The 2021 NFL season is not far away now. Training camps are opening soon, which always heralds the start of a new season. Camp is the first time we get to see teams come together for the first time. Therefore it is always exciting to hear the reports about new players, players looking for redemption and how the coaches are preparing for September. Training camp also offers players the opportunity to grab a starters spot on the roster. The positional battles are always fascinating to follow, and here on NFL Sapient, we’re going to preview some in-house camp battles for 2021. This week, we break down the NFC North.

Chicago Bears – Justin Fields vs Andy Dalton

MIAMI GARDENS, FLORIDA – JANUARY 11: Justin Fields #1 of the Ohio State Buckeyes stands in the pocket during the College Football Playoff National Championship football game against the Alabama Crimson Tide at Hard Rock Stadium on January 11, 2021, in Miami Gardens, Florida. The Alabama Crimson Tide defeated the Ohio State Buckeyes 52-24. (Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

There is perhaps no bigger storyline in the NFC North than the quarterback position in Chicago. The Bears are a franchise whose history at quarterback is wretched; after the failed Mitch Trubisky experiment, GM Ryan Pace once again traded up to grab his next quarterback. Pace plumped for Ohio State Buckeye Justin Fields. The selection of Fields signalled new dawn in the Windy City. Now, the attention turns to Fields, head coach Matt Nagy and veteran passer Andy Dalton.

The Red Rifle is a long-time starter in the NFL; he is more than serviceable. In fact, one could argue that Dalton is more than just a fine quarterback. He experienced a good amount of success in Cincinnati, while he certainly didn’t disgrace himself as a Cowboy in 2020. Unfortunately, he isn’t the exciting option. That is Fields. The former Buckeye demonstrated poise, arm-talent and devastating accuracy in his time at Columbus.

Training camp is the first real test for Fields and how he adjusts to an NFL offence. Luckily, his Ohio head coach Ryan Day included plenty of NFL-style concepts in his offensive system. OSU smartly utilises a lot of short passing ideas in their offence. With a mediocre offensive line, both Dalton and Fields must excel in the short passing game. Dalton excels in that area; however, he is limited compared to Fields. Fields can use his legs and attack in the intermediate and deep quadrants of the field.

On the other hand, Dalton holds all the veteran moxie and experience. One of the key differentiators will be how Fields manages the offence in red-zone, two-minute drills and other high leverage situations. Can Dalton show enough IQ to adapt to Matt Nagy’s RPO-heavy offence, and can Fields demonstrate the skill to audible, check and change protections that all quarterbacks must do in the NFL. This camp battle in the NFC North will get Bears fans on their feet, and it could define the 2021 season in Chicago.

Detroit Lions – Alim Mcneill vs John Penisini

(Photo by Andy Mead/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

John Penisini was a pleasant surprise in a miserable 2020 season for the Detroit Lions. The 197th pick from the 2020 draft played a role in all 16 games, including starting 12. Penisini developed into the starting nose tackle on the defence, and he earned it:

With a solid level of success, most Lions fans felt nose tackle wasn’t a position of need. Instead, the basement boys of the NFC North opted to double-down and draft nose tackle Alim Mcneill. The NC State product is a beefy, powerful presence on the interior of the defensive line. Coordinator Aaron Glenn is committing to a 3-4 base look on defence. New GM Brad Holmes cherishes a defensive lineman that can penetrate the pocket from the inside.

That is why they drafted McNeill. Penisini is a classic run-stuffing tackle; it’s now up to him to display his pass-rushing skills in this camp battle. Michael Brockers, Levi Ownwuzurike, Trey Flowers and Romeo Okwara are starters; the starting nose tackle job will come down to which of these behemoth’s can become the wrecking ball in the middle of the trenches.

Minnesota Vikings – Irv Smith vs Tyler Conklin

 Brad Rempel / USA TODAY Sports

With Kyle Rudolph leaving in free agency, there is a gaping hole at the tight end position in Minnesota. Second-year returnee Irv Smith JR and 2018 fifth-rounder Tyler Conklin. The tight end is essential for Mike Zimmer’s team, even more so within Clint Kubiak’s offence. Minnesota loves to run the ball out of heavy personnel; Rudolph was a tough, willing blocker in the run game. He set the tone by manning his assignments dutifully. Both of these tight ends must become excellent blockers to assist the power-run game. They must also develop into an intelligent fourth-option for the quarterback on passing plays. Rudolph was perfect at leaking out into an open zone to be a safety blanket for Cousins.

Both players have pivotal roles to play, and they must hit training camp hard to impress. Smith is probably more potent at the receiving side of his game, while Conklin has historically made appearances as a blocking tight end when the Vikes are in 21 personnel. Embracing a blocking role for some tight ends is tough; Smith does not possess a build like George Kittle, therefore blocking may challenge him. No doubt that the Vikings believe in him, but if he is unwilling to play his role in the run game, Mike Zimmer won’t hesitate to make changes.

Green Bay Packers – Kevin King vs Eric Stokes

The reigning NFC North champions come into the 2021 season with questions surrounding the number two cornerback. The abiding image of last year’s NFC Championship game was that of Kevin King getting burned by Scotty Miller as Tom Brady threw a back-breaking touchdown before halftime. That play encapsulated King’s difficult 2020 season. When targeting King, opposing quarterbacks had a passer rating of 96.2. King played at a mediocre level for a team that locked up the one seed by winning the NFC North.

The Packers front office recognised this, and they sought to rectify it by drafting cornerback Eric Stokes in round one. Stokes is a phenomenal athlete, moreover, he shone at his pro day:

Stokes’ balance, speed and smooth style should translate well into the NFL when he gets tasked with defending a shifty wideout. Stokes must show in training camp that he can learn all the subtle nuances that are required. Can he go through all the hand moves from a receiver when he is at the line of scrimmage? Will he develop the ability to play the quarterback with his eyes while maintaining his concentration on the defender. The Packers clearly feel Stokes can be the long-term guy; otherwise, they wouldn’t have picked him in the first round.

Nevertheless, Stokes is a tremendous talent with the physical tools; if the Georgia alum shows the aptitude required in camp, the number two cornerback spot is there for the taking. Kevin King is what he is at this stage of his career. His trump card is the experience he owns of playing in the NFL. For Packers fans, King vs Stokes should be the biggest storyline in their pre-season program. We’ll see what happens with number 12.

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