NFC North: Preseason Grades and Analysis
Key Acquisitions: WR Allen Robinson, TE Trey Burton, WR Taylor Gabriel, LB Roquan Smith, OLB Aaron Lynch, C/G James Daniels, WR Anthony Miller, QB Chase Daniel, K Cody Parkey
Key Losses: OG Josh Sitton, LB Jerrell Freeman, WR Kendall Wright, DT Mitch Unrein, QB Mike Glennon, OLB Pernell McPhee, OLB Willie Young, OLB Lamarr Houston, LB Christian Jones, OG Tom Compton, WR Dontrelle Inman
Chicago had an awfully busy offseason, driven by the goal of getting 2017 first-rounder Mitchell Trubisky the infrastructure he needs to succeed. First came the hiring of former Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy as head coach --he’ll bring a system filled with simple reads and misdirection to generate easy completions.
Then came the spending.
The Bears guaranteed an NFL-high $102.8 million to 16 players, with more than half that going to offensive weapons Allen Robinson ($25.2 million), Trey Burton ($22 million) and Taylor Gabriel ($14 million). The money was a little staggering, especially for the unproven Burton and Gabriel, but the trio immediately upgrades what was one of the league’s worst skill groups in 2017. The draft also brought Trubisky some help, with James Daniels likely to replace Josh Sitton at left guard and Anthony Miller capable of claiming a role.
The defense was kept largely intact with the re-signing of four cornerbacks, led by Kyle Fuller (four years, $56 million) and Prince Amukamara (three years, $27 million). First-rounder Roquan Smith will slot in immediately in the middle of Vic Fangio’s 3-4 defense, and Aaron Lynch -- who played for Fangio as a rookie with the 49ers in 2014 -- could be a bargain on a one-year deal for $4 million as a replacement for Pernell McPhee and Willie Young.
Our Take: The expenses were a bit lavish, but ponying up to help a young QB is more than understandable. -- B+
Key Acquisitions: LB Devon Kennard, CB DeShawn Shead, C/G Frank Ragnow, RB LeGarrette Blount, RB Kerryon Johnson, TE Luke Willson, TE Levine Toilolo, LB Christian Jones, LB Jonathan Freeny, C Wesley Johnson, DT Sylvester Williams, OG Kenny Wiggins, QB Matt Cassel
Key Losses: TE Eric Ebron, TE Darren Fells, DT Haloti Ngata, LB Tahir Whitehead, C Travis Swanson, DT Akeem Spence, CB DJ Hayden, OT Greg Robinson, LB Paul Worrilow, S Don Carey
In his second year on the job, GM Bob Quinn dismissed Jim Caldwell and brought in former New England defensive coordinator Matt Patricia as head coach before churning the roster extensively. Detroit added 15 veterans, including 10 on one-year deals and four more on two-year pacts.
The major changes on offense came with an apparent focus on running the ball more effectively, as bruising backs LeGarrette Blount (free agent) and Kerryon Johnson (draft) will line up behind a line featuring first-rounder Frank Ragnow, and 2017 free agent signees T.J. Lang and Ricky Wagner. Tight ends Darren Fells and Eric Ebron were replaced by Luke Willson and Levine Toilolo, neither of whom has caught more than 20 passes in a season since 2014.
Defensively, the Lions signed multiple linebackers, including Devon Kennard, who will set a powerful edge against the run, a core principle of Patricia’s Patriots’ units. Those Pats defenses didn’t often prioritize dynamic-edge pass-rushers, which is worth watching in regard to Ezekiel Ansah’s future after he was franchise tagged. The Lions added little else on the edge this offseason, leaving mostly role players around Ansah. Detroit did keep its secondary intact, re-signing Tavon Wilson and Nevin Lawson.
Our Take: On the edge of the playoff race last year, the Lions didn’t seem to get significantly better, as their changes feel more like a shuffling the deck than making meaningful upgrades. -- B-
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Key Acquisitions: TE Jimmy Graham, DE/DT Muhammad Wilkerson, CB Tramon Williams, QB DeShone Kizer, TE Marcedes Lewis, CB Jaire Alexander, CB Josh Jackson, OT Byron Bell, P JK Scott
Key Losses: WR Jordy Nelson, S Morgan Burnett, TE Richard Rodgers, OG Jahri Evans, CB Damarious Randall, WR Jeff Janis
By the standards of Ted Thompson -- who transitioned from GM to a senior advisor -- the Packers’ offseason was downright electric under new GM Brian Gutekunst, who dipped his toe into free agency and moved up and down the board on draft night.
The release of longtime Aaron Rodgers confidante Jordy Nelson and the signing of Jimmy Graham feels like a wash. Both players are aging and would be best off playing with Rodgers, but Graham’s schematic impact might bring the dimensions that Martellus Bennett was supposed to bring last year. There were few other offensive changes, other than signing Marcedes Lewis and drafting a trio of later-round wideouts.
Defensively, the Packers turned over a secondary that has struggled despite heavy investments in recent years. Morgan Burnett and Damarious Randall are gone, while Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson arrived via the draft, and Tramon Williams and Davon House return. The group must improve for new coordinator Mike Pettine’s scheme to function. Muhammad Wilkerson could be one of the offseason’s best bargains (one year, $5 million) if motivated, but the front seven still lacks pass-rush pop as Clay Matthews, 32, ages.
Gutekunst deserves credit for extracting a 2019 first-round pick from New Orleans in a trade down, and DeShone Kizer isn’t a bad bet as a Rodgers’ insurance policy.
Our Take: Another pass-rusher would have been nice, but Gutekunst otherwise managed quite well in his first year at the helm. -- B
Key Acquisitions: QB Kirk Cousins, DT Sheldon Richardson, WR Kendall Wright, OG Tom Compton, QB Trevor Siemian, DT David Parry, CB Mike Hughes, OT Brian O’Neill, K Daniel Carlson
Key Losses: QB Case Keenum, QB Sam Bradford, QB Teddy Bridgewater, RB Jerick McKinnon, DT Tom Johnson, DT Shamar Stephen, WR Jarius Wright, LB Emmanuel Lamur, CB Tramaine Brock
Nineteen of 22 starters return to a team that reached the NFC Championship, but those who left were among the NFL’s most impactful. Most notably, the Vikings’ took major leaps of faith by letting THREE quarterback incumbents -- including breakout starter Case Keenum -- walk in free agency; and then giving Kirk Cousins what was, at the time, a record $84 million guaranteed. The move carries risk, but Minnesota deserves credit for chasing the best quarterback available in an effort to maximize its Super Bowl window.
The other major offensive change was at coordinator, where ex-Philadelphia quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo replaces Pat Shurmur, whose system was a perfect fit for Keenum. DeFilippo and Cousins might require more time to create that sort of chemistry, but an excellent set of weapons sure helps, and Kendall Wright was a nice bargain signing to join Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs.
A few rotational defensive pieces departed, and the dynamic Sheldon Richardson, whose one-year, $8 million deal was one of the best buys in free agency, replaces 3-technique tackles Tom Johnson and Shamar Stephen. The Vikings also extended linebacker Eric Kendricks, who was the first of a few key youngsters (along with Stefon Diggs, Danielle Hunter and Anthony Barr) nearing the end of their rookie deals.
Our Take: Minnesota likely raised both its floor and its ceiling by adding Cousins and Richardson, an impressive feat for a 13-3 team. -- A