The Green Bay Packers are still alive and well in the NFL playoffs, but they have some glaring issues as they inch closer to the 2016 NFL off-season, while the rest of the NFC North is already probably thinking about how to get better for next season.
The Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears have the most work to do, as Detroit could still have major changes in the coaching staff and star wide receiver Calvin Johnson may be considering retirement. Chicago still needs to upgrade their defense, too, while free agents like Matt Forte and Alshon Jeffery could be tough to move on from.
Even with playoff appearances, the Minnesota Vikings and aforementioned Packers aren’t without their flaws, either. Let’s take a closer look at each NFC North team and see what their biggest needs are on both sides of the ball heading into the off-season:
Green Bay Packers
Offensive needs: OL, WR, TE
Injuries have really bogged down an offensive line that had slowly gone from one of the worst in the league to one of the best. Aaron Rodgers has not received the proper pass protection in 2015, though, so even with his top guys coming back at full strength in 2016, bringing in 1-2 quality offensive linemen to beef up the o-line depth is probably necessary. Green Bay’s o-line is otherwise strong when at 100%, but if they get banged up this bad again next year, they need insurance off the bench.
The loss of Jordy Nelson proved to be massive for the Packers, as they largely could not overcome their inability to stretch the field or gain separation consistently in even average matchups for much of the year. Nelson should be back at full speed but is still coming off of a serious knee injury and will be 31 years old when the season starts. Due to that and the major drop off in production from guys like Randall Cobb and Davante Adams, Green Bay absolutely needs to bring in some wide receiver talent. James Jones is too slow and will be a free agent and if Jeff Janis didn’t work out this year it’s possible he never will. Jared Abbrederis is a predestrian talent, also, so fixing the depth and getting a little more explosive should be a mission for the Packers. If they can accomplish that, they won’t have to rely so much on Nelson, healthy or not.
Tight end got exposed big time in 2015, as Rodgers simply did not have a reliable red-zone threat for most of the season and Richard Rodgers was too slow to take advantage of matchups half the time. He did have that awesome Hail Mary catch against Detroit, but he’s a total plodder and belong on the line, rather than trying to move the chains or make plays. Green Bay has missed out on some athletic guys like Eric Ebron and Maxx Williams in the last couple of years and it’s come back to bite them. Their offense was never more dynamic than when the athletic Jermichael Finley was healthy, so Ted Thompson and co. should seriously consider upgrading the position. There won’t be much in free agency, so the Packers should look to get a talented tight end in the draft.
Defensive needs: OLB, NT, ILB
Green Bay’s defense was actually quite strong for much of 2015, despite cutting ties with numerous veteran players at linebacker and defensive back. They have a lot of work to do if they ever want to turn into an elite talent, however, as Clay Matthews isn’t getting any younger and B.J. Raji is once again headed for free agency this off-season. Green Bay also needs to decide where they want Matthews permanently, and how they draft and play in free agency should dictate that. The Packers have some really nice talent in their defensive backfield, too, but they got banged up this year and at times were a little vulnerable. Bringing in some corner and safety depth would be a good idea.
The biggest needs are going to be at outside and inside linebacker, though, while nose tackle is an issue if the team can’t hold onto Raji again. It might even pay to let him go and bring in a new, young talent to man the middle of their defensive line. Julius Peppers is another year older and while he’s still been good, his play could drop off at any moment. Bringing in an explosive edge rusher is necessary to keep any regression from happening on the outside of the pass rush. Matthews sticking inside is perfectly fine, too, as he was good in that role, but he still needs a quality running mate in the middle of the defense. Getting another smart inside linebacker could allow the Packers to free him up and use him in his more natural role as a pass rusher more often, as well.
Offensive needs: OL, WR
I’d list quarterback here with Teddy Bridgewater still not looking like he’s necessarily the answer, but the Vikes seem to still believe he is their guy. Perhaps so, but if he is to be better in 2016, he needs more reliable weapons in the passing game and better protection. Minnesota looked better than they were as a run-blocking unit because of how good Adrian Peterson still was last year, but their pass protection (per PFF) was garbage. What would be great is if Matt Kalil would stop looking like a but and Phil Loadholt could stay healthy. Neither is a lock moving forward, though, so Minnesota may want to add a talented tackle to the mix in this year’s draft.
Mike Wallace doesn’t seem to fit anyone’s system anymore, Cordarrelle Patterson has been a total bust and Charles Johnson fell out of favor of the coaching staff as the season went on. The Vikes need to find some long-term options at wide receiver and parting ways with “60 Minutes” might not be a terrible idea, either. The Vikings have enough on the roster in Stefon Diggs and Jairus Wright to wait a bit in the draft, but they should target a rookie receiver somewhere in the middle rounds. Adding a solid veteran who isn’t totally reliant on the deep ball a la Wallace in free agency wouldn’t be a bad idea, as well.
Defensive needs: S, LB
Harrison Smith has been mostly awesome and will probably be extended this off-season, but Minnesota badly needs to upgrade over Andrew Sendejo at the other safety spot. Sendejo wasn’t trash, as he did fare well against the run, but he left a lot to be desired in pass coverage. He’s best used as a special teams ace and utility player, not a starting safety. That need could have the Vikes solidifying their secondary with a huge free agent splash. Eric Weddle is done with the Chargers and is still an elite player, and he could fit in perfectly with what Minnesota does. There has been chatter about the aging Terrence Newman sliding over and shoring up safety, but if that doesn’t happen I think the Vikings solve their safety issue once and for all. That would allow them to keep their strong depth at corner and beef up their pass defense, across the board. Weddle is the top target, but you can’t rule out Eric Berry or an early round draft pick, either.
Chad Greenway is on his way out of the league and has seen his play drop in the past few years. There is still a chance he returns for one more year and bridges the gap to a new starter, but the Vikings need to either upgrade over him now or at least set that transition up. There are a lot of potential prospects to consider for such a role, with Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith being one quality option. He’s obviously a risk with his knee injury, but would be a very nice value pick if Greenway stuck around for 2016.
Offensive needs: OT, WR
Eric Ebron was still a little inconstent and battled some injuries in his second season with the team, but he otherwise flashed terrific ability and is probably Detroit’s long-term solution at tight end. They still have plenty of depth behind him, too. That’s probably the case at running back, as well, where Joique Bell, Theo Riddick and rookie Ameer Abdullah all had some solid outings but failed to take over lead back duties at a high level. That’s going to be on Abdullah for 2016, and the expectation is that he’ll be able to be their every down guy. If the Lions believe he’s that guy, then they should be set at running back for another year. Zach Zenner was quite impressive in preseason play, too, so if they give him a chance to come back he could even unseat Bell and save them some cash.
That brings their biggest needs down to offensive tackle and wide receiver. Matthew Stafford had two big issues this past season: a system that just wasn’t maximizing his talents and an offensive line that didn’t always do a great job keeping him safe. Stafford was sacked a whopping 44 times and forget about the pressure he faced on a regular basis. The difference between him and the offense facing Detroit’s brutal early season schedule of elite defenses and how he fared down the stretch against closer to average defenses is quite simply night and day. Bringing in some extra help on the outside could help alleviate pressure going forward, while Detroit could use some general o-line depth across the board. Detroit can’t get their hands on Laremy Tunsil in this draft, but at 16th overall they could hope for someone like Jack Conklin or Taylor Decker to slide into their grasp.
Wide receiver is going to be a big need if Calvin Johnson really does decide to hang’em up (he’s supposedly retiring), but this could be an area of concern even if he sticks around. The reality is he’s aging and counting big money against the cap, so a trade, release or retirement another year from now are all leaking into the discussion of what the future looks like at wide receiver in Detroit. Golden Tate came on strong in the second half of the year and is firmly part of what the Lions do well, but an investment in another speedy receiver that could be paired with him if/when Megatron leaves would be a good move. Laquon Treadwell will surely be gone by the time they pick in the first round, but perhaps someone like Michael Thomas would be worth reaching for. This feel more like a day two move, but it’s also possible some wide receiver prospects rise up the ranks in the next couple of months.
Defensive needs: S, DT, DE
The Lions lost two massive difference-makers in Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley last year and wound up going from a top-5 unit to just the 18th best overall defense in 2015. That’s quite the free fall and should have the Lions thinking about upgrades across the board. I think the biggest concern in that interior defensive line, as Suh was the heart and soul of a nasty defense and the Lions refused to pay him. Maybe that was the right move financially, but trading for Haloti Ngata didn’t and won’t fill that hole. They need a star to take over that line and they also could use depth for the middle, as well.
Detroit has Ziggy Ansah and not much else for their pass rush, so they need to add depth and possibly even a marquee talent to take over in the next couple of years. That’s especially necessary with Jason Jones heading into free agency. Detroit should retain Jones if they can, but they also need to draft more young talent at the position. The Lions have also had some injuries at linebacker over the past two years, so bringing in some insurance would be advised. They need o-line and receiver help, but most of the draft and free agency should probably be focused on beefing up their defense.
Offensive needs: WR, LT, QB
The Bears need to retain Alshon Jeffery first and foremost, then make sure he’s not all by himself. Jeffery is an elite receiver, but the Bears don’t have much else beyond him and will need to hope Kevin White doesn’t have a lost sophomore season. Adding one more receiver may be necessary, as Jeffery was very banged up last year and White missed his entire rookie season. If both guys can’t stay healthy again in 2016, their passing game is in trouble.
The biggest issue in Chicago’s offense is their offensive line, as they could use tackle upgrades at both ends. Kyle Long is best served inside at either guard spot, but I don’t mind him on the right side. The Bears don’t have a legit left tackle to lean on, though, so picking one up in free agency or the draft is crucial. The line in general could use depth plugs, but getting a quality LT would change things dramatically for the better.
Jay Cutler was actually pretty good last year, but he’s always banged up and one good season can’t change his future for good. He still could revert to his old turnover tendencies and even if he doesn’t, he costs a ton and is getting older. The Bears need to think about their future and draft a new signal caller. Jimmy Clausen proved to be inept as a backup even, too, so finding a way to eventually replace him with an heir apparent to Cutler would be wise. This isn’t the deepest quarterback class, but with Carson Wentz rising up draft boards, a solid passer or two could slide down the board. It’d be amazing if the Bears somehow snagged Paxton Lynch.
Defensive needs: DE, LB, CB
Chicago’s defense got a little bit better in 2015, but they switched to a 3-4 and didn’t have anything close to the right pieces to pull it off. That led to them dumping Jared Allen and they continued to have issues across the defensive line, linebacker and even in the secondary. It all starts up front and with the 3-4, you need versatile defensive ends who can help stop the run and also free up space for the edge rushers. Going and getting two extra guys to add to the mix in free agency is advised, but the Bears will also want to grab at least one 3-4 DE in the draft.
Beefing up the 3-4 up front will do wonders, but it really won’t change a thing if the Bears don’t have the right linebackers. Shea McClellin playing on the inside last year was a total joke and it seems he doesn’t have a position in the NFL. He’s got to be gone but even if he found a spot, he can’t man the inside, that much we know. Chicago needs a leader to man the middle and while Christian Jones showed promised, it’s debatable that two inside linebackers are needed. The need extends to the outside, where the Bears do have some decent depth in Pernell McPhee, Willie Young and Lamarr Houston, but not a game changer among the lot. McPhee has struggled to stay healthy and Young asked for a trade last year, too, so this group is increasingly tough to trust. They badly need fresh blood on the outside in order to generate pressure on the quarterback. I wouldn’t be shocked to see Chicago go after a rush linebacker early, especially if the right 3-4 d-lineman prospect doesn’t fall into their laps. If they can’t get the guy they want, maybe Emmanuel Ogbah could be available in round two.
Got your own thoughts on what the NFC North teams need to do to improve in free agency and the draft? Let us know in the comments below!