The battle for the 2009 NFC North division title is a three team race. Although the Detroit Lions have made improvements coming off the first 0-16 season in NFL history, they are the main reason that the North is home to the three easiest strength of schedules in the league this year and should not factor in the playoff race.
The Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings, and Green Bay Packers all have made significant offseason changes to their squads, and as a result they could all be in the hunt for the playoffs during the last month of the season.
The NFC North will be competitive, but the overall talent level is not as high as the Eastern and Southern divisions of the conference. Despite the weaker strength of schedule facing NFC North teams this season, it is likely that only one team out of the North will be playing postseason football.
Looking at the teams in predicted order of finish:
1. Chicago Bears (11-5)
(2008 Record: 9-7)
The most obvious change in the Bears' roster is at quarterback. The addition of Jay Cutler is a significant improvement to anyone on this list. Cutler's arrival will open up the playbook for offensive coordinator Ron Turner, and the offense will change for the better as a result.
The Bears offense also will benefit from the bolstering of the offensive line. The addition of Pro Bowl left tackle Orlando Pace is a big upgrade from John St. Clair. This move also allows last season's first-round pick Chris Williams to start at right tackle.
The Bears also brought in tackle Kevin Shaffer to provide insurance on both sides of the line and guard Frank Omiyale will slot in at the left guard position.
Chicago used the draft to bring in new targets for Cutler. The Bears selected three wide receivers, including Juaquin Iglesias from Oklahoma the third round to improve on the dismal group that they employed last season.
The Bears also looked to the draft to add depth to an oft-injured defensive line, adding Jarron Gilbert and Henry Melton in the third and fourth rounds, respectively. With Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs at linebacker and the secondary intact minus Mike Brown, the defense will be able to improve on two less-than-stellar seasons.
Along with an improved roster, the schedule makers have been given the Bears a bit of a home-field advantage during the regular season. Six of the Bears' home games in 2009 come in November and December (three each), which will especially come in handy against warm weather teams.
In addition, the quality of their opponents has decreased, as they face the NFC West and AFC North instead of the South division from both conferences.
The key for Chicago is winning their divisional games. It's never easy to go into Minnesota and Green Bay and pull out a victory, but the Bears have the talent to do so this season. An improved offensive line, a deeper defensive line, and Jay Cutler's will propel the Bears to the top of the division.
2. Minnesota Vikings (10-6)
(2008 Record: 10-6)
The Vikings roster did not undergo too many changes from the one that won the NFC North last season. However, they were bounced at home by the Philadelphia Eagles in the opening round of the playoffs. During the defeat, they clearly identified their biggest weakness at the quarterback position.
At least it appeared as if they did. Last season, the Vikings went with a combination of young Tarvaris Jackson and veteran Gus Frerotte under center, and the result was an offense anchored by star running back Adrian Peterson.
The remedy for the problem in the eyes of Minnesota was to trade a fourth-round pick to the Texas for Sage Rosenfels, a career backup. Just over a month later, the Bears traded for Jay Cutler, shifting the balance in the division towards the Windy City.
The Vikings seem to view Rosenfels as an upgrade over the Jackson-Frerotte combination. With the additional support the Vikings picked up in the draft, he might end up being a sufficient solution for the Vikings.
The Vikings best wide receiver behind Bernard Berrian last season was tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, so Minnesota used its first-round pick on big-play threat Percy Harvin. To provide additional protection for Rosenfels, their second-round pick was spent on OT Phil Loadholt.
While all these additions are well and good, the Vikings offense lives and dies by the legs of Adrian Peterson, who carried the ball 363 times for 1,760 yards last season but also fumbled nine times.
In just his third year in the league, the Vikings will need to be careful relying on Peterson too much, and will need to utilize backup Chester Taylor effectively. But in order to be successful, the Vikings will need Peterson to replicate the yards and reduce the fumbles.
On defense, the major issue is with the Williams Wall. Defensive tackles Pat and Kevin Williams are both facing four game suspensions due to violation of the league's drug policy dating back to last season.
While the Williamses are fighting to prove their innocence, it may make the most sense for them to miss the first four games of the season, as Minnesota faces four teams who finished last season with sub-.500 records; Cleveland, Detroit, San Francisco and Green Bay.
Even though the Vikings have improved upon their team which finished first in the division last season, the Bears have made more moves to a team that finished just one game out, leaving Minnesota on the outside looking in.
3. Green Bay Packers (8-8)
(2008 Record: 6-10)
The Packers will be much improved this season from the squad that finished third in the division last year. The biggest move made by the Packers in the offseason was not in regard to the roster, but it was the switch to a 3-4 defensive scheme, led by new defensive coordinator Dom Capers.
The Packers defense was their Achilles' heel last season, as they were 26th in the NFL against the run and recorded just 27 sacks, good for 25th in the league.
The Packers have taken strides to improve upon that, using the No. 9 overall pick on Boston College DT B.J. Raji and trading up into the bottom of the first round to take USC OLB Clay Matthews at No. 26 overall.
These new additions to the roster will be a big part of what should be an improvement, but the key will be a veteran already on the roster.
DE Aaron Kampman has led the team in sacks in each of the last three seasons, recording 37 over that time period. Kampman will likely play more of a linebacker position than defensive end this year, and will make an impact at both positions.
With an improved defense, the Packers can utilize last season's No. 8 overall offense to their advantage. QB Aaron Rodgers has emerged out of No. 4's shadow and into a leadership role on the team, and veterans Donald Driver, Mark Tauscher, and Chad Clifton will lead an otherwise young and explosive offense.
Running back Ryan Grant got off to a slow start last season, but improved as the year went on. The Packers have capable backups in Brandon Jackson and DeShawn Wynn, and may look to employ the three-headed monster attack that worked so well for the New York Giants last season.
Behind Driver at wide receiver, the young corps of Greg Jennings, James Jones, Jordy Nelson and Ruvell Martin will provide plenty of targets for Rodgers. As long as the veteran offensive line holds up this season, Green Bay's offense will be tough to handle.
Even with all the tweaks to the roster and change in defensive scheme, it does not appear that the Pack are quite ready to challenge the Bears and Vikings for the top spot in the division.
4. Detroit Lions (3-13)
(2008 Record: 0-16)
Not yet, sorry.
The Lions are in no position to make a run at .500 this year, let alone the postseason. With a new GM, head coach, offensive and defensive coordinator, and No. 1 overall pick at QB, Detroit is looking for a fresh start.
The Lions have some important pieces in place for the future; Calvin Johnson is a star in the making at wide receiver, and Kevin Smith has shown promise at running back.
The team will have a tough decision to make with respect to their starting quarterback, but will likely elect to have Matthew Stafford watch Daunte Culpepper start for at least the first half of the season.
The offseason has been busy outside of drafting Stafford, as the Lions signed free agents including DT Grady Jackson, CB Phillip Buchanon, WR Ronald Curry, LB Larry Foote and OT Ephraim Salaam.
Even with all the new faces, the Lions are still a few years away from respectability. Despite that, opponents should not look past them in 2009. The Lions have enough offense to outscore an opponent or two and win a few games this season.