NFC North offseason grades: Vikings, Bears get top marks, Packers, Lions not far behind

After a 2018 offseason that brought sweeping changes across the division, the NFC North remains as strong as ever -- if not stronger than ever before. 

The Minnesota Vikings -- the reigning King in the North -- upgraded at the most important position in all of sports after coming up one game short of last season's Super Bowl. The Green Bay Packers are getting their fire-breathing dragon back at full strength, and they retrofitted a defense in need of bolstering. The Detroit Lions hired one of the most coveted coaching candidates. The Chicago Bears are finally beginning to awake from their lengthy slumber with a New Hope at quarterback, legitimate weapons at the skill positions, a defense that is almost ready to make the leap from solid to great, and a coach who will run an offense designed for today's NFL

Over the past three months, all four teams found a way to experience a successful offseason -- to varying degrees -- which should enable the division to remain as a strong as ever. The NFC North might not be the league's best division, but it's a division that features two legitimate Super Bowl contenders, a wild-card contender, and one of the hottest playoff sleepers. Before we look ahead to the upcoming season, let's look back on the 2018 offseason and grade how the teams occupying the NFC North fared in their endeavors to improve their rosters. 

We begin in Chicago, where the Bears are finally awakening.

Chicago Bears

The Bears might not be this coming season's version of the Rams, they might not even be ready to compete for a wild-card spot, but the pieces are in a place for a successful future. This offseason, Bears general manager Ryan Pace prioritized giving quarterback Mitchell Trubisky a supporting cast that he wouldn't have to carry, which made complete and total sense. Trubisky's 12-game rookie season contained plenty of promise, but promise alone couldn't help him overcome a bad coaching staff and even worse supporting cast. 

So, Pace fired John Fox and hired former Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy. In Kansas City, Nagy called the plays for one of the game's most creative and dynamic offenses. He helped turn Alex Smith into the game's highest-rated passer. Nagy for Fox is a substantial upgrade. Then he signed WR1 Allen Robinson, speedster Taylor Gabriel, and pass-catching tight end Trey Burton. The Bears already had two dynamic running backs in Jordan Howard (the hard-nosed runner) and Tarik Cohen (the lightning bolt). Now, they have a capable receiver core to go along with their running game. 

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Don't overlook their signing of kicker Cody Parkey. Since Pace made the foolish decision of cutting Robbie Gould on the eve of the 2016 season, the Bears' kickers have made only 75.6 percent of their field goals. Parkey made 91.3 percent of his field goals in 2017.

Defensively, Pace did well to retain all three members of his secondary in CB1 Kendall Fuller, CB2 Prince Amukamara, and slot CB Bryce Callahan, even if he did overpay for Amukamara. The pass-rush is a concern after they cut both Pernell McPhee and Willie Young, but the rational behind cutting them (they're both old and often injured) made sense. But if free-agent addition Aaron Lynch can regain his prior form (12.5 sacks from 2014-15) and former first-round pick Leonard Floyd continues his ascent (11.5 sacks during his first two seasons), the Bears should get by with what they have.

Free agency was a nice period for the Bears, but the draft is where Pace hit a home-run. Roquan Smith was the consensus top inside linebacker in the draft, and he'll thrive alongside Danny Trevathan in Vic Fangio's defense -- think Navorro Bowman and Patrick Willis, though they won't be quite at their level, of course. Smith fills the hole vacated by Jerrell Freeman's release. Center/guard James Daniels will fill the void left by Josh Sitton, who got cut in a salary dump earlier this offseason while receiver Anthony Miller makes the loss of Cameron Meredith much more manageable.

Outside of the pass rush, the Bears filled all of their holes this offseason -- including their coaching situation. They're the most improved team in the division if you factor in the entire roster (not just the quarterback position), though that doesn't mean they're ready to win the division.

Offseason grade: A-

Detroit Lions

It was a quiet offseason in Detroit in terms of roster reconstruction. Where the Lions made the most noise was their coaching situation. After firing the competent but unexciting Jim Caldwell, the Lions landed one of the most coveted coaching candidates in Matt Patricia, who comes from New England where he served as Bill Belichick's defensive coordinator. 

In the aftermath of the news of Patricia's 1996 sexual assault indictment (he was neither tried nor convicted), it's fair to say that the Lions' process of hiring Patricia was flawed (why didn't they know about it when it took Deadspin 30 seconds to find it?). But from a pure football perspective, getting a coach like Patricia should be an upgrade over the prior situation. Nobody knows for certain how Patricia will fare as a head coach in his first stint, but he's got an impressive resume learning underneath the greatest coach in the history of the sport. At the very least, Patricia should be able to improve a defense that ranked 19th in DVOA a year ago.

The roster, however, didn't get significantly better. They lost tight end Eric Ebron and Darren Fells and replaced them with Levine Toilolo and Luke Willson. Say what you want about Ebron's struggles, but the tight end position certainly didn't improve this offseason. They lost defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and replaced him with Sylvester Williams. They lost linebacker Tahir Whitehead and replaced him with Christian Jones. They lost cornerback D.J. Hayden and replaced him with DeShawn Shead. None of those changes represent upgrades. 

Where the Lions improved is at the running back position, which is important. Last year, the Lions rushed for an NFL-low 76.3 yards per game. To get better in that area, they added LeGarrette Blount, who is coming off a 766-yard season, during which he averaged 4.4 yards per carry. Then, they drafted Kerryon Johnson in the second round. At Auburn last year, he rushed for 1,391 yards, averaged 4.9 yards per carry, and scored 20 touchdowns from scrimmage. The addition of center Frank Ragnow also fills a need.

But the Lions failed to upgrade at some of their biggest holes. Defensive end Ezekiel Ansah will be back under the franchise tag, but the Lions didn't acquire another pass rusher to pair with him a year after Ansah was responsible for 12.0 of their 35 sacks. As previously mentioned, tight end remains a weakness. 

The Lions didn't get worse this offseason, but they didn't get significantly better. Maybe the addition of Patricia alone will be enough to get them over the hump. But for now, the Lions still look like a .500-ish team after averaging 8.3 wins per season since 2015. There's nothing inherently wrong with that -- they'll certainly be competitive again -- but they didn't make the leap from competitive to great this offseason.

Offseason grade: B

Green Bay Packers

The Packers aren't often big players in the offseason, but circumstances changed this offseason. After reshaping their front office (long-time general manager Ted Thompson transitioned to a new role with Brian Gutekunst taking over as the new GM), the Packers made some significant changes to their personnel. Aaron Rodgers' BFF and favorite target Jordy Nelson got cut while cornerback Damarious Randall got shipped to Cleveland and safety Morgan Burnett departed via free agency. 

But the Packers did well to resupply. They landed the best tight end in free agency, Jimmy Graham, who will replace Nelson even though they don't technically play the same position. At this point in his career, Nelson isn't much more than a red-zone weapon, having caught 20 touchdowns over the past two seasons. Graham hauled in 10 touchdowns last season, with all 10 of them coming within 20 yards of the end zone. Meanwhile, Marcedes Lewis will add a blocking dimension to the new tight end group. According to Pro Football Focus, Lewis was the ninth-best tight end last year and the best run-blocking tight end in football. 

To replace Randall, they drafted Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson in the first and second rounds, both of whom will play alongside last year's second-round pick Kevin King. The Packers have built themselves a capable young secondary in two offseasons. For that, they deserve credit. 

Don't overlook the signing of Muhammad Wilkerson and the addition of DeShone Kizer. Wilkerson, who is coming off a drawn out breakup with the Jets, comes with some risk attached to him, but he's also bringing plenty of firepower with him. In 2015, Wilkerson notched 12 sacks. If he can get back to that form, he'll be an incredible steal for the Packers. As for Kizer, despite his struggles in Cleveland during his rookie season, he shouldn't be written off at this point in his career. He's still only 22 years old. He was a second-round pick for a reason. Nobody should deem him past the point of saving just because he struggled on a winless team during his first-ever NFL season. He'll benefit from being around Aaron Rodgers and Mike McCarthy.

Perhaps their most important move was hiring Mike Pettine as their new defensive coordinator. If you ignore his history with the Browns (let's face it, no one has really won there), his resume includes coaching five top-10 defenses (by yards allowed) in five seasons. Overall, the Packers got stronger defensively this offseason. 

They might not have improved offensively, but they didn't necessarily need to with Aaron Rodgers coming back. Would Rodgers probably love a few better weapons around him? Sure, but he'll make do with what he has, because that's what he always does.

Offseason grade: B+

Minnesota Vikings

It's not often a team gets one game away from the Super Bowl and responds by parting ways with all three of its starting-caliber quarterbacks, but that's exactly what the Vikings did this offseason. Case Keenum, who improbably guided them to the NFC Championship Game, left for Denver. Teddy Bridgewater, their former first-round pick, signed with the Jets. Sam Bradford, who was supposed to be their starter before a knee injury ruined his season, landed with the Cardinals

But that's OK, because the Vikings won the Kirk Cousins sweepstakes. The Vikings' offseason is an unequivocal success because they found a way to upgrade their quarterback situation when they were already a damn near complete team. With Cousins, the Vikings might just be the new frontrunners in the NFC. 

The signing of Sheldon Richardson also gives the Vikings' already dominant defense another threat on the interior of the line to go along with pass-rushing aces Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter. Then, in the draft, they added Mike Hughes to a secondary that already includes Xavier Rhodes, Harrison Smith, Trae Waynes, Mackensie Alexander, and Andrew Sendejo. There's an actual chance this defense get even better after ranking second in DVOA in 2017.

So, the Vikings upgraded at the most important position in all of sports and upgraded their already great defense. Why didn't they get an A then? Losing Jerick McKinnon, even though they have Dalvin Cook, hurts. Replacing his 991 yards from scrimmage will be difficult. Meanwhile, they didn't really upgrade on the interior of their offensive line. They retained Nick Easton at guard, but the other guard spot remains a concern. Tom Compton, who graded out as Pro Football Focus' 47th best guard last year, might have to start. Easton was 58th. No team is without flaws, and the Vikings aren't the exception to that rule. The interior of the offensive line remains a weakness. 

Still, they did almost everything they could this offseason to get them over the hump next January.

Offseason grade: A-

Article has been updated to include the Packers' signing of Marcedes Lewis.

CBS Sports Writer

Sean Wagner-McGough joined CBS Sports in 2015 after graduating from UC Berkeley. A native of Seattle, Sean now resides in the Bay Area. He spends his spare time defending Jay Cutler on Twitter. Full Bio

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