NFC North Offseason Preview

In today’s parity-filled NFL, every team is one solid offseason away from being a playoff contender.

With every team doing their homework for 2010, check out our daily look at each team’s offseason to-do lists by division.

Chicago Bears

OFFSEASON STRATEGY
With the coaching staff finally complete, the Bears can focus on returning to the playoffs after a three-year absence. Unfortunately for coach Lovie Smith, the Bears don’t draft until the third round, and they aren’t expected to be a major player in a watered-down class of free agents, although they might have the resources to make one big move or a couple smaller acquisitions.

It wouldn’t be much of a problem if the Bears lost all four (assuming there is no CBA) of their unrestricted free agents, but LB Pisa Tinoisamoa is probably the one they want back the most. He was a major disappointment last season in his first year in Chicago, but that was because of the knee injuries that limited him to less than one full game. Tinoisamoa played well enough in the preseason to win a starting job and, after missing so much time, it’s doubtful that he’ll get a lot of interest from other teams.

DE Adewale Ogunleye will probably be looking for more money and more years than the Bears care to offer a 32-year-old whose best sack days are probably behind him. But, if there is no market for him, the Bears would welcome him back, since they don’t have anyone better on the roster. Gaines Adams, who cost the Bears their second-round pick, could have been the successor to Ogunleye at left end, but he died tragically due to complications from an enlarged heart. If the Bears let Ogunleye walk, they will be forced to keep restricted free agent Mark Anderson, who has only flashed since a 12-sack rookie season in 2006. The Bears won’t use either tag on any of their players.

TEAM NEEDS
1. Offensive line: Depending on whether Frank Omiyale stays at left guard or is switched back to his original position at tackle, the Bears need a starting-caliber player at whatever spot Omiyale doesn’t play. Actually, based on his inconsistent performances last season, the Bears might even seek an upgrade for Omiyale. QB Jay Cutler must get better protection than he did last season if Mike Martz’s offense is to flourish.

2. Defensive end: DLE Adewale Ogunleye is an unrestricted free agent and perennial disappointment Mark Anderson is restricted. Versatile journeyman Israel Idonije could step in for Ogunleye, but ideally the Bears would like someone who provides a better pass rush.

3. Free safety: The roster is full of string-safety types who are capable of physical play and solid run support, but the Bears lack a true ball hawk who is adept at coverage and can patrol the deep middle.

Detroit Lions

OFFSEASON STRATEGY
The Lions’ No. 1 need is talent. They have gone 2-30 over the past two seasons — and 3-37 over the past 2 1/2 — because of serious holes in their roster after years of mismanagement by former president Matt Millen. Though the Lions feel they found a quarterback in Matthew Stafford, the No. 1 pick in last year’s draft, they know they must build around him. They need weapons to complement wide receiver Calvin Johnson on offense, and they must shore up a defense that ranked last in the NFL each of the past three seasons.

General manager Martin Mayhew made it clear the Lions won’t be using a franchise or transition tag on anyone this year. No one rises to that level. The biggest decisions are at linebacker. Larry Foote, the captain in the middle in 2009, is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent March 5. Mayhew said he wouldn’t rule out bringing back Foote, but Foote sensed a lack of interest and said he expected to hit the market. Julian Peterson is due a $7.5 million salary in 2010. The Lions can’t afford to overpay, but they’re so short on talent that they can’t afford to let decent players leave, either.

TEAM NEEDS
1. Defensive line: The Lions failed to generate a four-man rush and were inconsistent against the run in 2009. They need both a pass rusher on the edge and a force in the middle. They could use the No. 2 pick on one of two tackles: Nebraska’s Ndamukong Suh or Oklahoma’s Gerald McCoy.

2. Defensive back: Defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham likes to blitz, but the Lions couldn’t cover behind it in 2009. Safety Louis Delmas, the first pick of the second round last year, is their only really promising DB.

3. Running back: Kevin Smith is recovering from a torn ACL and separated shoulder, and the Lions needed more explosiveness at the position even before he got hurt.

Green Bay Packers

OFFSEASON STRATEGY
General manager Ted Thompson, head coach Mike McCarthy and their staffs are in draft-preparation mode. A lot of time is spent in meetings the first few weeks of February — studying, discussing and ranking players to be put on the team’s preliminary draft board. The staff will head to Indianapolis en masse for the draft combine, which will be Feb. 24 to March 2.

Unless things drastically change in the talks between the team owners and the players association, the Packers are bracing for the onset of an uncapped year when free agency begins March 5. If that’s the scenario, Green Bay will have 13 players who will become free agents with the potential to leave. Eight of those would be restricted free agents, including starters Nick Collins (free safety), Atari Bigby (strong safety), Johnny Jolly (defensive end), Daryn Colledge (left guard) and Jason Spitz (center).

General manager Ted Thompson’s M.O. is to keep his players, so figure the majority of the baker’s dozen to be back as Packers. One notable departure could be Aaron Kampman, an unrestricted free agent who is coming off late-season knee surgery and wasn’t a good fit for moving from defensive end to linebacker in the team’s new 3-4 scheme last season. The Packers aren’t expected to use a franchise or transition tag on anyone this year.

TEAM NEEDS
1. Offensive tackle: The Packers potentially have vacancies at both positions since veterans Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher are due to become free agents. Even if the team brings both of them back, they’re only short-term solutions at an advanced age — Clifton will be 34 and Tauscher 33 later this year.

2. Running back: Given the trend of teams to divvy up the carries between two backs, getting a worthwhile complement to Ryan Grant figures to be a priority. The Packers haven’t had that luxury because of the fragile health of Brandon Jackson and DeShawn Wynn.

3. Safety: Incumbent starters Nick Collins and Atari Bigby will be restricted free agents if 2010 indeed becomes an uncapped year, so the team is all but certain to retain both players. There’s little depth beyond them, however, and the Packers could be looking for an upgrade over the injury-plagued Bigby.

Minnesota Vikings

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Vikings are still waiting on Brett Favre to make his decision about the future, but they are nearly certain his position coach will return. Kevin Rogers interviewed for the Bears’ offensive coordinator’s job but that position went to Martz. That means Rogers almost certainly will return to the Vikings for a fifth season as quarterbacks coach. From all accounts, Rogers is extremely popular with Favre so the fact he is staying might help sway the quarterback into returning.

While it seems unlikely the Vikings will use a franchise or transition tag on any of their free agents, this doesn’t mean they don’t want them back. Running back Chester Taylor would be atop the list because of his value as a blocker and receiver out of the backfield on third down. Taylor’s presence also means the Vikings can keep Adrian Peterson away from taking constant hits. Cornerback Benny Sapp also proved to be a valuable replacement for Antoine Winfield when he missed time because of a foot injury.

TEAM NEEDS
1. Cornerback: This becomes a position of need because of the ACL injury suffered by starting right corner Cedric Griffin and the foot problem that plagued left corner Antoine Winfield for much of last season. Sapp could leave as a free agent further weakening this spot. Asher Allen will be entering his second season in 2010 but the Vikings need more depth here.

2. Quarterback: If Favre doesn’t return, or even if he does, the Vikings still don’t have a long-term solution here. Tarvaris Jackson and Sage Rosenfels are expected back — Jackson likely will be a restricted free agent — but are they the answers? The Vikings could use the 30th pick in the draft on this spot.

3. Safety: Madieu Williams has underwhelmed in his two seasons since signing as a free agent and Tyrell Johnson was extremely up-and-down in his first season as a full-time starter. Jamarca Sanford, a seventh-round pick in 2009, was impressive in limited time because of his willingness to hit but the Vikings might want to look at adding more pieces at these spots to create competition.