Since winning Super Bowl XLV in 2010, the Green Bay Packers have owned the NFC North. They've taken home the division crown each of the last four years, including an injury plagued 2013 season when Aaron Rodgers, Randall Cobb and a bevy of other stars missed half the season or more. Their hold on their own division rivals all but the New England Patriots, who have taken the AFC East 11 times since 2001.
That doesn't mean there haven't been close calls for Green Bay. Each of the last two seasons, the Packers came within a game of losing the division. In 2013, a winner-take-all showdown with their archrival the Chicago Bears was settled by a miraculous 46-yard touchdown bomb from Rodgers to Cobb with under a minute to play. This past season, Rodgers was knocked out of the season finale with a calf injury only to come back during the second half and will the Packers to victory.
All of which is to say that while the NFC North has belonged to Green Bay, the margin for error has proved razor thin. With free agency altering the complexion of the teams, how has that gap changed since the teams last took the field?
Green Bay Packers
Thus far, the Packers haven't changed much at all. That's not a bad thing considering that both Cobb and right tackle Bryan Bulaga hit the market this offseason. Not only do both return, but they also chose Green Bay over more lucrative offers elsewhere. Rodgers will now have his full complement of weapons -- a group that also includes Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams and Richard Rodgers -- as well as the best offensive line of his career.
The defense did take some hits, however. Starting cornerback Tramon Williams signed a three-year deal with the Cleveland Browns, leaving a void in the secondary opposite Sam Shields. At nose tackle, both B.J. Raji and Letroy Guion remained unsigned. Either could be the starter in 2015. The Packers also took a sledgehammer to their inside linebackers, releasing both Brad Jones and A.J. Hawk.
Still, with the draft ahead, general manager Ted Thompson should be able to patch up the remaining holes on his roster.
It's hard to view the Lions' offseason positively when they lost the consensus top free agent on the market. Ndamukong Suh accepted a record-breaking deal to leave Detroit for the more comfortable confines of Miami. That's a tremendous blow for a defense that finished No. 1 against the run by Football Outsiders' DVOA ranking. The team also lost fellow defensive lineman Nick Fairley to the Rams, leaving the middle of their defense severely depleted.
However, the Lions did make some savvy moves to stop the bleeding. GM Martin Mayhew swapped a fourth- and fifth-round pick for Haloti Ngata and a seventh rounder. Ngata isn't Suh, but even at 31 he remains a stout run stuffer who can also disrupt the pocket. The changes are still a net negative for Detroit, but the situation isn't as dire as it could have been.
SB Nation presents: Which NFC North team ranks among the free agency winners?
While the first wave of free agency has come and gone, there is still a massive decision left on the Vikings' docket. Star running back Adrian Peterson isn't happy with the organization after its handling of his child abuse scandal last year. Though Minnesota has said publicly that it wishes to keep Peterson, the likelihood of that scenario decreases with each day there isn't a resolution. The team may end up trading their best player before the start of the season.
At the same time, the Vikings have made some significant changes to their team. Gone is Greg Jennings, the 31-year-old receiver who the team shelled gobs of money for two years ago. In his place, Minnesota acquired deep threat Mike Wallace, a younger receiver who might be a better fit for second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.
The Vikings aren't expected to compete for the playoffs in 2015, but a strong draft and improvement from their signal caller could change that perception in short order.
Few teams had a more disappointing 2014 than the Bears. Expectations were high after the team nearly won the NFC North in 2013. They were only amplified by the big contracts handed out to quarterback Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall. Instead of picking up where they left off, Marc Trestman's offense struggled through the year. Cutler was benched for poor play near the end of the season, and Marshall's injury issues become so prevalent that the team dealt the wideout to the New York Jets for a fifth-round pick this offseason. Chicago fired its general manager and coaching staff, replacing them with Ryan Pace from New Orleans and John Fox from Denver.
While the Bears' dearth of talent heavily suggests another poor season, there is some reason for optimism in Chicago. New defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is overseeing a switch to a 3-4 base defense, a transition made easier by the acquisition of Ravens edge rusher Pernell McPhee. The team also addressed one of its biggest needs by signing safety Antrel Rolle. Armed with the seventh pick in the upcoming draft, Pace can try to add another field tilter and quicken the Bears' rebuilding process.