranked among league’s worst, allowed next-to-worst 478 points.


IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: DEs Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young; CB Kyle Fuller; Ss Adrian Wilson, Ryan Mundy, and M.D. Jennings.


IMPORTANT LOSSES: DE Julius Peppers; DT Henry Melton; QB Josh McCown.


CAMP NEEDS: Time for an overhauled defense to come together; someone to establish himself as backup QB to Jay Cutler.


EXPECTATIONS: Most significant move was not signing Allen. It was giving Cutler seven-year contract instead of letting him hit free agency. Allen, however, is most significant addition. Bears hope five-time Pro Bowler can ignite pass rush and help stabilize unit that struggled in big way. “Monsters of the Midway” ranked 30th overall and 32nd against run. If defense can make leap to respectability, Chicago figures to challenge in division, maybe make playoff run after missing out six of past seven years. That’s assuming offense that returns all starters does not take unexpected step back.


DETROIT LIONS (7-9)


OPEN CAMP: July 27; Allen Park, Michigan.


LAST YEAR: Detroit missed playoffs after dropping six of final seven games, and coach Jim Schwartz was fired. Jim Caldwell takes over mistake-prone team that still has plenty of offensive talent. Matthew Stafford threw for 4,650 yards last season, but was intercepted 12 times in those final seven games.


IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: WR Golden Tate; S James Ihedigbo; CB Cassius Vaughn; QB Dan Orlovsky; TE Eric Ebron.


IMPORTANT LOSSES: S Louis Delmas; WR Nate Burleson; CB Chris Houston; DE Willie Young; QB Shaun Hill; K David Akers.


CAMP NEEDS: Caldwell is charged with helping Stafford refine considerable talents and avoid mistakes that plagued him during slide last year. Lions even added another offensive target for Stafford when they drafted Ebron. On defense, secondary is concern, especially with Houston and Delmas gone. Did Detroit do enough to address it?


EXPECTATIONS: After wasting great chance at playoffs last year, there’s pressure to produce under Caldwell, especially with DT Ndamukong Suh’s future with Lions in doubt as he enters final season of contract. Stafford and WR Calvin Johnson are in their primes, so this is potentially formidable offense if Lions can avoid turnovers. Suh and DT Nick Fairley combined for 11 1/2 sacks in 2013, DE Ziggy Ansah added eight.


MINNESOTA VIKINGS (5-10-1)


OPEN CAMP: July 25, Mankato, Minnesota.


LAST YEAR: Stumbled to 1-7 start with leaky secondary and persistent QB struggles, sealing fate of coach Leslie Frazier, who was fired day after season. RB Adrian Peterson fought injuries after MVP 2012 season. Allowed league-high average of 30 points per game, overshadowing second-half emergence of rookie WR Cordarrelle Patterson.


IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: Coach Mike Zimmer; QB Teddy Bridgewater; LBs Anthony Barr and Jasper Brinkley; CB Captain Munnerlyn; DT Linval Joseph; DE Corey Wootton; SS Kurt Coleman; RB Jerick McKinnon.


IMPORTANT LOSSES: DE Jared Allen; DTs Kevin Williams and Letroy Guion; RB Toby Gerhart; LB Erin Henderson; CB Chris Cook.


CAMP NEEDS: For ninth consecutive camp, since Daunte Culpepper’s last turn, QB situation is fluid. But outlook is brighter with Bridgewater and return of Matt Cassel, who was on field at end of all five 2013 wins. Must establish reliable, productive complement to Peterson. Barr, ninth overall pick, must prove he’s ready to start. Someone other than slot man Munnerlyn has to consistently cover receivers.


EXPECTATIONS: Despite dismal 2013, Vikings had lead in final minute of five games, losing four, tying one. Zimmer inherited roster with plenty of talent, and offseason moves enhanced resources. With merely modest improvement on defense, where veteran Munnerlyn ought to be major boost to young DB group, Vikings should be competitive in division Packers won last year at 8-7-1. Remember, Vikes went 10-6 in 2012 after 3-13 in 2011.


———


NFC EAST


PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (10-7)


OPEN CAMP: July 25, Philadelphia.


LAST YEAR: Went from worst to first in Chip Kelly’s first year as coach, lost first-round playoff game to New Orleans. Kelly’s fast-paced, up-tempo offense set several club records, with All-Pro RB LeSean McCoy and Pro Bowl QB Nick Foles leading way. Foles had spectacular sophomore season after filling in when Michael Vick was injured in Week 5. Defense came long way after terrible first month, but struggled in playoff loss.


IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: Ss Malcolm Jenkins and Chris Maragos; RB Darren Sproles; CB Nolan Carroll; LB Marcus Smith; QB Mark Sanchez; WRs Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff.


IMPORTANT LOSSES: WR DeSean Jackson; QB coach Bill Lazor.


CAMP NEEDS: Find way to replace Jackson and RT Lane Johnson. Jackson, three-time Pro Bowler, team’s best deep threat and most accomplished receiver was released in March, signed with Washington. Jeremy Maclin, who missed last year with ACL injury, returns and should help. Rookies Matthews and Huff also will be counted on to fill void. Johnson, No. 4 overall pick in 2013, suspended for first four regular-season games for violating NFL’s PEDs policy.


EXPECTATIONS: Eagles should enter season as team to beat in NFC East. But key to success is largely dependent on whether Foles is the real thing. Foles threw 29 touchdowns and only two interceptions in 11 starts, including playoffs, and had third-highest passer rating (119.2) in NFL history. Defense needs to show improvement for the Eagles to be legitimate Super Bowl contenders.


DALLAS COWBOYS (8-8)


OPEN CAMP: July 24, Oxnard, California.


LAST YEAR: Cowboys finished third straight 8-8 season with third consecutive loss in finale against NFC East foe with playoff berth on line. Eagles beat them in 2013.


IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: OL Zack Martin; DE DeMarcus Lawrence; DTs Henry Melton and Terrell McClain; passing game coordinator Scott Linehan.


IMPORTANT LOSSES: LB Sean Lee; DE DeMarcus Ware; DT Jason Hatcher.


CAMP NEEDS: Top priority is replacement for MLB Lee (torn ACL); is that player on roster? Justin Durant enters camp as starter, fourth-round pick Anthony Hitchens and second-year player DeVonte Holloman also in mix. QB Tony Romo enters camp without having worked any competitive situations for second straight offseason, but he’s much further along with latest back issue. Overhaul of defensive line kicks into high gear, with rookie second-rounder Lawrence possible heir to Ware, free agent Melton trying to show he’s recovered from knee surgery.


EXPECTATIONS: Cowboys are without two best players from defense that was worst in league and gave up most yards in franchise history, so hard to imagine anything better than another 8-8. With coach Jason Garrett in final year of contract, anything less than postseason berth could mean Jerry Jones is looking for eighth head coach in 25 years as owner. Dallas had one head coach (Tom Landry) in franchise’s first 29 years.


NEW YORK GIANTS (7-9)


OPEN CAMP: July 21, East Rutherford, New Jersey.


LAST YEAR: Began season losing six games, eliminating chances for playoffs. Defense got stronger with addition of LB Jon Beason, but offense was sporadic as Eli Manning led NFL with 27 interceptions and had meager 69.4 QB rating. Running game sputtered because of injuries, inconsistent line.


IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: CBs Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Walter Thurmond and Zack Bowman; DE Robert Ayers; LB Jameel McClain; RB Rashad Jennings; OLs Geoff Schwartz, John Jerry and J.D. Walton; WRs Odell Beckham Jr., and Mario Manningham; KR Trindon Holliday.


IMPORTANT LOSSES: DE Justin Tuck; OL Kevin Boothe; WR Hakeem Nicks; DT Linval Joseph; offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride.


CAMP NEEDS: Get Manning back on track and familiar with deeper corps of receivers, and comfortable with new coordinator Ben McAdoo’s schemes. See if Jennings can carry load as top RB, and if David Wilson can return from neck injury. Solidify OL. Find out when Beason can return from right foot injury and seek his replacements just in case.


EXPECTATIONS: Hopes remain high after going 7-3 following horrendous start. But there are lots of new faces on Tom Coughlin’s roster, and it could take time for everything to jell. Still, NFC East has no dominant team, so Giants will be thinking playoffs from outset.


WASHINGTON REDSKINS (3-13)


OPEN CAMP: July 23, Richmond, Virginia.


LAST YEAR: Tension between coach Mike Shanahan and franchise QB Robert Griffin III imploded into worst record since 1994. Season ended with eight-game losing streak, with Shanahan making one last power play by benching Griffin for final three games. Shanahan was fired and replaced by rookie NFL head coach Jay Gruden.


IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: Gruden; WRs DeSean Jackson and Andre Roberts; DE Jason Hatcher; S Ryan Clark; Gs Shawn Lauvao and Spencer Long; CB Tracy Porter; LB Trent Murphy; OT Morgan Moses.


IMPORTANT LOSSES: LB London Fletcher; CB Josh Wilson; WR Joshua Morgan; C Will Montgomery; S Reed Doughty; TE Fred Davis.


CAMP NEEDS: Learn Gruden’s offense. Get Hatcher (left knee surgery) healthy. Find out if Clark, who turns 35 in October, can still play. Get a gauge on how soon draft picks Moses and Long will be ready to start. Stamp out any and all residual bad feelings from Shanahan era.


EXPECTATIONS: Gruden is new coach, but franchise revolves around Griffin, who has talent to lead team to a championship. It will be intriguing to see how he handles leadership role with Shanahan gone. There’s no shortage of offensive talent around him — Jackson, WR Pierre Garcon, RB Alfred Morris, TE Jordan Reed — but defense has its questions marks. It’s long way back from 3-13, but Redskins should at least take steps in right direction.


———


NFC SOUTH


CAROLINA PANTHERS (12-5)


OPEN CAMP: July 26, Wofford College, Spartanburg, South Carolina.


LAST YEAR: Won NFC South and earned first-round bye, but lost at home to San Francisco in divisional playoffs. Coach Ron Rivera got extension.


IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: WRs Kelvin Benjamin, Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant, and Tiquan Underwood; TE Ed Dickson; CB Antoine Cason; Ss Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud; DE Kony Ealy.


IMPORTANT LOSSES: WRs Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn Jr.; LT Jordan Gross; G Geoff Hangartner; CBs Captain Munnerlyn and CB Drayton Florence; S Mike Mitchell.


CAMP NEEDS: Getting QB Cam Newton healthy following offseason ankle surgery; he should be ready to go for camp. Newton has new group of receivers, so developing chemistry is priority. Secondary remains question with potentially three new starters in Cason, Harper and DeCoud. Offensive line is young, team needs stability at left tackle and both guard spots.


EXPECTATIONS: Panthers are looking to make playoffs in back-to-back seasons for first time, which won’t be easy given free agent departures. If Panthers are to be successful, they need to develop cohesiveness quickly on offense.


NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (11-5)


OPEN CAMP: July 24, White Sulphur Spring, West Virginia


LAST YEAR: Coach Sean Payton returned from one-year bounty ban and Saints went to playoffs for fourth time in five seasons, also won first road playoff game in franchise history in Philadelphia. Drew Brees eclipsed 5,000 yards passing and passed for at least 39 TDs for third straight season. Rob Ryan joined as defensive coordinator and improved New Orleans’ ranking from last to fourth. Saints’ season ended in divisional round at eventual Super Bowl champion Seattle.


IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: S Jairus Byrd; CBs Champ Bailey and Stanley Jean-Baptiste; FB Erik Lorig; C Jonathan Goodwin; WR Brandin Cooks.


IMPORTANT LOSSES: RB Darren Sproles; WR Lance Moore; FB Jed Collins; C Brian De La Puente; DE Will Smith; CB Jabari Greer; Ss Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper.


CAMP NEEDS: There appears competition for at least two receiver spots, possibly three if veteran Marques Colston fades. Cooks and Kenny Stills appear favorites for those spots. Payton also will be looking for players with speed and versatility to fill kick-returning and scatback roles handled by Sproles in past three seasons.


EXPECTATIONS: With additions of Byrd and Bailey and return of nearly all productive players from 2013 on both sides of ball, Saints expect to look like legitimate title contender by end of training camp.


TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (4-12)


OPEN CAMP: July 25, Tampa, Florida.


LAST YEAR: Season began with expectations of contending for playoffs quickly spiraled out of control. Outbreak of MRSA infection in locker room preceded early demotion and subsequent release of quarterback Josh Freeman. Addition of star CB Darrelle Revis didn’t help defense much, offense sputtered with rookie QB Mike Glennon, finishing 30th in scoring, last in passing and total yardage. Nonstop chaos claimed jobs of coach Greg Schiano (11-21 in two seasons) and GM Mark Dominik.


IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: Coach Lovie Smith; defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier; offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford; QB Josh McCown; DE Michael Johnson; WRs Mike Evans and Louis Murphy; CB Alterraun Verner; OT Anthony Collins; C Evan Dietrich-Smith; DT Clinton McDonald; TEs Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Brandon Myers; RB Charles Sims.


IMPORTANT LOSSES: CB Darrelle Revis; WR Mike Williams; OT Donald Penn; G Davin Joseph; C Jeremy Zuttah; LB Dekoda Watson.


CAMP NEEDS: New coaching staff also means new offensive and defensive systems. Smith is counting on McCown, career backup coming off best season (in Chicago), to take charge, help transition of draft picks Evans, Seferian-Jenkins and Sims from college, and instill confidence in unit that also figures to include three new line starters.


EXPECTATIONS: Bucs haven’t made playoffs since 2007, but Smith insists he isn’t beginning rebuilding project. He believes McCown can be consistent QB lacking for more than decade, and that personnel changes he and first-year GM Jason Licht made will meld with holdovers Gerald McCoy, Lavonte David, Mark Barron, Dashon Goldson, Doug Martin and Vincent Jackson.


ATLANTA FALCONS (4-12)


OPEN CAMP: July 25, Flowery Branch, Georgia.


LAST YEAR: Ended streak of five straight winning seasons with coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan. Slowed by string of injuries, team finished last in rushing and next to last against run. Ryan couldn’t carry team with arm alone, especially after star receiver Julio Jones broke his foot and Roddy White was slowed by ankle and hamstring injuries.


IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: WR/KR Devin Hester; OGs Jon Asamoah and Gabe Carimi; CB Javier Arenas; OT Jake Matthews; DEs Tyson Jackson and Ra’Shede Hageman; RB Devonta Freeman; LB Prince Shembo; DT Paul Soliai; QB T.J. Yates; S Dwight Lowery; OL coach Mike Tice and DL coach Bryan Cox.


IMPORTANT LOSSES: TE Tony Gonzalez; CB Asante Samuel; LBs Sean Weatherspoon, Akeem Dent and Stephen Nicholas; RB Jason Snelling; S Thomas DeCoud; OL Garrett Reynolds; FB Bradie Ewing; QB Dominique Davis.


CAMP NEEDS: They finished 2013 with 11 players on injured reserve, need to keep injuries from being prominent story line for HBO’s “Hard Knocks.” Jones, held out of minicamp, is trying to return to 2012 Pro Bowl form. RT Matthews, first-round pick, is expected to start on line that needs LT Sam Baker back at full strength after missing 12 games in 2013 (knee). Defense is shifting toward 3-4 base look, which means new responsibilities at outside linebacker for ends Osi Umenyiora, Kroy Biermann, Jonathan Massaquoi and Stansly Maponga.


EXPECTATIONS: Return to playoffs is Atlanta’s goal, a big jump from 4-12. Falcons are off to bad start with Weatherspoon rupturing his Achilles tendon while working under supervision of trainers. Ryan no longer has superstar TE Gonzalez, but passing game can still flourish if Jones and White are healthy, and Matthews and Asamoah hold down right side of line.


———


NFC WEST


SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (16-3)


OPEN CAMP: July 25, Renton, Washington.


LAST YEAR: Seattle won first Super Bowl title with 43-8 dismantling of Denver. Had best defense in NFL led by All-Pros Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas. Seahawks got another standout season from RB Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson continued progression toward elite quarterback. Matched franchise record for regular-season victories (13), won six times away from Seattle.


IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: DT Kevin Williams; QB Terrelle Pryor; WRs Kevin Norwood and Paul Richardson; DE Cassius Marsh; OT Justin Britt.


IMPORTANT LOSSES: DEs Chris Clemons and Red Bryant; DT Clinton McDonald; CB Walter Thurmond; G Paul McQuistan; OT Breno Giacomini; WR Golden Tate.


CAMP NEEDS: Not much for champs to solve. Defensive line depth took hit in free agency, but Seattle has young talent that rarely saw the field last season. Deciding starter at OLB between Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith and Bruce Irvin. Finding WR depth behind Percy Harvin and Doug Baldwin. RT and LG will be positions to watch on offensive line.


EXPECTATIONS: Expectations haven’t changed. Now, narrative has gone from whether Seattle is legit Super Bowl contender to can Seahawks be first team in a decade to repeat? Locked up Sherman and Thomas with lucrative extensions. Wilson should continue to improve and offense has impressive speed with Harvin healthy and addition of Richardson. Only lingering concern is whether Lynch’s desire for reworked contract will become distraction. Otherwise, Seahawks are favored in NFC.


SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (14-5)


OPEN CAMP: July 24, Santa Clara, California.


LAST YEAR: 49ers made third straight trip to NFC title game but fell just short of return trip to Super Bowl when Colin Kaepernick threw interception in end zone in final minute of 23-17 loss at Seattle.


IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: WRs Brandon Lloyd and Stevie Johnson; RB Carlos Hyde; DB Jimmie Ward; S Antoine Bethea; CB Chris Cook; QB Blaine Gabbert; OL Jonathan Martin.


IMPORTANT LOSSES: S Donte Whitner; CBs Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers; OL Jonathan Goodwin.


CAMP NEEDS: Face questions at linebacker, where All-Pro NaVorro Bowman could miss half-season recovering from knee injury suffered in NFC title game. Pass rusher Aldon Smith could face a suspension (and jail time) for off-field troubles. 49ers also have to deal with disgruntled veterans TE Vernon Davis and OL Alex Boone, who both skipped entire offseason program as they seek new contracts.


EXPECTATIONS: 49ers open their $1.2 billion stadium this season with hopes of adding that sixth Super Bowl title that has been so close in first three seasons under coach Jim Harbaugh. Kaepernick has extension, also has more receiving options with additions of Johnson and Lloyd, a healthy Michael Crabtree, as well Anquan Boldin and Davis when he reports. Offense might have to shoulder bigger load with Bowman sidelined and stalwart DL Justin Smith starting to show signs of aging at 34. Hovering over everything: Harbaugh’s status as he seeks lucrative extension before entering final year of his deal in 2015.


ARIZONA CARDINALS (10-6)


OPEN CAMP: July 25, Glendale, Arizona.


LAST YEAR: In Bruce Arians’ first season as coach, compiled best record since 2009, failed to reach playoffs in tough NFC West. Defense dominated, most significantly in 17-10 late-season victory at eventual Super Bowl champion Seattle. Offense, with Carson Palmer still learning Arians’ intricate system, improved over last half of schedule, led by dynamic rookie RB Andre Ellington, receiving duo of Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd.


IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: OT Jared Veldheer; CB Antonio Cromartie; ILB Larry Foote; TE John Carlson; SS Deone Bucannon.


IMPORTANT LOSSES: ILBs Daryl Washington and Karlos Dansby; RB Rashard Mendenhall; G Daryn Colledge; WR Andre Roberts; LB Matt Shaughnessy; S Yeremiah Bell.


CAMP NEEDS: Washington and Dansby were heart of defense that ranked sixth, but Washington suspended for year for violating NFL substance abuse policy. Dansby departed via free agency. Second-year pro Kevin Minter, who played one down on defense last season, is penciled in at one spot. Other seems to be open competition. Also competition at RG, RT and TE. Cardinals plan expanded role for Ellington as feature back. Also are looking for third receiver to replace Roberts.


EXPECTATIONS: Cardinals are thinking playoffs, but need better record than 2-4 within division of 2014.


ST. LOUIS RAMS (7-9)


OPEN CAMP: July 25, St. Louis.


LAST YEAR: Although end result was seven wins again, coach Jeff Fisher’s second season further distanced franchise from five-year nadir. QB Sam Bradford’s season-ending knee injury in Week 7 forced emphasis on ground game, and fifth-round pick Zac Stacy just missed 1,000 yards. DE Robert Quinn had franchise-record 19 sacks for defense overly dependent on pass rush to mask deficiencies in secondary.


IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: WR Kenny Britt; OL Greg Robinson; DT Aaron Donald; RB Tre Mason; DE Michael Sam; defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.


IMPORTANT LOSSES: CB Cortland Finnegan; G Chris Williams; QB Kellen Clemens.


CAMP NEEDS: Bradford and LT Jake Long, also coming off knee surgery, will be eased into mix. Robinson, who starred at left tackle for Auburn’s national runner-up, was second overall pick, but begins NFL career at guard. Ultra-aggressive coordinator Williams will begin to put his stamp on defense.


EXPECTATIONS: Fisher and GM Les Snead deserve kudos for making Rams trail blazers as first NFL team to draft openly gay player, Sam, a move that figures to build unity. Rebuilding plan fueled by Robert Griffin III trade produced bevy of young starters; franchise could be is ready to post first winning season since 2003, although competition is rugged in NFC West.


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