Despite missing four games last season, Matt Forte managed to tally 1,487 yards of total offense for the Bears. (AP)
If the Bears can get healthy again in 2012 and the Vikings can take a few steps forward, the NFC North might be able to stake a strong claim as the NFL's best division. It was in the running in 2011, despite Chicago's late-season face plant and Minnesota's 3-13 finish.
The Packers, with Aaron Rodgers and a host of weapons around him, are not going anywhere. There's also every reason to believe the Lions are here to stay for awhile, what with Matthew Stafford slinging the ball all over the field.
Will this offseason help Detroit, Chicago and Minnesota close the gap on Green Bay or will the Packers reassert their standing atop the division? We'll see how the chips fall, but for now, let's take a look at the decisions facing the NFC North teams in free agency:
• Key free agents: TE Kellen Davis, RB Matt Forte, DB Corey Graham, QBs Caleb Hanie/Josh McCown, DE Israel Idonije, DB Tim Jennings, WR Roy Williams
• Players Chicago needs back: Davis; Forte; Jennings
The Bears absolutely cannot afford to lose Forte, so they'll utilize the franchise tag on him if they can't reach a deal with him. That will result in a big salary-cap hit, but Forte's in line for a massive contract anyway after how he's performed over his first four seasons in the league.
Could Chicago upgrade over Davis and Jennings? Probably -- and the Bears may try to do that. Davis, though, was extremely underutilized in Mike Martz's scheme and might be a sleeper pick to excel under new offensive coordinator Mike Tice. He's a useful blocker and could develop into a fine red-zone target. Jennings, meanwhile, played better than most people will give him credit for in 2011. Chicago may not want him starting 15 games at cornerback again, but the Bears could do worse.
• Players Chicago should let walk: Idonije; Williams
Idonije turned in a strong 2010 playing opposite Julius Peppers on Chicago's D-line but he had just five sacks in 2011. That's not enough when Peppers is attracting as much attention as he does. Idonije will turn 32 during next season, so Chicago should opt to get younger and better here.
Williams has been remarkably consistent at being mediocre over the past four seasons. His catch totals since 2008: 36, 38, 37, 37.
• Outlook: Assuming some freak occurrence doesn't unleash Forte onto the free-agent market, the Bears look to be in decent shape, both from a continuity standpoint and in their salary-cap situation. A few upgrades here and there could put them right back in the hunt in 2011.
• Key free agents: DE Cliff Avril, OT Jeff Backus, DT Sammie Lee Hill (restricted), QB Shaun Hill, LB DeAndre Levy (restricted), RBs Maurice Morris/Kevin Smith, LB Stephen Tulloch, DB Eric Wright
• Players Detroit needs back: Avril; Backus; S. Lee Hill; Levy; Tulloch
Detroit has some pretty key pieces about to hit the market, so there's work to be done in the Motor City. Avril, whether it's via a long-term deal or the franchise tag, should be the Lions' top target for a 2012 return. He has developed into a ferocious pass-rusher and should continue to thrive with Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and others eating up blockers inside.
Levy and Tulloch represent 2/3 of Detroit's starting linebacking corps. Levy struggled at times after sliding from the middle to an outside spot, but Tulloch was arguably Detroit's most consistent defender outside of Avril.
Backus is 34 and tore his biceps in Detroit's playoff loss, so you could understand why the franchise would keep its eyes open for other options. But in terms of what the Lions currently have, he's definitely the best choice on the left side.
• Players Detroit should let walk: Morris; Wright
The Lions asked a lot of Wright, and while he turned in four picks in 16 starts, he was mostly overmatched. Morris has been a valuable backup for three seasons, but Smith should be a higher priority for Detroit.
• Outlook: All those high draft picks in recent years have hamstrung the Lions' salary-cap situation. They're projected to be right up against the 2012 cap number, so they will try to restructure some deals -- but a few difficult decisions likely loom.
Green Bay Packers
• Key free agents: QB Matt Flynn, RB Ryan Grant, TE Jermichael Finley, OL Scott Wells
• Players Green Bay needs back: Wells
Few teams in the NFL are in as solid shape this offseason as the Packers, who have a little money to spend and will return the majority of their roster. Wells is the one loss that might set Green Bay back a bit. Despite the Pack's offensive line taking a lot of heat, Wells had a strong enough 2011 to earn a Pro Bowl bid. He's equally adept against the pass and the run.
Losing him would not be the end of the world for the Packers, but it certainly would be a blow.
• Players Green Bay should let walk: Grant; Finley
Grant started 14 games this season, but after suffering a season-ending injury in 2010, he just doesn't have it anymore. James Starks may not be the long-term answer at running back for Green Bay, but he's more of a threat right now than Grant.
Finley has to be one of the more frustrating players in the NFL. As tight ends take over around the league, Finley continues to be one of the more talented players at the position. But he's an inconsistent as they come -- he dropped 12 balls in 2011 and struggled as a blocker in the run game. Green Bay could find a cheaper option with a similar skill set.
• Outlook: Just eight Packers are in line to hit free agency: Howard Green, Erik Walden, Patrick Lee and Jarrett Bush plus the four mentioned above. Of those, Flynn will command the most interest, thanks in no small part to his Week 17 dismantling of Detroit. The Packers would love to keep him, but it doesn't seem to be financially viable. Bringing Wells back would be huge for 2012, but he's the only guy that should be on Green Bay's must-have list.
• Key free agents: S Husain Abdullah, LB E.J. Henderson, LB Erin Henderson, DB Benny Sapp, TE Visanthe Shiancoe
• Players Minnesota needs back: Abdullah; Erin Henderson
At some point the Vikings need to upgrade over Abdullah, who briefly looked like he might be headed for retirement at age 26 because of concussion issues. He's nothing spectacular at the safety position, but he can at least provide Minnesota with an experienced veteran in the defensive backfield.
Henderson's brother, E.J., had bigger numbers in 2011 as Minnesota's middle linebacker, but the ceiling is much higher for the younger Erin. Given a chance to start for the first time last season, Erin Henderson picked up 70 tackles and proved himself to be a stout run defender. Especially if E.J. leaves in free agency, Erin's presence will be needed.
• Players Minnesota should let walk: E.J. Henderson; Shiancoe
Three years removed from a gruesome leg injury, E.J. Henderson topped 100 tackles again. But he will be 32 before the 2012 season starts and seems to have lost a step or two. Turning the middle over to Jasper Brinkley would save Minnesota some money and help the team get quicker.
Plain and simple, there's no reason for the Vikings to bring back the 31-year-old Shiancoe. They have a rising tight end on their roster in Kyle Rudolph (who may already be a more dangerous weapon than Shiancoe), and Shiancoe's gotten worse and worse as a blocker.
The Vikings have a 17 free agents, not counting Jimmy Kleinsasser, who's expected to retire. When you look at the list, it doesn't seem to feature too many impact guys, but the fact that several of the players had important roles last year for Minnesota shows off a bit of why that team struggled so much in 2011. The Vikings need a talent infusion -- a process that should start by sending most of their internal free agents packing.