What a wonderful business the NFL is. Less than a week after winning Super Bowl XLV, players for the Packers are already discussing what they’ll need to do to get the team’s fifth championship. While Facebook feeds across Wisconsin are still Packer-centric, the organization has already moved on. In fact, in the locker room following the Super Bowl win, General Manager Ted Thompson said his group was already behind on their offseason work. So much for stopping to smell the roses.
Simply put, this offseason will be different. The continuing labor talks between the NFL owners and players will cast a shadow over the whole process. Trades and free agent pickups will be down. That’s both good and bad. The labor talks put a bigger emphasis on the draft. Teams will have to look to fill the holes in the lineups with rookies next season more than any in recent memory. In this blog, we’ll break down the top needs of the teams in the NFC North.
Green Bay Packers
Green Bay is in a unique position entering the offseason. 16 players ended the season on I.R., an absolutely ridiculous number for a championship team. While the guys they brought in stepped up and were a factor, the team will basically get a huge influx of talent without spending anything extra. Among the key contributors expected back: RB Ryan Grant, TE Jermichael Finley and LB Nick Barnett, all of which are guys who have played at pro bowl levels at some point in their careers. Believe me, this is a great position for the team to be in.
Biggest Offseason Needs: OLB, OG, OT, DE, K
Outside Linebacker: Everyone knows how good Clay Matthews has been since joining the league just two years ago. The scary thing is: he could be better. It’s not that Matthews needs extra work, but offenses have started to shift their offensive protections to try to neutralize the Claymaker. Looking at the numbers, he only had three sacks over the last seven games of the season. Just like Dwight Freeney has Robert Mathis, Green Bay needs to add another pass-rushing threat opposite of Matthews.
Offensive Guard: Daryn Colledge is a free agent, and the Packers might consider letting him walk. Colledge has been good, but not great since joining the team from Boise State. His possible replacement is also a free agent (Jason Spitz), but even if Colledge is retained, depth is needed.
Offensive Tackle: Bryan Bulaga grew into the right tackle position as the season went on, and he looks like he will be a keeper. Chad Clifton was named to the Pro Bowl this year, but there is not much tread left on those tires. The team is high on TJ Lang, but there is not much beyond him on the roster. The team’s ultimate plan is for Bulaga to move the LT, but I’m not sure the long term right tackle is on the roster yet. I wouldn’t expect Green Bay to pick someone high in the draft, but a sixth round pick is not out of the question.
Defensive End: Cullen Jenkins has been fantastic as a 3-4 defensive end, but he is a free agent this offseason, and might have priced himself out for the Packers. Johnny Jolly will be entering a contract year, but still has the off-the-field problems hanging over his head. If Jenkins is not retained, depth must be added.
Kicker: Mason Crosby is a free agent. The Packers will likely resign him, but if not, a kicker will need to be added.
Packers Key Free Agents:
It’s amazing the difference a year can make. At this time last season, many were discussing how the Vikings were just one play away from playing for a Super Bowl. The 2010 Vikings resembled something much closer to a bottom dweller. There are a number of needs for this team. Many of the key players are getting up there in age, and a big youth movement might be coming under new coach Leslie Frazier.
Biggest Offseason Needs: QB, OLB, Safety, CB, DT
Quarterback: The Brett Favre era is done two very long years after it began. The Tavaris Jackson era is likely also over. In the modern NFL, you can’t win a championship without a solid quarterback. Joe Webb played well in one of his late season starts, but he still has a lot of work to do before he can be trusted with an NFL franchise. Minnesota pick 12th in the 1st round, and Frazier has already said he’d like to find the next Matt Ryan or Joe Flacco. An outside possibility of bringing in someone like Vince Young still remains.
Outside Linebacker: Both of Minnesota’s top OLBs are free agents. Chad Greenway will likely cash in on a big free agent deal. Ben Leber’s price tag will be much lower. The Vikings will likely need to replace one, if not both.
Safety: Minnesota could use an upgrade at both safety positions. Husain Abdullah is a free agent, and really didn’t play for long periods of time. Madieu Williams has not played up to his big free agent contract, and could be released because Minnesota does not want to pick up his $5.4-million contract next year. Don’t expect two rookies to be starting in the back of the secondary though. Likely, the team will look to bolster at least one of the positions in free agency.
Cornerback: Antonie Winfield will be 34 at the start of next season and Cedric Griffin is coming off another injury. Chris Cook showed promise in his rookie season, but more often he looked lost for long stretches. The Vikings simply need help – a lot of it.
Defensive Tackle: Pat Williams has said that he will likely not be back next year. Even if he was, he and Kevin Williams are facing a four-game league suspension. Letroy Guion will move into the starting lineup, but there isn’t much behind him and Kevin Williams.
Vikings Key Free Agents:
The Bears aren’t sexy, but they get the job done. The team was one game, and one injured quarterback, away from playing in the Super Bowl. They got there mostly with defense and special teams, but following the team’s bye, you saw the pieces of the offense coming together. Offensive Coordinator Mike Martz will likely feature more balance in 2011, and many of the top guys are locked up for a while.
Biggest Needs: OT, DT, WR, OLB
Offensive Tackle: The team drafted Chris Williams a few years ago in the hopes that he would be the long-term answer at left tackle. Instead, Williams struggled on the outside and was moved inside to guard. Tackle remains to be an issue, and will likely be the top priority on the offseason.
Defensive Tackle: Tommie Harris’ rollercoaster started with him being benched in September, and ended with him playing at a top level in the playoffs. Which guy can the Bears count on in 2011? There isn’t a ton of depth at tackle, but where the team drafts a tackle will be dependent on what they think they can get out of Harris.
Wide Receiver: This has long been a weakness for the Bears. Devin Hester and Johnny Knox are good, but neither should be the focal point of a good passing game. A big, tall wideout would bring balance to this team.
Outside Linebacker: Pisa Tinoisamoa has been a disappointment since signing as a free agent. The problem isn’t really about how he has played, but how often he is actually on the field. An influx of youth and athleticism will be needed to upgrade this team.
Bears Key Free Agents:
The Lions clearly have a strategy of how they would like to build their team, and with the pieces they continue to add, this team could be very good in just a few years. The young core of Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson, Ndamukong Suh, Brandon Pettigrew and Louis Delmas is the envy of many executives in the league.
Biggest Needs: OLB, CB, OT, OG/OC
Outside Linebacker: Julian Peterson will not be back next season, and the Lions will be happy to shed his $8-million salary next season. He’ll likely be joined on the unemployment line by Zack Follett, who is coming off what could be a career-ending injury. Depth is desperately needed.
Cornerback: Last year’s third round pick, Amari Spievey, will likely be playing safety next season. If the team does not resign Chris Houston, they will need a major upgrade. Even if Houston is retained, someone to compete for a starting job is needed.
Offensive Tackle: Matthew Stafford has struggled to stay healthy, and the poor play of the offensive line is part of the reason. Jeff Backus played okay last year, but is not a left tackle. Ideally, the team would like to move Backus to the right side of the line, but not until a capable replacement can be found.
Offensive Guard/Center: The reason for the slash is because the team needs to make a decision on what to do with Dominic Raiola. He has not been great, and likely needs to be replaced. His replacement might be the guy who lined up next to him all year, Steve Peterman. In any case, an additional body on the interior line is a big need.
Lions Key Free Agents:
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This post was written by Stephen on February 10, 2011