Free agency is here, with the start of the new league year coming Tuesday afternoon. Teams have been able to negotiate with their own players for some time now, and agents have been able to talk to other teams since Saturday. Look for plenty of deals to be announced rapid-fire when free agency officially opens.
The NFC North was a disappointing division overall last season, probably due to the struggles at the quarterback position. Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler both sustained significant injuries that kept them out of games for their respective teams, while Christian Ponder ... is Christian Ponder. The result was a highly competitive division, but one in which no team managed more than eight wins.
Below, we'll take a look at three pending free agents for each team, guys who are important to keep around if possible.
The Packers have a high number of pending free agents, with 20 players on expiring contracts. Unfortunately, there are multiple big-name players and it is unrealistic to think Green Bay can keep them all. The team already signed Sam Shields to a huge contract, locking down one of its biggest names.
DL B.J. Raji
Initially thought to be out of Green Bay's price range, the Packers have made a push to get Raji signed to a new contract. He's looking for a big payday and a long-term deal, but might be willing to take a one-year deal to give Green Bay more time to get him locked up to something larger. That gives Raji the dual purpose of playing well to potentially hit the market again next year and make even more money. He's been a very solid player since entering the league.
Aaron Rodgers is quite the fan of Dietrich-Smith, and it's easy to see why. He was very solid this past season, and while he's not among the top centers in the league, he's definitely starter material. Dietrich-Smith should get a multi-year contract and top-10 center money, but on the back end of that top 10. Green Bay can afford to keep this guy in town.
WR James Jones
Jones is worth more to the Packers than he is to other teams. He fits into their system incredibly well and you don't know what you've got until it's gone, right? Jones won't command top dollar on the open market, and the Packers should absolutely bring him back if the money is right.
Team needs: S, DT, TE, ILB, C
The Bears were proactive in getting players signed before the offseason even started for most teams, which definitely benefited them. There are still more than 20 free agents remaining, though. Fortunately, most of them are not big-name guys, though there are quite a few statistical contributors. If the Bears are looking to get younger, there could be some serious turnover this year.
DT Henry Melton
Melton has had a hefty contract these past couple years, but after playing on a franchise tag in 2013 and tearing his ACL in Week 3, he won't command top dollar this offseason. That is good news for the Bears, who would like to bring him back for a multi-year deal at a reasonable price. This is also dependent on what scheme they run -- a switch to a 3-4 would make Melton expendable.
This move isn't dependent on Melton signing. Wootton is a separate issue, but his value is kind of up in the air. He's been effective wherever he plays, but hasn't quite fit into the Bears' defense as expected. He's a great guy to have around, but another team might go all-in on him in the open market.
Team needs: DL, S, OL
Detroit has too talented a roster to be finishing the season south of .500. There are so many weapons on both sides of the ball, it's no wonder that Jim Schwartz is out and Jim Caldwell is in. The first task: retain some of these contributors.
Pettigrew has struggled to find consistency, with 41 receptions for 416 yards and two touchdowns in 2013. But, he's flashed a solid skill set in the past and a Lions offense that's not lethargic should benefit him greatly. He's looking at a two- to three-year deal at this point, and his best fit is Detroit.
QB Shaun Hill
This spot used to contain center Dominic Raiola, but he has already re-signed. Instead, we'll go with quarterback Shaun Hill. He's one of the top backup quarterbacks in the league and though Matthew Stafford has remained uncharacteristically healthy of late, overlooking the position could wind up being a huge mistake going forward. Hill is worth the money he demands and should be kept around.
Mathis was a late addition to this team, but he quickly took over a starting role and was very effective. He's 33 years old, but he showed he still has plenty left in the tank and will be looking to play for another year or two. The Lions should get Mathis re-signed, even if they expect his role to diminish in 2013.
Other players of note: DE Israel Idonije, K David Akers, LB Rocky McIntosh, DE Willie Young
Team needs: WR, CB, S, TE, DE
We're going to take a different approach with the Vikings. With Kevin Williams and Jared Allen on expiring contracts, you might wonder why they're not on here. It's simple: these are guys they should re-sign, while Williams and Allen don't necessarily make sense at this point. Allen will be too expensive and wants to test the market anyway, telling the Vikings that he probably won't be back next season. The team eventually gave Everson Griffen a huge contract, preventing him from hitting the open market.
Bishop has some health concerns, but when he's playing, he's effective. He was one of the best players on the field for Minnesota last season, and would be looking at a large payday if not for the injuries. Bishop should command a healthy contract at one to three years.
DT Fred Evans
With Allen likely leaving and Williams potentially out the door as well, the Vikings need to ensure they have some bodies on the defensive line. Evans isn't a big name by any means, but he's been solid on the rotation and could step in and be a starter if need be. It's easy to imagine him as a main part of the defensive line next season, regardless of the scheme.
Other players of note: QB Josh Freeman, RB Toby Gerhart, WR Jerome Simpson, OL J'Marcus Webb
Team needs: QB, CB, DE, S, DT