Summer Questions: NFC North
What's left to be learned about Bears, Lions, Packers, Vikings?
Training camps are just around the corner, with the Buffalo Bills getting things started when players report on July 18.
But while players enjoy their final weeks of vacation, front offices continue to contemplate the direction of their teams -- both for this season and the long term.
With that in mind, ESPN's NFL Nation reporters identify and answer a pressing question for every team in this week's Hot Read feature.
Q: Will Jay Cutler finally shed his enigma label in Year 2 under Marc Trestman?
A: Cutler's eight-year body of work casts doubt, but there are many factors working in his favor if he can stay healthy.
Cutler finally believes in the offensive staff and the system he's operating, a marked change from what he endured over his first four seasons in Chicago playing for three offensive coordinators in a trio of schemes marred by bad offensive lines and a lack of weapons.
PUTTING THE LEAGUE IN FOCUS
ESPN.com's Hot Read series takes an
in-depth look at the people and issues shaping the NFL's present and future:
• WR Marshall's mental health mission
• Josh McCown: Nine teams in 13 years
• Time's right for a minor league
• Inside a Hall of Famer's garage sale
• Philly hopeful's military journey
• 2015 QBs: Mariota, Winston, Hundley
Also see: NFL Hot Read home page
Last offseason, general manager Phil Emery surrounded Cutler with more talent and brought in a staff led by Trestman, who was charged with coaxing the best out of the quarterback. In Cutler's first year with Trestman, he finished with the highest passer rating of his career and highest completion percentage since 2007. Cutler showed enough improvement for Trestman and Emery to feel comfortable giving the quarterback a seven-year extension worth $54 million guaranteed. He'll prove he's worth it in 2014.
Cutler recognizes his own mortality, and he's working diligently to clean up his mechanics and become a better team leader. Trestman recently told SiriusXM NFL radio that Cutler beefed up his physique and improved his strength in an attempt to play in all 16 regular-season games for the first time since 2009. He's also spent copious amounts of time outside of team workouts training and sharpening execution with teammates.
Few have questioned Cutler's physical talent. But he needs to put it all together in terms of leadership and decision-making. We saw vast improvement from him in 2013, and we saw resilience in the way Cutler handled returning to the starting lineup coming off an injury after backup Josh McCown put together a successful run. Cutler will take the next step this season.
-- Michael C. Wright
Q: What are the short- and long-term impacts of cutting cornerback Chris Houston earlier this month with four years remaining on a five-year deal?
A: In the short term, the Lions opened up salary-cap space they needed to sign first-round pick Eric Ebron, but that is just a small aspect of this move. The real impact of cutting Houston won't be felt until the fall. This puts a ton of pressure on a cornerback group largely lacking in either experience or quality. In Rashean Mathis' case, the issue is he's 33 years old. This also leaves the Lions focused on winning now while relying on those corners to cover some of the game's top receivers.
In the long term, general manager Martin Mayhew sent a clear message with this move that he believes at least one or two of the cornerbacks on the roster should be an upgrade over Houston. One of those players is Darius Slay, the second-year pro who will probably become a starter this fall. The other starter will likely come from a trio of third-year pros: Bill Bentley, Jonte Green and Chris Greenwood. They were all drafted by the Lions in 2012 and have shown the capability of being decent NFL cornerbacks, but they lack consistency.
If releasing Houston doesn't work out, it puts a lot of pressure on the Lions to draft a cornerback early in 2015, when there might be other issues they need to address.
If the Lions corners aren't good enough in 2014, Detroit won't satisfy its win-now mantra.
-- Michael Rothstein
A: It's worth wondering whether general manager Ted Thompson's decision to draft three receivers -- Fresno State's Davante Adams in the second round, Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis in the fifth round and Saginaw Valley State's Jeff Janis in seventh round -- was an indication he planned to let either Cobb or Nelson leave in free agency when their contracts expire next March. But doing so would jeopardize the Packers' ability to consistently field one of the most potent offenses in the league.
If Thompson were to let either one walk, the Packers' next-most experienced receiver would be Jarrett Boykin, who by all accounts had a fine season in 2013 with 49 catches and 681 yards in his first chance for significant playing time. But the chance that Boykin, a third-year pro, or any of the three draft picks will turn into a top-tier receiver like Cobb and Nelson is not one worth taking. Not when the strength of your team is the passing game with a quarterback like Aaron Rodgers.
With nearly $14 million in available salary-cap space for this season, Thompson has plenty of room to get both players locked up for the long term. If for some reason Thompson wanted to let one of the two go, it would be a tough decision to pick one. Nelson is the more accomplished receiver with 30 touchdowns and 3,322 yards over the past three seasons, but he's 29 years old. Cobb, who has yet to post a 1,000-yard season, is just 23. Also, Cobb has primarily played in the slot, while Nelson plays mostly on the outside. Together, they could form one of the most dangerous inside-outside receiver combinations in the NFL for several years to come.
The addition of Adams, Abbrederis and Janis more likely was a response to the fact that the Packers have lost Donald Driver to retirement plus Greg Jennings and James Jones in free agency the past two offseasons, rather than an indication that Cobb or Nelson are not in their long-term plans.
-- Rob Demovsky
Q: Can Greg Jennings become a Pro Bowl-caliber receiver again after a frustrating first year in Minnesota?
A: When the Vikings signed Jennings to a five-year, $45 million contract in March 2013, they were gambling on his ability to produce with someone not named Brett Favre or Aaron Rodgers as his quarterback. Jennings was gambling, too -- on Christian Ponder at the time, but on the idea that the Vikings' quarterback situation would be stable enough to keep him among the game's top receivers at age 30 and beyond.
The first year of the deal didn't deliver quite what either side hoped. Jennings' numbers languished in the nine games Ponder started at quarterback, as the third-year passer struggled to make the kinds of precise throws that allowed Jennings to take advantage of his slick route running and quickness in Green Bay. Jennings' 5.42 yards-after-catch average was 16th best in the league while he was with the Packers, and only three wideouts -- Percy Harvin, Miles Austin and Wes Welker -- were better during that time (the others ahead of Jennings were running backs). Last year, Jennings was down to 5.01 yards after catch and seemed to disappear with Ponder at quarterback, catching just 24 passes for 274 yards on his way to a modest 68-catch, 804-yard season.
But in the Vikings' quarterback turmoil of 2013, Jennings clicked with Matt Cassel, who threw the receiver all four of his touchdown passes and targeted Jennings more than any other player. Jennings caught 40 of his 68 receptions from Cassel, despite the quarterback playing in nine games and starting just six. His yards-after-catch average was up to 5.33 with Cassel, as well, and the two veterans bonded off the field, connecting over their experiences as fathers and developing a mutual respect for how the other approaches his work.
Jennings has spoken highly of rookie Teddy Bridgewater, too, but his work with Cassel might be what gets him back on the path to his performance level in Green Bay, when he had 1,100-plus yards three times, 12 touchdowns twice and enjoyed two Pro Bowl seasons from 2007 to '11. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner's offense should open up more of the field for Jennings than former coordinator Bill Musgrave's scheme did, and Jennings -- who was a deceptively dangerous deep threat in Green Bay -- could relish the downfield element of Turner's passing game, too. But as he turns 31 in September, Jennings probably won't have an appetite for too many more seasons like last year's 5-10-1 campaign, and the Vikings will have paid Jennings all $18 million of the guaranteed money in his contract by the end of 2014. He's looking for a quick turnaround, and his relationship with Cassel, at least early in the season, should put him on better footing to make that happen.
-- Ben Goessling