Durkin: NFC North Free Agency Update — Focus Is On Defense
By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) A small detail was lost in the Bears’ gut-wrenching loss to the Packers in the season finale. With the defeat, Chicago ended 2013 with the worst record in intra-division games in the NFC North.
Bears general manager Phil Emery maintains the team’s sole focus is on winning Super Bowl championships, emphasis on plural. Given the vast separation between the Bears and the upper echelon of the NFC, the first — and realistic — order of business has to be winning the division.
There’s been a flurry of activity at Halas Hall since free agency kicked off on March 11. Predictably, the primary focus has been rebuilding the destitute defense. The division is loaded with offensive talent, and the rash of injuries suffered last season exposed the lack of young talent at every level of the Bears’ defense.
The Bears aren’t alone in their need to elevate the talent level, so let’s take a look at what’s been going on around the division.
Green Bay Packers
Departures (new team): center Evan Dietrich-Smith (Bucs), receiver James Jones (Raiders), safety M.D. Jennings (Bears)
Additions (previous team): defensive end Julius Peppers (Bears), defensive end Mike Neal (Packers), defensive tackle B.J. Raji (Packers), tight end Andrew Quarless (Packers), defensive tackle Letroy Guion (Vikings), running back James Starks (Packers)
Potential impact player: Julius Peppers — His release from the Bears was a foregone conclusion, given the severe disparity between his production level and paycheck. However, Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers is no stranger to twilight-year reclamation projects (think safety Charles Woodson).
Peppers will be a part of a rotation in Green Bay, playing the five-technique in its 30-front looks and as a standup rush linebacker in their 2-4-5 package. Peppers isn’t what he used to be, but he’s still more than capable of making impact plays as a pass rusher.
Biggest remaining need: Safety
Draft picks: 7 total — Round 1, Pick 21 (21 overall); Round 2, Pick 21 (53); Round 3, Pick 21 (85); Round 4, Pick 21 (117); Round 5, Pick 21 (149); Round 6, Pick 21 (181); Round 7, Pick 21 (213)
Estimated remaining cap space per the NFLPA: $17 million
Departures: defensive end Willie Young (Bears), defensive end Israel Idonije (Bears)
Additions: receiver Golden Tate (Seahawks), tight end Brandon Pettigrew (Lions), defensive end Darryl Tapp (Redskins), fullback Jed Collins (Saints)
Potential impact player: Golden Tate — The Lions overpaid to secure Tate’s services ($13.25 million guaranteed), but they acquired a still-developing player at a position they’ve struggled to fill for years. From draft bust Titus Young to overpaid journeyman Nate Burleson, the Lions have been repeatedly unsuccessful at finding a complimentary receiver to line up opposite Calvin Johnson.
Tate will be deployed a both as a slot receiver and flanker. He plays bigger than his frame and is adept at high-pointing and winning 50/50 balls down-the-field.
Biggest remaining need: Cornerback
Draft picks: 6 total — Round 1, Pick 10 (10); Round 2, Pick 13 (45); Round 3, Pick 12 (76); Round 4, Pick 11 (107); Round 6, Pick 13 (173); Round 7, Pick 12 (204)
Estimated remaining cap space per the NFLPA: $2.2 million
Departures: running back Toby Gerhart (Jaguars), defensive lineman Letroy Guion (Packers), defensive end Tom Johnson (Saints), cornerback Chris Cook (49ers)
Additions: defensive tackle Linval Joseph (Giants), cornerback Captain Munnerlyn (Panthers), guard Charlie Johnson (Vikings), defensive tackle Fred Evans (Vikings), receiver Jerome Simpson (Vikings), cornerback Derek Cox (Chargers)
Potential impact player: Linval Joseph — The Vikings’ youth movement on the defensive line continued with the signing of Joseph, who has emerged as one of the league’s premier young interior defensive lineman.
Joseph will man the nose, lining up next to last year’s first-round pick Sharrif Floyd. Joseph’s a stout run defender who can occupy two gaps against the run and is equally capable of collapsing the pocket from the inside.
Biggest remaining need: Quarterback
Draft picks: 8 total — Round 1, Pick 8 (8); Round 2, Pick 8 (40); Round 3, Pick 8 (72); Round 3, Pick 32 (96) from Seattle; Round 4, Pick 8 (104); Round 5, Pick 8 (136); Round 6, Pick 8 (168); Round 7, Pick 8 (200)
Estimated remaining cap space per NFLPA: $15.5 million
The NFL is a copycat league, so the Seahawks’ model has made defense en vogue again. Clearly, the NFC North is following suit, as the majority of new acquisitions across the division are defenders.
Free agency has entered its second wave. It’s a buyer’s market now, so teams will look for veteran values at their price.
Super Bowl championships aren’t won in free agency. In fact, free-agent signings are typically pricey redos — expensive corrective measures to make up for shortcomings in the draft.
There isn’t a clearly dominant team in the NFC North. The Packers are the most complete, but they’re blemished. What happens in the draft this May could determine the division.
Follow Dan on Twitter: @djdurkin