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NFC North Roundtable: Free Agency Approach by Lions, Bears & Packers

EAGAN, Minn. — The Vikings have made some big free agency moves on defense with the signings of cornerback Patrick Peterson and defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson.

Minnesota also brought back Stephen Weatherly on defense, plus Chad Beebe and Rashod Hill on offense.

But the Vikings division foes have also been busy trying to upgrade their own rosters, so let's take a trip around the NFC North to see what the Lions, Packers and Bears have been up to this offseason. chatted with Tori Petry of the Detroit Lions, Larry Mayer of the Chicago Bears and Wes Hodkiewicz of the Green Bay Packers for a division roundtable chat.

Tori, we'll start with you and perhaps the most eye-opening move of any team in the offseason, and that's the Lions big-time trade with the Rams. Detroit sent longtime quarterback Matthew Stafford out west while acquiring quarterback Jared Goff and multiple first-round picks. Tori, what's the excitement level like in Detroit after that move?

TP: It's the start of a new era here in Detroit. There were a lot of big names moving around the league, and Matthew Stafford and Jared Goff are two of them. This is kind of a new start for Lions fans because they're coming in here knowing nothing but Matthew Stafford for the last 12 years. They are starting things over and look to a new era of Lions football under [Head Coach] Dan Campbell and [General Manager] Brad Holmes, the two new hires the Lions had this year. I think it will be a little bit different for Lions fans, but we're looking forward to seeing how it plays out.

View photos of CB Patrick Peterson signing his contract and going on a tour of TCO Performance Center.

Speaking of new faces at quarterback, the Bears also brought in veteran Andy Dalton after he spent the 2020 season with the Cowboys. Larry, what does Chicago like about Dalton and what role do you think he'll play this season?

LM: Addressing the quarterback position was the No. 1 priority for the Bears this offseason, and Andy Dalton was a free agent they had their eye on. What they like about him is that he's a veteran with a lot of experience, a seasoned pro who has been to three Pro Bowls and took the Bengals to the playoffs in each of his first five seasons, which I don't think has been repeated by a quarterback. They also like his familiarity with Offensive Coordinator Bill Lazor, who was his position coach and offensive coordinator with the Bengals for a couple years. They had a lot of success together.

In terms of his role, Dalton has been told he will be the Bears starting quarterback this season. Unlike last year when Mitchell Trubisky and Nick Foles had a competition during the abbreviated training camp, that's not going to happen this year. It's going to be Andy Dalton's job.

I know Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer has a lot of respect for all of the quarterbacks we've talked about. But one player that the Vikings will still have to worry about in 2021 who is not new to the NFC North is Packers running back Aaron Jones. Wes, why did Green Bay re-sign him to a multiyear deal and what does that move mean for the Packers?

WH: You're talking about the most dynamic guy the Packers have had in their backfield, at least in my time on the Packers beat. He's always been a really productive running back in this league, and even going back to his days at UTEP with the amount of rushing yards he put together. But people always questioned if Aaron Jones could be a three-down back, and I think the last two years in Matt LaFleur's system has answered those questions.

Last year, they really expanded his repertoire and started using two-back formations with him, Jamaal Williams and AJ Dillon. They motioned him more; he had more receptions and receiving yards … I think the last two years he's been the second-leading receiver on the team. Once free agency began, you understood what the cap constraints would be for Green Bay, but there was no doubt about it that they had to find a way to keep Aaron Jones in the fold and they did that.

They did lose Jamaal Williams [to the Lions], so the second-round pick from last year, AJ Dillon, has to step up as that complementary piece. But you have to take the position out of it, and Aaron Jones is such pivotal playmaker in this offense. With Davante Adams and some of the other playmakers coming back, the Packers feel like they're close, and being able to keep Jones in the fold was a big part of that picture for 2021.

Tori, let's go back to you for a minute. The Lions have a new regime with Holmes and Campbell leading the way. What have you learned in the past two months about what they want their vision of this team to look like?

TP: They want to build a very tough football team here in Detroit. They bring in Anthony Lynn, who was the former head coach over at the Chargers, and we know he likes to run the football. That's one of the things they want to do. They have D'Andre Swift, who did a lot of really great things for them last year despite his injuries. They bring in another guy from the Packers backfield, Jamaal Wlliams, they signed him to join Swift.

It will be interesting to see what this offense looks like, but as a whole, they want to build a team with grit. You've heard them use that word over and over again. They're looking for toughness, guys who come in and work hard but can have fun doing it. That's a little bit different than how this team operated before, but I think it's a fresh start here in Detroit and definitely something a lot of fans are looking forward to. And something that a lot of free agents who have signed here have pointed out is that they're looking forward to working with this staff of former players, because there are so many coaches that are former players on this coaching staff.

View photos of DT Dalvin Tomlinson signing his contract at TCO Performance Center.

Larry, we talked about Dalton earlier. And it's no secret that his top option will likely be wide receiver Allen Robinson, who was given the franchise tag by Chicago this offseason. Is it safe to say that he is the Bears best offensive player right now?

LM: There's no doubt he's the best offensive player right now. He's performed that way since he came here from Jacksonville. He joined the Bears three years ago and has performed exceptionally well. This is a guy who routinely puts up a ton of receiving yards, touchdowns, catches … and he's done so without the greatest play at the quarterback position. If he gets better play out of the quarterback position — and this has been a guy who's the No. 1 threat all along — every team we play knows the Bears are going to him and he still excels. It was a no-brainer for the Bears to put the franchise tag on him. I'm expecting another huge year from him and what he can do.

It will be interesting to see what happens at the other wide receiver position with the Bears and other spots on offense. You have Cole Kmet, the tight end, and then David Montgomery did a better job of catching the ball out of the backfield. The Bears are going to have some weapons, and they found a real gem in the fifth round last year in Darnell Mooney, the speedster from Tulane.

Wes, I feel bad that we're talking about all of these free agency moves, but the Packers have mostly stood pat this month. Despite not making any big moves, what could be next for Green Bay?

WH: It will be interesting to see how they can balance the cap situation. They've had to do a lot of restructuring and haven't extended anybody yet, but with Davante Adams, I'd expect that's probably the next big move for them. He's entering the last year of his contract, and you can probably actually lower his cap number for this season if you work something out. I think that's the big move there.

But also figuring out the pieces they have in free agents that could potentially come back. There's [tight end] Marcedes Lewis, obviously the report is out there now that [cornerback] Kevin King is going to be back in the fold. But they have 10 draft picks, and unlike the Ted Thompson era, when they didn't have any compensatory picks, they let a couple guys walk last year and are getting the benefit of that this season.

There are some big players that were lost; we talked about Jamaal Williams, a guy that didn't fumble in his four seasons in Green Bay. They lost their All-Pro center in Corey Linsley, who signed with the Chargers. They're going to need guys to step up, but I really do think the draft, and being able to extend the guys on the roster, that's going to be the way for them. Even though it was a demoralizing end to the season with that loss here at home to Tampa Bay, they look at what happened in the Super Bowl and where they are positioned and that jump they made in the second year under Matt LaFleur, they feel good that they are not that far away from being the team that can bring that next Lombardi Trophy back to Green Bay.

And finally, let's look ahead to the draft, which is a little over a month away. Every team in the division has a first-round pick, beginning with the Lions at No. 7. The Bears have the 20*th* pick, and the Packers are at No. 29. We'll go with some quick answers on this one. Give me a position to watch for your team as we head toward the 2021 NFL Draft.

TP: A top-10 pick is always fun, and you really can't take any position off the table. I don't think quarterback is out of the conversation, although you do have Jared Goff, so they are not in a rush to take a quarterback. If it's me, I think I'm going defense in that first round, whether it's a playmaking linebacker or a defensive lineman.

LM: If you look at every mock draft, they have us either taking a quarterback or an offensive tackle. I think that says a lot, but it's going to be difficult because a lot of these pundits are saying that the top five quarterbacks — the ones worthy of first-round picks — are all going to be gone by pick 12 or so. They're expecting the Bears to have to trade up in the first round, so we'll have to see what happens there. But it will be real interesting to see because it feels like a really heavy offensive draft this year. It's going to be exciting.

WH: I think offensive line is what makes the most sense for them right now. Not only because they lost Linsley, but also David Bakhtiari tearing his ACL, the four-time All-Pro left tackle. They lost him and did a pretty good job of being able to fill that spot. But with not having Linsley and then having to wait to see what Bakhtiari does this offseason, I think they have to get somebody in the pipeline, whether that's a new center, a guy that can step in at right tackle. They have a great chess piece in Elgton Jenkins, who played all these positions … a Pro-Bowl guard but he also started for them at center and has filled in at left tackle. They have some flexibility with how they want to move their offensive line, but I think they need to add another guy there. And the first round, if you look historically, that's really been a spot Green Bay has liked to use that pick to address the starting offensive line.