After five straight playoff appearances and three straight division titles, Green Bay still stands apart in talent from their rivals. The Packers will never be more ripe to be dethroned than they were in 2013 when Aaron Rodgers missed seven games. Green Bay wasn't a particularly good team when they won the division; they were just fortunate to play in a division caught in a down cycle.
Minnesota and Detroit are starting over with new coaching staffs, the telltale sign of franchises in transition. The Lions have the talent base and the quarterback to bounce back quickly, but they've only produced one winning season in the Calvin Johnson era. Chicago has a quality coach and quarterback in place, but their defense ranks among the league's worst groups.
This free agency period hasn't changed the division dynamic dramatically. The Packers brought in Julius Peppers, but mostly focused on re-signing their own players. The Bears made big changes in an effort to re-make the roster, but it's still a team in transition. They lost almost as much talent as they signed. Minnesota and Detroit mostly made cosmetic changes.
To truly make up ground in the division, someone other than Packers general manager Ted Thompson needs to hit a home run in the upcoming draft. The Lions, Vikings and Bears likely won't have the benefit of Scott Tolzien and Matt Flynn starting games for the Packers this time around.
In our Roster Reset series, Around the League will rank teams in each division based on how much they improved this offseason. The NFC North is up last.
1. Green Bay Packers
Why the rest of the division should worry: Rodgers isn't the only Packers starter returning to the field. Green Bay missed scores of games from Clay Matthews, Bryan Bulaga, Randall Cobb, Casey Hayward, Nick Perry, Jerel Worthy and more. Our roster reset exercise is about what teams have improved. The Packers got better by getting healthier, and re-signing more key players than expected.
Cornerback Sam Shields cost a lot to bring back, but he was the team's best player at his position. Mike Neal is the type of young, promising player we expected to get more money elsewhere in free agency. B.J. Raji returned at a discount price, while James Starks and John Kuhn add depth to a suddenly dangerous backfield. Signing Julius Peppers was the type of high-risk, high-reward gambit Thompson rarely tries. And he made sure it wasn't too risky since it's essentially a one-year contract.
» More OL help: The Packers could be looking for a starter at center and it wouldn't be crazy to add another option at tackle. It's hard to count on David Bakhtiari as an indefinite solution on the blind side.
» Safety:Micah Hyde could move to safety, but the Packers still need help here after giving up way too many big plays last year.
» Sign a wide receiver long term: The Packers probably can't sign both Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson this offseason, but they should get one big contract done. The team's depth at wide receiver makes the current hole at tight end not look quite as bad.
2. Chicago Bears
Why they improved: The Bears knew what wasn't working on their defense. Lamarr Houston, Jared Allen and Willie Young are an upgrade on Julius Peppers, Henry Melton and Corey Wootton. Melton didn't play last year. The Bears' defense lacked an identity last season, unless that identity was "give up a lot of points." Now they have identified players to fix a broken defensive line, even if there are big problems elsewhere on the defense.
Coach Marc Trestman's ability to teach quarterbacks will help whoever they bring in to replace Josh McCown as their backup quarterback. At safety, the Bears went with quantity over quality by bringing in Ryan Mundy, M.D. Jennings and Danny McCray. Devin Hester was an emotional departure, not an impactful one.
» Everything defense: We could pick a position or five (defensive tackle, safety to start), but it's not about the position. It's about finding young talent. The Bears need players to build around at every defensive position because their best players are veterans like Lance Briggs.
» Backup skill positions: Chicago's offensive line looks good and their starting lineup is formidable. But they have practically no one behind Jay Cutler and Matt Forte. (Josh Freeman would fit well here.) The team could also use another option at No. 3 receiver.
3. Minnesota Vikings
The team put huge faith in Everson Griffen, giving him $20 million guaranteed. That contract looked worse as the pass rusher market played out in free agency. Defensive tackle Linval Joseph and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn were both smart signings, solid veterans that can capably start. Guard Vlad Ducasse, cornerback Derek Cox and defensive tackle Corey Wootton were reasonable, low-cost gambits. The team will miss Jared Allen, and needs to replace Toby Gerhart at running back.
This was a solid offseason thus far for Minnesota. They know they can't solve their roster in one month.
» Draft a quarterback: They were burned by Christian Ponder, but can't let that scare them from drafting a quarterback every season until they find one that sticks. Teddy Bridgewater could fit in Turner's system well.
» Find secondary help: Zimmer has a great track record coaching up defensive backs. He still might need two starters, one at cornerback and safety.
» See if Kyle Rudolph will sign team-friendly deal: He's only going to get more expensive after a year under tight end-friendly Turner.
4. Detroit Lions
Why they took a small step back: They have inexperienced coordinators on both sides of the ball. Golden Tate was a solid addition to the offense, but it's not like he's an above-average NFL starter out wide. The next biggest addition was ... James Ihedigbo?
Detroit didn't lose a ton to the market, but safety Louis Delmas, quarterback Shaun Hill and defensive end Willie Young had their moments. The Lions are betting on their new staff to develop their significant talent because the starting lineup won't be too different.
» Sign Ndamukong Suh:Calvin Johnson, Matthew Stafford and Ndamukong Suh are an incredible trio, but they take up a huge portion of the Lions' salary cap. A long-term deal for Suh should happen, and should help position the team for 2015.
» Find cornerbacks: They have thrown a lot of different options against the wall, and little has stuck.
» More outside pass rushers: Detroit has a lot of potential here with Ziggy Ansah, Devin Taylor and Jason Jones, but not much to rely on. Consider it a good thing that the Lions don't have a more pressing concern than this. This is the second-best roster in the division. Getting them to play up to their talent is the tricky part.
The latest edition of the "Around The League Podcast" covers the Aldon Smith arrest and analyzes the offseason movers and shakers in the NFC East and NFC South.