NFC North: 2014 next big thing NFC

The next big thing: Vikings

January, 23, 2014
Jan 23
12:00
PM ET
What appears to be a pivotal offseason for the Minnesota Vikings has already begun with a major change. Mike Zimmer has replaced Leslie Frazier as the head coach, and by all accounts, Zimmer appears to be assembling a heavyweight coaching staff that includes former head coach Norv Turner as his offensive coordinator. But now, the Vikings need to address the other major problem on their roster: quarterback.

The Vikings used three different signal-callers in 2013, at one point changing starters before three consecutive games. They'll have the No. 8 pick in the draft and more than $20 million in cap space with which to attack their need at quarterback, and if the Vikings don't take one in the first round, they'll have three picks in the next two rounds.

Quarterback is far from their only need, though. The Vikings will have to shore up a secondary that was the main culprit in the team's allowing a league-worst 37 touchdown passes last season. They also need to make some decisions about a linebacking corps that is short on playmakers, and if Zimmer decides to run a 4-3 defense, the Vikings will have to determine whether they have enough money to bring back defensive end Jared Allen, who turns 32 in April after carrying a $17 million salary-cap figure in 2013.

An offseason that began with Zimmer's hiring figures to have more big developments coming.

The next big thing: Bears

January, 23, 2014
Jan 23
12:00
PM ET
The Chicago Bears took care of some of the heavy lifting by signing quarterback Jay Cutler to an extension, in addition to bringing back guard Matt Slauson, cornerback Tim Jennings and kicker Robbie Gould.

The Bears now need to turn their attention to three areas: their own free agents, unrestricted free agency and the NFL draft, with drastic improvement of the club’s struggling defense as the No. 1 underlying factor. In all, the Bears have 25 free agents they’ve got to decide whether to bring back, a group that includes key players such as center Roberto Garza, cornerback Charles Tillman, defensive tackles Henry Melton, Nate Collins and Jeremiah Ratliff, along with backup quarterback Josh McCown, linebacker D.J. Williams and defensive end Corey Wootton.

Limited salary cap space will be the main hindrance to bringing back some of their own, as well as any plans to improve by making acquisitions on the open market. Bears general manager Phil Emery admitted the club’s cap space will be tight, but added the team should still be able to improve the roster.

The club has ways to free up space, such as converting Cutler’s $22.5 million base salary for 2014 into a signing bonus it can prorate over the life of his deal or asking other veterans such as Julius Peppers, who counts $18,183,333 against the cap in 2014, to restructure.

The next big thing: Packers

January, 23, 2014
Jan 23
12:00
PM ET
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- With 17 unrestricted free agents and two restricted free agents, the Green Bay Packers have plenty of decisions to make about their own players before they can set their free-agent and draft boards.

Shortly after the season ended, we wrote about the long list of players with expiring contracts on both offense and defense.

Among the defensive free-agents-to-be are six starters, including all three starting defensive linemen -- B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett and Johnny Jolly -- plus cornerback Sam Shields, outside linebacker Mike Neal and safety M.D. Jennings (who is a restricted free agent).

For a defense that is in need of more playmakers, it will be interesting to see if general manager Ted Thompson views those starters as players he must re-sign, or will he replace them with more impactful players?

On the offensive side, four starters -- including one with a major injury issue -- are scheduled for free agency. Tight end Jermichael Finley underwent spinal fusion surgery following a season-ending neck injury, which further clouds his future. Three other offensive starters were in the final year of their contracts: receiver James Jones, fullback John Kuhn and center Evan Dietrich-Smith.

The Packers no doubt will make an effort to re-sign one or more of their free agents before the market opens in March, but given this lengthy list, there’s a good chance several of them won’t return.

"We lose players just like everybody else," Thompson said recently. "But if we can, we like to keep our own and continue adding guys through the draft and through free agency."

The next big thing: Lions

January, 23, 2014
Jan 23
12:00
PM ET
Now that the Detroit Lions have hired their coach and are in the latter stages of assembling a staff, both head coach Jim Caldwell and the front office can look toward free agency, which begins in March.

The Lions likely won't be massive players here this season, unlike last year when they brought in Reggie Bush and Glover Quin, but they should make some moves. The biggest players to pay attention to, in some respect, are two of their own free-agent veterans. The club needs to make decisions whether to try and bring back center Dominic Raiola and tight end Brandon Pettigrew.

Raiola seems like an easy choice. He wants to return. He'll likely take less money to return and if Detroit does bring him back, it keeps its entire offensive line from last season intact. Plus, by bringing Raiola in and potentially drafting a replacement for him in May, he can spend a season or two mentoring the younger player.

Pettigrew is the more interesting question, and it might come down to how much Caldwell values what Pettigrew can bring as a tight end versus what other options exist in free agency or the draft.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

NFC NORTH SCOREBOARD