By: Tony Meale

NFL Free Agency has begun ( check out our Free Agency Tracker here ) and we’re taking a look at which players each team and division needs to pick up to improve in the 2012 season.

NFC North

Chicago Bears (8-8)

The Bears are in win-now mode – very, very win-now mode. Four of their defensive stalwarts – Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Julius Peppers and Charles Tillman – are in their 30s. It’s conceivable this defense could be elite for another three years, but Chicago would be smart to stockpile some youth on that side of the ball. While adding Mario Williams is unlikely, just imagine how sick – and by “sick,” I mean “absurdly good” – that Bears defense would be.

The good news for Chicago is that they have about $30 million of cap space, and some of those funds should be – and likely will be – spent on giving Jay Cutler better weapons in the receiving game. Adding the likes of Vincent Jackson and Marques Colston would put this team over the top.

Detroit (10-6)

The Lions made the playoffs last year for the first time this century. That was step one. Step two is winning a game once they get there again.

The Detroit passing attack is one of the best in football. In fact, it ranked fourth in the league last year. The ground game, however, was one of the worst in football, ranking 29th. The Lions’ leading rusher? Jahvid Best with 390 yards. Ouch. Kevin Smith followed with 356; Maurice Morris followed with 316.

Translation: Detroit needs a reliable, durable tailback.

The Lions also finished outside the top 20 in rush defense, pass defense and total defense. With Ndamukong Suh wreaking havoc on the interior, Detroit could use a playmaker in the secondary. Top draft options include Virginia Tech’s Jayron Hosley and Alabama’s Mark Barron.

Bottom line? Detroit is a team with talent, but it needs to learn how to handle – and sustain success. After starting 5-0 last season, the Lions went 5-7 in their final 12 games (including the playoffs).

Minnesota (3-13)

Last season, well, yeah, that was pretty bad.

The Vikings started 0-4, 1-7 and lost seven of their last eight. Donovan McNabb was cast aside and Christian Ponder, who showed occasional flashes, played as one might expect a 23-year-old quarterback.

Speaking of quarterbacks, how about the Vikings as a dark horse for the Peyton Manning sweepstakes?

Minnesota is a virtual lock to draft USC offensive tackle Matt Kalil – a move that would open up holes for a hopefully healed Adrian Peterson and help protect Ponder, Manning or any other quarterback under center. Minnesota should also make a move for Vincent Jackson. Pairing him with Percy Harvin would be a formidable 1-2 punch.

Defensively, the Vikings, which finished 26th against the pass, should make a play for Cortland Finnegan.

Bottom line? Minnesota needs to make moves – and plenty of them – if it hopes to contend in this division in the near future.

Green Bay Packers (15-1)

The Packers are 21-2 in their last 23 games.

What else is there to say?

There’s not much that needs a great deal of improvement – aside from the defense, which statistically was the worst in the league. Green Bay could use a more consistent ground game – especially if Ryan Grant leaves – but defense is the main issue, especially pass defense.

The Packers are losing Matt Flynn, so don’t be surprised if they draft a replacement, but make no mistake: those early round picks will be spent on players who can stop people.

Tony Meale is a freelance writer for, and, among others. His fantasy football work has led to guest appearances on several radio outlets, including ESPN Radio and Sirius Radio. He has a Master’s in Journalism from Ohio University and has been recognized by the Society of Professional Journalists for outstanding work. A Cincinnati native, he is currently writing a book on one of the great sports stories never told. Follow Tony Meale on Twitter @tonymeale.