The Lions, with $17 million plus in dead money, didn’t have much cap space to make a splash in free agency and hope that some of their draft picks can contribute early to make up for the some significant free-agent losses.
The Bears will have a much different look on defense after gains and losses in free agency, but first-round pick Kevin White could be the key to their season in giving Jay Cutler another big target after the loss of Brandon Marshall.
The Vikings settled for much of their personnel upgrades in the draft and will need those picks to quickly acclimate if they want to challenge the Packers.
Where does that leave the NFC North after a busy offseason? Well, the Packers are still the Las Vegas favorite to win the division with few changes in their starting lineup, while the others are hoping change is good.
Vegas over/under on 2015 wins: 7
Top free agent signings: The Bears’ top free-agent signing already turned out to be a bust, as they took a gamble on Ray McDonald staying out of trouble and he was arrested for domestic violence before they even reach minicamp, causing the Bears to release him before he even had a full-pads practice. After losing DTs Henry Melton (Tampa Bay) and Stephen Paea (Washington) in free agency, the McDonald blunder could prove costly. That will put more pressure on their other defensive signings, DE Pernell McPhee (Baltimore), LB Sam Acho (Arizona) and LB Mason Foster (Tampa Bay), to perform big. S Antrel Rolle (New York Giants) was also added to a defense in overhaul mode after CB Charles Tillman signed with Carolina. On offense, the Bears are incorporating a shift at center with the signing Will Montgomery (Denver) and trade of WR Brandon Marshall.
Needs entering draft: NT, WR, S, QB, CB
Draft picks: First-round WR Kevin White should more than make up for the loss of Marshall and create an imposing tandem with Alshon Jeffery. Adding Eddie Goldman in the second round could provide some relief after losing Melton and Paea in free agency. The rest of the picks will be mainly for depth, with third-round C Hroniss Grasu pushing Montgomery and fifth-rounder Adrian Amos could vie for a safety spot.
What’s left at need areas: White is the only surefire starter from the draft, but the offensive line and running game need to improve, as does the 30th-ranked pass defense in 2014. How much Will McDonald’s release hurt the defensive line and can the linebackers hold up? The Bears appear to be paying for allowing their defense to get old over the past five years and it could take time to rebuild.
Vegas over/under on 2015 wins: 8
Top free agent signings: When the Lions realized they were going to be losing top free agent NT Ndamukong Suh as well as Nick Fairley in free agency, they traded for NT Haloti Ngata, a solid consolation prize. But with all that change in the middle of the defensive line, the Lions’ top-ranked rush defense from 2014 will be in jeopardy. Tight up against the salary cap, most of the Lions’ signings were for depth – re-signing DE George Johnson, CB Rashean Mathis and starting center Dominic Raiola. The losses, however, outweighed the gains, losing Suh, Fairley, RB Reggie Bush (San Francisco) and FB Jed Collins (Dallas).
Needs entering draft: DT, RB, S, QB, CB
Draft picks: Eventually, first-round pick Laken Tomlinson should be a starter at guard for the Lions, and they could use that infusion quickly into last year’s 28th-ranked rushing offense. But the reality is the Lions might not have an immediate starter in their draft haul, as second-round RB Ameer Abdullah isn’t an every-down back.
What’s left at need areas: The Lions waited until the fourth round to address defensive tackle with Auburn’s Gabe Wright, and their pass defense also waited for entering talent until third-round CB Alex Carter and sixth-round S Quandre Diggs. The Lions also passed on a deep class of receivers to supplement the starting duo of Golden Tate and Calvin Johnson.
Vegas over/under on 2015 wins: 11
Top free agent signings: It was typical Green Bay in free agency, re-signing their own top guys and refusing to spend on outside players. Simply retaining WR Randall Cobb, OT Bryan Bulaga, FB John Kuhn and DT B.J. Raji were wins, but there were some noteworthy losses – CB Tramon Williams, LB A.J. Hawk (Cincinnati) and CB Davon House (Jacksonville).
Needs entering draft: LB, CB, TE, NT, S, QB
Draft picks: The Packers went with back-to-back first-round picks at safety over the last two years. After using their first-rounder in 2014 on HaHa Clinton-Dix, their top choice in 2015 was Damarious Randall. Since they protected their offensive talent in free agency, going defense in the draft was sensible, adding CB Quinten Rollins and LB Jake Ryan in the second and fourth rounds, respectively. The selection of QB Brett Hundley in the fifth round was good value to develop behind Aaron Rodgers.
What’s left at need areas: The front seven might still be a bit suspect if Julius Pepper sees the effects of age catch up with him soon, but the Packers wisely addressed their secondary and likely added two eventual starters in Randall and Rollins. Tight end and a couple of linebacker spots remain their biggest question marks.
Vegas over/under on 2015 wins: 7
Top free agent signings: The Vikings were more reserved than ever in free agency, with most of their signings expected to only add depth, not starters. QB Shaun Hill takes over the veteran mentor role for Matt Cassel (traded to Bills), while CB Terence Newman and LB Casey Matthews will be battling for a roster spot as much as a starting spot. The losses were also minor: QB Christian Ponder, FB Jerome Felton, G Vladimir Ducasse, DE Corey Wootton and LB Jasper Brinkley.
Needs entering draft: CB, LB, WR, S, OL, RB, QB
Draft picks: Despite a need at receiver, the Vikings wisely shored up two problem areas on defense, cornerback (Trae Waynes, first round) and middle linebacker (Eric Kendricks, second round). They continued their defensive theme through the third round with raw pass rusher Danielle Hunter before addressing a shaky offensive line with three picks there – T.J. Clemmings, Tyrus Thompson and Austin Shepherd – on the third day.
What’s left at need areas: Their need at receiver will hinge on the continued emergence of Charles Johnson and the ability of Cordarrelle Patterson to become more consistent. But the offense needs to take a significant step forward from its 27th ranking in 2014 and that will largely depend on Adrian Peterson’s return and Teddy Bridgewater’s progression.
NFC EAST | NFC WEST