The balance of power in the NFC North hung in the balance following the 2021 season as Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers pondered his future: Would he return to Green Bay, retire or try to force a trade?
Still, the Packers are without All-Pro receiver Davante Adams, who was traded to the Las Vegas Raiders. And receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling signed a free-agent deal with the Kansas City Chiefs, leaving the Packers’ receiver corps thin.
Is Green Bay’s reign atop the division vulnerable? Can Kirk Cousins harness the Vikings’ offensive firepower and overtake the Packers? Are either the Bears or Lions in position to make a Bengals-type jump from worst to first?
ESPN’s NFC North reporters Courtney Cronin (Bears), Eric Woodyard (Lions), Rob Demovsky (Packers) and Kevin Seifert (Vikings) take a look at the offseason wins and concerns for each team and make a couple of predictions as the draft draws near.
Best offseason move: Signing former Packers center Lucas Patrick is step one for Chicago in rebuilding an offensive line that allowed a league-high 58 sacks in 2021. While not every sack was the result of poor blocking up front, improving the pass protection around quarterback Justin Fields is critical for the growth of the Bears’ offense. Patrick brings ample starting experience and leadership to an offensive line undergoing a reboot.
This remains an area of concern: The offensive line isn’t close to being fixed, with unproven players slated to start at both tackle spots and a career back-up penciled in at right guard. The receiving corps also isn’t deep enough for the Bears to feel confident that Fields has what he needs to further his development into a franchise quarterback in Year 2. The offseason has been slow in terms of Chicago making impactful offensive additions to the roster. The team has chosen not to spend on pricy free agents who could yield a quicker impact and appears aimed at filling several holes through the draft.
Who makes sense with the first pick: If Skyy Moore is available at No. 39 (Chicago does not currently own a first-round pick), the Bears should add the standout Western Michigan receiver. While he’s on the smaller size (5-foot-10, 195 pounds) like Chicago wideouts Darnell Mooney and Byron Pringle, a second-round receiver is far more likely to make an impact as a rookie than a project offensive lineman the Bears could be eyeing in that spot.
Bears win the division if: It’s a long shot that’s only plausible if coach Matt Eberflus can pull off the same miraculous rise that Matt Nagy did during his first season in Chicago in 2018. The Bears would need a lot of things to break their way to win the NFC North this season. Anything short of Green Bay taking a nosedive in 2022 makes it feel like Chicago will finish third or fourth in the division as the franchise embarks on another rebuild.
Way-too-early bold prediction: Tight end Cole Kmet becomes a security blanket for Fields and tops 800 receiving yards and six touchdowns this season. The third-year tight end will develop into an explosive component of the Bears’ passing game and will finally get his chance to shine in the red zone following Jimmy Graham’s departure. –– Cronin
Best offseason move so far: Signing former Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver DJ Chark to a one-year deal. The Lions needed a big-bodied receiver — Chark is 6-4 — to complement rising star Amon-Ra St. Brown, and Chark is still young (25) with a lot to prove this year, coming off an injury-plagued 2021 where he missed 13 games with an ankle injury. He’ll try to return to the form that resulted in a Pro Bowl appearance in 2019.
This remains an area of concern: Wide receivers. With St. Brown, Chark and Josh Reynolds, it seems like a decent unit on paper, but the wide receivers may not be enough for quarterback Jared Goff‘s skill set. Detroit’s secondary could also use a boost.
Who makes sense with the first pick: An edge rusher. The Lions can’t miss with the No. 2 pick. They need a game-changer, and it would make the most sense to upgrade defensively if Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson is available or Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux.
The Lions win the division if: Well, they’re probably not going to win the division. The Bengals went from worst to first last season, but they have a franchise quarterback and superstar wide receiver, among other elite players. The Lions don’t appear ready to make that jump. They would need to have a perfect draft, Goff has to play the best ball of his career and the stars would have to align.
Way-too-early bold prediction: Detroit will win seven games. The Lions haven’t had a winning record since 2017 and won three games last season, but they lost a few close ones and played hard until the final game. If they add a few more pieces and catch some breaks, they can double that win total. –– Woodyard
Green Bay Packers
Best offseason move so far: Clearly, it’s getting Aaron Rodgers to come back. Without him, they’re in Bears and Lions territory (well, maybe not that bad). But looking beyond the obvious, Rich Bisaccia might be low-key the most important thing they did. The Packers finally hired a proven NFL special teams coordinator who, by some accounts, should have been in stronger consideration for head-coaching jobs after what he did last year in an interim role with the Las Vegas Raiders.
This remains an area of concern: Who is Rodgers going to throw to? Not Davante Adams. Not Marquez Valdes-Scantling. And they didn’t add a receiver until signing Sammy Watkins to a one-year deal on Thursday. Also, their top tight end target, Robert Tonyan, might not be ready for the opener after tearing his ACL on Oct. 28. Perhaps they’ll find a way to get running backs Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon even more involved in the passing game, but at some point they’re going to have to add more receivers.
Who makes sense with the first pick: Anyone who catches the ball. This almost has to be the year the Packers break their streak of not taking a receiver in the first round, which dates to 2002 with Javon Walker. Two years ago, they loved Justin Jefferson but couldn’t get into position to take him. They have more ammunition this year with two first-round picks (Nos. 22 and 28) and two second-rounders (Nos. 53 and 59) if they wanted to move up to take, say, Ohio State’s Chris Olave. If they don’t move up, then Penn State’s Jahan Dotson could be the right fit.
Packers win the division if: They keep doing what they’ve done the previous three years under coach Matt LaFleur, who has won 13 games in each year since he became the head coach in 2019. He and Rodgers have things figured out on their end, and the defense finally seems reliable. Even with all the special teams issues, they’ve dominated the NFC North.
Way-too-early bold prediction: The Packers will break their streak of 13-win seasons … by winning 14. The Bears, Lions and Vikings pose almost no threat. The Jets, Giants, Eagles and Commanders are almost sure things. That’s double-digit wins right there, and they can go 4-3 against the rest of their schedule. — Demovsky
Best offseason move so far: Signing linebacker Jordan Hicks. Shifting defensive schemes can be inefficient and costly. But in Hicks, the Vikings got a reliable and durable player, as well as a strong leader, to fill an inside linebacker position opposite Eric Kendricks in their new 3-4 base set. And his contract calls for him to count only $3.5 million against the 2022 salary cap.
This remains an area of concern: The secondary. The Vikings re-signed cornerback Patrick Peterson and added free agent Chandon Sullivan. They are modest signings and combine to count only $4.9 million against the cap. But opponents overcame deficits repeatedly in 2022 via the passing game. The Vikings gave up 4,300 passing yards, fifth worst in the league. They need more help.
Who makes sense with the first pick: LSU cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. Adding Stingley would not only address an area of concern, but it would add an athletic playmaker who might one day remind fans of Peterson. All NFL teams are investigating the foot injury that cost Stingley most of his 2021 season, but if healthy he would be an ideal addition.
Vikings win division if: Their offense is higher-scoring than the Packers’. That’s not as wild an assertion as it might sound. The Packers have an advantage at quarterback over every NFC North team, but the Vikings’ set of skill players around Cousins — Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, Dalvin Cook and Irv Smith — is deeper than the Packers’. They’ve got a chance.
Way-too-early bold prediction: The Vikings will earn one of the NFC’s three wild-card berths after challenging for the NFC North title. It’s true that the team is transitioning to a new front office and coaching staff, and that often in those situations, it can take a year or two before schemes and personnel start to click. But coach Kevin O’Connell is inheriting a fairly talented roster, relative to what new coaches usually encounter, and the NFC appears wide open after an offseason talent shift to the AFC. There aren’t many teams that can be counted out of the NFC playoff race, but the Vikings should enter the season among the most likely to earn a spot. – Seifert