The NFC North has a different feel to it these days. Instead of being "The Packers and everyone else," this feels like a two-team division at the top.
The Green Bay Packers aren't defending NFC North champions for the first time in five seasons. While any team led by Aaron Rodgerswon't be anyone's underdog, the division changed significantly over the last few years. The Vikings enjoy a young quarterback and a young defense that should grow up together. Unlike the 2009-10 Bears teams that last challenged the Packers throne, this Vikings team is built to last.
That leaves the Lions and this Bears team playing catchup. Coach John Fox and general manager Ryan Pace are in year two of a full-scale rebuild. Detroit has a new general manager (Bob Quinn) and no Calvin Johnson. This is the time of year for the NFC North rivals to play catchup because they know the Packers famously sit out most of the fun in March. Let's see how each team tried to get better.
Give general manager Rick Spielman credit for transforming this roster in coach Mike Zimmer's image so quickly. This offseason echoed the no-nonsense, disciplined approach to team building that have marked the last two years.
Zimmer didn't think his team was tough enough up front on offense, so the team added mauler guard Alex Boone and Andre Smith as free agent targets. Smith could play tackle or guard, adding depth and flexibility to a tackle position that was a big problem last year. The Vikings wanted a competent safety to free up Harrison Smith, and added former Titans safety Michael Griffin. Emmanuel Lamur is a former Bengals linebacker that could be a nice role player addition. They addressed their biggest needs before the draft.
Mike Wallace didn't fit Zimmer's program, so the team admitted their mistake by releasing him. These weren't flashy moves, but they continued to get a little better.
Green Bay Packers
It made big news when Thompson dipped his toe into free agent waters by signing Jared Cook at a low rate to fill a huge need a tight end. Cook has driven us crazy for years with mental errors but Rodgers can help make anyone look good.
»Get help up the middle: Green Bay badly needs inside linebackers and could use depth at defensive tackle in the draft with Raji on hiatus.
»Double down on Sitton? Could stalwart guard Josh Sitton be the rare Packer to get a third contract with the team? He is set to hit a contract year and is a candidate for an extension.
The Bears probably had the noisiest offseason in the division. That doesn't mean they are better than they were two months ago. General manager Ryan Pace and coach John Fox seem to be embracing a full rebuild of the Lovie Smith era. Gone are productive veterans like Matt Forte and Martellus Bennett. Former big ticket free-agent signings (Jermon Bushrod) and first-round picks (Shea McClellin) are also gone.
But this is a team that knows it can't only build through the draft. There are too many holes to fill and the unofficial window to win in the NFL remains three seasons, so they know this group needs to turn it around by 2017. Linebackers Jerrell Freeman and Danny Trevathan should solve one weakness; Trevathan was one of our favorite moves of the offseason. Along with risky pickup Akiem Hicks, the Bears added veteran competence to a unit short on experience.
»Build pass rush: Defensive end remains thin even after Hicks' signing, and Chicago needs to develop a young pass rusher at outside linebacker.
»Get Kevin White up to speed: Last year's No. 7 overall pick has barely practiced as a pro, much less played in a regular season game.
»More cornerbacks: The Bears entered the offseason with most of their defense looking like a team need. That's especially true at cornerback.
The abrupt departure of a franchise icon. The change at general manager. The mismatched front office and head coach. Just one year after Detroit's best regular season in 23 years, this all feels too familiar in Detroit.
New GM Bob Quinn inherits a solid roster and a league average starting quarterback, so it's not a hopeless situation. Quinn signed a solid No. 2 receiver in Marvin Jones to help Golden Tate, and kept Haloti Ngata from leaving in free agency. Outside of those moves, most of Detroit's moves were low-risk one-year deals, with medium reward potential.