Free Agency: How The NFC North Has Fared
The NFL is now more than two weeks into free agency, and all 32 team have hit the market to retool for the upcoming season. Some are putting the finishing touches on a playoff-caliber team, while others are building for the future. In the NFC North, this is no different. With a wide-open division up for grabs in 2014, offseason acquisitions could make or break a team’s chances at playoff football. With that in mind, let’s take a look at how each NFC North team has fared in the first two weeks of NFL free agency.
WHAT NEEDS FIXING: The Bears had an uncharacteristically bad defense last season, allowing the most rushing yards per game in the NFL (161.4 ypg), and ranking 15th in passing yards allowed per game (233.1 ypg). Maybe it was the loss of 13-year veteran linebacker Brian Urlacher that got the Bears all out of sorts, but whatever the reason, Chicago could no longer rely on a strong defense to make up for a suspect offense.
Speaking of Jay Cutler, the Bears front office decided to reward the underachieving quarterback with a mammoth seven-year, 126.7M contract, ranking Cutler among the highest paid quarterbacks in the NFL. For reasons that will forever elude me, the Bears have put their trust in Cutler, and have made shoring up the receiving corps a key fix looking forward to 2014.
OUTCOME: Wednesday’s signing of Jared Allen (up to 4 years, $32M) will go a long way toward improving a lackluster defensive line. Throw in defensive end Lamarr Houston (5 years, $35M), ex-Lion defensive end Willie Young (3 years, $9M), and defensive tackle Jay Ratliff (2 years, $4M), and the Bears will be throwing a completely different attack at NFL quarterbacks in 2014. Whether or not the spending spree will actually pay off obviously remains to be seen, but you can’t deny that the Bears have aggressively addressed their biggest need.
As for Cutler, he is already blessed with the duo of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery at wide receiver. Against most teams, the duo will find plenty of open space to operate. However, there’s not much depth behind the top two, and the front office has done little to fix that problem. In fact, with the losses of Devin Hester and Earl Bennett, the Bears have taken a step back from last season. The team signed Domenik Hixon in mid-March, but he will do little to draw attention from Marshall and Jeffery. Other options still remain, including the impressive crop of receivers in this year’s draft, so the Bears may choose to fill that need with a rookie.
WHAT NEEDS FIXING: If you have read just one of my articles in 2014, it should be pretty apparent that the secondary is the weakest part of this team. Rashean Mathis is gone (but could potentially come back), Chris Houston underwhelmed, and Darius Slay failed to live up to his potential as a second-round pick in last year’s draft. As a unit, they ranked 23rd in the NFL in passing yards per game (246.9 ypg), and seemed to allow big passing plays at the worst possible times. The Lions blew fourth quarter leads in six of their last seven losses, and the inability to stop the aerial attack was key to that failure.
On offense, the biggest need was finding an appropriate complement to Calvin Johnson. Megatron had another outstanding season, but Matthew Stafford had very few options outside of Johnson and his two running backs. Nate Burleson was released, and the rest of the Lions’ receiving corps is not ready to take on #2 wide receiver responsibilities.
OUTCOME: Detroit has been relatively quiet thus far in free agency, but made a big splash by signing Golden Tate from Seattle (5 years, $31M). Tate provides a young but experienced receiver that can line up opposite Johnson or set up in the slot. Tate has the potential to be a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses due to his versatility, and can easily open up the field for Megatron and the Lions running backs. If Tate can add to the offense what Reggie Bush added this past season, the Lions could have one of the best offensive attacks in the league.
While the Lions have addressed their offensive needs (as well as their coaching vacancies), the secondary remains a trouble spot. Strong safety James Ihedigbo signed a two-year contract on Tuesday, but no other moves have been made to shore up a porous secondary. The Lions will undoubtedly look toward the draft to fill that need, with CBs Justin Gilbert and Darqueze Dennard appearing frequently on mock draft boards.
Green Bay Packers
WHAT NEEDS FIXING: Honestly, Aaron Rodgers’ shoulder needed fixing. Had he not broken his collarbone midway through 2013, the Packers would have run away with the division. Instead, they accepted a late Christmas present from the Lions and entered the playoff picture in Week 17.
For the Packers to regain their NFC North dominance, their defense will have to step up. The Packers ranked 24th in the NFL in passing yards per game allowed (247.3 ypg), 25th in rushing yards allowed (125.0 ypg), and tied for 21st in takeaways (22). All that said, though, the potential is still there for this unit to turn it around in 2014. Clay Matthews battled thumb injuries all season, and linebackers Mike Neal and Nick Perry both missed time throughout the season, forcing the Packers to work short-staffed into the playoffs.
OUTCOME: What have the Packers done to fix their defense? Signing Julius Peppers was a start. Peppers (3 years, $30M) will provide a dominating veteran presence at defensive end, and should work well with a re-signed B.J. Raji to create a solid line. Green Bay has also brought back cornerback Sam Shields, who led the team with four interceptions in 2013.
Truth be told, the Packers’ biggest concern was getting healthy, and with a full offseason to recover from the defense’s injury problems, this unit should be fine come September. But adding a guy like Peppers never hurts. Still, defense will be the Packers’ top priority come Draft Day—look for Green Bay to select a defensive back to replace M.D. Jennings at safety or a corner to groom alongside Shields.
WHAT NEEDS FIXING: Everything. But seriously—pieces are starting to fall into place, but are still a long way away from being playoff-ready. Adrian Peterson continues to dominate, and 2013 first-round draft pick Cordarrelle Patterson looks like a star in the making. So what do the Vikings need to make that next step?
The Vikings defense ranked next-to-last in passing yards allowed per game (287.2 ypg), and allowed fewer than 20 points just once all season (against the Lions, of course). Their offense struggled to find an identity outside of Peterson, as three different quarterbacks fought for the starting job throughout the season. As a result, Matt Cassel led the team in passing yards with 1,807—nearly 3,000 yards less than Detroit’s Matthew Stafford—and Greg Jennings led the Vikings receivers with 68 receptions and 804 yards.
This team needs a leader.
OUTCOME: The Vikings have taken a step backward this offseason with some key free agent departures. Starting linebacker Erin Henderson was cut after two arrests in a two-month span, and Wednesday brought the official departure of Jared Allen—the defense’s lifeblood—to the Chicago Bears.
To try and fill those holes, the Vikings have re-signed defensive end Everson Griffen, and agreed to a five-year, $31.5M deal with defensive tackle Linval Joseph. Free agent corner Captain Munnerlyn (3 years, $14.3M) has also been brought in to help improve the secondary, as well as a potential turnaround in cornerback Derek Cox. With new head coach Mike Zimmer, this team will be a lot more defensive-minded.
Now if only they had a real NFL quarterback to lead them… sorry Matt Cassel, you’re just not going to cut it.