The NFC North has been one of the most entertaining divisions in football over the past few seasons. While the Green Bay Packers are the only team to take home a Lombardi Trophy recently, each of the four teams have had runs of very good football in the past season or two.
However, despite their relative successes, each of the four NFC North teams enter the 2013 offseason at something of a crossroads. Whether it's turning over a roster full of veterans, making hard salary cap decisions, dealing with a talented but unhappy star or deciding whether a head coaching regime is going to be in it for the long haul, these four teams each have difficult but vitally important decisions to make ahead of the 2013 season.
Here's what each team could do to ensure they have the perfect offseason in 2013, what needs to go right and what hiccups they need to avoid.
Green Bay Packers
The Packers will move on in 2013 without several key veterans. Long time wide receiver Donald Driver and center Jeff Saturday are retiring, safety Charles Woodson was released, and wide receiver Greg Jennings is an unrestricted free agent.
Despite Jennings' rapport with quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the Packers could use another wide receiver. James Jones and Randall Cobb both have the talent to step into the top two roles, but they need to add depth to the position to make sure the passing game keeps humming along productively. They also will probably need to address the tight end position, as Jermichael Finley himself doesn't think he's likely to return next year. It would be strange to see a team turn their back on a young, athletic tight end like Finley, but the writing may already be on the wall.
Finally, the team needs to address the running back position. They have been using a committee approach for the past several seasons, but haven't gotten top-notch production from their backfield in several years. Cedric Benson should be back and healthy in 2013, but as Devin Shanley of Acme Packing Company wrote, they may be interested in picking up some more help in the free agent market.
Perfection: Draft a replacement for Woodson, keep the very athletic and refocused Finley, sign a free agent running back, and fill in depth behind Cobb and Jones in the wide receiving corps.
What the Vikings do with Percy Harvin will either make or break their offseason. The extremely talented but mercurial wide receiver has demanded a trade and apparently does not get along with head coach Leslie Frazier. It's impossible to get equal trade value for a player of Harvin's talents, considering how highly NFL front offices value draft picks. The Vikings will probably try to bring Harvin back into the fold, but if they can't, they will hold out for the best deal they can get.
If Harvin does leave, wide receiver becomes a priority for the team. It looks like Kyle Rudolph is going to be a good one at tight end, but Christian Ponder is going to need more weapons to keep the offense balanced and the heat off Adrian Peterson.
Christopher Gates of the Daily Norseman wrote about one potential wide receiver target, Rams free agent Brandon Gibson.
That means looking for younger players that may or may not have hit their ceilings yet and that could still grow and develop a bit if they were to come to Minnesota.
A player that, in my opinion, definitely fits that description is Brandon Gibson of the St. Louis Rams. Gibson was actually drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in the sixth round of the 2009 NFL Draft out of Washington State. He was traded just before the 2009 trading deadline, along with a fifth-round draft pick, to the Rams for linebacker Will Witherspoon.
The Vikings could also use some youth on the defensive side of the ball. A couple of Minnesota's key defenders are getting old, and they may need to be replaced sooner rather than later. Specifically, they could use some more bodies at cornerback behind Antoine Winfield and on the defensive line.
Perfection: Add another wide receiver, regardless of whether Harvin comes back, and add some young players on defense.
The Bears came out strong during the first half of the 2012 season, but faded down the stretch and ended up missing the playoffs. The defense played completely out of their minds for several weeks, but their level of play was never sustainable.
Perhaps the Bears' biggest immediate need is offensive line help. They gave up 44 sacks in 2012, eighth-worst in the league. They could use help at tackle primarily, but help at any position wouldn't hurt. This is one of the few years that high quality offensive linemen are available on the free agent market, so Chicago may choose to spend their free agent dollars there.
The Bears could also get younger on defense. Many of the stalwarts on Chicago's defense have been with the team for a long time, and have lost a step either due to age, injury, or both. Brian Urlacher may still be the leader of the unit, but the team needs to prepare for life without him sooner rather than later.
Brandon Marshall was Jay Cutler's favorite target in 2012, and for good reason. Marshall is one of the best receivers in the NFL, and he played like it last year, pulling in 118 catches for over 1,500 yards and 11 touchdowns. However, the team's second-leading receiver was running back Matt Forte, with 44 receptions. Alshon Jeffery showed flashes before breaking his hand last year, and he should be back and productive in 2013, but Cutler and the Bears offense could hit another level if they have a productive tight end. Kellen Davis had the most receptions among tight ends last year, and it was only 19 for 229 yards and two touchdowns.
Windy City Gridiron's Steven Schweickert agrees with the need for a tight end, although Davis may still have some purpose.
And we're starting that off with the tight end position. I'll admit, I don't want to just throw Kellen Davis out with the trash, because I don't think he's completely worthless (just mostly worthless; mostly worthless is different than completely worthless), but the Bears need a pass catcher out of the position, and Davis shouldn't be starting.
Perfection: Draft Urlacher's replacement or an offensive lineman in the first round and find a tight end.
The Lions came into the 2012 season with high expectations but crashed back to Earth on the way to a 4-12 season. They need help in a lot of places, but mostly on defense. The team released Kyle Vanden Bosch and probably will not re-sign Cliff Avril, who is looking for a huge free agent deal, so replacements at defensive end will be necessary. They could also use some upgrades at linebacker and in the secondary.
On offense, the task is a bit more simple: get help for Calvin Johnson. Megatron is probably the best wide receiver in the NFL, but the Detroit receiving corps gets thin very quickly behind him. The team has parted ways with Titus Young, so another wide receiver should be a priority. Thankfully for them, the Lions appear to be set at tight end with Brandon Pettigrew and at running back with Mikel Leshoure, but more depth never hurts.
Detroit's need for a No. 2 wide receiver may have to be filled from outside the organization as Sean Yuille of Pride of Detroit doesn't seen anyone on the roster capable of filling the void.
The Lions could really use a No. 2 type of wide receiver to help take some of the pressure off of Johnson, and that's in addition to Burleson and Broyles. I don't really see anybody on the roster as capable of stepping up and filling that role, so the Lions could decide to spend another draft pick on a receiver this year.
2013 is a big year for head coach Jim Schwartz and the Lions' staff. If they fall flat for a second year in a row, they may not get another shot.
Perfection: Draft a defensive end in the first round, sign a #2 wide receiver, add talent at linebacker and in the secondary.