Perhaps no NFL division managed to be more competitive without actually impressing anyone than the NFC North. The Green Bay Packers were the only team to post a winning record, and they did so at 8-7-1. The Chicago Bears saw injuries affect their promise, and the Detroit Lions imploded after a 6-3 start. Meanwhile, the Minnesota Vikings paid for years of waning drafts and free agency classes with a bottom-of-the-barrel, 5-10-1 season.
There could be significant changes in the offing for every team here before Week 1 of 2014 arrives. Here’s a look at what free agency may hold for the NFC North:
• Key free agents: QB Josh McCown, WR/KR Devin Hester, OT Eben Britton, C Roberto Garza, DE Corey Wootton, DT Henry Melton, CB Zack Bowman, CB Charles Tillman, S Major Wright
• Players Chicago needs back: McCown, Hester, Garza, Britton
McCown did a wonderful job while replacing an injured Jay Cutler, keeping the Bears right in the race until the end. The veteran is not a spectacular player, but he has an implicit understanding of head coach Marc Trestman's offense. Hester is still an explosive return man and intriguing 'tweener player under the right contractual circumstances. Garza is the kind of underpowered but savvy veteran every offensive line needs -- especially one like Chicago's, which is still very much under construction, and Britton has potential.
• Players Chicago should let walk: Tillman, Wootton, Melton, Bowman, Wright
Chicago's defense has a couple of problems: The old players are getting older, and the new kids aren't always moving up as quickly as the franchise needs. Losing Tillman will be a hit from a leadership perspective, but the clock is ticking on his great career, and there seems to be a waiting and willing home in Tampa Bay with former Bears head coach Lovie Smith. Emery put Melton on notice after his arrest for assault and public intoxication and implied that more was needed on the field. Wootton played a lot of snaps in 2013, but not terribly effectively. Bowman and Wright are role-players who can be upgraded.
• Outlook: The Bears come into the 2014 league year at a bit over $120 million in cap, and they've got over $40 million of that invested in two players -- quarterback Jay Cutler ($22,500,000) and defensive end Julius Peppers ($18,183,333). For general manager Phil Emery to make the moves he needs to make to vault the Bears into the league's upper echelon, one of those numbers will have to go, and it won't be Cutler's. Emery has said that Peppers had an "8-8 season," and injuries along Chicago's line made this defense atypically leaky in 2013.
• Key free agents: QB Shaun Hill, TE Brandon Pettigrew, DE Israel Idonije, DE Willie Young, CB Rashean Mathis, LB Rocky McIntosh, K David Akers
• Players Detroit needs back: Hill, Idonije, Young, Mathis
Matthew Stafford took all but two snaps for the Lions last season, and Hill is the perfect emergency quarterback in this situation -- reliable and low-cost. However, it will be interesting to see if new head coach Jim Caldwell decides to take a different tack at this position. Idonije is a veteran rotational player with positional versatility. Young has interesting talent, but he -- like a lot of Lions defenders -- needs to channel his aggression. He was actually benched by ex-head coach Jim Schwartz last season after a personal foul. Mathis is that rare entity -- a Lions cornerback who plays a lot of snaps and doesn't get torched all the time. Detroit's secondary is a weak spot that must be addressed, and retaining Mathis would help a lot.
• Players Detroit should let walk: Pettigrew, McIntosh, Akers
Pettigrew is known as an exceptional blocker, but he's been one of the least productive tight ends in the league on a per-catch basis over the last few years. If the Lions are to retain him, they'd best be careful on the money side. McIntosh is pretty replaceable, and Akers was given far too many votes of confidence in 2013.
• Outlook: The Lions have 22,412,500 reasons to extend defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh even though he still has two years left on his current contract. That's Suh's 2014 cap number, the highest in the league. Suh is one reason Detroit currently weighs in with a $131,561,629 cap overall, so adjustments will have to be made. Stafford is taking up $15.8 million in space, and Calvin Johnson has a $13 million cap hit in the new league year.
Green Bay Packers
Key free agents: QB Matt Flynn, RB James Starks, FB John Kuhn, WR James Jones, TE Jermichael Finley, TE Andrew Quarless, OT Marshall Newhouse, C Evan Dietrich-Smith, DE Mike Neal, DT Johnny Jolly, DT Ryan Pickett, DT B.J. Raji, CB Sam Shields
Players Green Bay needs back: Flynn, Starks, Kuhn, Jones, Quarless, Dietrich-Smith, Neal, Shields, Pickett
Flynn, free from the burdens of being overpaid in Seattle, proved that he's the perfect Mike McCarthy backup quarterback, and should be valued accordingly. Starks is a reasonably effective change-of-pace for Offensive Rookie of the Year Eddie Lacy. Kuhn is the perfect blocker when the Packers go McCarthy's preferred full-house formations. Jones didn't match his exceptional 2012 season last year, but he's a valuable cog for an offense that favors multi-receiver sets. Quarless was valuable for the offense following Jermichael Finley's spinal fusion surgery. Neal slimmed down before the 2013 season and had a career year as a pass-rusher. He's said that he'd love to return to Green Bay. Pickett is aging but still effective, and Shields played decently in 2013, logging more snaps than any other Packers defensive back not named Tramon Williams.
Players Green Bay should let walk: Finley, Newhouse, Jolly, Raji
Between Finley's recovery from spinal fusion surgery, his contention that he should be paid as a top tight end, and the quality of tight ends in this draft class, it's probably best for all involved to move along. Newhouse has been a disappointment over the last three seasons, and the Packers are not expected to continue that relationship. Jolly had a bulging disc in his neck last season, and though he provided an inspiring story with his return to the field after a three-year hiatus from the league due to off-field problems, his career might be over. Raji is still a relatively talented player, but unless the Packers can bring him back with a contract commensurate with his current performance as opposed to his name, they'll be better served by looking for new blood.
Outlook: It's time for Ted Thompson to upgrade some key spots on the Packers' roster for the future, and with a 2014 cap number of $107.6 million, there will be room to restock. Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews are the primary cap crusaders at $17.9 million and $10.9 million, respectively, while cornerback Tramon Williams' $9.5 million cap hit makes him a primary candidate for a restructure.
• Key free agents: QB Matt Cassell, QB Josh Freeman, RB Toby Gerhart, WR Jerome Simpson, WR Joe Webb, OG Charlie Johnson, DE Jared Allen, DE Everson Griffen, DT Kevin Williams, DB Chris Cook
• Players Minnesota needs back: Gerhart, Johnson, Griffen
Though Gerhart may want to see if he can become a starting back out of Adrian Peterson's shadow, other teams may see him as limited. Johnson played over 1,000 snaps at a league-average level and could return simply by virtue of the fact that this team has so many other holes to fill. With Jared Allen's possible departure, Griffen is a huge priority for the team, especially in new head coach Mike Zimmer's system -- where players like Griffen, who can rush the passer from inside and outside, are used to their best abilities.
• Players Minnesota should let walk: Cassell, Freeman, Simpson, Allen, Webb, Williams, Cook
Cassel has already said that he'll void his contract and test the market, and Freeman provided very little for the Vikings' former coaching staff. Simpson is a relatively talented receiver, but his penchant for off-field trouble probably won't go so well with a no-B.S. coach like Zimmer. Allen may command more money at his age than the Vikings are willing to pay, and it could be time to move on from Williams as well. Webb is a replaceable backup, and Cook hasn't performed nearly as well as the franchise hoped he would.
The Vikings are just over $100 million in cap for the new year, but that's not extraordinary news when a team has so many holes to fill all over the roster. Point one will be the acquisition of a new franchise quarterback, and a backup for said quarterback. Christian Ponder
's $3.2 million cap number may be low enough for a new coaching staff to see him as retainable... but the Vikings could probably get a better player for that amount.