The NFL and NFC has had no shortage of storylines over the last few weeks. This has been one of the craziest offseasons to date. Dominated by significant trades, big names have found new homes across the league. This includes Russell Wilson, Tyreek Hill, Deshaun Watson, Matt Ryan, and Davante Adams. However, with free agency still rolling on across the NFL as we approach the end of March, there have been tons of intriguing signings.
Franchises with cap money to spend are inking big names to contracts. Those clubs with minimal space are instead focusing on veteran players on value deals or young, unproven players they hope to impact their team. With lots of player movement across the NFC North, in this article, we will hand out free agency grades for the NFC North division.
NFC North Free Agency Grades
The Bears entered free agency with openings at wide receiver, cornerback, and linebacker. The team also had needs along the interior of their offensive and defensive lines. They were one of the quieter teams during the period. New general manager Ryan Poles made just four signings through the first few days of the league’s legal tampering time.
He also made multiple tough roster decisions by trading Khalil Mack and releasing Danny Trevathan, Tarik Cohen, and Eddie Goldman. This led them to ink ten new total players to contracts. Highlighted by the addition of Justin Jones from the Los Angeles Chargers, Chicago also added beef upfront by agreeing to terms with former Green Bay Packers guard Lucas Patrick.
The addition of Jones was one the first move made by the franchise during free agency. They inked him to a two-year $12 million deal after Larry Ogunjobi failed his physcial. He is fresh off a career year with the Chargers. Starting in 11 games for the team, the 25-year-old recorded three sacks, and 37 tackles, with five being for a loss. This led him to earn a grade of 57.9 from Pro Football Focus.
Filling an important role for new head coach Matt Eberflus, the former third-round pick, is a long and physical player along the interior. A strong run defender; he is still developing as a pass rusher. Offering versatility, the North Carolina State alumn has played snaps at defensive end while also lining up as a three-technique over the guard.
After surrendering a league-high 58 sacks last season, the franchise needed to upgrade its offensive line. Adding a versatile piece at the guard spot, they inked Patrick to a two-year $8 million deal. A former undrafted free agent, the Duke University product spent six seasons with the Packers and is familiar with the NFC North. Possessing the ability to play all three positions along the interior, the 28-year-old started at guard in 2021 before moving after an injury to Josh Myers.
He is one of the best pass blockers in the game. A year ago, the Brentwood Tennesee native played in 911 snaps while surrendering just one sack. With experience under new offensive coordinator Luke Getsy, look for him to slot in at the center spot from day one.
Pringle was brought in by Chicago as they look to add more playmakers to their young wide receiver core. He was signed by the Kansas City Chiefs as an undrafted free agent in 2017. The 28-year-old was buried on the depth chart behind Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Demarcus Robinson, and Mecole Hardman during his time with the team. This led him to haul in 67 receptions for 898 yards and seven touchdowns over 46 games.
Fresh off a career year in 2021, the Kansas State University alumn offers game-breaking speed. Furthermore, he can line up all over the formation on offense, with the ability to play both in the slot and out wide. A proven contributor on special teams, the Tampa Florida alumn will also be able to chip in that department with 986 kickoff return yards already during his NFL tenure.
A franchise that appears to be on an upward trajectory, the Lions finished last in the NFC North last season with a 3-13-1 record. The team was victorious in three of their final six games after going winless through week 10. With openings along their roster as they look to build for the future, Detroit needs to add talent at the wide receiver spot. The franchise also needs to find multiple pieces on defense, both in the back end and along the line.
Choosing to take a conservative approach during free agency, general manager Brad Holmes decided to re-up with their pending free agents. The longtime executive also choose to focus on smaller names on value contracts instead of going hunting on the open market for bigger players.
Adding another weapon to their passing attack, Detroit signed Chark to a one-year $10 million deal. A second-round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2017, he spent four seasons with the franchise. The LSU product amassed 147 catches for 2,042 yards and 15 touchdowns over four years with the team. He was also selected to the Pro Bowl in 2019 after finishing 27th in the league in receiving yards. However, the speedy wideout has struggled to stay on the field during his short time in the NFL.
He was battled multiple injuries that have forced him to miss a significant amount of time. This includes a fractured ankle last season that led him to miss all but four games. Looking to return to his former form, the Alexandra Lousiana native still has the speed to run past opposing defensive backs when healthy, making him one of the better vertical threats in the game.
One of the worst secondaries in the league, the Lions finished 23rd in the NFL in passing yards against per game. They surrendered 244.7 on average in each contest. The group also allowed opposing signal-callers to complete over 65 percent of their passes. Relying on their young cast of characters, former third overall pick Jeff Okudah has struggled to stay on the field in his first two seasons. The Ohio State product has landed on the injured reserve list in both years after tearing his Achilles in week 1 last year.
Adding a veteran presence in the back end, Hughes is coming of the best campaign of his four-year NFL tenure. The former first-round pick appeared in all 17 games for the Chiefs while earning a 78.8 rating in coverage and a 74.7 rating against the run. He will also add versatility to Aaron Glenn‘s unit with the ability to play both in the slot and the outside.
Adding depth to their tight end room, Griffin comes to the Lions after spending six seasons with the New Orleans Saints. He was originally signed as an undrafted free agent out of Air Force. The 28-year-old spent three seasons with the program, where he amassed 41 receptions for 678 yards and eight touchdowns. The Louisburg, Kansas native has only played in 20 games over his NFL tenure.
Primarily known for his abilities as an inline blocker, Griffin can get out in front and lead the way in the run game. Along with this, he is also strong at sealing off blocks for running backs on the edge. Possessing good hands in the passing game, he also has experience on special teams.
Green Bay Packers
Once again, one of the premier teams in the NFC North a year ago, the Packers earned the number one seed in the NFC. They won 13 games for the third straight season. Ultimately squaring off with the San Francisco 49ers in the Divisional round at Lambeau Field, Green Bay would fall short of their Super Bowl goals again after being knocked off 13-10.
Set to run it back with Aaron Rodgers for another season next year, the team entered the offseason filled with question marks. Heading into March $50 million over the cap, the franchise made multiple key moves to retain key pieces. They re-signed De’Vondre Cambell, Rasul Douglas, and Allen Lazard while trading Adams to the Las Vegas Raiders.
Beefing up along the interior, Green Bay inked Reed to a one-year contract. A second-round pick of the Seattle Seahawks in 2016, the University of Alabama product racked up a career-high 10.5 sacks in 2018. He spent the last two and a half seasons with the Chiefs. A year ago, the 29-year-old had 43 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and two forced fumbles in 17 starts for the team. One of the most glaring positions of need on the roster, Kenny Clark remains one of the game’s elite after his second pro bowl selection in 2021.
However, the team choose to release Kingsley Keke in free agency. Along with this, Tyler Lancaster is still without a contract as an unrestricted free agent. Set to count for just $1.7 million against the cap next season, signing the veteran defensive tackle was smart business by the Packers front office.
One of the worst special teams units across the league last season, the Packers choose to make a change at the punter position heading into 2022. Adding Corey Bojorquez last August, the team acquired the 25-year-old and a 2023 seventh-round pick from the Los Angeles Rams in exchange for a 2022 sixth-round choice. Enjoying a tale of two seasons in his first year with the franchise, the New Mexico product flashed one of the biggest legs in the league through the first half of the year.
Nonetheless, he struggled mightily down the stretch. This led to poorly placed punts and bad holds for kicker Mason Crosby on field goal attempts. A better option over his eight-year NFL career, O’Donnell offers more consistency on his kicks while also offering an upgrade as a holder.
Campbell was one of the biggest surprises of the season for the Packers in 2021. He was a reason why the Packers won the NFC North. The team inked the linebacker to a one-year contract in the final week of their offseason program in June. A staple for Joe Barry’s defense, the 28-year-old was selected as a first-team all-pro member for the first time in his career. Starting in all 16 games for the team, the Fort Myers, Florida native finished seventh in the NFL with 146 tackles while also being one of five players in the league with over 100 solo tackles.
He also amassed two sacks, two interceptions, six quarterback hits, and one forced fumble. The longtime Atlanta Falcon proved to be the perfect fit for Barry’s scheme with his ability to close on ball carriers in the run game while also being a strong defender in coverage.
Enjoying another disappointing campaign in 2021, the Vikings missed the playoffs for the second consecutive season. The team lost two of their final three games to finish with a record of 8-9. Strapped up against the cap heading into next year, the franchise made two key business moves by retaining Kirk Cousins and Adam Thielen during the free agency period.
Furthermore, the group also re-upped with veteran cornerback Patrick Peterson. Needing to upgrade their back end if they hope to make a run at the playoffs in 2022, Minnesota finished 28th in the league in passing yards given up per game. The team will also hope to improve their run defense after allowing over 130 yards per week.
The Packers released Smith on March 14th as the team made multiple moves to get under the salary cap. He reportedly agreed to terms with the Baltimore Ravens before backing out of the deal. The two-time pro bowler battled a back injury all year long in 2021. This forced him to miss all but 18 snaps during the regular season.
Still one of the most feared pass rushers in the game when healthy, he has racked up 26 sacks, 29 tackles for loss, and 60 quarterback hits over his last 32 games. Set to form one of the elite tandems off the edge in the game with Hunter, he will reunite with former defensive coordinator Mike Pettine.
A four-year player with the Stanford Cardinals, Phillips was drafted 96th overall by the Buffalo Bills in 2018. The 26-year-old has appeared in 45 regular-season games during his four seasons in Orchard Park. He has amassed 107 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and 13 quarterback hits. Ultimately becoming the odd man out, the 26-year-old inked a three-year $19.5 million deal with the Vikings.
Set to replace the departed Michael Pierce among the interior of Ed Donatell’s defense, the Omaha, Nebraska native has experience playing in multiple fronts during his time in Western New York. Lauded for his leadership by teammates and coaches, Phillips has the vision and strength to shed blocks and take down ball carriers.
The Arizona Cardinals released Hicks on March 9th after three seasons. A third-round pick of the Philadelphia Eagles in 2017, the 29-year-old appeared in every regular-season game for the third consecutive year in 2021. He racked up 116 tackles, four sacks, and five quarterback hits. The perfect compliment to star linebacker Eric Kendricks, he has been as durable as any player across the league over his seven-year NFL tenure.
He has appeared in 51 games in a row, the third-longest active streak at his position. A three-down player, Hicks has the closing speed, and the downhill burst to wrap up opposing ball carriers in a hurry. Furthermore, the Colorado Springs native also has the football IQ to diagnose plays quickly in pass coverage.
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