After winning the NFC North in 2015, the Minnesota Vikings won just two of six games in the division last season.
All four teams entered the offseason expected to be buyers, with good amounts of cap room and plenty of needs. So let’s have a look at how the Packers, Lions and Bears have faired so far in free agency:
The Packers are getting very poor reviews from analysts because of their lack of improvement on defense. Last season, Green Bay gave up the most Yards Per Attempt of any team in the NFL and allowed the seventh best QB rating against, yet they only move they have made is signing corner Devon House. But they lost solid corner Micah Hyde to Buffalo. While Aaron Rodgers’ weapons improved with a terrific tight end, his protection got worse by losing TJ Lang.
Key additions: TE – Martellus Bennett, TE – Lance Kendricks, CB – Devon House
Key losses: RG – TJ Lang, RB – Eddie Lacy, CB – Micah Hyde, DE – Julius Peppers
What’s left to do: Find more defensive backs
It’s rather stunning that the Packers weren’t named in connection with every top corner and safety after their performance in the playoffs. They were manhandled by the Atlanta Falcons and nearly allowed the Dallas Cowboys to have a miraculous comeback – both because of a very poor secondary. Usually cornerbacks take a few years to mature, so drafting one to start is no sure thing. The market still has a few solid players left in the secondary, with Nickell Robey-Coleman, Ladarius Webb and Brandon Flowers still remaining.
Detroit’s ability to protect Matthew Stafford was much better last season than it was in 2015, but the Lions upgraded even more by signing Rick Wagner and TJ Lang. While Riley Reiff had been a solid left tackle, he wasn’t as adept at right tackle and the Lions had no plans to move him back after a good rookie debut from Taylor Decker. At right tackle, Warford had shown signs of being an above average guard, but didn’t quite have Lang’s resume of strong play. Like the Packers, it’s astounding that the Lions haven’t worked to improve their pass defense. They were dead last in QB rating allowed last season.
Key additions: RT – Rick Wagner, RG – TJ Lang, CB – DJ Hayden
Key losses: RT/LT Riley Reiff, RG Larry Warford
What’s left to do: Sign/draft defensive linemen
Free agency had a number of good defensive linemen available and the Lions didn’t seem to actively chase any of them. Players like Chris Baker, Dontari Poe, Brandon Williams, Calias Campbell, Lorenzo Alexander, Nick Perry, Chandler Jones and so on were all on the market, it seemed inevitable Detroit would sign one of them after ranking second to last in sacks and giving up the ninth most Yards Per Carry. Now the market is mostly bare, so unless they find some underrated gems, the Lions will have to rely on the draft to improve defensively.
Chicago didn’t go crazy on the free agent market, bringing in mostly low-risk, high reward players, including quarterback Mike Glennon. As much as the deal became a punchline for some, he’s more or less on a one-year tryout as the Bears look for Jay Cutler’s replacement. Kendall Wright has the potential to be an excellent receiver if he’s healthy, but he’s not Alshon Jeffery, who left to sign with the Eagles. As far as rebuilding teams go, the Bears took a pretty smart approach by not throwing money at aging players.
Key additions: QB – Mike Glennon, WR – Markus Wheaton, WR – Kendall Wright
Key losses: WR – Alshon Jeffery
What’s left to do: Draft a quarterback
Sure, it’s possible Glennon is the next Vinny Testaverde, but pretty unlikely. They should be considered favorites for DeShaun Watson or Mitch Trubisky. If there isn’t a quarterback in this draft that the Bears are high on, they should draft a defensive player and aim for the bottom again next year to draft a QB at the top in 2017.
Fans of the Packers, Lions and Bears all had big dreams when free agency opened, but all three have left some to be desired, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Last year, Sam Bradford faced the worst defenses by QB rating of any of the top 15 quarterbacks in the league and it’s very possible that he might again if the other three teams in the division don’t make more moves. Still, life got a littler harder on the Vikings’ defense against the Lions and Packers. Eric Kendricks and Harrison Smith will have their hands full with Martellus Bennett twice next season and Matthew Stafford will be better protected and possibly have a competent running game. The bottom line is: None of these teams has gotten so much better than last year through free agency that they should be runaway favorites over Minnesota in projected standings.