The Bears are thinking championship in 2012. The club started the season 7-3 last year before injuries derailed the campaign. With the core of that roster back, as well as numerous offseason additions, the team believes it is ready to make a real run at the second Super Bow title in club history. Yet whether or not they attain that goal will depend on how the team answers three questions: Can the offensive line, which has not received any significant upgrades, protect Jay Cutler? Can the aging defense continue to play at a high level? And will Matt Forte play under the franchise tag? If they can answer in the affirmative to all three, the Bears should be able to make a deep playoff run this season.
Biggest addition: In an offseason where new GM Phil Emery signed 11 veteran free agents, the most-significant move came in the trade for receiver Brandon Marshall. He and Cutler have a past history of success that, if repeated in the Windy City, will take Chicago's passing attack to the next level.
Biggest loss: The Bears were unable to retain defensive tackle Amobi Okoye, who signed with the Buccaneers, leaving a gaping hole on the defensive line. Okoye and starting 3-technique tackle Henry Melton combined for 11.0 sacks last year, the most by any Chicago DT duo in more than 15 years. The club still has not found Okoye's replacement, which could seriously compromise the team's pass rush.
Prior to the 2011 season, it was understood that the Lions' hopes would hinge on the arm of oft-injured QB Matthew Stafford. Over 5,000 passing yards later, the franchise was awarded with its first playoff berth in over 10 years, and appear destined to make another deep post-season run in 2012. A top five performing offense returns, buoyed by the dynamic combination of Stafford and wide receiver Calvin Johnson, who proved virtually unstoppable last season. Defensively, the Lions are anchored by Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley in the middle, and re-signed middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch, a key piece the team hopes will help improve upon last year's 23rd ranked unit. There are concerns, however. Lions didn't address a shaky secondary from a season ago, and immaturity that surfaced last year carried over into the off-season, including the drug-related arrests of three of the team's 2011 rookie class. If the Lions can grow up, and meet the expectations they're sure to encounter, the sky is the limit for the ball club.
Biggest addition: The Detroit Lions haven't had a quantifiable middle linebacker in years, but liked what they saw in veteran Stephen Tulloch, who signed a one-year deal with the team last year. Tulloch enjoyed his productive campaign so much he opted to ink a multi-year extension, rather than depart via free-agency. With a division rife with cranial signal callers, the Lions return a veritable and veteran presence to help direct the team's defensive unit in 2012.
Biggest loss: The Lions lost Eric Wright in free-agency to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Although Wright wasn't necessarily spectacular during his stint in Detroit, he did nab four interceptions and record 73 tackles, production the team will have to replace with a combination of rookies, free agent acquisitions, and Wright's back-ups from a season ago.
The Packers' 15-win season was a house of cards, with the weight of a Super Bowl repeat resting almost completely on Aaron Rodgers and the passing game. When the second-highest-scoring offense in NFL history sputtered against the Giants, the Packers went from 15-1 to one-and-done in the playoffs. While "defense wins championships" isn't exactly true, the Packers had nothing to fall back on against New York. So, general manager Ted Thompson, who had traded up three times in his first seven drafts, moved up three times last month. His first six picks were used on defensive players. Three of those players were selected in hopes of providing a dramatic upgrade to the NFL's worst pass rush in terms of sacks per passing attempt: USC's Nick Perry in the first round, Michigan State's Jerel Worthy in the second round and Iowa's Mike Daniels in the fourth round. Thompson's pass rush, pass rush, pass rush draft was reminiscent of 1998, when his mentor, Ron Wolf, selected cornerbacks in each of the first three rounds to combat Randy Moss.
Biggest addition: When the Packers won the Super Bowl, Clay Matthews and Cullen Jenkins helped them finish second in the league in sacks. Jenkins jumped ship to Philadelphia and the pass rush — and defense as a whole — sank like the Titanic. The Packers desperately need a sidekick to Matthews, and they hope they've got it in Perry, who is the first player in USC history to win the conference's outright sacks title. He's 271 pounds, ran a 4.58 40-yard dash and put up 35 reps on the bench at the Scouting Combine. If all of that translates to the NFL, Green Bay's defense could soar up the rankings.
Biggest loss: The lack of a pass rush wasn't the only issue with the defense. The secondary simply couldn't cope without three-time Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins, who sustained a career-threatening neck injury in Week 2. The Packers released Collins just before the draft and added two options to possibly upgrade over Charlie Peprah. Option 1 is fourth-round pick Jerron McMillian of Maine, a three-year starter who tested out as the most athletic safety at the Combine. Option 2 is Charles Woodson, though that depends on whether second-round pick Casey Hayward is capable of taking over for Woodson at cornerback.
The Vikings are well on their way to becoming one of the youngest teams in the NFL. After being the third-oldest team to start the 2010 season, the slash and burn of veterans in their 30s has been pronounced since the exit of Brad Childress as head coach. Brett Favre was just the start of the changes. From Pat Williams, Ben Leber, E.J. Henderson and Madieu Williams on defense to Favre, Donovan McNabb, Steve Hutchinson, Anthony Herrera, Bryant McKinnie, Visanthe Shiancoe, Jim Kleinsasser and Bernard Berrian on offense, the Vikings have undergone quite the transformation and rebuilding project as players in their 30s were shown the door throughout the roster. It might take another year to come together, especially with new offensive and defensive coordinators each of the last two offseasons, but the Vikings believe they will be more athletic and more secure in their long-term future.
Biggest addition: With Kleinsasser (retired) and Shiancoe (still on the free-agent market) out, the Vikings' biggest offseason signing in a lackluster foray was former Seattle Seahawks tight end John Carlson. He admits to being no Kleinsasser in the blocking department, but if he can return to the form he showed coming out of Notre Dame, he and fellow former Fighting Irish Kyle Rudolph should form quite a pass-catching tight end tandem.
Biggest loss: All of the Vikings' losses this offseason have been by choice, but while first-year defensive coordinator Alan Williams installs his philosophies into the scheme, they have a new "quarterback of the defense." Henderson is still looking for work, but the Vikings are prepared to have Jasper Brinkley (with four starts in 2009) and free-agent signee Marvin Mitchell battle for the middle linebacker spot.
Jeremy Stoltz is publisher of Bear Report, Nate Caminata is publisher of Roar Report, Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report and Tim Yotter is publisher of Vikings Update.