Free Agency Primer: NFC North
Perhaps no NFL division managed to be more competitive without actually impressing anyone than the NFC North. The Green Bay Packers were the only team to post a winning record, and they did so at 8-7-1. The Chicago Bears saw injuries affect their promise, and the Detroit Lions imploded after a 6-3 start. Meanwhile, the Minnesota Vikings paid for years of waning drafts and free agency classes with a bottom-of-the-barrel, 5-10-1 season.
There could be significant changes in the offing for every team here before Week 1 of 2014 arrives. Here’s a look at what free agency may hold for the NFC North:
• Key free agents: QB Josh McCown, WR/KR Devin Hester, OT Eben Britton, C Roberto Garza, DE Corey Wootton, DT Henry Melton, CB Zack Bowman, CB Charles Tillman, S Major Wright
• Players Chicago needs back: McCown, Hester, Garza, Britton
McCown did a wonderful job while replacing an injured Jay Cutler, keeping the Bears right in the race until the end. The veteran is not a spectacular player, but he has an implicit understanding of head coach Marc Trestman’s offense. Hester is still an explosive return man and intriguing ‘tweener player under the right contractual circumstances. Garza is the kind of underpowered but savvy veteran every offensive line needs — especially one like Chicago’s, which is still very much under construction, and Britton has potential.
• Players Chicago should let walk: Tillman, Wootton, Melton, Bowman, Wright
Chicago’s defense has a couple of problems: The old players are getting older, and the new kids aren’t always moving up as quickly as the franchise needs. Losing Tillman will be a hit from a leadership perspective, but the clock is ticking on his great career, and there seems to be a waiting and willing home in Tampa Bay with former Bears head coach Lovie Smith. Emery put Melton on notice after his arrest for assault and public intoxication and implied that more was needed on the field. Wootton played a lot of snaps in 2013, but not terribly effectively. Bowman and Wright are role-players who can be upgraded.
• Outlook: The Bears come into the 2014 league year at a bit over $120 million in cap, and they’ve got over $40 million of that invested in two players — quarterback Jay Cutler ($22,500,000) and defensive end Julius Peppers ($18,183,333). For general manager Phil Emery to make the moves he needs to make to vault the Bears into the league’s upper echelon, one of those numbers will have to go, and it won’t be Cutler’s. Emery has said that Peppers had an “8-8 season,” and injuries along Chicago’s line made this defense atypically leaky in 2013.
• Key free agents: QB Shaun Hill, TE Brandon Pettigrew, DE Israel Idonije, DE Willie Young, CB Rashean Mathis, LB Rocky McIntosh, K David Akers
• Players Detroit needs back: Hill, Idonije, Young, Mathis
Matthew Stafford took all but two snaps for the Lions last season, and Hill is the perfect emergency quarterback in this situation — reliable and low-cost. However, it will be interesting to see if new head coach Jim Caldwell decides to take a different tack at this position. Idonije is a veteran rotational player with positional versatility. Young has interesting talent, but he — like a lot of Lions defenders — needs to channel his aggression. He was actually benched by ex-head coach Jim Schwartz last season after a personal foul. Mathis is that rare entity — a Lions cornerback who plays a lot of snaps and doesn’t get torched all the time. Detroit’s secondary is a weak spot that must be addressed, and retaining Mathis would help a lot.
• Players Detroit should let walk: Pettigrew, McIntosh, Akers
Pettigrew is known as an exceptional blocker, but he’s been one of the least productive tight ends in the league on a per-catch basis over the last few years. If the Lions are to retain him, they’d best be careful on the money side. McIntosh is pretty replaceable, and Akers was given far too many votes of confidence in 2013.
• Outlook: The Lions have 22,412,500 reasons to extend defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh even though he still has two years left on his current contract. That’s Suh’s 2014 cap number, the highest in the league. Suh is one reason Detroit currently weighs in with a $131,561,629 cap overall, so adjustments will have to be made. Stafford is taking up $15.8 million in space, and Calvin Johnson has a $13 million cap hit in the new league year.