2021 NFL Offseason Outlook: NFC North

2020 Recap

The NFC North was once again dominated by the Packers on their way to a 13-3 record for the second year in a row. Green Bay was the only team in the division with a winning record and they won five of six in-division games. However, the Packers have some work to do in order to keep their winning roster intact. The Bears finished 8-8 last season to earn a #7 seed in the playoffs, but they face arguably the biggest free agent in the NFL in Allen Robinson. The Vikings (7-9) will be looking to bounce back from a tough season riddled with injuries, and the Lions (5-11) will be hoping new head coach Dan Campbell can inject some life into the organization.

Green Bay PackersGreen Bay Packers

Current Cap Space: -$11.5 million (as of 2/21)

Top Free Agents: C Corey Linsley, RB Aaron Jones, TE Robert Tonyan Jr. (RFA), OG Lane Taylor, TE Marcedes Lewis, CB Kevin King, IDL Tyler Lancaster (RFA), CB Chandon Sullivan (RFA), WR Allen Lazard (ERFA), RB Jamaal Williams

Biggest Team Needs: CB, WR, OT, LB, IDL, IOL, RB, TE

2021 Draft Picks: #29 (R1), #62 (R2), #92 (R3), #125 (R4), #156 (R5), #188 (R6), #218 (R7)

Analysis: The Packers fell just short of the Super Bowl as they lost at home to the eventual champion Buccaneers in the NFC Championship. Aaron Rodgers had a stupendous season that earned him his third MVP award, but Green Bay is reportedly working on restructuring his contract in order to maximize their salary cap flexibility. All-Pro center Corey Linsley is player who they must resign, which could mean Aaron Jones is out the door. The Packers do have a few cap casualty candidates. WR Marquez Valdes-Scantling ($2.2M), OG Lucas Patrick ($1.9M), CB Josh Jackson ($1.3M), and WR Devin Funchess ($1.2M) are likely cap casualty candidates. That doesn’t even get the Packers to the point of clearing the salary cap number, however, so more work needs to be done. OT Rick Wagner and LB Christian Kirksey were already released to help clear cap space, and Green Bay may approach more veteran players to restructure their deals.

While Rodgers and Davante Adams are locked up, Green Bay faces the prospect of losing a number of offensive contributors. The departures of both Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams would leave A.J. Dillon as the sole running back in need of help in the backfield. Allen Lazard may be difficult to bring back, while Robert Tonyan and Marcedes Lewis are free agents at tight end. Marquez Valdes-Scantling could also become a cap casualty. Could this finally be the year Green Bay uses their first-round pick on a wide receiver? The Packers would love to bring back Corey Linsley and he’s their top priority on the offensive line, but Lane Taylor is a very strong player in his own right and would be a significant loss at guard. A weakened interior offensive line and run game could be real issues for the Packers in 2021.

Defensively, the Packers have virtually the same needs this offseason as they did last year. They’ve still been unable to replace linebacker Blake Martinez as Christian Kirksey flamed out in his first and only season with the team. The Packers also have minimal reliable pass coverage outside of Jaire Alexander, who’s one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. Kevin King and Chandon Sullivan would not be monumental losses as free agents, but Green Bay has to find a way to put two good cornerbacks on the field at the same time. Green Bay’s defensive line is pretty solid with Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, and Rashan Gary locking down the pass rush, but defensive tackle Dean Lowry could end up a cap casualty and Tyler Lancaster is a free agent. Defensive tackle will be a need for the Packers this offseason. This roster is not complete, and the Packers are not in a great spot to fill their existing holes. This offseason will likely result in Green Bay losing some significant pieces, which could open up the NFC North.

First-Round Pick Targets: OT Jalen Mayfield, OT Samuel Cosmi, CB Tyson Campbell, CB Asante Samuel Jr., CB Eric Stokes, CB Shaun Wade, OT Liam Eichenburg, IOL Wyatt Davis

Free Agency Targets: DE J.J. Watt, WR Marquise Goodwin, RB Matt Breida, LB K.J. Wright, CB Josh Norman

Chicago BearsChicago Bears

Current Cap Space: -$2.5 million (as of 2/21)

Top Free Agents: WR Allen Robinson, QB Mitchell Trubisky, WR Cordarrelle Patterson, IDL Roy Robertson-Harris, S Deon Bush, S Tashaun Gipson, OG Germain Ifedi

Biggest Team Needs: QB, OT, IOL, WR, IDL, CB, EDGE

2021 Draft Picks: #20 (R1), #52 (R2), #83 (R3), #147 (R5), #178 (R6)

Analysis: The Bears have two massive free agents to take care of in quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and wide receiver Allen Robinson. There have been conflicting reports in Chicago about the team’s interest in resigning Trubisky and Trubisky’s interest in resigning with the team. Ultimately, the Bears won’t have many better options for the quarterback position and Trubisky is unlikely to demand a massive contract. PFF projected his deal at 2 years for $15 million, which should be tenable for the Bears. Robinson, on the other hand, has a projected 4-year, $85 million contract per PFF and the Bears would need to make numerous cuts in order to afford that contract. If Robinson departs, whoever is quarterbacking the Bears next season would find himself with minimal pass-catching options, so Chicago should do all that they can to retain the Pro-Bowl wideout.

Luckily for the Bears, they do have some clear cut candidates on the roster. IDL Akiem Hicks ($10.5M), TE Jimmy Graham ($7M), CB Buster Skrine ($2.7M), OT Bobby Massie ($5.4M), and OT Charles Leno Jr. ($6.2M) can be released for significant cap savings. If all of those players are cut, the Bears would be able to afford to resign both Trubisky and Robinson. Cutting the team’s two starting offensive tackles isn’t exactly an attractive option, though, especially after how well they performed last season. Germain Ifedi is the only free agent who was a starter on the O-line last season, and the unit improved drastically over their play for the past couple of years. However, Ryan Pace may deem the offensive tackles expendable in an effort to retain Robinson. The Bears could also look to trade those players to offensive-line needy teams. Chicago has already restructured the contracts of Khalil Mack and Kyle Fuller recently, and they could look to do the same with Eddie Jackson. Whether or not the Bears want to damage their roster with cuts or trades to retain Robinson will be interesting to watch.

Beyond finding enough cap space for Trubisky and/or Robinson, the Bears would probably like to bring back free agents defensive lineman Roy Robertson-Harris and safety Tashaun Gipson, both of whom were key defensive contributors last season. Chicago has very few weaknesses on the defensive side of the ball at the moment with Khalil Mack, Roquan Smith, Kyle Fuller, and Robert Quinn highlighting a roster full of talent. While I’m sure the Bears would love to consider a trade for Deshaun Watson, they have nowhere near the amount of cap room they would need to make that happen. In order to acquire Watson, they would need to cut so much talent to the point that their roster would closely resemble the current Texans. Instead, I’m pegging them to find a way to resign Trubisky and keep Allen Robinson (a likely franchise tag candidate, would be about $16.4 million).

First-Round Pick Targets: OT Christian Darrisaw, DT Christian Barmore, OT Samuel Cosmi, OT Jalen Mayfield, OT Liam Eichenburg, WR Jalyn Waddle, IOL Alijah Vera-Tucker

Free Agency Targets: WR Rashard Higgins, S Keanu Neal, QB Cam Newton, EDGE Bud Dupree

Minnesota VikingsMinnesota Vikings

Current Cap Space: -$9.5 million (as of 2/21)

Top Free Agents: S Anthony Harris, LB Eric Wilson, LB Todd Davis, S George Iloka, IDL Jaleel Johnson, EDGE Ifeadi Odenigbo, WR Chad Beebe, IOL Dakota Dozier

Biggest Team Needs: IOL, IDL, S, OT, CB, WR, EDGE, QB

2021 Draft Picks: #14 (R1), #78 (R3), #90 (R3), #109 (R4), #115 (R4), #124 (R4), #140 (R5), #151 (R5), #174 (R6), #204 (R7)

Analysis: It was a disappointing 2020 season for Minnesota, and they’ll be looking to add some talent to produce better results. The Vikings come into this offseason without much cap flexibility after the number was significantly reduced, but they don’t have a ton of key free agents. Anthony Harris is their top priority to resign, and the rest of their top free agents are likely all expendable despite being contributors last season. Kirk Cousins is eating up a huge chunk of the team’s cap at $31 million dollars, but with $21 million of that guaranteed this year, it’s going to be tough for the team to move on from the underwhelming veteran quarterback. However, Cousins will count $45 million against the cap in 2022, so the Vikings may look to move on before that situation becomes more pressing. Minnesota could clear $7.1 million in cap room by releasing Anthony Barr, but he would need to pass a medical after his injuries last season in order for that to fully process.

The Vikings do have some other options in terms of potential releases. TE Kyle Rudolph ($5M), DT Shamar Stephen ($3.7M), Dan Bailey ($1.7M), Britton Colquitt ($1.7M), and Mike Hughes ($1.1M) could be released in order to get Minnesota closer to the cap limit. However, if they want to resign Anthony Harris, they will have to get more creative. Harrison Smith is set to become a free agent after this season, and his trade market would likely be significant with his continued high-level play. However, Minnesota may look to extend his contract instead. The Vikings could also look to restructure contracts with Danielle Hunter, Riley Reiff, Adam Thielen, or Eric Kendricks. Anthony Harris is projected to get a 4-year, $56 million contract by PFF, so the Vikings will need to clear up about $14 million in cap space in order to sign him. Harris will have no shortage of suitors in free agency, and his departure would not be shocking.

The reality of the situation for the Vikings is that it will be very difficult to clean up this roster until Kirk Cousins is off the books. He threw for 35 touchdowns in 2020, but his efficiency metrics left something to be desired, especially with a cap hit of $31 million this season. The Vikings will find it even more difficult to resign free agents. Riley Reiff and Harrison Smith will see their contracts expire after the 2021 season, and if Minnesota is not confident it can resign them, they should look to acquire draft compensation in the form of a trade while they can. At #14 in the draft, the Vikings will have some great options to improve their defense in some way. However, they’re unlikely to make the playoffs next season with virtually the same roster.

First-Round Pick Targets: CB Patrick Surtain II, CB Caleb Farley, EDGE Kwity Paye, EDGE, Gregory Rousseau, IDL Christian Barmore, LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah

Free Agency Targets: S Tashaun Gipson, WR Josh Reynolds, OG Jon Feliciano, CB Patrick Peterson, WR JuJu Smith-Schuster

Detroit LionsDetroit Lions

Current Cap Space: -$8.4 million (as of 2/21)

Top Free Agents: WR Kenny Golladay, WR Marvin Jones, DE Everson Griffen, WR Danny Amendola, S Duron Harmon, EDGE Romeo Okwara, LB Jarrad Davis, CB Daryl Roberts, RB Adrian Peterson, WR Mohamed Sanu, LB Reggie Ragland

Biggest Team Needs: WR, CB, QB, EDGE, LB, IDL, OT, IDL

2021 Draft Picks: #7 (R1), #41 (R2), #72 (R3), #88 (R3), #102 (R4), #136 (R5)

Analysis: The Lions come into this offseason with a new head coach, Dan Campbell, and a new starting quarterback, Jared Goff. The draft compensation that Detroit earned in trading away Matthew Stafford is significant, but it’s unclear if Goff has what it takes to be the team’s long-term starter. Goff is set to count for $25+ million each year against the cap until 2024, and the structure of his contract will make it difficult to get rid of him before then. Goff has only ever played with Sean McVay in the NFL, and it stands to reason that the brilliant offensive mind has masked a lot of the flaws in Goff’s game. Campbell and new offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn will be tasked with helping Goff elevate his play. It will be important for Detroit to have high-quality pass-catchers to help him do just that, and their top four wide receivers are all free agents in Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones, Danny Amendola, and Mohamed Sanu. PFF projected Golladay’s contract at 4 years, $85 million and Jones’s contract at 3 years, $27 million. It’s highly unlikely both players return, and the Lions will need some cap maneuvering to afford either of them.

Detroit does have some viable cut candidates this offseason including Desmond Trufant ($6.2M), Nicholas Williams ($4.6M), Danny Shelton ($4M), and Justin Coleman ($4.9M) may all be deemed expendable by the new regime, and there are plenty of lower-value players who can offer some cap relief with a release as well. Shelton, Trufant, and Williams only have one more year on their contracts, so their release is pretty likely.  If the Lions view Golladay as a long-term top-ten wide receiver, something I am hard-pressed to disagree with, they need to do whatever they can to clear enough cap space and resign him. However, the Lions do have some key defensive players who stand as free agents. Edge defender Romeo Okwara has a projected 3-year, $19.5 million contract per PFF, and he’s the highest-priority resigning on the defensive end. Duron Harmon, Jarrad Davis, Everson Griffen, Daryl Roberts, and Reggie Ragland are all free agents, as well, but despite being contributors last season, they are all replaceable.

The Lions have several significant needs moving forward. With the number of wide receivers becoming free agents, Detroit has to address that position in a significant way. The Lions also need to find some cornerback help for second-year Jeff Okudah. Detroit likely won’t address the quarterback position beyond Jared Goff this offseason, but that is a long-term need as well. Finally, the defense could use some serious boost at all three levels, particularly in the pass-rush. If Okwara prices himself out of Detroit, the team will surely look at other free agency options at the position. The draft could also provide a great place to add talent to the defense’s front seven.

First-Round Pick Targets: WR Devonta Smith, WR Ja’Marr Chase, CB Patrick Surtain II, CB Caleb Farley, LB Micah Parsons, EDGE Kwity Paye, EDGE Gregory Rousseau

Free Agency Targets: WR Curtis Samuel, LB Jayon Brown, CB Ronald Darby, S Xavier Woods, EDGE Ifeadi Odeingbo, CB Kevin King

  
I've been writing about sports for Lineups since the beginning of 2020 and on my own website since 2018. In May 2021, I graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in sport management. With my educational background in the sports business and a strong knowledge of the inner workings of professional and collegiate sports, I hope to tell enthralling stories about the world of sports as it unfolds around me.

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