How teams in the NFC North can improve this off-season

Jennings Packers

The Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers, Detroit Lions and the Minnesota Vikings come under the spotlight.

Needs Must ... Part 8

Chicago Bears

Coach Lovie Smith’s departure ushered in the era of the more offensive minded Marc Trestman, and many will hope his efforts to ‘rebuild’ Jay Cutler from a mental and mechanical standpoint has the desired effect; especially with Trestman possessing first-hand experience of Cutler’s mechanics, having trained him in the build up to the 2006 NFL draft, in which Cutler was taken by the Denver Broncos with the eleventh overall pick.

The question is - Can Trestman create a happy and functional marriage with his triggerman, or will the propensity for petulance that brought about a ‘Tell him I said f**k him!’ in the direction of former offensive coordinator Mike Martz,following six sacks against the New Orleans Saints in game two of the 2011 campaign, rear its ugly head?

For harmony to prevail, Trestman and his offensive line coach Aaron Kromer will have to dramatically improve the object so often the root cause of Cutler’s ire, a 25th ranked offensive line that allowed forty-four sacks and eighty-seven quarterback hits throughout the course of 2012. With Cutler turning 30 on opening day, the time for deliverance is now, or that window of opportunity will narrow just that little bit more…

Contractual Concerns: After starting 180 games through 2000 - 2012, eight-time pro bowler Brian Urlacher bade a reluctant farewell to the Bears after he and Chicago were unable to agree terms on a new contract, leaving a significant hole in a defense of which he became the face of during his thirteen years in the ‘windy city’, and it will be intriguing to see how Chicago addresses that particular problem come draft time. Although, the Bears did sign DJ Williams (linebacker), James Anderson (linebacker) Tom Zbikowski (safety), Kelvin Hayden (cornerback), Zack Bowman (cornerback) and Nate Collins (defensive tackle), all to one-year contracts, as well as signing Henry Melton (defensive tackle) to his franchise tender, after being linked with the Seahawks.

Perhaps the most significant signings during the free agency period came in the form of substantial upgrades to that perennially porous offensive line, via the acquisition of former Saint Jermon Bushrod, who becomes the highest-paid offensive lineman in franchise history by signing a five-year contract worth $35.97million ($7.19 million per season), and Jets guard Matt Slausen, who arrives as a replacement for Lance Louis, who left for Miami last week.

Slausen is by definition a left-guard; although it’s believed he’d be a more than competent replacement for Louis at the right-guard position. However, despite excelling in pass blocking, run blocking remains a concern for the former Jet. Regardless, Cutler should be pretty content satisfied with both signings. As he should be with the capture of Giants tight end Martellus Bennett, who arrives off the back of a career season that saw him haul in fifty-five catches for 626-yards, and five touchdowns; considerably better production than the combined efforts of Matt Spaeth and Kellen Davis, who together conjured an unimpressive 29 catches for 297-yards and three scores in 2012. Kellen Davis has been released (saving $2.5 million of cap space in the process), and Spaeth has had his contract terminated.

Some linked the Bears to Jared Cook, the former Titans tight end who recently signed on with Jeff Fisher and the St. Louis Rams. While Cook represents the greater vertical threat, Bennett is more multidimensional. The 6-ft-6, 265-pounder can be an asset as a run blocker while also providing a reliable target in the middle of the field, thus more of a threat.

Regardless, the acquisition of Bennett in conjunction with the threat already posed by Brandon Marshall and first-year receiver Alshon Jeffery, alongside a more than capable ground game in the form of Matt Forte and Michael Bush, means Cutler has all the tools he needs to hopefully take the leap from good to elite, and land the city its first Championship since 1985.

Draft Selection: With Brian Urlacher now departed, and Lance Briggs not getting any younger at thirty-two, linebacker represents a real area of need for the Bears in 2013, and could that someone represent the form of a certain Monte Te’o? NFL.com senior analyst Gil Brandt certainly sees this as a possibility ‘The Bears have to replace Brian Urlacher, and they've always done well with players from Notre Dame. Te'o's had a rocky past few months, but I think the issues he faced (the "catfishing," the poor play in the BCS title game and his slow 40 time at the combine) caused him to drop down much lower than he should have’.

We await April 25th with great anticipation…

Green Bay Packers

Were it not for the performance of the mercurial Colin Kaepernick and his San Francisco 49ers, Green Bay may have been the NFC’s representatives in Super Bowl 47. But that’s not to say that this team is devoid of any flaws.

The defense has improved, going from the league’s worst in 2011 (411.6 yard-per- game) to 22nd in 2012 (336.8 yards-per-game), but much work still lies ahead for a unit that was mercilessly slaughtered in the divisional round of the playoffs by the aforementioned Kaepernick and his Forty-Niners to the tune of 579 total yards.

Meanwhile, quarterback Aaron Rodgers needs a consistent ground game and consistently adequate protection, and a ground game that offers up a consistent foil to the aerial one, especially when factoring in injuries to Cedric Benson, and insufficient production from Alex Green. Expect the front office to make the necessary changes that will keep the Packers in contention.

Contractual concerns: Apart from Greg Jennings defection to divisional rivals Minnesota, it’s been all quiet on the Western front as it were. Although on the 29th of March, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that the Packers and Rodger’s representatives are close to agreeing an extension that would make him the highest paid player in history. Both Rodgers and Green Bay are reluctant to discuss the terms of the contract, but it’s widely believed that any potential extension could be worth a gargantuan $25 million a year. Schefter went on to say ‘A former Super Bowl MVP, Rodgers is under contract through 2014, having signed a six-year, $65 million contract in October 2008. Rodgers' base salary in 2013 is $9.25 million, while his 2014 deal is worth $10.5 million’.’ Those financial figures are drastically less than the contracts struck recently by other star quarterbacks. Rodgers' new deal is expected to rival those of Joe Flacco, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning, a trio of Super Bowl MVPs whose contracts are among the richest in NFL history’.’Flacco became the NFL's highest-paid player earlier this month when he signed a six-year, $120.6 million contract with the reigning champion Baltimore Ravens. The Saints signed Brees to a deal last year that pays him an annual base salary of $20 million. Manning's deal with the Denver Broncos pays a base salary of $18 million’.

Despite Rodgers being an elite quarterback deserved of elite remuneration, it will be intriguing to see how the impending extension impacts upon the packers and their push to replicate 2010, especially when factoring in the certain reduction in cap space.

Draft Selection:Rodgers was sacked a career-high fifty-one times in 2012. Yes, the hip injury that consigned Brian Bulaga to the side-lines was a major factor, but Jeff Saturday’s abject form in his final season, hardly helped the Green Bay cause. The Packers pick late with the 26th overall selection, the ideal spot to grab a competent and effective interior lineman.

That being said, a powerful back to add punch to the ground game, would improve the Packers prospects no end. Wisconsin’s Montee Ball (1,830-yards from 356 carries, and 22 touchdowns) would be a sound choice.

Detroit Lions

Discipline and accountability are the most pressing issues for a roster that regressed alarmingly from a playoff team to a side that finished bottom of the division with a 4 - 12 record, despite boasting such stellar talents as Mathew Stafford, Calvin Johnson, and Ndamukong Suh. Coach Jim Schwartz attempted to establish discipline and a competitive spirit, coming down hard on the capricious Titas Young. Young responded, somewhat injudiciously, by hammering the team on twitter. The Lions promptly cut him.

Contractual Concerns: On the offensive side of the ball, the extension of quarterback Mathew Stafford’s contract, remains a matter of upmost importance as far as the Lions establishing continuity going forward is concerned.

With Cowboy’s quarterback Tony Romo recently signing an extension valued at $108-million over a six-year period, with the same representatives - CAA (Creative Artists Agency), Stafford could be in line for a substantial pay day of his own.

Something Joel Corry of the National Football Post alluded to via another of Dave Burkett’s columns in the ‘Detroit Free Press’, Stafford stands to earn more than Romo “CAA represents both Romo and Stafford, so they’re probably going to try to leverage Romo’s deal into a better deal for Stafford,” Corry said. “They’ve done this in the past. It happened in 2007, when they did Marc Bulger’s deal, and a couple months later, Romo got a slightly better deal than Bulger’s.”

Any prospective ‘Romo-esque’ extension may spell overly generous for a quarterback with a 17 - 28 win/loss record, but as suggested, preserving continuity is integral as far as long-term success is concerned, and locking Stafford up would go some way to achieving that.

As far as the defense is concerned, defensive end Cliff Avril (29 sacks in last three years combined) has left for Seattle, staring offensive line left tackle Jeff Backus retired, right guard Stephen Peterman was released, and right tackle Gosder Cherilus signed with the Indianapolis Colts, and Kyle Vanden Bosch has been cut.

However, the Lions have added three probable starters in free agency: running back Reggie Bush, safety Glover Quin and defensive end Jason Jones, and could potentially acquire up to two more. Though, according to Dave Burkett of the ‘Detroit Free Press’ that ‘two’ won’t include mooted target, Oakland Raiders wide receiver Darius Heyward-Bay, who opted for Indianapolis, leaving Detroit still without an effective deep threat to complement Calvin Johnson.

Regardless, the general consensus seems to hint at draft selection as the most likely means through which to improve the roster.

Minnesota Vikings

Coach Leslie Frasier performed miracles in taking a team light on talent to the playoffs, on the back of a 3 - 13 season. Now that expectations have been raised somewhat, offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave has to help quarterback Christian Ponder display more than just effective game management.

League M.V.P Adrian Peterson, who fell an agonisingly short, 9-yards from breaking Eric Dickerson’s 28-year record for single season rush yards, need’s support in the form of effective threats on the outside.

Contractual Concerns: Though ‘AP’ proved freakishly consistent in turning short gains into big plays that often reduced accomplished defenders to breathless bystanders, it would be a tad naïve to assume his blockers didn’t provide effective road sweeping duties in getting him there, something that hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Vikings font office, who’ve managed to re - sign offensive tackle Phil Loadholt. Taking the load…off (apologies), somewhat.

Elsewhere, the signing of Greg Jennings on a contract worth up to $47.5 million over five years, from division rivals Green Bay gives Christian Ponder a target that though lacking the explosiveness of the departed Percy Harvin, is a better route runner and will be used as a pure outside WR, whereas Harvin was moved all over the field - the slot, out wide, and in the backfield.

Still, Minnesota still requires a slot receiver. You can make the argument that Jarius Wright fills the void, as in seven games he had 22 catches and averaged 14-yards per catch, and really came on at the end of the year. But you can make an even more compelling case that 7 games hardly represents an effective yardstick as far as productivity is concerned.

As to what that other free agent signing Matt Cassel, or the human turn-over machine, as he should be known, brings to the party, is anyone’s guess…(resident benchwarmer, I’d suggest).

Draft Selection:If Minnesota are unable to resolve the issue at slot receiver during free agency, they may well look to address any lingering concerns with the 23rd pick in the draft, which is ideal as most of the top-rated receivers are due to come off the board at this point.

image: © pcutler