Our Roster Reset series takes a division-by-division look at where things stand across the league heading into the 2020 NFL Draft. Grant Gordon examines the current makeup of the NFC North below.
The Green Bay Packers have hardly made the same offseason splash this year as they did in 2019, when they broke from their typical free agency dormancy to sign several high-profiled players -- Preston Smith, Za'Darius Smith, Adrian Amos -- who would propel the team to the division title and an NFC Championship Game appearance. And yet, somehow Green Bay seems to have widened its advantage in the NFC North, as the Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings have all made their share of puzzling additions and suffered noteworthy subtractions.
The draft is just around the corner, and admittedly a lot can happen between now and Week 1, but it certainly seems like the Packers are again the favorite to take the division, which would make them the first repeat champion in the NFC North since they won four straight from 2011 to '14.
With a defensive-minded coach as well-regarded as Mike Zimmer at the helm, it's difficult not to view the Vikings as a division contender or at least a wild-card favorite (especially given the extra playoff spot that's been introduced). But Minnesota will look vastly different this season after parting ways with so many veteran starters due in large part to salary cap limitations. Stefon Diggs is just one of the several key contributors the Vikings will have to replace in the coming months, a task made all the more difficult due to the uncertainty surrounding offseason programs. This will be a huge draft for the Vikings -- in the number of picks (12 total) and their importance (five in the first three rounds).
The Bears have done nothing to improve upon their offensive line woes and might have taken a step back on defense, seeing some key players in the secondary leave in free agency. In the eyes of many, though, success in 2020 hinges on what becomes of the quarterback position now that Nick Foles is on the roster. Two seasons ago, the Bears fielded a Super Bowl-caliber defense but exited the playoff tournament after just one game due to a sputtering offense, quarterbacked by Mitchell Trubisky, and a double doink. After Trubisky -- and the offense as a whole, save for Allen Robinson -- struggled to a greater degree in 2019, a change was called for and general manager Ryan Pace traded for Foles. A statue exists outside Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia to commemorate Foles' postseason glory, but he'll be on his third team in as many seasons when the 2020 campaign kicks off. An all-too-often head-shaking kicking competition commanded Chi-Town headlines prior to last season, and this time around it will be a QB battle that will be the prevailing storyline.
This is a pivotal offseason for Lions coach Matt Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn in the aftermath of a 12-defeat season in which owner Martha Ford made her expectations of being a playoff contender known. Though there's been plenty of change this offseason, there has hardly been much to get the Detroit faithful excited. The Lions' most notable move was trading Darius Slay to the Eagles. Slay is a talented cornerback who didn't mince words when asked about his feelings toward Patricia. Considering that fractured relationship, Slay's big contract and his lackluster 2019 season (his 56.4 grade, per Pro Football Focus, ranked 98th among cornerbacks, min. 200 snaps), his departure might not be as big a loss as some believe and it will be offset to a degree by the addition of Desmond Trufant. Jamie Collins looked like a 2019 Defensive Player of the Year candidate for New England for a good chunk of last season, but faltered late to the point of being benched. And losing Graham Glasgow at guard essentially doubled an area of need. Much like the Vikings, Detroit's draft haul could be monumental in the franchise turning things around.
FREE AGENCY NOTABLES
As the 2019 season slipped away agonizingly week by week for the Bears, visions of a Super Bowl berth that had once danced through Chicago fans' heads turned into the reality that a return to the playoffs wasn't in the cards. For many, the narrative remains that a championship-level defense helmed by Khalil Mack is wasting away because the offense is incapable of doing even just enough. Public Enemy No. 1 in that narrative is quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. A former No. 2 overall pick infamously selected before Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson, Trubisky showed promise in the 2018 season and then regression in 2019. A closer look reveals the offense backslid as a whole, as the line struggled, the play-calling was often suspect and receiver Allen Robinson proved to be the only player boasting any kind of significant and consistent production. Enter Nick Foles. Signed by the Jaguars last offseason to turn around a struggling unit, he was injured in Week 1 and eventually lost his job outright to rookie Gardner Minshew. He finished his Jags tenure 0-4 as a starter. Many Bears fans are hoping Foles will do just enough to ensure the offense doesn't hold back the defense from carrying the team to an NFC North title and Super Bowl run. If he can't, maybe he can at least push Trubisky to improve as he perhaps did with a couple of other young gunslingers.
A second-straight 1,000-yard season (a career-high 1,130 yards, in fact) with an impressive 17.9 yards per grab marked Stefon Diggs' final season in Minnesota. It started slowly and included Diggs voicing his displeasure with his situation. It ended with one of Kirk Cousins' finest seasons. The cap-strapped Vikings saved some cash and perhaps alleviated some disharmony by moving Diggs, but the receiver's contributions as one-half of arguably the most talented receiving duo with Adam Thielen aren't easily replaceable. The Vikings signed Tajae Sharpe in March, but it's hard to see how the fourth-year receiver, who has averaged just 389 yards per season, provides a meaningful punch in 2020. With a stud at running back in Dalvin Cook, Thielen and a pair of terrific tight ends in Kyle Rudolph and Irv Smith Jr., there's hardly a dearth of offensive options for Cousins. Nevertheless, losing an outstanding talent like Diggs is a giant departure, creating a need and making the offense a lot less dangerous. It also makes the rest of the division's cornerbacks a lot more comfortable.
Released by Cleveland following back-to-back injury-riddled campaigns, Kirksey will now be tasked with filling the void left by Blake Martinez, who took his three consecutive 140-plus-tackle seasons with him to the New York Giants in free agency. The NFL is a fickle beast whether you're putting up big numbers or injured on the sideline, all the same. The switch from Martinez to Kirksey saved the Packers money (Kirksey signed with Green Bay for two years and $16 million, while Martinez's deal with the Giants was for three years and $30 million) and if -- granted it's a big if -- Kirksey can stay healthy, they now have a talent who had 148- and 138-tackle seasons in 2016 and 2017, respectively. Despite his lofty numbers, Martinez drew just a 58.7 grade from Pro Football Focus last season. A healthy Kirksey might not just fill in for Martinez, but could potentially surpass him in performance, too.
Chicago Bears: The departures of cornerback Prince Amukamara and safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix created two significant needs to replenish in the defensive backfield. However, with Eddie Jackson and Kyle Fuller still in tow, the Bears could choose to prioritize other areas. It would seem the team's biggest need right now is the offensive line, which took a big step back last year (from fourth in pass blocking in 2018 to 20th in 2019, per Pro Football Focus). Kyle Long's retirement doesn't help, but Long has more or less been gone for some time as he played in just 12 games over the past two seasons. Also gone are underachieving outside linebacker Leonard Floyd and overachieving inside linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski, so depth at the second level is a need Chicago could realistically fill in the draft. As the Bears are still paying off their draft debt for the Khalil Mack trade, they don't pick until Day 2, when they'll have a pair of second-round selections to use. Look for Chicago to bolster the safety and offensive line spots early. Thereafter, even with the signing of Jimmy Graham, it wouldn't be surprising in the least to see the Bears swoop in on a tight end prospect, along with searching for help at corner and depth at receiver and linebacker.
Detroit Lions:Lions general manager Bob Quinn recently said on the RapSheet and Friends podcast that he's open to trading down from the No. 3 overall pick, describing the move as "the best way to build your roster the right way." Ohio State cornerback Jeff Okudah seems like a perfect fit, as cornerback was a huge need before the departure of Darius Slay and remains one even with the addition of Desmond Trufant. But could the Lions trade down with a quarterback-needy squad and still grab Okudah? Perhaps. In addition to cornerback, the Lions are still searching for pass rush help and need to improve drastically at the guard spots. Quarterback is another position to watch; though, perhaps not with the third pick. Although Matthew Stafford was turning in one of the best seasons of his career a year ago, a back injury caught up to the 32-year-old and limited him to just eight starts. The Lions have brought on veteran backup Chase Daniel from the Bears, but the journeyman -- who turns 34 in October -- is certainly not a long-term option. Don't be surprised if Detroit seriously considers a QB in the third or fourth round.
Green Bay Packers: Coming off last season's success and coupled with some potentially key, if not celebrated acquisitions, the Packers are certainly the early favorites in the division. However, they still have needs to address heading into the draft. Perhaps atop the list is adding speed at wide receiver. Davante Adams needs some consistent help on the opposite side, and Aaron Rodgers no doubt wants another game changer on board. Allen Lazard has potential and Devin Funchess is an end-zone and possession threat, but this offense could really use speed at the position. Tight end is another weak spot at the moment, as a dependable option has been needed in Lambeau for years (sorry, Jimmy Graham). With the 30th overall pick in the draft, the Pack are expected by many draft analysts to take a receiver in a class incredibly deep at the position. Tight end, O-line and interior D-line are likely to follow after that. But don't rule out Green Bay planning for its future, as some experts, including NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah, believe the team could use its first-rounder on Rodgers' successor.
Minnesota Vikings: As up against the salary cap as the Vikings were at the start of free agency, it's still staggering to see just how much of a toll their roster has taken mostly as a means to clear space. Stefon Diggs (63), Xavier Rhodes (97), Everson Griffen (88), Trae Waynes (53), Mackensie Alexander (10), Linval Joseph (134), Andrew Sendejo (60), Josh Kline (13) -- that's 518 Vikings starts between them. The fallout leaves the team with an abundance of needs in the upcoming draft; fortunately, Minnesota has an abundance of draft capital with 12 total picks, including two late in Round 1 (Nos. 22 and 25). The most pressing concerns are along the offensive line (Kline was a starting guard), cornerback (although the group struggled last season, replacing three CBs at once is a tall order) and defensive end. And, of course, with Diggs gone and seemingly everyone touting the 2020 class as the year of the wideout, the Vikings now have a need at that spot, as well.