The Minnesota Vikings, who have been on the verge of dethroning the Packers the past two seasons only to succumb to late-season collapses, should be the early-season favorite to win the division after making moves to improve their problematic defense this offseason.
The free-agent signings of cornerback Fred Smoot and defensive tackle Pat Williams and the trades for linebackers Napoleon Harris and Sam Cowart dramatically changed the complexion of Minnesota's defense. Despite the trade of Randy Moss to Oakland, the Vikings should also remain a very compelling offensive team.
Free-agent wide receiver Travis Taylor was added to provide depth, and one of the draft's top receivers (Braylon Edwards or Mike Williams ) could be selected with the seventh overall pick. With a healthy Michael Bennett running the ball and quarterback Daunte Culpepper leading the way, the Vikings – barring another meltdown – should live up to their high expectations.
The Detroit Lions could be the NFC North's surprise team. Showing gradual improvement under head coach Steve Mariucci , the Lions appear poised to compete for the playoffs as a wild card.
Hard-hitting safety Kenoy Kennedy has been added to an improving Detroit defense. Offensively, the Lions upgraded the interior of the line by signing guard Rick DeMulling from Indianapolis and they added a quality quarterback in Jeff Garcia to compete with Joey Harrington. Garcia could end up as the starter due to his knowledge of the West Coast offense and his experience playing for Mariucci in San Francisco.
With a determined outlook toward the future, the Lions have built a solid foundation and don't have the numerous roster issues that have plagued the team in the past. While questions remain regarding depth at wide receiver and offensive right tackle, the Lions, with the 10th selection in the draft, should have the opportunity to select a player who will be of immediate help at either position.
Work-in-progress may be the best description of the Chicago Bears .
Head coach Lovie Smith has been proactive in his approach to improving a Bears team which was respectable on defense but almost an embarrassment on offense. With Ron Turner replacing Terry Shea as offensive coordinator, quarterback Rex Grossman returning from knee surgery and free agent Muhsin Muhammad stepping in as the No. 1 receiver, the Chicago offense should have quite a different look this season. A change in scheme and protection is expected to take the focus off an offensive line which surrendered 66 sacks, as John Tait moves from right tackle to left tackle to make room for the newly acquired Fred Miller.
In the draft, the Bears may trade down slightly from the No. 4 selection to acquire additional picks and continue their rebuilding. But securing the services of a top-notch running back or wide receiver may be too enticing.
In Green Bay, as the offense goes, so go the Packers. A lack of starting quality players in the defensive backfield and questionable depth could be the undoing of the defending division champs, though.
Quarterback Brett Favre is expected to return to lead an offense that was consistent in 2004, but he will be without the ever-reliable guard tandem of Marco Rivera and Mike Wahle. Their departures place an increased amount of pressure on Favre.
The reigns of the defense were handed over to former Dolphins defensive coordinator Jim Bates. With the Packers coming off another season in which the defense played poorly, Bates will have the unenviable task of putting together a unit that's lacking quality and depth at most positions. Bates has toyed with the notion of moving Nick Barnett to weak-side linebacker and Na'il Diggs to strong-side linebacker to maximize their athletic ability in what is being deemed an aggressive, quick-reacting defense.
While the Packers will not pass on the best player available in the draft's first round, they may slightly alter their strategy if a need player/position remains on the board without a significant drop in talent. With three selections among the first 58 picks, Green Bay should improve its roster. But if the Packers fail to do so, they could be looking up at the rest of the division – a sight they haven't experienced in a long time.
NFC North Overview
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