GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Green Bay Packers have ruled the NFC North the past two seasons. Can they do it again following what’s been a mostly quiet offseason? Or have their divisional rivals not made enough gains through two weeks of free agency?
Let’s catch up with the four NFC North teams.
Who's coming?: Quarterback Andy Dalton, cornerback Desmond Trufant, tackle Elijah Wilkinson, outside linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu, defensive lineman Angelo Blackson, inside linebacker Christian Jones.
Who's going?: Quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, cornerback Kyle Fuller, tackle Bobby Massie, slot cornerback Buster Skrine, defensive end Roy Robertson-Harris, defensive end Brent Urban, return man Cordarrelle Patterson, outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo.
Who's staying?: Allen Robinson as a franchise free agent or on a new deal; also defensive end Akiem Hicks, defensive end Mario Edwards Jr.
Are they done?: The Bears have been up against the cap and as a result it's going to be tough to add anyone else or bring back Cordarrell Patterson and Tashaun Gipson. The rumors about a Russell Wilson trade persist, but it seems to be fantasy football.
Have the Bears gotten better, worse or stayed the same?: The Bears look different but not necessarily for the better.
It seems a cosmetic change as they may have just made themselves look different without affecting their ability to win games. They no longer have Mitchell Trubisky's mobility but 33-year-old Andy Dalton is definitely a better downfield passer. The red zone interceptions should decline greatly with Trubisky gone.
The dream of GM Ryan Pace completing a deal for Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson remains alive in the minds of many but, then again, some people think Elvis is still alive. The Bears will need to accept Dalton as their quarterback, and there is a chance they could send Nick Foles out in a trade while drafting a quarterback to train for at least a year. They then could possibly sign another veteran backup. The name who comes to mind is Alex Smith, coach Matt Nagy's good buddy from their Kansas City days.
Losing Kyle Fuller deprives them of a potential Pro Bowl talent, but he didn't play like one in 2020. Still, replacement Desmond Trufant is quite a step down considering how he hasn't been able to stay healthy and lacked Fuller's knack for making the big interception or big open-field tackle. The cornerback solution isn't really a veteran, but most likely a draft pick on Day 1 or 2. They also need a slot cornerback candidate to replace Skrine, although Duke Shelley will make a strong bid after replacing Skrine there following a concussion last season.
Finding help at slot on the offensive side remains a necessity if they plan to trade or cut wide receiver Anthony Miller following his boxing match with Chauncey Gardner-Johnson in the playoffs. The Bears badly need more speed on offense, and especially in the slot.
One thing Pace did accomplish is restore depth in places where it dropped off last year, particularly the offensive line. In fact, it's deep enough now they may have excess. There could be tremendous camp battles at starting right guard and right tackle between James Daniels, Elijah Wilkinson and Germain Ifedi after Daniels missed the second half of last season with a pectoral injury.
As poorly as free agency started for Pace with Fuller leaving and the failure to trade for Wilson, he's come on strong lately with the signings of Jeremiah Attaochu, Angelo Blackson and Christian Jones on defense. It gave them more defensive depth, and now they can move on to more important things, like trying to acquire Wilson. Again.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Who's coming?: Nobody, unless you count long snapper Joe Fortunato, who hasn’t snapped in a game since his senior season at Delaware in 2015. (Yes, 2015.) The Packers are the only team in the NFL to not bring in a player from another organization.
Who's going?: Center Corey Linsley, running back Jamaal Williams, defensive tackle Montravius Adams, quarterback Tim Boyle, linebacker Christian Kirksey, right tackle Rick Wagner.
Who's staying?: Running back Aaron Jones, cornerback Kevin King, tight end Marcedes Lewis.
Are they done?: Probably not. The Packers have spent the past several weeks wrestling with their salary cap. They created enough space to re-sign Jones, their big-play, Pro Bowl running back, along with Lewis and King. As free agency drags on, there could be some bargain shopping to fortify at least one side of the line ahead of the draft.
Have they gotten better, worse or stayed the same?: When you lose an All-Pro center, like the Packers did with Linsley, it’s impossible to argue anything but getting worse.
Green Bay is coming off back-to-back 13-3 seasons with trips to the NFC Championship Game. It was outclassed in 2019 at San Francisco but frittered away a golden opportunity against Tampa Bay in 2020.
Getting back to the championship game – and winning it – will pose a major challenge.
Green Bay was incredibly fortunate in 2020. Generally speaking, it dodged major injuries – though the torn ACL for All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari probably cost the team a trip to the Super Bowl. What, on paper, was a difficult schedule turned out to be the easiest in the league based on opponent winning percentage. Aaron Rodgers had one of the great seasons in NFL history in winning his third MVP. Carried by Rodgers’ brilliance, the Packers led the NFL in scoring despite having only two reliable playmakers with Jones and receiver Davante Adams. It thrived in a COVID season by playing in empty stadiums at Minnesota and New Orleans to fuel a hot start.
All of that added up to the Packers earning the No. 1 seed and homefield advantage in the playoffs for the first time in a decade. It didn’t matter against Tom Brady and the Buccaneers, though. Without Bakhtiari, the offensive line was overwhelmed. Rodgers wasn’t sharp. King gave up two touchdowns and was tagged for the clinching penalty. Jones fumbled and was knocked out of the game with an injury.
The stars might not by so aligned again in 2021. Moreover, the Buccaneers have brought back most of their key players and will be the favorite to repeat in the NFC. San Francisco, which was hammered by injuries last year, should rebound. The Los Angeles Rams, who upgraded at quarterback by acquiring Matthew Stafford from Detroit, might be ready to take the next step after reaching the divisional round.
All of Green Bay’s holes remain unfilled. King is back at cornerback but, given his injury history, that’s not necessarily a solution to a defense that was good but not good enough. The defensive line is underpowered. The inside linebacker corps may or may not be good. The offensive line not only must replace Linsley but find a competent No. 3 tackle. That’s a big deal on two fronts. First, Bakhtiari may not be ready for Week 1. Second, last year’s No. 3 tackle, Wagner, played more than 50 percent of the offensive snaps. With Wagner and Jared Veldheer leaning toward retirement, the only in-house option is Yosh Nijman, who hasn’t played a meaningful snap in his career. Rodgers and Adams are great but the offense could use another explosive player.
That’s a lot of holes to fill through the draft alone, which is why the No. 1 priority has to be extending Adams and/or restructure/extending Rodgers to get additional cap space.
Who's coming?: Defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson, cornerbacks Patrick Peterson and Mackensie Alexander, safety Xavier Woods, defensive end Stephen Weatherly, center/guard Mason Cole, linebacker Nick Vigil, kicker Greg Joseph.
Who's going?: Safety Anthony Harris, offensive tackle Riley Reiff, tight end Kyle Rudolph, defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo, linebacker Eric Wilson, running back Mike Boone, kicker Dan Bailey.
Who's staying?: Wide receiver Chad Beebe, offensive tackle Rashod Hill, running back Ameer Abdullah.
Are they done?: They might have room for another move or two. The Vikings' two big splashes in free agency were Tomlinson and Peterson, which used up most of their cap space. But thanks to some cuts and restructures, they still have more than $6 million in usable space (and can create more with extensions for Harrison Smith or Danielle Hunter). They have some key needs — offensive line, defensive end, wide receiver — that could be addressed to some degree with bargain free agents. Just don't expect another splashy move.
Have they gotten better, worse or stayed the same?: They've gotten better.
Just last week, I would've said they had stayed the same. Their two major acquisitions in the first week of free agency, Tomlinson and Peterson, were mostly offset by the losses of Reiff and Harris. But after landing Alexander and Woods for cheap, I feel a lot better about the state of Minnesota's secondary and its defense as a whole. There's more work to be done, but I think they've had a strong start to the offseason.
The Vikings' two big moves are risky ones that have Mike Zimmer's fingerprints all over them. They had the worst defense of Zimmer's seven-year tenure in 2020, as an unfortunate combination of free agency departures, season-ending injuries, and a COVID opt-out left them with a defense that looked nothing like the core group that made three playoff appearances from 2015-19.
So they went out and signed Tomlinson to address a run defense that surrendered six touchdowns to Alvin Kamara on Christmas. He'll pair with last offseason's big acquisition, Michael Pierce (the aforementioned opt-out player), to give Minnesota a massive duo of run-stuffing defensive tackles on early downs. Then they signed a potential future Hall of Famer in Peterson to start at corner and provide leadership and wisdom to a very young room. He's coming off of a two-year stretch in Arizona that suggests he's lost a step, but the Vikings think they can reignite Peterson's career — like Zimmer did with another aging corner, Terence Newman — by putting him in better positions to succeed. Adding Alexander and Woods to the secondary at bargain costs were no-brainer moves.
Whether or not the Vikings got better in free agency will likely come down to how the two big signings work out and how well they can replace the players who headed elsewhere. The Tomlinson move is risky because they're essentially starting two nose tackles in the middle of their defensive line, which runs the risk of sacrificing interior pressure on early downs. Tomlinson is not your traditional three-technique. The Peterson move is risky because his last two seasons suggest that he might simply be washed. Then again, we thought that about Xavier Rhodes before he bounced back with the Colts last season. As for the replacements, it'll be up to Irv Smith Jr. to step up at tight end with Rudolph gone and probably either Ezra Cleveland or a rookie to take over at left tackle for Reiff.
The big reason why I think the Vikings will be better in 2021 is that they're getting back three key players who missed all of last season: superstar pass rusher Danielle Hunter, the aforementioned Pierce, and Anthony Barr. That trio alone will work wonders for a front seven that was maybe the primary culprit in last year's disappointing 7-9 campaign. The Vikings had a top-10 offense last year and, as long as Kirk Cousins, Dalvin Cook, Justin Jefferson, and Adam Thielen stay healthy (which is no sure thing, especially with Cook), they should be able to repeat that performance, provided they make some moves to address the offensive line.
The story of this offseason has not yet been completed. The Vikings still need at least one more starting-caliber offensive lineman, a pass rusher, and a third wide receiver. But with a bit of cap space left and ten draft picks in April, they should be able to address those needs. If they can do so, this looks like a playoff roster on paper, and it better be — or the Zimmer and Rick Spielman era might be coming to an end next year.
Who's coming: WR Damion Ratley, LB Alex Anzalone, WR/KR Kalif Raymond, QB Tim Boyle, DT Michael Brockers, K Randy Bullock, DE Charles Harris, WR Breshad Perriman, RB Jamaal Williams, WR Tyrell Williams.
Who's going?: LB Reggie Ragland, K Matt Prater, WR Mohamed Sanu, WR Kenny Golladay, WR Marvin Jones Jr., LB Miles Killebrew, LB Jarrad Davis, CB Darryl Roberts, G Oday Aboushi, WR Jamal Agnew.
Who's staying?: LS Don Muhlback, DE Romeo Okwara, LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin.
Are the Lions done?: With the extra $15 million secured from restructuring Jared Goff's contract, it is expected that Detroit will still look to sign one or two more players in free agency. Unfortunately, the player won't likely have much impact, but Detroit will be hoping to find a few diamonds in the rough during this second or third wave of free agency. The majority of the players they are hoping become the core of the team will be selected in the next three drafts. Detroit has done a solid job of positioning themselves to receive extra compensatory picks and extra picks secured via trades.
It will be up to new general manager Brad Holmes to retool this roster with several productive players from college.
Did they get better, worse, or stay the same?: It is hard to imagine the Lions getting better losing a quarterback like Matthew Stafford and an explosive receiver in Kenny Golladay. New coach Dan Campbell signed a six-year contract for a reason. The 2021 season will be a rebuilding year without much expectations for many wins this season. Detroit is looking to find players that fit their new culture and who have positive attitudes about playing in Detroit. Many of the new additions brought in via free agency are playing on one-year deals, so Detroit is working towards not being tied to too many players long term during their rebuild. I expect the team to win only five or six games this season.