With what might have been the most offseason activity the NFC North has had in awhile, this division is preparing for an exciting season in which much more competition has been brought in.
In Chicago, the Bears might have made the biggest move of the offseason in the entire league when they traded two first-round picks, a third-round pick, and quarterback Kyle Orton to the Denver Broncos for Pro Bowl quarterback Jay Cutler.
Cutler, 26, was reportedly angry with new Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels after McDaniels had used Cutler in some trade discussions. Many think McDaniels was trying to bring in Matt Cassel, who McDaniels worked with in New England last year when he was the Patriots offensive coordinator.
In Green Bay, the Packers again were quiet during the free agency period but seemed to make some significant improvements to their defense in the draft. In the first round, the Packers selected defensive tackle B.J. Raji out of Boston College and later traded up into the first round again to select linebacker Clay Matthews out of Southern California.
The Packers, who fired defensive coordinator Bob Sanders after the season, are switching to a 3-4 alignment after hiring new defensive coordinator and former Texans Head Coach Dom Capers.
The Detroit Lions significantly improved their team in this year's draft, taking quarterback Matthew Stafford out of Georgia with their first pick, tight end Brandon Pettigrew out of Oklahoma State with the No. 22 pick, and safety Louis Delmas out of Western Michigan with the first pick in the second round.
The Lions also improved their linebacking core this offseason, trading defensive end Cory Redding to the Seattle Seahawks for linebacker Julian Peterson. This week, the Lions signed former Steeler Larry Foote to a one-year deal.
In Minnesota, the Vikings started the free agency period off by trading a 2009 fourth-round pick to the Houston Texans for quarterback Sage Rosenfels. Rosenfels will compete with Tarvaris Jackson, going into his fourth year with the Vikings, for the team's starting job.
The Vikings also made improvements in the draft, selecting wide receiver Percy Harvin with the No. 22 overall pick. Harvin, who ran a 4.41 40 time at the NFL combine in February, will add speed to the outside of the Vikings offense.
Brad Childress and Co. are hoping both Bernard Berrian and Harvin on the outside will stop some defenses from putting eight and nine guys in the box to stop running back Adrian Peterson.
So, with all the improvements to the NFC North this offseason, who has the advantage heading into the 2009 NFL season?
I will break down all offensive units and positions and tell you who has the advantage at what positions heading into this season.
As I mentioned before, the Bears significantly helped their offense when bringing in Jay Cutler in an offseason trade with the Denver Broncos. He will definitely help the Bears offense convert more third downs and relieve a mediocre running game in Chicago.
The Lions brought in arguably the best quarterback prospect in this year's draft when taking Matthew Stafford with the first overall pick. I am not expecting him to be under center at the start of the season, but look for him to start later in the season if the Lions struggle with veteran quarterback Daunte Culpepper under center.
The Packers should be happy with the progress Aaron Rodgers made last year while under pressure after Green Bay legend Brett Favre retired, later un-retired, and was traded to the New York Jets. Rodgers threw for 4,083 yards with 28 touchdowns last year compared to only 13 interceptions.
The Vikings did themselves a favor by trading for Rosenfels when the 2009 free agency period started. Rosenfels will compete with Tarvaris Jackson for the starting job this summer in training camp.
Jackson was benched after Week Two last season after struggling against Green Bay and Indianpolis. Jackson was re-inserted into the starting job in Week 14 when Gus Frerotte was injured.
He played well down the stretch, but seemed to struggle in the face of the blitz in a loss to the Eagles in the NFC Wild Card Game. The quarterback position will need to improve for this team to repeat as NFC North Champions in 2009.
Advantage: Chicago Bears
Vikings running back Adrian Peterson was the NFL's leading rusher in 2008 and has a very solid backup in Chester Taylor. With Percy Harvin added to the mix, Peterson should only benefit, as long as the quarterback play improves. If either Jackson or Rosenfels brings improvement to the Vikings' passing game, don't be surprised if Peterson becomes an MVP candidate.
The Bears have not had the best of luck with drafting running backs in the first round in the past decade or so. The most recent was Cedric Benson, who the Bears took with the No. 4 overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft.
Benson was released in June of 2008, leaving running backs Adrian Peterson and 2008 second-round pick Matt Forte to compete for the starting job. Forte won the job and had an impressive first year, rushing for 1,238 yards and eight touchdowns. With Cutler bringing improvement to the passing game, the Bears rush offense will improve in 2009.
In Green Bay, the team struggled with Ryan Grant's contract situation before the 2008 season. Grant held out of training camp for seven days before the team gave him a new four-year deal worth $30 million. After an impressive 2007 season, Grant was a decent starter in 2008, rushing for 1,203 yards and four touchdowns.
This may be a make-or -break year for Grant, who needs to prove he can be a consistent back.
The Detroit Lions have struggled with finding a clear cut starter since Kevin Jones was a Pro Bowl alternate in the 2005 season. In the 2008 draft, the Lions took Kevin Smith out of Central Florida in the third round. Smith had a promising rookie season, rushing for 976 yards and eight touchdowns.
In 2009, Smith will team with newly acquired veteran Maurice Morris to get the Lions rushing game back on track.
Advantage: Minnesota Vikings
The Lions have one of the best up-and-coming receivers in Calvin Johnson. Johnson broke out in 2008 with 78 receptions for 1,331 yards and 12 touchdowns. However, after the trade of Roy Williams to the Dallas Cowboys last season before the trade deadline, the Lions will need some help opposite Johnson.
Detroit recently re-signed Keary Colbert to a one-year deal and brought in free agent Bryant Johnson. The Lions will need a No. 2 receiver to step up and help the starting quarterback, whether it be Culpepper or Stafford.
The Vikings got a huge boost with the addition of Percy Harvin in this year's draft. Harvin will team with Bernard Berrian on the outside, giving Minnesota two receivers that can stretch the field.
The team will need more production out of third-year man Sidney Rice, who has proved to be a very valuable red zone target. Bobby Wade has been a decent slot receiver whose leadership has been valuable for the younger receivers. With Harvin added to the mix, the Vikings receivers will look to improve in 2009.
The Packers probably have the best one-two punch at receiver with Greg Jennings and Donald Driver. Jennings had his best season as a pro so far in 2008, with 80 receptions for 1,292 yards along with nine touchdowns.
Green Bay will look for promising second-year receiver Jordy Nelson to improve from last year as well as fourth-year man James Jones to up his 20 reception season last year.
The knock on the Bears after their trade for Cutler was who he would throw the ball to. We all know Devin Hester can be a dangerous player for defenses, but he's still a raw receiver when it comes to technique.
Chicago will look towards fifth-year receiver Rashied Davis to step up and become a threat. Davis only caught 35 passes last year for 445 yards and two touchdowns. Second-year receiver Earl Bennett, who has not caught a pass in his NFL career, will also look to get in the mix in Chicago.
Advantage: Green Bay Packers
Greg Olsen continues to prove the Bears made the right decision by taking him in the first round of the 2007 draft. Olsen proved to be the Bears' go-to tight end in 2008, catching 54 passes for 574 yards and five touchdowns. With Cutler improving the passing game, look for Olsen to build off of last year.
The Vikings had trouble with their tight end position early last year when starter Visanthe Shiancoe had problems holding on to passes. However, Shiancoe vastly improved as the season went on, finishing with 42 receptions for 596 yards and tying Bernard Berrian for the team lead with seven touchdown receptions.
Like Olsen, Shiancoe will be looking to build off of an impressive 2008 campaign.
In Green Bay, the Packers are looking for someone to step in and take hold of the starting tight end job. Right now, it looks like Donald Lee fills that role. Lee, going into his seventh season in the NFL, caught 39 passes for 303 yards last year along with five touchdowns.
Tori Humphrey, going into his fourth season in the NFL, could also have an impact. Humphrey caught only 11 passes for 162 yards last year. If the tight ends in Green Bay breakout this season, Aaron Rodgers will be a happy man.
Detroit got what was probably the best tight end prospect in this year's draft with the selection of Brandon Pettigrew out of Oklahome State. Like Green Bay, Detroit has had a hard time finding a solid starter at the tight end spot, and Pettigrew has the potential to do just that.
Along with Pettigrew, Detroit also has veteran Casey Fitzsimmons that can help the young rookie as the season goes on. Like their receiving core, Detroit's tight ends will need to improve to help out the quarterbacks.
Advantage: Chicago Bears
Detroit's offensive line has struggled the past couple of years, but has up-and-coming players. Right tackle Gosder Cherilus was impressive as a rookie and at the other side, Jeff Backus has been solid. Center Dominic Raiola had been solid previous to the 2008 season, but his production has slipped.
The Lions have a bright future with their offensive line. With Culpepper being a fumble-prone quarterback and a heavy investment in rookie Matthew Stafford, the offensive line needs to live up to it's potential.
The Bears have an offensive line that is similar to Detroit, veteran in the center with a young and promising tackle. Center Olin Kreutz has always been one of the league's best in the middle, and 2008 first-round pick Chris Williams was solid last year. The team also signed veteran left tackle Orlando Pace on the same day that the team traded for Cutler. With Josh Beekman and Roberto Garza at the guards, Chicago's offensive line looks to be solid in 2009.
In Minnesota, the Vikings lost one of the best centers in the league when Matt Birk signed with the Baltimore Ravens this offseason. In will step second-year man John Sullivan, who the team selected in the sixth round of the 2008 draft.
The weakness of this unit is at right tackle, where Ryan Cook struggled last year.
In this year's draft, the team selected right tackle Phil Loadholt out of Oklahoma, who will most likely step in and start day one. The Vikings are solid at left tackle and guard with Bryant McKinnie and Steve Hutchinson, respectively, as well as at right guard with Anthony Herrera.
Green Bay has not yet resigned right tackle Mark Tauscher, and the team decided to take offensive tackle T.J. Lang out of Eastern Michigan in this year's draft. That could mean the end of Tauscher's run in Green Bay.
The team has a veteran center in Scott Wells, as well as up-and-coming guards Daryn Colledge and Jason Spitz. The Packers also signed free agent Duke Preston, who will compete for one of the guard positions. Left tackle is locked up by Chad Clifton, who will be the starter in 2009.
Advantage: Tie, Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings.
Those are my previews and predictions of which units will be strong in 2009. The NFC North looks like a stronger division after the offseason.
Get ready for a black-and-blue fight to the finish.
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