Dougherty: How bold additions can shift balance of power in NFC North
Khalil Mack changed the balance of power in the NFC North last year.
Nobody in the division has done anything in the first week of free agency as big as the Chicago Bears’ trade for Mack last September that was a key move in their winning the division title.
Still, it’s been an eventful offseason for two of the division’s four teams, the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions, who were among the NFL’s biggest spenders in early free agency.
Free agency can be almost as unpredictable as the draft, so we’ll have to wait until the games to see if the new players have made the Packers and Lions any better.
With that in mind, I talked to an NFL assistant coach who worked in the division in recent years as well an NFL scout for their outlook on all four teams now that the most coveted players are off the open market.
The Bears have had a relatively quiet offseason, and with limited cap space ($18.2 million according to Spotrac) and no picks in the first two rounds of this year’s draft, it figures to remain that way.
They lost two players from a defense that gave up the fewest points in the NFL last season, though neither loss was a big hit. Bryce Callahan (Denver) was one of the better nickel corners in the league, and Adrian Amos (Packers) was a solid safety to pair with playmaker Eddie Jackson. But they replaced Callahan ($10 million guaranteed from Denver) with a slightly cheaper free agent in Buster Skrine ($8.5 million guaranteed from Bears), and Amos with former Packers first-round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
“Chicago’s defense is still probably the best unit in the division,” the scout said.
The Clinton-Dix signing has drawn praise in national circles and the Chicago media, because he’s a former Pro Bowler who’s young (26) and cheap (one-year, $3.5 million). It’s also true that Clinton-Dix will benefit from playing with upper-tier talent such as Mack, Jackson, Roquan Smith and Akiem Hicks.
But if he’s the same player he was with the Packers the last two years, when he guessed far too often while chasing the big play, the Bears will be disappointed.
Bears GM Ryan Pace could sign some lower-tier free agents now that prices are coming down. But he doesn’t have a lot of draft capital, either. The Mack trade cost the Bears’ first- and second-round picks in this year’s draft, though it also landed them one of the NFL’s dominant defensive players.
“The Bears are still probably the No. 1 team in that division,” the assistant coach said.
Coming off an underachieving 8-7-1 season, the Vikings are up against the cap and in danger of quick decline if Kirk Cousins isn’t a lot better than he played last year.
Their $6.8 million in cap room ranks No. 30 in the NFL, according to Spotrac, and is the reason their only meaningful offseason move has been re-signing outside linebacker Anthony Barr ($15.9 million guaranteed).
Because of the cap shortage, they’ve lost defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson, backup running back Latavius Murray and guards Mike Remmers and Nick Easton, and there are rumors they’re trying to shed more money by trading cornerback Trae Waynes and defensive lineman Everson Griffen.
Next year, according to Spotrac, they rank No. 31 in cap space with only $8.1 million available.
“Their offensive line still stinks,” the scout said. “No cap room is part of it. I think (signing Cousins was a mistake). I get that you have to have someone play quarterback, but now they’re totally handcuffed.”
The Vikings still have plenty of talent across the board on defense and at the skill positions on offense (Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen and Dalvin Cook). But all those expensive contract extensions from the past few years are catching up to them. Two of their best defensive players, Harrison Smith (30) and Linval Joseph (31 this season), are on the wrong side of 30, and the Barr re-signing felt desperate.
“If I was playing the Vikings I’d find a way to get Barr in coverage and throw it to that guy every time,” the coach said. “He can’t cover me.”
The Lions made huge news last week when they signed New England pass rusher Trey Flowers ($40 million guaranteed), plus cornerback Justin Coleman ($16 million guaranteed), tight end Jesse James ($10.5 million guaranteed) and receiver Danny Amendola ($4.25 million guaranteed).
They’re in transition, but it’s still hard to say whether the arrow is pointing up.
They have a talented quarterback in Matthew Stafford, but he has only two double-digit win seasons in his 10-year career and costs $29.5 million against this year’s cap.
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They’re trying to build New England Midwest with a GM (Bob Quinn) and second-year coach (Matt Patricia) who came up in the Patriots organization, but there’s plenty of skepticism because of the histories of the Lions and Bill Belichick disciples.
“Have to wait and see how the Lions do,” the coach said. “They made kind of a splash because they got all of Patricia’s former students. But there’s still a culture there that isn’t used to winning, which is a major problem.”
The Lions haven’t suffered any big losses in free agency — defensive end Ziggy Ansah hasn’t signed with a new team yet, but injuries limited him to four sacks last season anyway. They also have about $30 million in cap room for bargain hunting the next couple weeks. But they have a long way to go.
“Flowers is a good player, but they paid him way too much money,” the scout said. “They signed Justin Coleman for $9 million a year, I think that’s one of the worst deals I’ve seen so far. He’s just a guy, you can find that guy on a practice squad somewhere. Jesse James they paid $6.25 (million) to play tight end, he’s not any better than the guy they had last year. I don’t know, I’m not into what Detroit is doing.”
Green Bay Packers
GM Brian Gutekunst spent big to land four starters — outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith ($21 million guaranteed) and Preston Smith ($16 million guaranteed); Amos ($12 million guaranteed) at safety; and offensive lineman Billy Turner ($10.35 million guaranteed). That’s a whole new way of doing business for the Packers.
Whether it pans out is another story.
“It seems like a lot (of money), doesn’t it?” the coach said. “… They’re good players. Are they a big splash? No. They’re good, solid players.”
Either way, much of the Packers’ 2019 season rides on whether Aaron Rodgers returns to MVP form, and whether team CEO Mark Murphy made a good call in hiring Matt LaFleur as coach.
“I don’t know about the Packers,” the scout said. “I thought the Packers were going to be OK last year, and I didn’t see all the things that happened last year happening. I still have to say Chicago is the best team. I think (the Packers) have a chance to be good. They’re not as talent deficient as they were.”