Now that we’re done with the AFC, it’s time to preview free agency for each team in the NFC North. This a very talented division; three of the four teams are playoff contenders (Bears, Vikings, Packers), while the other remains a talented team (Lions). Free agency could determine who ends up on top, so each team must have the proper blueprint to success. What is that blueprint? Let’s discuss.
Top Needs: K, S, Slot CB
The Bears are a very stacked team with practically zero needs. Therefore, they shouldn’t be major players in free agency, especially with just $13 million in cap space. As long as they come away with a veteran kicker after releasing Cody Parkey, free agency will be a success for them. Still, they stand to lose both Adrian Amos and Bryce Callahan, so finding cheap replacements for them would also be beneficial if possible. No matter what they do in free agency, however, Chicago is extremely talented and should be favored to win the division next season.
Player They Need To Re-Sign: S Adrian Amos
If the Bears have to choice to re-sign Amos or Callahan, they should choose Amos. He’s a more important piece to the secondary, and pairs with Eddie Jackson to completely cover up the defense on the back-end. He ranked as the 8th best safety last season, according to Pro Football Focus, and should be cheaper than Callahan. He’s the better player at a lesser price, so this should be the no-brainer selection between the two star defenders.
Top Free Agent Target: K Matt Bryant
At 43-years-old, Bryant still remains one of the top kickers in football. After converting 20 out of 21 field goal attempts for the Falcons in 2018, Chicago should make a strong push to sign the veteran kicker. Filling their only remaining hole with an All Pro caliber kicker would fortify the Bears’ position as the team to beat in this division.
Top Needs: OL, LB, DT
Despite signing quarterback Kirk Cousins to a $84 million contract after reaching the NFC Championship game in 2017, the Vikings regressed to a 8-7-1 record, missing the playoffs. A big issue was the offensive line; Cousins was only duress way too often. Minnesota should look to acquire a left tackle to allow Riley Reiff to move to left guard, as well as another interior lineman. They also need to acquire a linebacker with Anthony Barr set to leave in free agency, and the same goes for defensive tackle since Sheldon Richardson is a pending free agent as well. They only have $5 million in cap space, so they’ll have to go bargain shopping to acquire impact players, and it’s going to be difficult for them to make the moves necessary to overtake the Bears as the best team in this division.
Player They Need To Re-Sign: RB Latavius Murray
Dalvin Cook has struggled to stay healthy in his two seasons since being drafted in the second round, so Murray has taken a big role in the running game. He averaged 4.1 yards per carry last season and has fourteen touchdowns in his two seasons with Minnesota, and is the perfect complement to Cook as a power back. He also gives the Vikings insurance if Cook gets injured, and they should convince him to re-sign by agreeing to go by a running back by committee look in 2019.
Top Free Agent Target: LB LJ Fort
Since Minnesota has practically zero cap space, they need to find a replacement for Barr at a minimal price. LJ Fort shined for the Steelers last season, ranking as the 19th best linebacker by Pro Football Focus. He shined in coverage and as a run-stuffer, and is definitely capable of filling an outside linebacker position for Minnesota. Since he’s only had one season of solid production, he’ll also be right in the Vikings’ price range.
Green Bay Packers
Top Needs: S, EDGE, G
As long as the Packers still have Aaron Rodgers under center, they’re a playoff contender. Still, they have a lot of work to do to catch the Bears and Vikings in this division. For starters, the Packers would be use to upgrade at both safety positions; Tramon Williams and Kentrell Brice certainly won’t cut it. After that, they should also to look to add one to two edge rushers, since Nick Perry and pending free agent Clay Matthews have regressed with age and can no longer be relied upon as a starting pass rusher. On offense, Aaron Rodgers was sacked the third most of any quarterback last season, and Green Bay should look to improve at both guard positions. With $35 million in cap space and with more money likely to freed up by cutting ties with Perry and tight end Jimmy Graham, the Packers have the opportunity to make the moves needed to get back to the playoffs in 2019. Will they do so, that remains to be seen.
Player They Need To Re-Sign: MLB Jake Ryan
Ryan missed the entire 2018 season with an ACL injury, but the 26-year-old graded out well with a 75.7 grade by Pro Football Focus and was terrific in the run game and in the passing game. Green Bay has a solid group of young linebackers, but Ryan is the best of the crop, and his asking price will tampered from the injury. Retaining him makes way too logical for the Packers not to.
Top Free Agent Target: FS Lamarcus Joyner
The 28-year-old Joyner has established himself as one of the premier safeties, and all though he regressed in 2018, he still graded out as above average with a 73.1 grade by Pro Football Focus. He had a career high 78 tackles in 2018, and brings flexibility with his ability to play both safety and corner back. He’s the ultimate swiss army knife on defense, and he would be a terrific addition for defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s defense.
Top Needs: TE, CB, DE
On paper, the Lions aren’t that far behind the teams in this division. There’s a lot of talent on this team, but they have some clear holes that prevented them from making a playoff run last season. It starts by acquiring a starting-caliber tight end for Matt Stafford, since Luke Willson and Levine Toilolo are free agents and shouldn’t be brought back any way. Detroit should then turn their attention to corner back; Teez Tabor and Nevin Lawson were liabilities opposite of Darius Slay last season. With Ezekial Ansah also set to leave as a free agent, Detroit will also need to go out and acquire a proven pass rusher, something they lack on the roster. With $33 million in cap space, Detroit has just enough money to do what is necessary to make a playoff push next season: acquire a tight end, 1-2 corners, and 1-2 pass rushers. If they follow the blueprint, they definitely shouldn’t be counted out this season.
Player They Need To Re-Sign: DT Ricky Jean Francois
In a limited role last season, 32-year-old Ricky Jean Francois shined as a run stuffer, earning a 68.0 grade from Pro Football Focus. He’d provide the Lions with veteran depth behind Damon Harrison and A’Shawn Robinson, which is always useful. He fit well with Matt Patricia and his scheme, so it makes a lot of sense to bring him back on an affordable deal.
Top Free Agent Target: DE Trey Flowers
Just like with the Dolphins and Brian Flores, Patricia should be expected to pursue Flowers, who he coached during his tenure as the Patriots’ defensive coordinator. Flowers ranked as the 6th best edge defender in the NFL last season, according to Pro Football Focus, and provides value with his ability to stop the run and rush the passer, as well as his versatility to play on the edge or inside. Usually, I’d be concerned with signing a former Patriot, but since Patricia is running a scheme very similar to what New England is running, Flowers would be a perfect fit. Plus, since he can contribute in so many ways, it’s unlikely Flowers ends up being a free agent bust.