NFC North Tour: Free Agent Edition

The NFC North insiders for – John Crist in Chicago, Nate Caminata in Detroit, Bill Huber in Green Bay, and Tim Yotter in Minnesota – convened to give their views on all the news and notes with regard to the first week of free agency. Who are the winners and losers so far in the division?

Chicago Bears

The Monsters of the Midway have all kinds of holes to plug on both sides of the football coming off a second consecutive postseason-less campaign, but there does not appear to be much of a sense of urgency at Halas Hall.

WR Marty Booker
Rex Arbogast/AP Images

General manager Jerry Angelo has signed only one free agent since the green flag was dropped this past Friday, and that was career reserve offensive lineman Frank Omiyale. As for the departures of note, Marty Booker's second tour of duty in the Windy City proved to be less fruitful than the first, catching only 14 balls for 211 yards and two touchdowns in 2008 – the former Pro Bowler was released Feb. 13.

The Bears need immediate help at wide receiver and safety, but nary a move has been made to address them. A secondary ball-carrier behind Matt Forte also would be a quality addition, although the front office has done nothing more than extend an offer to last season's little-used backup, Kevin Jones. And while most experts believe a pass-rushing end would give this defense a long-overdue shot in the arm, coach Lovie Smith appears happy with his three-man rotation of Alex Brown, Adewale Ogunleye and Mark Anderson.

It's been speculated that Angelo doesn't have the cash to spend at will on the open market, even though the team started free agency about $30 million under the salary cap, meaning April's draft will take on added importance in Chicago.

Detroit Lions

Detroit recently agreed to deals with defensive tackle Grady Jackson and cornerback Phillip Buchanon and acquired a starting-caliber cornerback, Anthony Henry, in exchange for quarterback Jon Kitna, who they would have released in early March anyway.

CB Anthony Henry
Doug Benc/Getty Images

Essentially, they've shored up several holes on the defense in just one week, spending little of their massive salary cap space to do so, and still have April to look forward to with the first and 20th picks of the first round.

Matt Millen, eat your heart out.

The Lions are doing everything they said they would – a small but effective free-agent splash, while using the draft to build their team. It is an effective (and the only proven) way to build an NFL contender, and it only took Detroit 50 years to figure it out. Color us impressed.

Green Bay Packers

Packers general manager Ted Thompson has taken his usual wait-and-see approach to free agency. Thus far, all of that waiting has resulted in him seeing the top players sign elsewhere.

The Packers entered free agency about $30 million below the salary cap and requiring help for their new 3-4 defense, especially up front. Well, after the first six days of free agency, they're still about $30 million under the cap, and they've actually had their line get worse since they were unable to retain tackle Colin Cole, who signed with Seattle. Coupled with entering the fray too late for defensive end Chris Canty, who signed with the Giants, the Packers are forced to rebuild their defense through the free-agent scraps or bank on their ability to get the guys they need in the draft.

DT Colin Cole
Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images

All of which has upped the rancor heaped upon Thompson, whose popularity has taken a three-pronged hit with the Justin Harrell disaster, the Brett Favre debacle and a seven-win plunge in the standings.

It's fine to build through the draft, the critics say, but you need to do better than get an average linebacker with the No. 5-overall pick (A.J. Hawk, 2006) and you can't waste a first-round pick on someone with a lengthy injury history (Harrell, 2007).

Which is all well and good, but, as Thompson said, every player signed in free agency might mean a player on your own roster that can't be retained. With Nick Collins, Greg Jennings and Aaron Kampman leading a lengthy list of front-line players who will be free agents after 2009, Thompson seems content to save the money to sign them and go bargain hunting if opportunity knocks.

Minnesota Vikings

The Vikings started free agency trying to upgrade their quarterback situation and completed a trade for Sage Rosenfels when free agency opened. Shortly after that, the team was rumored to be interested in trading for the disgruntled Jay Cutler as well, but the Broncos have publicly put an end to the Cutler trade talks and said a meeting is scheduled for next week to smooth the troubled waters between the young franchise quarterback and the young new coach, Josh McDaniels.

QB Sage Rosenfels
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

The Vikings made a strong play to improve their passing game when they wined and dined wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh. However, after whisking him into town on owner Zygi Wilf's private jet and making an offer, Houshmandzadeh pondered his options and chose to sign with Seattle for a longer (and likely more lucrative) contract, citing the Vikings' quarterback situation as a primary reason for his decision.

Minnesota was able to re-sign one of its free agents, veteran blocking tight end Jim Kleinsasser, with a three-year, $9 million contract. But the team received a significant blow Wednesday when Pro Bowl center Matt Birk chose a three-year, $12 million offer from the Baltimore Ravens.

Considering the addition of Rosenfels, retention of Kleinsasser and loss of Birk, the Vikings have significant holes to fill at center and right tackle and could use upgrades at wide receiver and depth at cornerback. The free-agent market isn't holding a great deal of front-line talent, so the Vikings may have to wait for the draft or consider trade options to fill their most pressing needs.

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