Tough Road To Division Title

While the Vikings certainly improved their talent level through the draft and free agency, so did the Bears and Lions. The struggle for the NFC North title won't simply be a contest between the Vikings and Packers.

With all the laudatory talk about the Vikings draft and how much they have improved themselves, Vikings fans shouldn't be too quick to declare the team the NFC North champs. While the Packers appear to be struggling — forced to use high draft picks on cornerbacks not as backups but as potential starters with Mike McKenzie threatening a holdout and Al Harris in a contract year — the rest of the division is much improved.

The Lions went from dregs to dangerous in a hurry — working out a pair of trades that allowed Detroit to draft both wide receiver Roy Williams — viewed by some as the best wide receiver in the draft — and Kevin Jones, who will be handed an immediate starting job.

While the Lions have concentrated on defense in free agency since the arrival of Steve Mariucci, offense has ruled the day on draft day. In the last three years in the first round of the draft, Detroit has signed a franchise quarterback (Joey Harrington), a go-to running back (Jones) and two prime-time wide receivers (Williams and Charles Rogers). Suddenly the hapless Lions don't look so timid anymore.

Much the same could be said for the Bears. The team fortified its offense during free agency by signing players like running back Thomas Jones, guard Ruben Brown and offensive tackle Jon Tait. But, when draft day came along, new coach Lovie Smith jumped on defense, adding defensive tackles Tommie Harris and Tank Johnson in the first two rounds and getting DE Claude Harriott in the fifth round. In an inverse of what the Lions did, the Bears improved on offense during free agency and bolstered the defense on draft day.

No matter how you slice it, the Vikings, Lions and Bears all took steps to dethroning the Packers in the off-season and, with the combination of big-time free agent spending and solid draft day plugging in of young talent, the NFC North can no longer be viewed as one of the weaker divisions in the NFL. The only team that was a playoff team from a year ago looks to be weakened and the other three teams all look to be stronger.

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