NFC North: Agents of change

NFC North: Agents of change
February 19, 2013, 8:45 pm
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A year ago at this time, the Bears' offseason personnel questions on the offensive side involved backups at quarterback (we're there again), running back (settled, if Michael Bush remains), and offensive line (here we go again). Swap out the Matt Forte backup for concern about getting themselves a tight end or two.

On the defensive side, we wondered about Brian Urlacher's health more than his future, whether some of the kid defensive linemen could step up and question marks over three of the four spots in the defensive backfield. The latter's been solved, save for what will be done at the nickel position. Another Urlacher question needs to be answered, and if Henry Melton returns via tag or long-term agreement, the rotation uncertainty then boils down to Israel Idonije's spot, and whether that could be solved from within if he isn't.

The Bears are the only team in the NFC North with a new coaching staff, so an unexpected decision or two is always possible. But around the division, where there's no significant management or coaching turnover, here are the other general questions within their respective free agent pools that have to be addressed:

Whether it's good or not, Green Bay has some younger, cheaper candidates to step in for future Hall of Fame safety Charles Woodson, and while Clay Matthews becomes a free agent a year from now the issues right in front of them are on the offensive side. Despite the presence of Aaron Rodgers and touchdown receptions leader James Jones, Donald Driver retired and Greg Jennings appears to be moving on in free agency. That leaves Jones, Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson as his main targets (plus Jermichael Finley). There were rumblings late in the season Finley had worn out his welcome and the Packers were ready to cut him and his $8.75 million cap hit for 2013. Still, the man caught 61 passes. Rodgers will need a couple new targets, and we haven't even gotten to their desire to improve his protection, and whether they can continue getting away with Rent-a-Running Back.

Detroit's defense wound up in the middle of the NFL's pack, which is easy to overlook when they're so identified with Stafford-to-Johnson. But that "D" could conceivably undergo a major makeover based on their free agent pool, with potentially three new starters on the line, two at linebacker and two in their defensive backfield. They've already cut Kyle Vanden Bosch, and the opposite End, Cliff Avril, will get a huge payday somewhere. Nick Fairley should move into a full-time role for UFA Corey Williams. Outside linebackers Justin Durant and DeAndre Levy could move on, as could free safety Louis Delmas and cornerback Chris Houston. But the Lions also need a complement to Calvin Johnson, and their offensive line has two 10-year-plus vets after cutting their right guard while right tackle Gosder Cherilus hits the market.

Minnesota might be in the best spot when the market opens in three weeks. Two starting linebackers - Jasper Brinkley and Erin Henderson - can shop around, along with safety Jamarca Sanford - a starter on the strong side the past two years. On the "AP" side, the rushing champion surely wants right tackle Phil Loadholt back, along with his fullback Jerome Felton. But the biggest question hovering over the Purple People is whether Percy Harvin can stay healthy enough (and drama-free enough) to be a long-term piece that can keep defenses honest against Peterson (not that it really mattered much last season).