NFC North Notes: Packers, Bears, Vikings

The injury-related retirement of Packers running back Jonathan Franklin means there are third-down snaps to be had, writes ESPN Wisconsin’s Jason Wilde in a position preview. If/when Eddie Lacy is off the field, the leading candidates are DuJuan Harris — if he can show improvement in blitz pickup — and “old reliable” fullback John Kuhn.

Here’s a few more NFC North links:

  • The Packers’ run defense fell off significantly last season, and the team made a concerted effort to get younger and more athletic along the defensive line. In fact, 28-year-old B.J. Raji is now the “old man of the line.” In the spotlight, however, is 2013 first-rounder Datone Jones, whom Press-Gazette’s Pete Dougherty calls a “critical player for meaningful improvement.” Jones sustained a sprained ankle in the preseason opener and didn’t get healthy until the end of the season. The team expects Jones to step up his game this season, as he will have significantly more responsibility than his niche role as an inside, sub-package rusher last year.
  • The Bears, who were even worse than the Packers against the run last season, also expect to have a better defensive front in 2014. A healthy Jay Ratliff is one of the reasons why. The veteran defensive tackle is 33, but is 100 percent healthy now, according to ESPN’s Michael C. Wright, who shared a text message he received from a Bears employee: “It helps that we signed Rat. He’s a soldier if healthy!” If that’s the case, it will be a coup for the Bears, who scooped up Ratliff in November for a late-season look-see after he was released by the Cowboys. Encouraged by Ratliff’s health, the Bears retained him on a team-friendly, two-year deal, expecting him to provide disruption from the three-technique.
  • Adam Jahns of the Chicago Sun-Times identified the Bears’ 10 most important players, including defensive lineman Lamarr Houston, whom the Bears see as a “star in the making.”
  • Bears head coach Marc Trestman sat down with the Chicago Tribune’s Dan Wiederer for an extensive one-on-one interview in which Trestman touched on a variety of topics, including Jay Cutler, Jared Allen, locker-room culture and leadership, among other things.
  • Vikings fourth-year tight end Kyle Rudolph, who shed 15 pounds this offseason, believes he’s an improved route runner thanks to new offensive coordinator Norv Turner, writes ESPN’s Ben Goessling.
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