Free-agency frenzy could shift balance of power in NFC North

Ryan Wood
Packers News
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GREEN BAY - When the NFL decided to conduct free-agency business as usual this week, it meant welcoming the annual change to the NFC North landscape.

The division won last season by the Green Bay Packers looks much different at the end of this week than it did at the beginning. All four division teams have had different approaches, from offloading distractions (the Minnesota Vikings), to focusing on the quarterback position (Chicago Bears) to swapping defensive talent (the Detroit Lions). The Packers have simply mitigated key losses from their roster.

Here are the five most significant transactions in the NFC North this week:

Bears get Foles for fourth-round pick

The Bears had to relinquish only a fourth-round compensatory pick to acquire Foles, a journeyman whose football career hit a pinnacle as Super Bowl LII MVP. The low demand says something about how the league perceives the 31-year-old quarterback’s skill set. After returning from a broken clavicle that cost him nine games with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Foles struggled and was benched after four games. The Jaguars had signed him to a four-year, $88 million contract in hopes he would push them into contention. Foles had three touchdown passes, two interceptions and a 84.6 rating with the Jaguars. Not exactly franchise quarterback stuff. But Foles has been counted out before, only to respond by showing he’s capable of playing the game’s most important position at the highest level. So it is difficult to predict what the Bears are getting in Foles. It’s possible his arrival changes nothing, and that embattled former No. 2 overall pick Mitch Trubisky will retain his starting job. The Bears would be paying Foles a lot as a backup — his cap charge this season is $15.1 million — but at the cost of only a fourth-round pick wouldn’t be on the hook for much if he doesn’t start.

Former Jaguars quarterback Nick Foles is joining the Bears.

That said, Foles is the same quarterback who once had a season of 27 touchdowns and two interceptions, who threw for 373 yards, three touchdowns and a 106.1 rating in leading the Philadelphia Eagles to a Super Bowl win against the New England Patriots, and who followed that season with a road playoff victory in Chicago. The Bears, who have a Super Bowl-caliber roster with one of the NFL’s best defenses and are one year removed from being NFC North champs, just addressed their most glaring roster hole with a Super Bowl MVP. That should alarm the rest of the division.

Diggs goes to Bills in trade

If ever there was an offseason to start over at receiver, it would be this year. One of the best and deepest receiver draft classes in recent memory provides a little more flexibility for maneuvering at the position. So it’s no coincidence receivers have been traded this offseason, from Stefon Diggs going to Buffalo to DeAndre Hopkins going to Arizona. Still, there’s no guarantee a rookie will provide anything resembling what the proven veteran can do, or that the young draftee will eventually develop into a similar player as the one no longer on roster.

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The Vikings got a solid haul for Diggs, sending a seventh-round pick to the Bills while reaping a first-, fifth-, sixth- and 2021 fourth-round pick. And maybe it was a move that had to be made, with Diggs’ frustration and aloofness becoming a distraction for a contending team. But it’s hard to argue the Vikings are better without a receiver who is coming off consecutive 1,000-yard seasons and doesn't turn 27 until November. Or, to put it another way, there’s no way the Packers, Bears and Lions are sad to see Diggs leave the division. Kirk Cousins, who the Vikings re-signed this week, can’t be thrilled to see Diggs go, no matter how many fewer headaches he might receive. As much as Vikings coach Mike Zimmer builds his team’s identity on the run game, the element that always made his offense a rare challenge was its ability to pose threats with Diggs and Adam Thielen on both sides of the field in the passing game. Now, it’s just Thielen, and that’s a big difference.

Bears get Quinn

You’re noticing a theme here. The Bears got better this week. They might’ve gotten much better. We won’t know that for some time, but the addition of Robert Quinn – at a hefty price of $70 million over five years – made one of the NFL’s scariest defenses even scarier. Quinn rushing from the edge opposite Khalil Mack will be a nightmare for offensive coordinators in the NFC North. It’s hard to see Quinn remaining productive throughout the life of his contract, but the Bears should get their money’s worth for at least the next couple years. Quinn, who turns 30 in May, is coming off an 11.5-sack season in Dallas. The Bears were so confident in the boost he would provide their pass rush they released former ninth-overall pick Leonard Floyd. At some point, age will catch up to Quinn. For now, the Bears should have one of the NFL’s top pass-rushing tandems. That should be particularly troubling for the Packers, considering how their week has gone.

Packers lose Bulaga

For the past couple years, the right tackle position in the NFC North has looked like this: Bryan Bulaga, Chicago’s Bobby Massie, Minnesota’s Brian O’Neill and Detroit’s Rick Wagner. That was a landslide advantage for the Packers and, given the importance of right tackle in today’s game, a very significant edge. Right tackle might not hold the prestige of a blindside blocker, but it’s one of the most important positions on the field. Defenses have prioritized edge pass rush so intensely over the past several years, most have bookends to stress an offensive line from both sides. The right side was rarely a concern for the Packers when Bulaga held the position over the past decade. When healthy, he was a stalwart at right tackle, one of the best in the league. The reasons the Packers chose to move on now make sense. Bulaga turns 31 on Saturday, and at this age he has seen a lot of physical attrition in his career, including surgeries on both knees to repair torn ACLs. That Bulaga started all 16 games last season for only the second time in his career isn’t something the Packers could have expected to be duplicated in 2020. And at the price tag of $30 million over three years, which Bulaga signed with the Los Angeles Chargers, the risk was understandably too high. Still, Bulaga’s departure weakens the Packers’ roster at least for now, no matter how much general manager Brian Gutekunst tried to mitigate the loss by signing Wagner.

Lions trade Slay to Eagles

The Lions signed former Pro Bowl pass rusher Jamie Collins this week. That seemed like a solid addition. For a couple days. Because they then traded cornerback Darrius Slay, the type of homegrown talent the Lions should covet, a star who was deeply connected with the Detroit community. The Philadelphia Eagles, who made Slay the NFL’s highest-paid corner with a three-year, $50 million extension that includes $30 million guaranteed, sent the Lions third- and fifth-round picks in the trade, according to ESPN. The Lions also signed Desmond Trufant on Wednesday, attempting to mitigate Slay’s inevitable departure. Trufant is a much less expensive alternative at $21 million over two years, but there’s a reason for that. Slay has been one of the NFL’s top corners for years, and arguably the best corner in the NFC North. He leads the league in defended passes since 2013, the year the Lions drafted him in the second round. The Lions are not a better team without Slay, who has made the Pro Bowl three straight years and will be 29 years old this season.

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