Expert Analysis


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Despite Lions Lost, But NFC North Looks Like NFL's Next Great Division

Detroit Lions quarterback Jared Goff and running back Jahmyr Gibbs
Quarterback Jared Goff (16), running back Jahmyr Gibbs (26) and the rest of the Detroit Lions figure to have plenty of competition in the loaded NFC North in 2024. (Detroit Free Press)

The Detroit Lions blew a 17-point halftime lead and lost to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship on Sunday. But the arrow is pointed up for Detroit, which has a team loaded with young talent.

Coach Dan Campbell’s feisty Lions should be a playoff regular in the coming seasons. They may be joined by all three of their NFC North rivals. The Green Bay Packers scored a big playoff win in Dallas. The Minnesota Vikings won 13 games in 2022 but dropped to seven wins in 2023 due to major injuries. And the rising Chicago Bears hold two top-10 draft picks.

The AFC North was the league’s best division in 2023 with all four teams having winning records, led by the 13-4 Baltimore Ravens. But the NFC North looks like the next great — and possibly the league’s best — division.

Detroit Lions (12-5, North Champs, Lost in NFC Championship)

Lions' Offense, Cap Situation Are Strong

Beyond Detroit's second-half meltdown against the talented and seasoned 49ers, Campbell and the Lions can build on their first division title in 30 years and first playoff wins since 1991.

Detroit is in excellent shape salary-cap-wise with $61 million in cap room entering 2024. That puts the Lions in a position to extend QB Jared Goff’s contract, which has one year left on his $33.5 million per year deal. He should land in the $45-50 million per year range with his extension.

At 29 years old, Goff is coming off an excellent season, ranking second in passing yards (4,575) and fourth in touchdown passes (30) and completing a career-best 67.3 percent of his passes. His 97.9 passer rating ranked ninth and was even better in the three playoff games at 103.3 (four touchdown passes, no interceptions). Goff made his third Pro Bowl.

Goff has a great, young supporting cast with one of the league’s best offensive lines, anchored by Pro Bowlers Frank Ragnow (27) at center and Penei Sewell (23) at right tackle. 

WR Amon-Ra St. Brown is a 24-year-old Pro Bowler coming off a season with 119 catches (ranked second) for 1,515 yards (ranked third) and 10 touchdowns. RBs Jahmyr Gibbs and David Montgomery are a terrific one-two punch, and TE Sam LaPorta was a rare rookie Pro Bowler with 86 catches for 889 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Campbell and the Lions are fortunate to have their excellent offensive coordinator Ben Johnson returning to oversee the third-ranked offense after he turned down head coach opportunities.

Detroit's Defense Still Needs Work

Pro Bowl DE Aidan Hutchinson (23) had 11.5 sacks and 33 quarterback hits to lead a Detroit defense that needs to add talent at cornerback to help the 27th-ranked pass defense. The Lions will have the No. 29 overall pick in the April draft (which will take place in Detroit) and seven picks total, including two picks in the third round. So GM Brad Holmes, who has done an excellent job in recent drafts, has the draft capital to improve the defense.

Holmes also has decisions to make on extending St. Brown, who enters his final year under contract, along with the following starters who are potential free agents: guards Jonah Jackson and Graham Glasgow, WR Josh Reynolds and safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson.  

Perhaps Campbell will learn from his mistakes in the NFC title game and kick a field goal next time when it will give his team a three-score lead in the third quarter and when it will tie the score with seven minutes left — and not squander a timeout in the last minute by calling a run instead of a pass.

>>READ: Campbell's Worst Decision Wasn't on Third Down

Green Bay Packers quarterback Jordan Love
Jordan Love (10) and the Green Bay Packers demonstrated they're on the rise with their Wild-Card victory. They defeated the Dallas Cowboys on Jan. 13, 2024. (Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports)

Green Bay Packers (9-8, Wild Card, Lost in Divisional Round)

Packers Full of Young Talent

Green Bay is the NFL’s youngest team and impressed everyone as a team on the rise after clobbering the Dallas Cowboys on the road, 48-32. The Packers led that game 27-0 in the second quarter. They then played the 49ers close before falling 24-21 in the divisional round.

With a 3-6 record midway through the season, the Packers were a below-average team coming out of the Aaron Rodgers era. They were led by a first-year starter at quarterback who was experiencing growing pains. Then Jordan Love and the offense caught fire. Over the next nine games, Love threw 21 touchdown passes and only one interception as the team went 7-2 to make the playoffs and win a road playoff game.

With a passer rating over 108 in eight of his last 10 games, Love looks like the next long-term Packers franchise quarterback, following Rodgers and Brett Favre. Love also learned a hard lesson with the bad interception he threw into coverage late vs. the 49ers.

Green Bay's offensive line solidified, and Aaron Jones had a great stretch with five straight 100-yard rushing games over the final three regular-season games and the two playoff games. All of the team's wide receivers and tight ends are in their first or second seasons. The top three wideouts — Jayden Reed, Romeo Dobbs and Christian Watson (if they can keep him healthy with his hamstring issues) — should be among the league’s top trios.

There also is young talent on defense. Leading tackler Quay Walker (118 tackles) is only 23, and Pro Bowl cornerback Jaire Alexander is 26. The core group also consists of front-seven players Rashan Gary, Preston Smith and Kenny Clark, along with last year’s first-rounder Lukas Van Ness, who was more productive as the season went on.

The Packers need to improve on their takeaways. They had only seven interceptions to rank 31st and 18 total takeaways (26th), although they intercepted Dak Prescott twice in their playoff win.

New Defensive Coordinator, Cap Decisions Are Crucial

Coach Matt LaFleur did a fine job holding the team together and getting it to peak late. He also worked hard with Love on his improvement. Despite the late-season success, LaFleur moved on from defensive coordinator Joe Barry and must make a good hire.

GM Brian Gutekunst made the right call in trading Rodgers. That turned out great — Love has come on and Green Bay has a second-round pick from the New York Jets in the April draft. The Jets’ second-round pick last year turned into starting TE Luke Musgrave.

Gutekunst and the Packers are tight against the cap ($2.8 million over). They have to decide whether to extend Jones (29) to lower his $17.576 cap number. The team will likely release often-injured Pro Bowl tackle David Bakhtiari to free up $21 million in cap room (absorbing a $19 million dead money hit).

Other key free agents are starting guard Jon Runyan, No. 2 back A.J. Dillon, starting safeties Darnell Savage (who had a key pick-six in the playoff win over Dallas) and Jonathan Owens and depth corner/All-Pro returner Keisean Nixon.

The future is indeed bright for the Packers, especially with a confident Love heading into 2024.

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Jake Browning (6) is sacked by Minnesota Vikings linebacker Danielle Hunter (99).

Minnesota Vikings (7-10)

Injuries Derailed Promising Season

The Vikings won 13 games in 2022 and likely would've returned to the playoffs if QB Kirk Cousins hadn't torn his Achilles tendon in Week 8. His replacements — Josh Dobbs, Jaren Hall and eventually Nick Mullens — were inconsistent and turnover-prone. The team lost six of the last seven games after it reached 6-4.

It was a rough season filled with major injuries. Those injured included Pro Bowlers Cousins, Justin Jefferson and T.J. Hockenson on offense and second-leading sacker D.J. Wonnum, expensive free agent Marcus Davenport and top cornerback Byron Murphy on defense. The injuries exposed a lack of depth caused by too many recent draft choices not panning out. That was especially true at cornerback and in the interior offensive line.

Even with only a half-season from Cousins, Minnesota had a top-10 offense in yards and the fifth-ranked passing game. Jefferson played at an elite level as he has throughout his first four seasons with 1,074 receiving yards in 10 games. First-rounder Jordan Addison had an excellent season with 10 touchdown receptions to tie for the lead among rookies.

It’s good news that defensive coordinator Brian Flores looks to be returning. His blitz-heavy scheme produced strong play early until the injuries caught up with the defense. After that, the pass rush declined and the young corners were exposed. Pro Bowler Danielle Hunter had a career-best 16.5 sacks and led the league with 23 tackles for loss. He heads for free agency along with Cousins. Neither can be hit with the franchise tag.  

VIkings Face Huge Free Agent Decisions

2024 is the third season for the tandem of GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and coach Kevin O’Connell. They’re under pressure to get the team back to playoff status in a loaded division. That’s doable with several astute moves, including keeping their best players and better overall drafting and free agent signings.

The Vikings have $29 million in cap room. They hope to first re-sign Cousins, who ranked third in passer rating when he was hurt in Week 8. He wants to return and has a close connection with O’Connell and his teammates. But it will cost around $45 million per year.

Hunter, a four-time Pro Bowler, is Minnesota's best defensive player and a priority re-signing. He will cost around $25 million per year. Jefferson’s extension likely will be completed in the coming months at more than $30 million per year. Using voidable years and large signing bonuses spread over several years in these contracts will lower the 2024 cap hits.

The team will try to retain several other starters who are headed to free agency. They include Wonnum (eight sacks), LB Jordan Hicks, DT Jonathan Bullard, WR K.J. Osborn and OG Dalton Risner. In the draft and free agency, Adofo-Mensah must add more quality corners, offensive line depth and pass-rush help.

With the No. 11 overall pick, the Vikings could draft their quarterback of the future or a top player at another position such as cornerback. 

Addison was an excellent pick last year, but the overall drafting must improve. The team traded down from No. 12 to 32 in 2022, passing on first-team All-Pro DBs Kyle Hamilton and Trent McDuffie. Either would have made a big difference — but Minnesota drafted safety Lewis Cine, who hasn’t yet broken into the starting lineup. Cine may get an opportunity if six-time Pro Bowl safety Harrison Smith retires (which he’s reportedly contemplating).

Chicago Bears defensive end Montez Sweat
Chicago Bears defensive lineman Montez Sweat (98) at Soldier Field on Dec. 31, 2023. (Jamie Sabau-USA TODAY Sports)

Chicago Bears (7-10)

Trades Provided Big Boost For Bears

The Bears are one of the NFL’s top candidates to go from worst to first in their division next season after a strong finish. That run included wins in four of their last six games (with a 15-point home victory over the Lions in Week 14). 

The jobs of GM Ryan Poles and coach Matt Eberflus were saved by the team’s progress. The Bears have the No. 1 and No. 9 picks in April’s draft. They can add more draft capital if they trade QB Justin Fields or keep him and move down a few spots from No. 1.

The biggest impetus for Chicago's ascension from a three-win team in 2022 came via two trades. First was the move down from last year’s top overall draft spot. Carolina jumped to No. 1 and picked QB Bryce Young. Chicago acquired top receiver DJ Moore (96 catches, 1,364 yards, eight touchdowns) and four draft picks. The Bears, with their 2023 first- and second-round picks from the trade, drafted all-rookie right tackle Darnell Wright and starting cornerback Tyrique Stevenson (four interceptions, 86 tackles) who should continue to improve. The Bears have the Panthers’ first overall pick this year and a second-rounder in 2025.  

The second big trade was picking up Pro Bowl DE Montez Sweat from Washington for a second-round pick at the 2023 trade deadline. The Bears wisely signed Sweat to a four-year, $98 million extension. He made a significant difference in Chicago’s pass rush by delivering six sacks, 14 quarterback hits and 25 tackles in nine games.

How Will Chicago's Quarterback Question Be Answered?

Poles has a huge decision ahead. Should he keep the No. 1 overall pick and select the highest-rated quarterback (likely Caleb Williams, Drake Maye or Jayden Daniels)? Or does he keep an improving Fields as the starter and trade down a couple of spots? He could then select a blue-chip prospect such as WR Marvin Harrison, Jr. or the draft’s top pass rusher. Poles also could hit both need positions with multiple early-round picks.

Fields improved in his third season with 48 more passing yards per game and ranked 20th in passer rating among quarterbacks with at least 10 starts. Among quarterbacks, his 657 rushing yards were second to Lamar Jackson (and Fields missed four games with a thumb injury). Fields should bring at least a second-round pick if the Bears trade him.

Former Seahawks OC Shane Waldron will be expected to improve the league’s 27th-ranked passing attack as the Bears new offensive coordinator.

Eberflus’ defense made significant improvement, ranking 12th with the No. 1 run defense. Poles added the team’s top two tacklers — LBs T.J. Edwards (158 tackles) and Tremaine Edmunds (112 tackles) — in free agency. The Bears need more pass rush help because they had only 30 sacks (to rank 31st).

With Poles' draft arsenal and $49 million in salary cap room, he also must add talent on the offensive line plus another quality wide receiver alongside Moore and Darnell Mooney (if he is re-signed). Chicago also has an excellent tight end in Cole Kmet (73 receptions for 719 yards and six touchdowns).

Pro Bowl CB Jaylon Johnson and starting DT Justin Jones are priority re-signings before free agency in March.

Chicago hasn't won a playoff game since 2010. The pressure is on Poles to get it right at quarterback and improve the overall talent level and on Eberflus to ascend further in the tough NFC North.