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State of the NFC North

The NFC North winds are blowing this winter, and big changes are coming... perhaps more than any other year

Significant changes that could impact the division for years are coming. In fact, this could potentially be the most impactful off-season in NFC North division history. Let’s take a look.

Quarterback Changes

It’s not out of the realm of possibilities that all four starting quarterbacks in the NFC North could be new starting next season, but much more likely is the prospect that the Vikings will face two new QBs in the division next season.

In Detroit, the Lions and Matthew Stafford have agreed to part ways after 12 seasons, sending Stafford to the Rams for Jared Goff, a 2022 & 2023 first round pick, and a 3rd round pick this year. Part of the draft compensation the Lions received for Stafford was undoubtedly for assuming Goff’s bloated contract, which locks them into roughly a $33.5 million cap hit in 2021 & 2022.

In Chicago, despite Mitch Trubisky’s late-season resurgence, it seems likely the Bears will bring in a new quarterback. Trubisky is currently a free agent, and it’s unclear if the Bears will seek to extend him. Nick Foles is under contract, with a dead cap significantly higher than his salary cap hit, but could be traded post June 1st, saving cap space. It seems very unlikely the Bears will roll with Foles as a starter going forward. Backup maybe, but not as starter. Once again, how the Bears fill the starting QB job will be key for the future of the franchise. There’s rumors that the Bears are in the market for Deshaun Watson, but given their resources, it’s hard to see them as among the front-runners.

In Green Bay, head coach Matt LaFleur left no doubt he wants Aaron Rodgers back next season. Where the doubt comes is from Aaron Rodgers himself. His post-NFCCG press conference included the comment that even his own future is uncertain, in a way that longtime Packers beat reporters took as saying goodbye. We’ll see. The cost, for both sides, of a potential trade are huge, but not insurmountable if the desire is there for Rodgers to want a new start somewhere else. It’s a remote possibility he moves on this year, but not out of the question. Rumor is that Rodgers wants a new contract, as he’s not paid MVP money, which could possibly lead to an early departure- or be an excuse for one. The Rams reportedly made an offer for Rodgers before they settled on Stafford, but the Packers “were adamant” in not wanting to trade him. Any contract extension talks between Rodgers and the Packers will be revealing, as the Packers committing more resources to Rodgers would only make his eventual departure more expensive. The Packers spent a first- and fourth-round draft pick last year to acquire QB Jordan Love.

Back in Minnesota, the Vikings seem the team least likely to make a move at QB, but there is certainly a need for the Vikings to address Kirk Cousins’ contract, as his base 2022 salary becomes fully guaranteed on the third day of the 2021 league year- less than two months away- when his $45 million salary cap is cemented. Most likely the Vikings will opt for an extension that spreads that cap hit over more years, and a signing bonus that frees up some cap room this year. But, they could opt to trade Cousins, saving $11 million in cap space this year, but taking a $20 million dead cap hit. It would seem unlikely that the Vikings would make such a deal, except maybe for Deshaun Watson. But realistically, there are other teams more desperate, and with more resources to put forward than the Vikings, to secure Watson’s services. Neither Mike Zimmer or Rick Spielman have sent any signals suggesting they’re considering a change at quarterback, quite the opposite really, but you never know what could happen if the right opportunity presented itself.

Coaching Changes

In addition to quarterback changes, the NFC North will have a number of new coaching changes, including a whole new regime in Detroit. Here is where things stand at the moment:

Detroit

The Lions ownership cleaned house, getting rid of both GM and head coach, and has largely completed the process of hiring a new regime going forward. Here are the new hires so far:

  • GM Brad Holmes. Formerly the director of college scouting the past several years for the Rams, who haven’t had a 1st round pick since Goff in 2016, and haven’t drafted all that notably otherwise, is one of the youngest GMs at age 41. This is his first gig as GM.
  • Head Coach: Dan Campbell. 44 year-old Dan Campbell has been an assistant head coach/TE coach (and former Lions TE) for the Saints the past several years, and was TE coach for the Dolphins for several years before that, being named interim head coach in 2015. This is his first real gig as a head coach.
  • Offensive Coordinator: Anthony Lynn. Lynn has been the head coach of the Chargers the past four seasons, and has a pretty good track record as an offensive coach/coordinator.
  • Defensive Coordinator: Aaron Glenn. Glenn has been the defensive backs coach (and former NFL cornerback) for the Saints the past several years, and new head coach Dan Campbell brought him with to become the new defensive coordinator. This is Glenn’s first gig as defensive coordinator.
  • Other coaching hires: QB coach: former NFL QB Mark Brunell; OL coach Hank Fraley; RB coach Duce Staley; TE coach Ben Johnson; Inside LB coach Mark DeLeone; DB coach Aubrey Pleasant; Special teams coordinator Dave Flipp.

Overall, it looks like the Lions have hired a pretty good offensive coaching staff, and one that will have to figure out a way to cure Goff’s repeated mistakes - something Sean McVay and company were not able to do after five seasons.

Anthony Lynn, apart from last season, has a history of a fairly balanced run/pass attack, and he’s got some good production from his running backs over the years. The Lions drafted D’Andre Swift last year, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he played a bigger role in the Lions offense going forward. But perhaps a bigger challenge for the Lions will be to acquire some quality receivers for Goff to throw to. All three of the Lions starting receivers- Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones, Jr., and Danny Amendola are free agents, and the Lions don’t have a lot of salary cap space to extend more than maybe one of them. The Lions also have some holes in their offensive line, so the Lions will definitely have their work cut out for them on offense.

On the defensive side, what Aaron Glenn will do schematically is still a question mark. He’ll need to figure out how to get the Lions #3 overall pick last year, CB Jeffrey Okudah, on track after a terrible rookie year where he finished near the bottom of all rookie CBs in overall PFF grade, including the worst coverage grade in his draft class. Having an inside and outside LB coach suggests a 3-4 alignment, but that remains speculation. The Lions also have holes on defense to fill, and a couple starters that are now free agents, so again a lot of work to do to improve the Lions’ last ranked defense last season.

Packers

Packers head coach Matt LaFleur decided to part ways with both his defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, and special teams coach Shawn Mennenga. Pettine was a hold-over from the McCarthy era, but his contract had run out and LeFleur apparently was fed up with some bad play calls and perhaps a few other things, so he decided to move on from him. The Packers haven’t named a replacement for Pettine yet, but one internal candidate for the job is former Vikings defensive backs coach Jerry Gray, who the Packers hired last season after Mike Zimmer parted ways with him. Gray has been a defensive coordinator in the past with the Titans and Bills, so he’s the most experienced internal candidate for the Packers.

The question for the Packers is whether they want to take on a different scheme or not. Jerry Gray used a 4-3 front every year he was a defensive coordinator, which would be a change from the 3-4 front the Packers have employed for years. One possibility for the Packers if they wanted to keep a 3-4 front is longtime defensive coordinator and head coach Wade Phillips.

The Packers have endured a similar situation as the Vikings the last couple years, with their special teams units generally performing poorly. They went a similar route as the Vikings this off-season as well, electing to promote their assistant special teams coach to the coordinator position.

Bears

Bears defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano decided to retire, and their defensive line, and both inside and outside linebackers coaches, took jobs elsewhere. The Bears have since elevated safeties coach Sean Desai to become their new defensive coordinator, and additionally hired Chris Rumpf from the Texans as defensive line coach, Bill McGovern as inside linebackers coach (most recently with the Giants in 2019), and promoted assistant linebacker coach Bill Shuey to outside linebackers coach. The only holdover defensive coach is secondary coach Deshea Townsend.

New defensive coordinator Sean Desai, 37, was former Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s right-hand man when he was running the Bears defense, so the expectation is that the Bears will continue with a Fangio-type scheme, which they did to some degree with Pagano. Desai has been on the Bears staff since 2013, and was denied permission to interview with Denver after Fangio left, an indication the Bears didn’t want to lose him. Desai has a PhD in education administration, and is well thought of in the Bears organization. This will be his first job as defensive coordinator.

Offensively, the Bears’ coaching staff remains intact, but late in the season Bears’ head coach Matt Nagy gave his offensive coordinator, Bill Lazor, play-calling duties. It remains to be seen if that continues next season, but it seems more likely than not.

Key Roster Changes

In addition to the QB and coaching changes, there are likely to be some significant key player losses as every team in the NFC North struggles to get under the salary cap.

Lions

As mentioned above, the Lions may well lose all three starting wide receivers- Marvin Jones, Kenny Golladay, and Danny Amendola- in free agency. Collectively that was probably the strongest position group on the Lions roster. The Lions also could lose a number of starters on defense, as they also have a number of starters that are currently free agents: S Duron Harmon, LBs Jarrad Davis and Reggie Ragland, and DE Romeo Okwara. Even longtime kicker Matt Prater is a free agent. The Lions also had former Vikings Adrian Peterson and Everson Griffen on the roster at the end of the season, but are both now free agents, and it seems unlikely either of them will return.

Packers

The Packers are facing the biggest salary cap crunch in the NFC North, as they’re currently $32 million over a $175 million salary cap (worst case scenario) for 2021. That means they’re unlikely to extend a number of starters that are currently free agents. They include: C Corey Lindsey (who was All-Pro last season), G Lane Taylor, DE Montravious Adams, CB Kevin King, RBs Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams, and TE Mercedes Lewis. TE Robert Tonyan Jr., who is a restricted free agent, will likely draw some interest, but the Packers could put a first-round tender offer on him for around $4 million, which would require another team offering him more money than the Packers are willing to match to surrender a first-round draft pick. That should be enough to keep him a Packer next season.

Additionally, while LT David Bakhtiari’s contract was extended late last season (4-years, $92MM), he tore his ACL December 31st, and may end up missing some games next season as a result. Recovery time for ACL tears range from 9-12 months, and coming back prior to 12 months, or before the repaired knee has 90% the strength of the other knee, significantly increases the chance of another ACL tear to either knee. That time frame puts the Packers’ four-time All-Pro left tackle’s availability next season in question.

Bears

The Bears are also about $10 million over the $175 cap limit, if that’s what it turns out to be, which will constrain their ability to extend any of their key free agents, which include:

WR Allen Robinson, KR Cordarrelle Patterson, OL Germain Ifeadi, DT Roy Robertson-Harris, DE Mario Edwards, and CB Sherrick McManis.

Robinson is a huge loss for their offense, and it’s fairly certain he won’t be back. But beyond Robinson and the loss of free agents is the fact that the Bears’ key defensive players are getting old. DT Akiem Hicks will turn 32 later this year and has been increasingly injury-prone. He’s on the last year of his contract in 2021, and his performance has declined the last couple years. CB Kyle Fuller will turn 29, is a $20 million cap hit in 2021, and is coming off an average year. Even Khalil Mack, though the best graded edge rusher by PFF last season, had only 9 sacks. That’s not a lot considering his $27 million salary cap this year and next. He turns 30 next month, and it wouldn’t be that surprising if the Bears decided to move on from that contract in the not so distant future.

Rebuilding Progress

The Vikings are ahead of the NFC North cyclical curve in terms of rebuilding, having gone through a significant transition this past year. That doesn’t mean they don’t have some tough business decisions ahead, along with a need for some good development in their young players this off-season, and the need to make good use of their draft capital. But in terms of the overall roster cycle and the aging of key veterans, the Vikings look ahead of their NFC North rivals, who are all either entering, or about to enter, significant transitions or rebuilding.

The Lions are now beginning what looks like a multi-year rebuild, with new head coach Dan Campbell signed to a six-year deal, and GM Brad Holm signed to a five-year deal.

The Bears are in a slow rebuilding process, as they continue to struggle with their QB problem, and face an aging defense that takes up roughly two-thirds of their salary cap.

The Packers are beginning the down cycle this coming year, as they lose some key players, and may elect to move-on from Aaron Rodgers in 2022. All their starting WRs are on the last year of their contract, and they have holes at defensive tackle, linebacker, cornerback, and center. If anything, their salary cap situation looks worse in 2022, with $175 million currently on the books, but only 26 players under contract.

Roster Resources

The chart below shows every NFL team’s salary cap space (assuming a $175 million salary cap in 2021) along the vertical axis, with the dotted line being zero salary cap space, and their respective draft capital in the upcoming 2021 draft along the horizontal axis. The dotted line being 5000 draft points, using the Fitzgerald-Spielberger valuations.

Salary Cap (vertical axis) & Draft Capital (horizontal axis) of NFL Teams in 2021
Lee Sharpe

Detroit moves a bit to the right with the 3rd round pick acquired recently in the Stafford-Goff deal, but also down a bit to where Chicago is at $10 million over the salary cap too. Overall, the Vikings look at least as good as their NFC North rivals in terms of resources to improve their roster this off-season, when you combine salary cap situation with draft capital, and more likely better.

Bottom Line

The NFC North is likely to be significantly changed next season, and for the Vikings’ rivals, the change may not be for the better. Salary cap constraints may hurt other teams more than the Vikings, as will aging rosters and key player losses. The Lions are clearly in rebuilding mode, while the Bears and Packers look to be transitioning over the coming years. The Vikings are one-year into the process, and with the return of some injured players last year, and solid development of younger ones, look to have as strong a roster as any team in the NFC North next season.

Schematically, the Vikings will face new play-callers, and possibly schemes, from all their division rival defenses next season, and on offense too in the case of the Lions. The Vikings themselves will have a new play-caller on offense, but all signs point to their new offensive coordinator being Klint Kubiak, who undoubtedly will retain the same scheme.

As we work through free agency and the draft, we’ll have a better idea of all the specific player changes effecting the NFC North, but already the QB carousel and salary cap signs point to significant changes, and coaching changes too will present new wrinkles for the division for years to come.

Overall, this off-season could see the most significant changes in the NFC North since division realignment in 2001.

Poll

Which NFC North team is most likely to regress in 2021?

This poll is closed

  • 24%
    Chicago Bears
    (237 votes)
  • 18%
    Detroit Lions
    (178 votes)
  • 47%
    Green Bay Packers
    (455 votes)
  • 8%
    Minnesota Vikings
    (86 votes)
956 votes total Vote Now