Wyche: AFC divisional challengers
Every general manager and coach spends the offseason re-tooling his roster to win the division, upgrading talent as best they can. That's why as much as the draft and free agency appear to be dealing with addressing in-house needs, they're also means to counter opponents or add elements to put teams within the division on notice.
There will be change. There always is. So let's take a look to see if 2011 division champs in the NFC did enough this offseason to fend off other teams' roster fortifications.
Defending champion: New York Giants.
New York was a 9-7 team that got hot at the right time last season. The Giants lost running back Brandon Jacobs, wideout Mario Manningham and cornerback Aaron Ross this offseason. They added tight end Martellus Bennett in free agency and traded for linebacker Keith Rivers -- both contributors if not starters. In drafting RB David Wilson, WR Rueben Randle and CB Jayron Hosleyin the first three rounds, the Giants fortified depth, which is what they do. Key players from last year's draft class, CB Prince Amukamara, DT Marvin Austin and WR Jerrel Jernigan, will play big roles in 2012.
Biggest threat, based on offseason moves: Philadelphia Eagles.
The Eagles didn't make a huge free-agent splash like they did last season and they traded CB Asante Samuel to the Atlanta Falcons. The addition of LB DeMeco Ryans is a major move. He is a leader and all-over-the-field playmaker. Rookie defenders Fletcher Cox, Vinny Curry, Mychal Kendricks and Brandon Boykin could be impactful rotational players right off the bat.
Defending champion: Green Bay Packers.
Green Bay went 15-1 and got tripped up in the playoffs after the tragic death of offensive coordinator Joe Philbin's son mentally affected the organization. Losing center Scott Wells could disrupt chemistry, but replacing him with a true pro like Jeff Saturday should prevent a major dropoff. Green Bay spent its first six draft picks on defenders, with OLB/DE Nick Perry and DT Jerel Worthy its top two selections. If the Packers don't improve their pass rush, they could be highly vulnerable in the NFL's most competitive division.
Biggest threat, based on offseason moves: Chicago Bears.
Chicago was arguably one of the NFL's most dangerous teams last season before QB Jay Cutler and RB Matt Forte got hurt. Settling things contractually with Forte is a must, but the Bears got themselves insurance by signing RB Michael Bush (as well as backup quarterback Jason Campbell) in free agency. The trade with Miami for WR Brandon Marshall gives Cutler a legit target and puts pressure on the suspect pass defenses in the division. Defensive end Shea McClellin and wide receiver Alshon Jeffery will be immediate contributors, but steering clear of offensive line in the draft was a huge question mark.
Defending champion: New Orleans Saints.
The bounty scandal has engulfed the franchise. How will this team adjust to the season-long suspensions of coach Sean Payton and defensive captain Jonathan Vilma? The Drew Brees contract situation is dicey now, but should get handled. The Saints are in uncharted waters, but they have a strong nucleus of leadership, experience and talent -- especially on offense.
Biggest threat, based on offseason moves: Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Yes, Carolina is getting better and Atlanta will be good again, but the Bucs added a pair of offensive pieces in free agency (former Saints G Carl Nicks and ex-Chargers WR Vincent Jackson) that provide major talent upgrades. The draft selections of safety Mark Barron in the first round and LB Lavonte David in the second plugged major holes. Former Boise State RB Doug Martin is a complete player and will take some shine from LeGarrette Blount. If this young but talented team matures and takes to new coach Greg Schiano, the Bucs could make a huge leap right away.
Defending champion: San Francisco 49ers.
Quarterback Alex Smith finally settled in and succeeded, largely because he didn't turn the ball over. San Francisco added veteran WRs Randy Moss and Manningham in free agency and drafted Illinois' A.J. Jenkins in the first round to enhance the passing game. It also bolstered an already strong running attack by signing Brandon Jacobs and drafting game-breaker LaMichael James. Retaining in-house free agents Carlos Rogers and Dashon Goldson keeps a frightening defense intact.
Biggest threat, based on offseason moves: Seattle Seahawks.
The gap in the division still seems wide, with the 49ers being a clear frontrunner, but the Seahawks could be a dangerous sleeper. Free-agent signee Matt Flynn will push Tarvaris Jackson at quarterback, but Flynn's no shoo-in to start. Linebacker draft picks Bruce Irvin and Bobby Wagner are under the radar, but with how Pete Carroll is building on that side of the ball, he'll certainly find ways to make them useful.