NFC North looks improved

The Vikings and Packers didn't make any big splashes in free agency, but the Bears and Lions are reworking their roster in attempt to catch the top two teams in the NFC North. The shakeups with the rosters might not make an immediate impact, but overall the division looks stronger.

As the Vikings look to three-peat as NFC North champions, they are attempting to do it with essentially the same team that advanced to the NFC Championship Game a year ago.

Having traded out of the first round, the Vikings added draft picks to both sides of the ball – highlighted by cornerback Chris Cook and defensive end Everson Griffin on defense and running back Toby Gerhart and offensive lineman Chris DeGeare on offense. But, as far as major additions, the Vikings only made one – CB Lito Sheppard. That was offset by the loss of Chester Taylor and Artis Hicks in free agency. In both instances, the Vikings attempted to re-sign them, but found the bidding too expensive to match for backup role players.

As a result, the Vikings enter 2010 with all 22 starters from 2009 (if a certain quarterback returns for a 20th season), but partly because of the system put in place to penalize the final four teams (the Vikings, Saints, Colts and Jets) from going nuts signing free agents, the team has essentially stood pat in hopes of getting to the Super Bowl with the same team that got them so close last year.

While the Vikings have done little, the other teams in the division have markedly more change – some good, some bad. Each of them expects to be improved in 2010. The Packers and Bears believe they can knocked the Vikings off their perch atop the division and the Lions are convinced that, with enough new talent brought to the team, they can make a rise to the top sooner than later.

Like the Vikings, the Packers were somewhat hamstrung in what they could do in the offseason and, like the Vikings, did little to add players to the team that earned one of the wild card spots and, with one win over the Vikings last year, would have unseated Minnesota as NFC North champions. While the Vikings didn't lose any starters, the Packers lost DE Aaron Kampman, who signed as a free agent with Jacksonville. He wasn't an ideal fit in the 3-4 defense and his exodus was logical. Also like the Vikings, the Packers used the draft to select players that won't be expected to start immediately, but could end up being key contributors – OT Bryan Bulaga, DT Mike Neal and S Morgan Burnett. The Packers got rid of backup players and only added Australian punter Chris Bryan. They're going with essentially the same squad as they had last year, believing that what they have going will be enough to knock off the Vikings.

Few teams made a bigger early impact in free agency than the Bears. Chicago made a big splash by signing former Viking Chester Taylor to help the offense and pass rusher Julius Peppers to improve the defense. With the additions of tight end Brandon Malumaleauna, safety Chris Harris and cornerback Tim Jennings, the shakeup on both sides of the ball has infused a lot of new blood into a Bears team that has fallen on hard times in recent years. The Bears will have plenty of new players in the starting lineup, as the team lost DEs Adewele Ogunleye and Alex Brown, LB Jamar Williams, CB Nathan Vasher, S Kevin Payne and OT Orlando Pace – all starters at some point for the Bears. With no draft picks in the first two rounds as a result of the Jay Cutler trade, the Bears are going to have a much different look in 2010. They hope that mixing and matching star-quality free agents with the group they have in place will be enough to knock off a pair of playoff teams atop the division.

Nobody made more changes in the offseason than the Lions. The team addressed both sides of the ball in the first round of the draft, taking DT Ndamukong Suh with the second pick of the draft and working a trade with the Vikings to take RB Jahvid Best. But that was far from the only addition they made. On the offensive side, they signed Nate Burleson to take some of the heat off of star Calvin Johnson, pass-catching TE Tony Scheffler, QB Shaun Hill and guard Rob Sims. On the defensive side, they added DE Kyle Vanden Bosch, DT Corey Williams, LB Landon Johnson and CBs Dante Wesley, Chris Houston and Jonathan Wade. Between the draft, trades and free agency, the Lions have eight new players on the top line of their depth chart and will look markedly different than the team that took the field in 2009. To get to that point, several players are gone, including QBs Daunte Culpepper and Patrick Ramsey, DL Grady Jackson and Dewayne White, LB Larry Foote and CBs Phillip Buchanon and Anthony Henry. Few teams in the league are going to be as different in 2010 as the Lions.

There are many reasons for the belief that the NFC North is going to be better in 2010 than it was in 2009. The division produced two playoff teams and the other two have made significant changes in an attempt to keep up. The Vikings and Packers are among the elite teams in the league and the Bears and Lions have made significant strides to improve. As a result, the NFC North is going to get a lot of respect in 2010 that has been missing for the last few years.

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