The NFC North will look decidedly different in 2018 with two new head coaches, new coordinators with the other two teams and evolving rosters.
The Bears have been the busiest team in the North through the first 48 hours of free agency, signing seven players from the outside and re-signing five of their own players, six if you count cornerback Kyle Fuller, who signed an offer sheet with the Packers that the Bears quickly decided to match.
The Vikings made the biggest splash of any team in the league, signing Kirk Cousins to an $84 million, three-year contract that is fully guaranteed in a pioneering move from the quarterback and Chicago-based agent Mike McCartney. Cousins had played the last two seasons on the franchise tag for the Redskins and is a rare upper-tier player to reach the open market.
“He bet on himself several times and won and those things are really important to me,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “He always has played with a chip on his shoulder.”
It was a huge commitment for the Vikings and fully expected when you consider how aggressive general manager Rick Spielman has been in trading to acquire first-round draft picks over the years. The Vikings had a different primary starting quarterback each of the last three seasons and were seeking a guy to thrive in the role long-term.
Case Keenum captured lightning in a bottle for the NFC North champions last season, catapulting him to a two-year deal with the Broncos, but Cousins is a better pure passer and hasn’t missed a start the last three seasons.
The Vikings believe they have a Super Bowl-ready defense, although it failed them in the NFC championship game against the Eagles in Philadelphia, and now they have a quarterback they believe keeps them in contention for seasons to come.
“All I can do is what is right in front of me,” Cousins said. “I can’t win the Super Bowl today.”
The Vikings can dream about it though.
Here’s a review of the NFC North teams and their moves with comments from a general manager and pro personnel director:
Key depatures: LB Christian Jones, DE Mitch Unrein, LS Andrew DePaola.
Comments: “They have some weapons, that’s for sure, and I like Robinson,” the general manager said. “He’s a good player. Good ball skills and he can get vertical. We liked the tight end, not at $8 million (per year), but he will give them a little juice and that’s free agency — you overpay everyone in the first wave. Getting Fuller back was important, but I’m interested to see how the money is laid out. Lynch can rush when he’s not too heavy and the coordinator (Vic Fangio) knows him. I like the kicker and that has been a need for them. They were really busy again. At some point it has to come together. They’re getting great reviews.”
Key departures: TE Eric Ebron, DT Haloti Ngata, LB Tahir Whitehead.
Comments: “They seem to be in the market for the over-the-hill running back (Lions have had Frank Gore, DeMarco Murray, Jonathan Stewart and LeGarrette Blount in for visits and signed Blount),” the pro personnel director said. “Keeping Ansah was the key for them because they don’t have much in the way of a pass rush. Kennard can help a little in that regard but he’s a straight-line speed guy. It seems like they’re kind of bargain shopping and they have to find a tight end. Maybe they do that in the draft.”
Re-signed: CB Herb Waters.
Key departures: WR Jordy Nelson, CB Damarious Randall.
Comments: “They were rarely players in free agency with (former GM) Ted Thompson and it worked,” the GM said. “Who knows if this will work? It’s easy to say it’s a new day but be careful because you have to pick the right guys. How did it work for the Bears last year? Muhammad was a complete embarrassment last year and on a one-year deal they might get his best. Graham should help in the red zone and on third down. Maybe they’re going to look for a young guy (Geronimo Allison, Trevor Davis or Michael Clark) to step up at receiver with Jordy gone.”
Additions: QB Kirk Cousins, DT Sheldon Richardson.
Re-signed: G Nick Easton, S Anthony Harris.
Comment: “If the Redskins were right about Cousins, (the Vikings never) are going to get where they think they’re headed,” the pro personnel director said. “If the Redskins were wrong, Minnesota will be a powerhouse for a couple of seasons because they’re strong on the outside. I like McKinnon, he had almost 1,000 yards offense last year, but San Fran way overpaid him. Getting Richardson is going to give them more pass rush up the middle and that ought to benefit the guys on the edge. Interesting that both of those former Jets tackles (Richardson and Wilkerson) went to the NFC North. I still think they need to beef up the O-line but they have laid out a lot of money on two guys.”