A year ago, no one was quite sure if the Detroit Lions were real or not. Meanwhile, the Green Bay Packers’ Jordan Love was the least experienced quarterback in the NFC North.

How things have changed.

The Lions asserted their status as a worthy contender — not just a team that caught fire for a hot minute — by winning the division title in three games, followed by a run to the conference championship game. Now there is only one midfielder in the division with more experience than Loew.

After moving on from the Chicago Bears from Justin Fields and the Minnesota Vikings from Kirk Cousins, the Packers now have the second-most experienced player in the division with Love (second year) — behind Detroit’s Jared Goff (fourth year in Detroit).

As the Bears start over with No. 1 overall pick Caleb Williams and the Vikings decide whether to start rookie JJ McCarthy (No. 10 pick) or ease him, each organization is planning its path forward.

The only constant in the department are the four coaches. The North is the only division in the NFC without a new head coach.

With the bulk of offseason changes in the books, ESPN reporters Courtney Cronin (Bears), Rob Demovsky (Packers), Kevin Seifert (Vikings), and Eric Woodyard (Lions) look at some of the key questions facing teams in the NFC North.

Detroit Lions

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Biggest offseason addition

Collectively, there hasn’t been one big surprise, but the Lions’ front office has made a slew of moves while being aggressive in upgrading the defensive unit. This includes signing free agents such as former Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle DJ Reader, veteran outside linebacker Marcus Davenport and former Las Vegas Raiders cornerback Amik Robertson, while trading for cornerback Carlton Davis III from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They also drafted cornerbacks Terrion Arnold and Ennis Rakestraw Jr. To help a Lions defense that has allowed opponents to score touchdowns on 23% of their drives, which ranks 25th in the league in 2023.

What’s left to do on the list?

Correcting the holes on defense was the biggest focus of the offseason. Given an offense that has blossomed in 2023, the Lions could benefit from adding another receiver after losing veteran Josh Reynolds via free agency to the Denver Broncos. Reynolds was the Lions’ leading third receiver with 40 receptions for 608 yards and five touchdowns. It won’t be easy to replace.

Evaluate the Lions’ QB situation

The Lions have secured Goff as their guy after signing a four-year, $212 million contract extension this offseason that will keep him through 2028. Goff has revitalized his career in Detroit, helping the organization win two playoff games in one game. postseason for the first time since 1957, while they won their first division title in more than three decades. While Goff runs the show, the Lions will continue to develop backup QB Hendon Hooker, who spent the bulk of last season recovering from a torn ACL, after being selected in the third round of the 2023 draft.

Who will be the big surprise?

Wide receiver Jameson Williams. The No. 12 pick in the 2022 draft showed flashes of his playmaking ability, particularly in the NFC Championship Game, where he scored a rushing touchdown and receiving touchdown. He is expected to play a bigger role this season. Williams will finally enter the regular season without restrictions, allowing him to fully concentrate after missing the first 11 games of his rookie season while recovering from a torn left ACL (which he suffered in college) before being suspended for four games for violating the NFL’s gambling policy. American football at the beginning of last season. –Woodyard

Green Bay Packers

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Biggest offseason addition

For a team that seemed to be headed in the right direction after last season’s playoff run, there are still a lot of changes. Coach Matt LaFleur eliminated his entire strength and conditioning staff and hired the 49ers’ Aaron Hill to run that department. GM Brian Gutekunst cleaned house at safety and then spent big money on free agent Xavier McKinney before drafting three more safeties to replenish the position. But all of that pales in comparison to the hiring of Jeff Hafley as defensive coordinator to replace the fired Joe Barry. While Hafley has extensive NFL assistant coaching experience, he came straight from Boston College and made the unusual move to leave a college head coaching position for an NFL coordinator job.

What’s left to do on the list?

The Packers have three players on the roster — incumbent Anders Karlsson, veteran Greg Joseph, and unproven Jack Podlesny. But that doesn’t mean one of these three will definitely be the best player in Week 1. While a three-man kicking competition is almost unheard of, special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia seems content to have the competition during training camp. “It could be those three, or maybe three more, I don’t know,” Bisaccia said. “It might be six.”

Evaluate the Packers’ QB situation

To the amazement (and perhaps envy) of the rest of the NFL, the Packers did it again. Love played last season in his first year, as the rookie certainly makes it look like they will continue their incredible run of success at quarterback from Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers and now to Love. In the preseason, he’ll likely get one of, if not one of the biggest the Larger – middle contracts. The only thing to be settled is whether Sean Clifford is the backup for the second season in a row or if Michael Pratt can win the job.

Who will be the big surprise?

Christian Watson – Surprisingly, he has finally overcome his hamstring issues. Early reports on the extremely talented receiver indicate that he and the team have managed to deal with issues during his first two seasons. If so, Watson could be in line for a big campaign. –Demovsky

Minnesota Vikings

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Biggest offseason addition

The Vikings have added several players who could impact the 2024 season more than McCarthy, their rookie quarterback, from pass rusher Jonathan Greenard to running back Aaron Jones to rookie outside linebacker Dallas Turner. But the arrival of McCarthy, selected with the highest pick (No. 10) the Vikings have ever used at quarterback, signaled a massive change in course. Instead of paying the veteran Cousins ​​a premium salary to lead an imperfect roster for the remainder of his career, the Vikings will instead leverage McCarthy’s rookie contract to build a more well-rounded group around him.

What’s left to do on the list?

One of general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah’s operating principles is to obtain a full, and sometimes time-consuming, assessment of players on the roster before calling in reinforcements. So the Vikings will likely spend some time determining whether they have a No. 3 receiver on their roster, following KJ Osborne’s departure to the New England Patriots. They also need to evaluate Blake Brandel as a potential starter at left-back, as well as a host of remaining players and new arrivals at left-back.

Evaluate the Vikings’ QB situation

McCarthy is clearly the Vikings’ quarterback of the future, but they signed veteran Sam Darnold before the draft in hopes of avoiding the rookie’s hasty ascent into the starting role. Darnold has real supporters inside the building, starting with coach Kevin O’Connell, and there is real hope that he can play with enough credibility to avoid the usual pressures of him playing McCarthy before he’s ready. It’s a matter of when, not if, McCarthy will become the starter, but the Vikings are hoping Darnold can extend the “when” for as long as McCarthy needs.

Who will be the big surprise?

Wide receiver Brandon Powell. During the O’Connell era, the Vikings’ base offense was 11 personnel, which generally meant three receivers. So, unless O’Connell dramatically changes that approach in his third season, there is a huge need for a third player to complement Justin Jefferson and Jordan Addison on the receiving corps. Powell filled that role well last season when Jefferson missed time with a hamstring injury, and he has a strong chance to earn a more permanent role there in 2024. –Sv

Chicago Bears

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Biggest offseason addition

The obvious answer is Williams, the 2022 Heisman Trophy winner who the Bears hope will bolster the quarterback position. Furthermore, his trio of receivers forms one of the best units in the league. Chicago lacked depth last season behind DJ Moore, who had the best season of his career in 2023. Now the Bears’ receiving corps includes Keenan Allen, who set the Los Angeles Chargers’ individual record for receptions (108) and led the team. with 1,243 receiving yards last season, and rookie Roma Udunze, who led all FBS programs in receiving in 2023.

What’s left to do on the list?

Despite drafting Austin Booker in the fifth round, the Bears still have work to do to bolster their pass rush after finishing last season 31st in sacks (30) and with the lowest sack percentage in the NFL (4.64%). Re-signing forward Yannick Ngakoue, who is on track to be ready for training camp after injuring his left ankle in December, remains an affordable option for the Bears to address their biggest remaining need.

Evaluate the Bears’ QB situation

Coach Matt Eberflus named Williams QB1 quickly and predictably before his first practice of the rookie minicamp. The No. 1 overall draft pick is placed in an incredibly favorable position with above-average pass protection, a Pro Bowl running back (D’Andre Swift), a revamped receiving corps and two safety blanket tight ends at his disposal. The Bears’ schedule also looks like it will be beneficial for Williams in getting his feet in the NFL with a home opener against Tennessee and head-to-head matchups with six starters or second-year quarterbacks in the first 10 weeks of the season.

Who will be the big surprise?

First pass offense. The Bears have run a dominant rushing attack the past two seasons, but the upgrade that comes with Williams’ arm talent and the amount of weapons he has around him should allow offensive coordinator Shane Waldron to get creative in the team’s passing attack. Don’t be surprised to see Chicago’s offense move to a pass-first approach with a unit that ranked 27th last season and climbed into the top 10 over the first half of the season. — Cronin


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