Minnesota was not just the class of the NFC North last season, the Vikings tied for the best record in the league (13-3) and fell just one victory shy from becoming the first to a play a Super Bowl in their own stadium. The Vikings went 5-1 against division foes, finishing four games clear of second-place Detroit. The Lions (9-7) finished one game out of the wild-card hunt while Green Bay was unable to weather the storm after Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone in Week 6 against Minnesota. The Bears got off to a rough start, turned to rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and stumbled to a 5-11 record.
Despite the Vikings’ success, they decided to change things up under center, giving free agent Kirk Cousins the largest fully guaranteed contract in NFL history. The other three NFC North teams are set at quarterback, but each made big moves in the offseason in hopes of closing the gap between them and the reigning division champs.
Chicago Bears (5-11, 4th in NFC North)
2017 snapshot: The Mike Glennon experiment at quarterback lasted all of four games, as the Bears handed the reins over to No. 2 overall pick, Mitchell Trubisky. As expected, the rookie struggled in part due to his injury-ravaged supporting cast. Chicago finished last in passing offense (175.7 ypg), 30th in total yards (287.4 ypg) and 29th in scoring offense (16.5 ppg). The lack of offense negated the performance of a top-10 defense and ultimately cost head coach John Fox his job.
Biggest needs: Rookie head coach Matt Nagy has an offensive background and is just the latest branch from Andy Reid’s extensive coaching tree. Chicago general manager Ryan Pace wasted little time in getting his head coach, not to mention his young quarterback, plenty of new weapons with the additions of wide receivers Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel as well as tight end Trey Burton through free agency. With these needs addressed, the focus will probably shift to the defense, as the Bears could use an impact linebacker or some more beef for their defensive line. The offensive line also could use another body or two especially with guard Josh Sitton signing with Miami as a free agent.
First-round pick: No. 8 overall
Potential picks: Before the additions of Robinson and Gabriel, many draft analysts had the Bears taking Alabama wide receiver Calvin Ridley. Then around the time of the Scouting Combine, Virginia Tech linebacker Tremaine Edmunds became a popular pick. But Pace could opt instead to keep the focus on offense by giving Trubisky more protection in the form of Notre Dame’s Quenton Nelson. Some analysts consider Nelson not just the best guard in this draft class, but one of the best prospects period. If not Nelson, linebacker could be the direction unless one of the top defensive linemen, like NC State’s Bradley Chubb (not likely but you never know) or Washington’s Vita Vea, are still on the board. It would be a surprise if the pick is used on a wide receiver, whether Ridley is still available or not.
Detroit Lions (9-7, 2nd in NFC North
2017 snapshot: The Lions finished a game behind the two wild cards in the NFC, as they were looking to make it back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time since 1993-95. Detroit was one of just four teams to beat Minnesota last season, but went just 2-6 against the AFC North and NFC South in crossover play. The Lions had the worst running game in the NFL (76.3 ypg), while the defense struggled to stop opponents through the air (243.3 ypg). Despite going 36-28 in four seasons, head coach Jim Caldwell was fired the day after the season ended. The day after Super Bowl LII, Detroit hired New England defensive coordinator as the 27th head coach in the franchise’s history.
Biggest needs: The coaching staff’s not the only thing new in Detroit, as free agency has resulted in plenty of changes throughout the roster. After finishing dead last in the NFL in rushing, running back appears to be an obvious need, but there’s some uncertainty at center as well with Travis Swanson an unsigned free agent and former Jet Wesley Johnson added. Defensive end Ezekiel Ansah was tagged but this unit still needs playmakers up front. Outside linebacker is another position to watch with Tahir Whitehead (signed with Oakland) and Paul Worrilow (unsigned) out and Devon Kennard and Christian Jones added to the mix.
First-round pick: No. 20 overall
Potential picks: Detroit is seemingly in position to take its choice of running back not named Saquon Barkley, but is that the priority? With Patricia now in charge, it makes sense that he would want to build up his defense, which starts up front. Along those lines, look for one of the top tackles, perhaps Alabama’s Da’Ron Payne or Florida’s Taven Bryan, to be the pick especially since Haloti Ngata left as a free agent. The Lions seemingly need a center too, but I think they will address that later in the draft. Linebacker could be in play if there’s a fit with an edge rusher like Harold Landry from Boston College or Georgia’s Lorenzo Carter.
Green Bay Packers (7-9, 3rd in NFC North)
2017 snapshot: The Packers’ fortunes changed in Week 6 when Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone on a sack against Minnesota. After starting 4-1, Green Bay lost that game and won just three more as Brett Hundley was ineffective in relief and Rodgers played just once more the rest of the season. While the offense understandably struggled without Rodgers, the defense got torched through the air (30 TDs, 11 INTs) too often. Head coach Mike McCarthy kept his job following the disappointing season, but a change was made at general manager with Brian Gutekunst replacing Ted Thompson after a 13-year run that included the drafting of Rodgers and a Super Bowl title in 2010.
Biggest needs: Gutekunst wasted little time in showing how he was going to do things differently compared to his predecessor, jumping head-first into free agency to sign tight end Jimmy Graham and defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson while also cutting ties with wide receiver Jordy Neslon and watching safety Morgan Burnett sign with Pittsburgh. Changes aside, everyone knows that Green Bay will go as far as Rodgers will take the team, so continuing to improve the offensive line remains a priority. That doesn’t mean the defense doesn’t need some attention, however. With Burnett leaving in free agency and the trade of Damarious Randall to Cleveland (for quarterback DeShone Kizer), the secondary has a few holes and the linebacking corps could use another pass-rushing threat on the outside to pair with Clay Matthews.
First-round pick: No. 14 overall
Potential picks: Cornerback is a need and one that can be filled with the Packers’ first pick, but pass-rushing help is high on the list as well. To that end, UTSA’s Marcus Davenport is someone to keep an eye on. He’s listed as a defensive end, but he’s considered one of the top pass rushers in this draft class and he may be athletic enough to play more of a hybrid role as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 alignment or up front on the edge in a 4-3. If not Davenport, a prototypical linebacker like Rashaan Evans or Boise State’s Leighton Vander Esch could be a possibility. Green Bay could opt to bolster the offensive line instead, especially considering the uncertainty that exists on the right side with guard Jahri Evans still unsigned and tackle Bryan Bulaga coming back from a torn ACL. One other thing to keep in mind regarding the Packers: they have 12 picks in this draft, the most of any team with the majority of them (nine) coming in the last four rounds. This should put Green Bay in a position to address a lot of needs.
Minnesota Vikings (13-3, 1st in NFC North, lost to Philadelphia in NFC Championship Game)
2017 snapshot: On the strength of the NFL’s top defense and a breakthrough season from quarterback Case Keenum, the Vikings went 13-3 and then pulled off a miracle to beat New Orleans at home in the Divisional Round. Philadelphia put an end to Minnesota’s season but the expectation is that the Vikings aren’t going away anytime soon. That’s why the team zeroed in on former Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins, signing him to a fully guaranteed, three-year, $84 million contract while Keenum (Denver), and former starters Sam Bradford (Arizona) and Teddy Bridgewater (New York Jets) all left in free agency.
Biggest needs: The quarterbacks weren’t the only ones who left in the offseason, as running back Jerick McKinnon (San Francisco) and defensive tackle Tom Johnson (Seattle) also were part of the free-agent exodus. Minnesota has the luxury of no gaping holes on the roster, but the offensive and defensive line could use some more depth, especially at guard for the former and tackle for the latter, although adding former Jet and Seahawk Sheldon Richardson was a shrewd move. The Vikings’ starting secondary is one of the best in the NFL but the reserves will look different following the departures of cornerbacks Tramaine Brock (Denver) and Terence Newman (unsigned).
First-round pick: No. 30 overall
Potential picks: The Vikings didn’t give Kirk Cousins all that money to have him spend it running for his life or on his backside, so expect the first pick to be used on an offensive lineman. A tackle like Notre Dame’s Mike McGlinchey could allow Minnesota to move Mike Remmers to guard or the Vikings could take Georgia’s Isaiah Wynn or UTEP’s Will Hernandez. Another option would be Iowa’s James Daniels, one of the top center prospects in this draft but a guy who also played both guard spots during his Iowa career. If not an offensive lineman, Daniels’ Hawkeyes teammate, cornerback Josh Jackson, could be in the mix or perhaps UCF’s Mike Hughes, who also could give Minnesota’s special teams a jolt as a kick returner.