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Wednesday, February 11, 2009
Hot Button: NFC North

By Kevin Seifert
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

The top issues facing each team in the division:

Chicago Bears

 
  Wesley Hitt/Getty Images
  Lovie Smith has some work to do with his defense.

Primary issue: The Bears gave up an average of 241.2 passing yards per game in 2008, third-worst in the NFL. The run defense ranked No. 5 overall, but coach Lovie Smith must find a way to re-balance a once-proud group.

Smith, however, isn't likely to get help from a personnel infusion this offseason. A series of recently-signed contract extensions means the Bears must largely rely on existing players to improve. Linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Nate Vasher, and defensive tackle Tommie Harris are all in the midst of long-term deals.
If players remain static, that leaves two avenues for adjustment: Scheme and coaching.

Solution: Smith already has overhauled his defensive coaching staff and seems poised to impose some level of scheme change himself by calling the game-day defensive signals himself. The Bears could also help themselves at two positions in the draft: Defensive end and safety.

Hot Button Archive
Kuharsky: AFC South
Yasinskas: NFC South
Seifert: NFC North
Walker: AFC North
Sando: NFC West
Williamson: AFC West
Graham: AFC East
Mosley: NFC East

Secondary issue: Ron Turner's offense could use more explosion, both from the backfield and at the wide receiver position. In 2008, there was perhaps one player -- receiver Devin Hester -- who was a threat to score every time he touched the ball.

As a team, the Bears had 35 pass plays of more than 20 yards and three of more than 40. Those figures ranked No. 26 and No. 29, respectively, in the NFL.

Solution: The receiver position seems an obvious target in free agency. Turner also would be wise to follow up on his plan to get scatback Garrett Wolfe more involved in the offense.


Detroit Lions

Primary issue: The Lions finished 2008 with the NFL's 30th-ranked rush offense and 32nd-ranked rush defense. Valuing quickness over size, the Lions got pushed all over the field on both sides of the ball and need to overhaul both lines.

 
  Derick Hingle/Icon SMI
  Alabama's Andre Smith could fit in nicely with the Lions.

This is not a one-year project, and instead takes several good drafts, along with at least some isolated free-agent acquisitions, to accomplish. Conservatively, the Lions need to find at least two guards, two defensive tackles and an eventual successor for center Dominic Raiola.

Some fans probably would like to see left tackle Jeff Backus replaced, and many aren't sold on young right tackle Gosder Cherilus. But the interiors of Detroit's lines are the most pressing issues.

Solution: The Lions must take a lineman with at least one, if not both, of their No. 1 picks. Some believe Alabama left tackle Andre Smith could be the best player in the draft. Left tackle isn't the Lions' top need, but Smith could set a tone for the entire offensive line.

Secondary issue: The Lions have three veteran quarterbacks on their roster: Drew Stanton, Daunte Culpepper and Jon Kitna. They have the opportunity to re-sign Dan Orlovsky. None of those players, however, are long-term answers at the position.

New coach Jim Schwartz joked last month that it was time to replace former quarterback Bobby Layne, who last played for the Lions 51 years ago. The Lions need a permanent answer at the game's most important position.

Solution: The Lions will consider whether to take Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford with the No. 1 overall pick. That's a possibility. Here's another: Making Culpepper or Orlovsky a bridge starter and selecting a developmental quarterback later
in the draft.


Green Bay Packers

 
  David Stluka/Getty Images
  In the Packers' new 3-4 scheme, Aaron Kampman will move to outside linebacker.

Primary issue: The Packers believe their personnel is flexible enough to absorb a pending shift to a 3-4 defensive scheme, but it's inevitable that some positions are going to turn over.

Aaron Kampman's shift to linebacker means the Packers need a new defensive end. And there's no guarantee that the two primary outside linebackers on the roster, Brandon Chillar and Brady Poppinga, will be able to handle the new scheme.

Unfortunately for them, the Packers will have to make those decisions months before training camp begins. Now is the time when the best alternatives are available.

Solution: General manager Ted Thompson needs to step out of his free agency shell and sign at least one linebacker and one defensive end to protect himself this summer. Those positions should also be a focus of the April draft.

Secondary issue: The offensive line got old in a hurry last season, and it's possible the Packers will have to replace at least one, if not both, of their tackles. Right tackle Mark Tauscher is headed to free agency while recovering from a torn ACL, a bad situation for both sides. And left tackle Chad Clifton struggled with both knees last season and has one year left on his contract.

The Packers aren't exactly set at guard, either. They rotated Daryn Colledge, Jason Spitz and Josh Sitton through the position last year, but it's possible that Colledge could figure as a replacement for one of the tackles.

Solution: Colledge could replace Tauscher at right tackle. It's also likely that Thompson will select multiple linemen in the draft.


Minnesota Vikings

Primary issue: For three years, the Vikings have been looking for the long-term successor to Culpepper. Coach Brad Childress has given Tarvaris Jackson every opportunity to claim that position, and you better believe that Childress would love for Jackson to do that once and for all in 2009.

 
  Rick Scuteri/US PRESSWIRE
  The Vikings need Tarvaris Jackson to solidify himself as the starting quarterback.

The question becomes the extent to which the Vikings will protect themselves against the possibility that Jackson can't do it. Gus Frerotte isn't likely to return, so at the very least the Vikings will have to find a new veteran backup for Jackson.

Many fans are hoping that second-year player John David Booty can challenge Jackson for the job, but it's unlikely that will happen in 2009.

Solution: The Vikings have a veteran team that seems primed for a deep playoff run, but they need to elevate their quarterback play one way or the other. Signing the best free agent available, likely to be Jeff Garcia, is probably their best option.

Secondary issue: The Ryan Cook experiment could end for several reasons, leaving the Vikings in need of a right tackle. Cook could replace veteran Matt Birk at center, or he simply could be benched after nearly three inconsistent seasons as a starter.

Cook played center in college at New Mexico and never has looked entirely comfortable as a right tackle.

Solution: There are no internal replacements. This position will have to come from outside the organization. Childress has long been a fan of Philadelphia's Jon Runyan, a free agent this spring, but that would be a short-term decision.