Reviewing the Best and Worst of Free Agency in the NFC North
The NFC North proved to be selectively aggressive during the start of free agency, with the Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings all making at least one splash signing.
And when doing the roster math, taking into account additions and subtractions, it appears all four teams have improved to begin a new league year.
The Bears beefed up at defensive end, the Lions finally added a complementary receiver to Calvin Johnson, the Packers found a uniquely talented pass-rusher and the Vikings provided new head coach Mike Zimmer with a few defensive chess pieces.
A division that disappointed last season is trending up ahead of 2014.
In the following slides, we'll take a look at the early free-agency period for the NFC North, deciding the best and worst moves for all four teams.
Zach Kruse covers the NFC North for Bleacher Report.
Chicago Bears: DE Lamarr Houston
This came down to either Houston or Willie Young, the other defensive end signed by the Bears during the first week. While Young was a tremendous value signing, Houston gets the nod because he's the better overall player. The Bears needed help against the run and getting to the quarterback, and Houston provides quality in doing both. At just 27 years old, he should be just entering his prime.
Detroit Lions: WR Golden Tate
Finally, the Lions have a capable No. 2 receiver behind Calvin Johnson. Tate remains underappreciated because he played in a run-heavy offense in Seattle, but he could blow up in Detroit. Few receivers have a better combination of sure-handedness (just five drops the last three seasons) and yards-after-the-catch ability. And now he'll face the soft coverages that come with playing alongside the game's best receiver. He could be the final piece for a Lions offense that should be dominant once again in 2014.
Green Bay Packers: DE Julius Peppers
Rarely does general manager Ted Thompson make a splash in free agency, but when he does, he usually hits. Peppers is 34 and in decline, but he still has rare size and athleticism. A change of scenery could recharge his batteries. The Packers will use him in a variety of roles, from the 5-technique to outside linebacker to interior nickel rusher. If properly motivated, Peppers can be a disruptive addition to a Packers front seven that needed the boost.
Minnesota Vikings: NT Linval Joseph
Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn was a fantastic find and value, but Joseph is Minnesota's best addition because he fills a huge need at nose tackle and Mike Zimmer's defense depends on talent up front. Powerful, with long arms and a quick first step, the 323-pound Joseph has everything you want in a true nose tackle. Pat Williams 2.0? Possibly. He'll do all the dirty work for a Vikings defensive line that has the potential to be one of the NFC's best in 2014.
Chicago Bears: DE Lamarr Houston
The Bears haven't made many risky decisions in free agency, but paying $7 million a season for a defensive end with just 16 sacks in four seasons comes with some degree of risk. It's also somewhat concerning the cash-rich Raiders didn't make a serious run at retaining him. But the bust factor still feels relatively low here.
Detroit Lions: TE Brandon Pettigrew
Giving $16 million total and $8 million guaranteed to a tight end lacking big-play ability represents a certain level of risk. Pettigrew also puts the ball on the turf (12 drops in 2013, five fumbles since 2012) and is coming off his worst season since his rookie year. The Lions hope a change in system will re-energize his career, but this looks like a deal where the price paid won't match the future value added.
Green Bay Packers: CB Sam Shields
Shields is long, fast and beaming with playmaking ability, but $39 million is a big chunk of change for a cornerback who isn't a rock-solid No. 1. The Packers are banking on him continuing his development, especially in the technique and consistency departments. But if his progress stagnates, Green Bay will be paying big money to a middle-of-the-pack corner.
Minnesota Vikings: DE Everson Griffen
The Vikings are doing the same with Griffen as the Packers are with Shields: paying for projection. The 26-year-old Griffen has just 17.5 career sacks, but Minnesota obviously envisions those numbers increasing in future years. And Mike Zimmer showed how much he likes his new pass-rusher when he paid big bucks to Griffen over chasing former Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson in free agency. Time will tell if Zimmer made the right choice.
Chicago Bears: DE Willie Young
Young to the Bears at just $3 million a year might be the steal of free agency. And that's not just hyperbole. A first-time starter in 2013, Young had 60 quarterback disruptions and played the run as well as any 4-3 defensive end. He's a wonderful value at a position of huge need for the Bears.
Detroit Lions: RB Joique Bell
Some may scoff at giving a 27-year-old running back over $9 million with $4.3 million guaranteed, but Bell might be the most undervalued backup in all of football. He ran for 650 yards and eight scores and caught over 50 passes for 547 yards as a complement to Reggie Bush last season. Expect his usage to increase in 2014. The Lions are high on Bell, and they should be.
Green Bay Packers: NT B.J. Raji
Raji was nothing less than terrible in 2013, but the Packers are hoping one more crack at a contract year and a position change back to nose tackle will produce results. At just $4 million in 2014, the one-year deal is a low-risk, high-reward venture. Raji was previously disruptive on the nose. But if it doesn't work out next season, the two sides can finally divorce without money getting in the way.
Minnesota Vikings: CB Captain Munnerlyn
Few teams did a better job of filling obvious holes in free agency than the Vikings with Joseph (nose tackle) and Munnerlyn (slot cornerback). But what makes Munnerlyn such a great find is his value. The Vikings will pay him up to $15 million over three years, with just $4.45 million guaranteed. That's stealing. He's small in height but big on tackling, smothering the slot and making impact plays. He could be Minnesota's next coming of Antoine Winfield.
Chicago Bears: DT Henry Melton
The Bears filled holes at defensive end, but Melton's departure to Dallas leaves a big need at the 3-technique. When healthy, Melton was a disruptive pass-rusher who could collapse the pocket and shoot gaps against the run. The Bears will probably now need to address the position early in May's draft.
Detroit Lions: DE Willie Young/S Louis Delmas
Young was an effective 15-game starter for the Lions last season. His edge presence will be missed. The same goes for Delmas, who was cut by Detroit because of his injury history and price tag. But the combination of Delmas and Glover Quin at safety was a solid one for the Lions in 2013, and Detroit will now have to re-address the position sometime this offseason.
Green Bay Packers: C Evan Dietrich-Smith
EDS signing in Tampa Bay means the Packers will have their fourth different starting center in as many years to begin next season. A former undrafted free agent, Dietrich-Smith became a steady starter between T.J. Lang and Josh Sitton in 2013. In fact, the BR1000 series rated him as the NFL's No. 5 overall center last season.
Minnesota Vikings: DE Jared Allen
Allen hasn't officially signed elsewhere, but he isn't coming back to Minnesota. While his skills regressed last season, he still sacked the quarterback 11.5 times and played in all 16 games. And over six seasons with the Vikings, Allen had 85.5 sacks and missed zero starts. Can Minnesota replace his production and reliability?
Chicago Bears: S M.D. Jennings
The Bears and Packers featured arguably the worst safety play in all of football last season. So, naturally, Chicago signed away one of Green Bay's starting safeties in free agency. Jennings is probably fine as depth and on special teams. But the Bears didn't improve at the position by adding a player that had no business starting 17 games for a playoff team last season.
Detroit Lions: DE Daryl Tapp
Tapp is an OK player. His inclusion on this list stems more from the Lions attempting to replace Willie Young with Tapp at defensive end, even if Jason Jones is expected back in a starting role next season. The gap between Young and Tapp appears large. But if Tapp ends up as Detroit's worst signing, the Lions did pretty well.
Green Bay Packers: DL Letroy Guion
Guion flashed occasionally but annually underwhelmed in Minnesota. His worst season came in 2013, when the Vikings tried to play him on the nose. That experiment failed. The Packers added Guion for depth in the defensive line rotation, but he'll need to fight his way onto the 53-man roster this summer.
Minnesota Vikings: CB Derek Cox
If the Vikings are getting the player who intercepted four passes in three different seasons in Jacksonville, this could be an underrated find. But Minnesota can't gamble on that being the case, as Cox bombed as a big free-agent signing in San Diego last season. Mike Zimmer's defense still needs to add another perimeter corner for insurance.
Biggest Need Remaining
Chicago Bears: Defensive Tackle
The loss of Melton is somewhat understated because he missed most of last season. But when the Bears defense was at its best, a penetrating tackle was causing havoc on every play inside. Melton was that player for a handful of seasons. Might Pitt's Aaron Donald be an eventual answer to Melton's departure?
Detroit Lions: Cornerback
Signing Tate eliminated Detroit's biggest offseason need. Now, general manager Martin Mayhew can focus in on rebuilding the secondary. Another safety is needed, but the Lions still don't have many answers at cornerback. A veteran like Carlos Rogers makes some sense, but a deep class of incoming corners might entice the Lions to hold off in free agency.
Green Bay Packers: Safety
The Packers have so far done nothing at safety, save for letting M.D. Jennings walk. Thompson doesn't typically like to handcuff himself to a position in the draft, but the way it stands right now, the Packers have no other choice but to pick a safety high come May. Signing Chris Clemons, a speedy free safety, could help alleviate the immediacy of the need.
Minnesota Vikings: Quarterback
Minnesota wisely brought back Matt Cassel. He'll be an effective stop-gap, but the Vikings still need to add the future at the position. There's a chance a player like Teddy Bridgewater or Johnny Manziel will be available at No. 8 overall in the first round. But even if the Vikings pass in the first round, a quarterback is coming via the draft.