In this barren wasteland of sports news, there has been one league that has become a savior of our sports sanity: NFL free agency. Lanthorn Sports will be recapping keys moves of the off-season while breaking down where teams now sit after the initial free agency period. Today, we will be recapping the NFC North.
CHICAGO BEARS: The Chicago Bears had very few financial resources to improve their team after a disappointing season in 2019. The offense under reigning Coach of the Year Matt Nagy was supposed to flourish being led by quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. Chicago finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs as Trubisky and the offense struggled. The defense took a step back as well, after being dominant in 2018. With little cap space, Chicago couldn’t make many moves to change their trajectory for 2020.
To bring in competition for Trubisky, the Bears brought in former Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles. Foles struggled in Jacksonville last season, breaking his collarbone in the first game of the season and losing all four of his starts later in the season. Foles knows Nagy’s offense after their time together in Kansas City. Giving up a fourth round pick for Foles is troublesome, however, with cheaper options and arguably better players available in free agency. Quarterback Cam Newton recently signed with the New England Patriots for just over $1,000,000 and he’s been consistently better than Foles throughout his career.
The next area of concern to address in Chicago was the tight end position. The Bears got almost zero production from the group in 2019. As a whole, the seven tight ends on the roster caught 36 passes for two touchdowns. None of them caught for more than 100 yards, or were impactful in the passing game. Jimmy Graham signed a two-year, $16 million dollar contract with the Bears. $8 million dollars a year is ridiculous for a 33 year old who has looked like a shell of himself for the past several seasons in Green Bay and Seattle. Graham’s athleticism is depleting, as he caught 38 passes for 447 yards and 3 touchdowns in 2019. He does have great durability, as he has played in all 16 regular season games for the past four seasons. However, Graham rejuvenating his play to his former Pro Bowl days seems doubtful. With other talented players with higher upside like Eric Ebron signing for a lower salary, it’s head scratching why general manager Ryan Pace targeted Graham so aggressively.
On defense, the Bears made sure to improve their pass rushing. Khalil Mack produced only 8.5 sacks last year. Chicago needed to boost the linebacker position opposite of Mack to free him up in the pass rush. Chicago released former first round pick Leonard Floyd after recording only 3 sacks a season ago. Robert Quinn was brought in to replace Floyd, signing a five-year, $70 millions dollar contract. Quinn resurrected his career in 2019, providing the Cowboy’s defense with 11.5 sacks. Quinn has been a force pass rushing throughout his career and was consistently pressuring opposing quarterbacks last season. A five-year deal for Quinn is risky for a 30-year-old linebacker and could backfire in a few years. For this season at least, Quinn will combine with Mack to create one of the most feared passing rushing duos in the league.
The Bears did lose several key players in free agency. Receiver Taylor Gabriel and cornerback Prince Amukamara were cut as cap casualties. Offensive guard Kyle Long retired, and starting safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix signed with the Cowboys. Chicago also lost a key depth piece in linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski, as the Bears opted to keep LB Danny Trevathan instead of Kwiatkoski, giving Trevathan a three-year extension for $21.75 million. Trevathan couldn’t be replaced in the locker room and as leader of the defense, but he only played in nine games last year. Wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. was brought in to replace Gabriel on offense. Clinton-Dix was replaced by Tashaun Gipson. Ginn Jr. and Gipson should be adequate stand-ins for 2020.
The Chicago Bears tried to replace key contributors to the team with one year to “prove-it” deals all around the roster. Outside linebacker, safety, and the tight end positions were improved. However, not enough was done to improve the offensive line and depth to the inside linebacker position. In the draft, the Bears selected TE Cole Kmet from Notre Dame and CB Jaylon Johnson from Utah in the second round. Both of these players should be factors in 2020, especially Johnson who is projected to start. The Bears can reach the playoffs this season with an improved pass rush, if the offensive line improves, and if Foles can play better quarterback than Trubisky. Those are some big “if’s” though, and Chicago could be in the exact same position they were in last season. STOCK NEUTRAL.
DETROIT LIONS: Last season was a disappointment. Head coach Matt Patricia is on the hot seat. Matthew Stafford missed half the season with a fractured spine. Stafford has been an excellent and an underrated quarterback in the league so far during his career, but he has been surrounded by a distasteful roster. Detroit has always seemed to be a team with talent that has chances to make the postseason but rarely ever live up to it. The off-season Detroit had doesn’t seem to have made much of a difference to compete for the NFC North title.
Most of the Lions additions came on defense, after the unit ranked dead last in passing yards allowed. Patricia brought in several former Patriots players to turn around the defense. Linebacker Jamie Collins signed with Detroit for $30 million and three years. Collins had a career high 7 sacks and 3 interceptions with the Patriots last season on a dominant defense. Defensive tackle Danny Shelton was also brought into the fold, signing a two-year, $8 million dollar deal with the Lions. The Lions also traded a fifth round pick for defensive back Duron Harmon from New England.
The Harmon trade wasn’t the only move Detroit made in the secondary. Disgruntled cornerback Darius Slay was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles for a third and fifth round pick. This is an enormously underwhelming return for a player who has been a staple of the Lions defense for the past several seasons. Slay is a player opposing teams have to gameplan around to neutralize his coverage abilities. A terrible relationship between Patricia and Slay fueled his exit from Detroit.
Without their star cornerback, Detroit selected former Ohio State corner Jeff Okudah with the third pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. Okudah shows tremendous potential in the secondary with his size and athleticism. To complete the starting cornerback positions, Detroit signed CB Desmond Trufant to a two-year, $21 million deal. Trufant is a slightly above average defender, and he generated four interceptions last season. Okudah and Trufant will make the Lions secondary respectable, but Slay will be sorely missed in 2020.
On offense, Detroit lost a couple of starters on the offensive line. Guard Graham Glasgow signed in Denver and tackle Rick Wagner went across Lake Michigan to the division rival Packers. To replace Wagner, the Lions signed Halapoulivaati Vaitai to a five-year, $50 million dollar contract. Vaitai was one of the most overpaid players in all of free agency. He only started three games for the Eagles last season and was released by the team when the offseason began. Vaitai has never been a good pass blocker, hasn’t showed much speed, and hasn’t spent consistent time starting at tackle in the NFL. This is a huge gamble for fifty million dollars and Detroit doesn’t have the luxuries to be taking these types of risks.
WR Geronimo Allison was brought in from the Packers, and should add valuable depth to the receiver position. In the second round of the draft, Detroit selected running back D’Andre Swift from Georgia. Swift will compliment Kerryon Johnson in the backfield, and will have ample opportunity to take over as the leading back.
It’s a difficult offseason to judge if the Lions have really improved their team. They did have many defensive additions with Collins, Shelton, Harmon, Trufant, and Okudah which should improve their play. They did however lose Slay, Damon Harrison, and Devon Kennard. The Lions also lost two starting offensive lineman, and didn’t do much to replace them. It seems like Detroit will be in for another year of having talent but once again disappointing and finishing near the bottom of the NFC North. STOCK NEUTRAL.
GREEN BAY PACKERS: After finishing 13-3 last season and losing in the NFC Championship game, it seemed like the Green Bay Packers would pounce on any opportunity to improve the team for 2020. By simply adding more weapons to quarterback Aaron Rodgers arsenal, the Packers might have been one of the front-runners to win it all this season. That didn’t happen.
Green Bay made very few additions and mainly plugged holes created from departing players. Michigan wide receiver Devin Funchess on a one-year deal, but he has a vast injury history and has opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns. Following the exit of Jimmy Graham to Chicago, the Packers re-signed tight end Marcedes Lewis. Lewis is 36 years old, and should split time and with second year TE Jace Sternberger, who caught a whopping zero passes in 2019. While Graham is an aging tight end and his play has severely declined on the field, he did have production that wasn’t replaced by the Packers.
Longtime starter on the team, offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga, signed with the San Diego Chargers. Rick Wagner was brought in to take Bulaga’s starting spot. Wagner is nowhere near as consistent as Bulaga or performs to the same level, but he should at the very least be an adequate replacement for this year. Starting middle linebacker Blake Martinez also departed from the Packers after leading the team in tackles in 2019. Linebacker Christian Kirksey was signed to a two-year, $16 million dollar deal. Kirksey has been injured often for the past two years and only played in two games last season. If healthy, Kirksey doesn’t produce at the same rate as Martinez.
Green Bay further enraged their fan base and Rodgers in the NFL Draft. The Packers traded up in the first round to select Utah QB Jordan Love as Rodgers’ eventual replacement. Taking a potential future starting quarterback in the first round as a contending team is odd. In an extremely deep wide receiver draft, the thought by many was that Green Bay would select one in the later rounds.
That never came into fruition, as the Packers didn’t take a single wideout in the entire draft. Instead they took running back A.J. Dillion from Boston College in the second round and tight end Josiah Deguara from Cincinnati in the third. While not necessarily bad players, Green Bay clearly should have taken players to strengthen more pressing issues on the team’s roster.
The Packers were talented in 2019, but not as good as their 13-3 record suggests. They won’t be winning 13 games again in 2020 and are less of a threat to content for a championship after this offseason. With few receiving threats, it will lay on Rodgers aging shoulders to take the team to the playoffs again. Green Bay are likely the favorites to win the NFC North again this upcoming season, but they have gotten worse as a team. STOCK DOWN.
MINNESOTA VIKINGS: To begin the off-season, the Minnesota Vikings were in a perplexing situation. The team has made the playoffs in three of the past five seasons and have an abundance of talent on the roster. With several big contracts however, Minnesota began free agency with only $1.38 million.
To alleviate some cap space concerns, the Vikings restructured the contract of starting quarterback Kirk Cousins. Cousins agreed to a two year extension worth $66 million on a back loaded deal. Cousins has been a serviceable quarterback for Minnesota and will be leading them for the next three seasons. Cousins probably shouldn’t be paid like a top quarterback in the league, but an extension seemed like a necessary move to free up immediate cap space.
Another avenue to freeing the salary cap was trading dissatisfied wide receiver Stefon Diggs to the Buffalo Bills. Minnesota received a first, fifth, and sixth round pick for Diggs. Diggs production will surely be missed as he has been one of the best receivers in the league for the past few seasons. Diggs made his demands to be traded very clear during the mid-point of the 2019. He was upset with the offensive performance and lack of targets from Cousins. Diggs caught 63 passes for 1,130 yards and six touchdowns last season.
Now WR Adam Thielen, a star in his own right, will have to continue to produce while seeing more double teams without Diggs. The receivers in Minnesota are certainly less talented coming into this season, but the Vikings should be praised for getting a first round pick from this Diggs trade.
With more money to maneuver with, Minnesota placed the franchise tag on safety Anthony Harris. Harris is one of the most underrated safeties in the league and intercepted six passes last season. It was vital for the Vikings to bring him back to a defense that has lost some key players like DE Everson Griffen, who was cut to free money.
Virtually every cornerback on the team left, with Mackensie Alexander, Xavier Rhodes, and Trae Waynes departing. To replace some of the production on the defensive line, defensive tackle Michael Pierce signed a three-year, $28 million dollar deal. Pierce is an excellent run stopper. Unfortunately for the Vikings, Pierce recently opted out of this upcoming season for health concerns. They’ll have to wait until 2021 for him to make an impact.
In the draft the Vikings selected wide receiver Justin Jefferson from LSU. Jefferson will slide into the number two receiver spot and can have a great career in Minnesota. The Vikings also selected cornerback Jeff Gladney from TCU in the first round. Gladney should start and help replace the production lost by the cornerbacks that left the team.
In the second round, Minnesota selected OT Ezra Cleveland from Boise State. Cleveland should start at tackle and OL Riley Reiff will likely slide over to guard to replace Josh Kline who started for the Vikings in 2019. The Vikings had 15 selections in this year’s draft and have brought in several young talented players this off-season.
The Minnesota Vikings have made some excellent moves this off-season. They have gotten younger, freed up cap space, and look to be better in the future. For this upcoming season however, they have lost several key players. The production lost from Diggs, Kline, Griffen, Alexander, Rhodes, and Waynes will all need to be replaced. There has been so much turnover on this roster that it may prove to be difficult to increase team chemistry. The Minnesota Vikings are still a threat to win this division and make the playoffs, but many of the rookies will have to produce at a high level to make this goal a realization. STOCK DOWN.