Now that the Bears are out of the playoffs, all four NFC North teams are officially in the off-season, completing their evaluations, planning for the draft and free agency, making staff and roster changes.
We don’t know what all will happen between now and September, particularly roster changes, but we do know some things that may help preview the up-coming season for each NFC North team.
Let’s take a look.
The Bears suffered a disappointing end to a big turn-around season under first-year head coach Matt Nagy. But they easily won the NFC North crown, and compiled an enviable 12-4 regular season record.
But things might get a little tougher for the Bears going forward.
The main reason the Bears did so well this past season was the strength of their defense, which was the best in the league in points allowed, and 3rd in yards allowed. But the Bears defensive coordinator - Vic Fangio - while still with the Bears as I write this, looks to be a hot commodity for an NFL coaching vacancy - and seems unlikely to remain with the Bears next season if a head coaching gig presents itself. Denver is rumored to have narrowed their list down to Fangio and one other candidate.
If Fangio departs, that could have a big impact on how good the Bears defense is next season.
The other thing is that the Bears have a tight salary-cap. Currently they have 39 players under contract for 2019, taking up $174 million of the estimated $190 million salary cap allotment. $40 million of that is tied up in the Bears defensive line after the acquisition of Khalil Mack - whose salary jumps to over $22 million next season.
So with only about $15 million in salary cap, and 14 players to sign, the Bears will have to make some choices.
- Right tackle Bobby Massie is a free agent who made $5.1 million last season, and could go for twice that once free agency starts.
- EDGE Aaron Lynch was on a one-year deal with the Bears and had a very good season. He made $3.9 million and could command more.
- S Adrian Amos has had two excellent years with the Bears and is now a free agent likely to command around $10 million salary cap.
- Slot CB Bryce Callahan is also a free agent, and also coming off two very good years with the Bears, and is also likely to command around $10 million in salary cap.
It may be difficult for the Bears to extend any of these guys without exceeding the salary cap. Best case maybe that the Bears lose three of these players going forward. That would be a hit on a defense that may also lose its coordinator.
The other problem for the Bears is that their first pick in the draft isn’t until the third round, and they have only a 3rd, 4th, 5th and two 7th round picks.
Add to that a 1st place division schedule, and next season could bring some tougher sledding for the Bears.
Well, we know the Packers have a new head coach - Matt LaFleur - who was offensive coordinator for the Titans last season, and for the Rams under Sean McVay in 2017. So, the Packers seem to be following the trend of looking for a new wave offensive guru to help get Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense back on track.
LaFleur, just 4 years older than Aaron Rodgers, has only one season of play-calling under his belt, and its unclear if he’ll call plays in Green Bay. He also has only two seasons as a coordinator, so he is something of a risk for the Packers as he takes on head coaching duties.
The Packers are looking pretty good with their salary cap next season, with 59 players signed and around $29 million in cap space available. The Packers had over $20 million in cap space freed up now that Clay Matthews and Randall Cobb are free agents, and it’s unclear whether they will look to extend either of them.
The Packers also have DE Muhammad Wilkerson as a free agent, along with ILB Jake Ryan. I suspect the Packers will want to extend Ryan, but so sure about Wilkerson. The lone bright spot in the Packers defense this season has been their interior linemen - especially Kenny Clark. Mike Daniels had an off-year and was injured, however, but Dean Lowry did well too.
It may be that the Packers look elsewhere in free agency to fill needs at WR (Antonio Brown?) and look to the draft to restock other positions. Fortunately for the Packers, they are loaded with draft picks this year, beginning with two first round picks (theirs and the Saints), and an extra 4th and 6th round pick in addition to their full slate.
I suspect the Packers may look to draft an edge rusher with a first round pick to replace Clay Matthews, and maybe a safety or wide receiver as well.
But as always, the fortunes of the Packers will rise and fall with the play of Aaron Rodgers, whose shown some signs of aging this past season after missing most of 2017 with a broken collarbone. He was more conservative in his decision-making - with a lot of throw-aways - and not quite as mobile as he once was. His accuracy was also down, showing signs perhaps of a weakening arm. One tends to think of Aaron Rodgers in the same light as Tom Brady, and if Brady can play into his 40s at a high level than so can Rodgers. But their games are quite a bit different. Brady is a classic pocket passer, and was never all that mobile. Rodgers, by contrast, is the master of improvisation - turning broken plays into big ones. But he may be losing some of the tools that have made him the great QB he is, and it’s unclear if he’ll rebound with a new system offensively or not.
Defensively, the Packers still don’t have all the pieces in place, as edge rusher Nick Perry hasn’t panned out again this year and Clay Matthews had lost a lot and is now a free agent. The Packers secondary continues to disappoint as draft picks like Kevin King, Josh Jackson, and Josh Jones struggle. The Packers also traded Ha Ha Clinton-Dix during the season, and Davon House is now a free agent.
Lastly, the Packers offensive line isn’t as good as it once was. They still have a good pair of tackles and a decent center, but the guard play has fallen off over the past few years and that has had an impact on the Packers offense. It’s unclear if they’ll do anything to upgrade the guard position this off-season, but it may be a consideration to help keep Aaron Rodgers upright. He was sacked 49 times last season - nine more than Kirk Cousins on about the same number of pass attempts and 5th most in the league.
Bottom line for the Packers is they need Aaron Rodgers to regain his previous form and their new head coach to get them back in the groove. They’re still missing pieces on both sides of the ball, and even with a stockpile of draft picks they may not be ready to hit on all cylinders next season. Aaron Rodgers can cover up a lot of dysfunction when he’s playing well, but it’s been a while since he’s been at his best. He’ll turn 36 at the end of the year, and if he’s exiting his prime, it will be difficult for the Packers to make that up elsewhere.
It was a season of disappointment for the Lions this year, who like the Bears were under a new head coach in Matt Patricia. The Lions started out 0-2, losing to the Jets and 49ers, and it never really got better. Compared to the previous season, the Lions offense regressed while the defense improved.
But it seems that the team didn’t buy what Matt Patricia was selling, and in the absence of strong leadership to the contrary, the Lions slipped back into being the same ol’ Lions we come to know and love as a division rival - imploding or never getting it together in the first place.
The Lions may have more talent than their 6-10 record indicates, but there is a culture of losing in Detroit that is difficult for head coaches to overcome, and Matt Patricia doesn’t appear to be an exception. Not so long ago a hot commodity, offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter has been sent packing, leaving the Lions to search for a new one. Early rumors have pegged some of Matt Patricia’s old pals from New England as possible candidates, but we’ll see how that goes.
Outside of trying to turn things around offensively next season, the Lions also need to find a pass rush. PFF had their front seven ranked 31st last season, largely due to the lack of pressure they put on opposing QBs. They got a nice pick-up inside in Damon Harrison - who they got for a 5th round pick from the Giants - but the lack of edge rushers is what hurt. Ezekiel Ansah is a free agent, and it seems unlikely the Lions will attempt to extend him. Similar to the Packers, the Lions may be looking to bolster their edge rush in the draft.
The Lions are in decent shape with their salary cap - about $25 million in space with 54 players signed for 2019. That allows them to make some moves in free agency if they choose and are able to land who they’re after.
The Lions also have a full slate of draft picks, plus an extra 6th and 7th rounder, so they can add some pieces that way - especially given they have the 8th pick.
So, while the Lions are in position to add some missing pieces, the bigger question mark is whether new head coach Matt Patricia can make any head way building a better culture and winning ways among the players, and getting them to be more competitive with the talent they have. At the moment I wouldn’t bet on it, but things could change.
No discussion of the NFC North would be complete without our own Vikings, so even though we cover them in more depth in other write-ups, adding an overview here is worthwhile too for comparison.
The Vikings are also coming off a disappointing season. After going 13-3 last season, winning the division, going to the NFC Championship, and signing Kirk Cousins in the off-season, an 8-7-1 record didn’t make too many Vikings fans happy. But despite the regression this season, the Vikings have most of the pieces in place to compete for the division title again next season, and have some means of getting those they need during the off-season as well.
The Vikings are once again without an offensive coordinator, which is starting to get a little old, so hopefully the next one will be around for more than a year or so. The big problem offensively is the offensive line, which has been a problem for years. At this point the Vikings may be okay at the two tackle spots with Riley Reiff and Brian O’Neill, but need a new slate of interior linemen. Picking up a free-agent center like Matt Paradis would upgrade that position, and the salary cap would be off-set somewhat by jettisoning Mike Remmers and drafting a couple guards with their first couple draft picks.
The Vikings also have some decisions to make on the defensive front. Sheldon Richardson is a free agent along with Tom Johnson, so the 3-technique is a need. Everson Griffen is also a high paid question mark after a down year and being out with a mental illness the first part of the season. Anthony Barr is also a free agent Mike Zimmer would like to extend.
But elsewhere the pieces are in place - QB, RB, WR, TE, DBs - although Anthony Harris would seem to be a priority to extend as a free agent safety who had an excellent contract year.
The Vikings have all but their 5th and 7th round picks to work with in the draft, and may get some additional day three picks as compensation for lost free agents, giving them pretty much a full slate to work with.
It’s also worth mentioning that the Vikings may have an extra cornerback they could use as capital to bolster another position group. Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes have held down the starting outside corner spots for the Vikings, and MacKensie Alexander has finally elevated his game to be a solid slot corner. But the Vikings also have promising first-round pick Mike Hughes and promising UDFA Holton Hill - both performed well for rookies last season. With no less than five starting-caliber cornerbacks on the roster, the Vikings could consider trading one of them - perhaps Rhodes or Waynes - for a decent draft pick and a little more salary cap space.
Trading a high-priced CB would allow the Vikings to upgrade the defensive line or LB or OL and still have three quality CBs and a spare.
But the Vikings don’t have any salary cap space to work with at the moment, and so any additions in that regard will have to be balanced by cuts to existing players. Some of that is likely to happen as the Vikings replace aging veterans with promising younger players.
The NFC North is likely to be more competitive next season, with the Bears likely to lose more than they gain, and teams like the Vikings and Packers hungry to rebound. Who knows, maybe the Lions may be able to turn things around next year and make a run for the division title.
Who do you think will win the NFC North next season?
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Green Bay Packers