This is one of my favorite divisions in the NFL, as very few others can boast so many storied rivalries. Three very good QB’s and a fourth team that stays competitive with the best RB in the league. The top three teams are very close together in talent level and make for exciting divisional match ups year in year out. Even if there are no juggernauts here, everyone of these teams can be exciting to watch.
Free agent starters: G Evan Dietrich-Smith, WR James Jones, TE Jermichael Finley, TE Andrew Quarless, CB Sam Shields, LB Mike Neal, DT BJ Raji, DT Ryan Pickett
Current needs: TE, CB, LB, DT, G, OT
Cap Situation: There’s a lot to like here. Current cap number is $105M with a good amount of room to maneuver. Cutting CB Tramon Williams would result in a boost of $7.5M, with only 2M dead. His play has definitely declined in recent years, and the Packers can do better spending that money on another corner in a deep free agent market. They also have a number of other contracts that aren’t fully guaranteed but these are for starters, most of whom are likely to return. Some restructuring might be possible, but with an expected $35M in cap space plus $9.8M in rollover space from 2013, the Packers have a good amount of room to work with.
Free Agency: Generally Ted Thompson takes an extremely conservative free agency approach, making very few signings, none of which have any chance to compete for a starting position. Last year they had a ridiculous 47 players out of their top 51 never play for a team other than the Packers, meaning they were drafted or undrafted free agents. However with losing so many starters this year, he has admitted that the Packers will be more active than usual. Since Sam Shields is gone and Tramon Williams is very likely out the door, look for them to go after one of the better available CB’s. The situation is tough to predict beyond this, as they could stand to upgrade many positions, but their usual conservative outlook seems to limit them to only 1-2 splashes. I’d expect most moves to be on defense.
Outlook: The Packers are in a good spot, but they will likely take a cautious approach, following their mantra of breeding Packers players through the draft. They should improve through free agency, but it’s tough to predict which positions they will target and how much they will spend when they generally spend nothing at all. Of course as long as they have Aaron Rodgers, this team is a contender.
Free agent starters: DT Henry Melton, CB Charles Tillman, S Major Wright, DE Corey Wooton, LB James Anderson
Current needs: DT, CB, LB, S
Cap Situation: Tough situation for the Bears as they start with a cap number of $124M and quite a few needs on defense. To complicate matters further, Julius Peppers has a cap number over 13M with 9.8M non guaranteed. He was not playing at a level that justified that salary last year, so it will be interesting to see what happens. The Bears could try to make him take a pay cut, or just outright cut him, further magnifying their needs at DE. Brandon Marshall, Matt Forte, and Lance Briggs combine for 21M non-guaranteed, but considering these guys are anchors for the team, its hard to project any cap relief here. Earl Bennett looks like the only reasonable cut which would result in a gain of 2.45M. Carry over space from 2013 was less than 1M, so don’t expect cap room exceeding $15M total unless they cut Peppers.
Free Agency: Don’t expect much here. With so many starters leaving on defense, it will be tough for the Bears just to sign replacement level players to take their spot on the roster. Freeing up room just to sign these guys might take some expert restructuring, and they need to leave room for draft picks as well. I predict very few moves overall, with mostly low-key signings, maybe one new starter.
Outlook: The Jay Cutler extension cost the Bears quite a bit here (22.5M) seriously limiting their free agent options. An aging defense will get worse as they lose 5 starters with minimal room to replace them. This is a competitive team no doubt about it, but they will be relying heavily on Mark Tressman’s offense next year.
Free agent starters: TE Brandon Pettigrew, K David Akers, CB Rashean Mathis, DE Willie Young, S Louis Delmas
Current needs: TE, CB, S, DE
Cap Situation: Oh boy this one is a mess. The Lions have over $50M going to Suh, Stafford, and Calvin Johnson this year. There is virtually no fat to trim, with Rob Sims and Jason Jones the top candidates to get cut for a total gain of 4.5M. Their cap number currently stands at $122M, with 1.5M in carry over space. This gives the Lions about $10-15M of cap space to work with, assuming none of their big three feels charitable enough to restructure their deal.
Free Agency: The Lions are in a very similar spot compared to the Bears; some valuable starters are exiting, and there isn’t much cap room to address the vacancies. Bringing in more than one new starter might be impossible without expert restructuring manipulation, and they currently can’t afford to spend more than $7-8M total.
Outlook: The nucleus of this team remains intact, so this team will still be tough to beat. They made a great move in firing Jim Schwartz, but a questionable one in bringing Jim Caldwell. With how undisciplined the team has been in recent years, a coach that brings a swift kick in the butt would have made a lot of sense. That said, Jim Schwartz was the worst possible coach for this team, so there should at least be a reduction in the number of penalties per game. Otherwise, the roster will return most of the same faces, hoping for improvement with the new coach at the helm.
Free agent starters: DE Jared Allen, DT Kevin Williams, CB Chris Cook, G Charlie Johnson, WR Jerome Simpson
Current needs: QB, DE, CB, WR
Cap Situation: Now this is exciting; the Vikings start with a payroll of just $92M, starting them off with over $40M in cap space. There is a little extra space to trim by cutting Jamarca Sanford and Jerome Felton for a relief of $4.1M total. Additionally, Chad Greenway has 4.8M non guaranteed out of an 8.2M contract, so he might be willing to restructure. All in all the Vikings will have quite a bit of flexibility in free agency.
Free Agency: Adrian Peterson recently voiced his opinion that Michael Vick would make the Vikings a playoff team. Whether or not the front office agrees with that notion, the team does need to add a QB, and Vick would make a lot of sense. Over the years stats have shown that he improves the running lanes for RB’s, and he could be a dynamic combination with Peterson. QB aside, the team has to address the defense in free agency. Jared Allen needs to be replaced, and CB is a pretty big hole as well with the loss of Chris Cook. Kevin Williams is a big loss, but is eased by the young Sharrif Floyd waiting behind him.
Outlook: With a high draft slot and lots of cap space, the Vikings are in a very comfortable spot. They don’t really even need to break the bank this year if they think retooling the team is in their best interests, instead choosing to carry over cap space into 2015. With aging players coming off the books, the old nucleus is mostly gone, with only Peterson remaining. Considering this, don’t be surprised if the Vikings choose to play it somewhat conservatively this offseason, choosing to be more aggressive in 2015.