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Will Caleb Williams shake up the NFC North? What’s new in the NFL’s most interesting division?



A year ago, no one was quite sure whether the Detroit Lions were for real. At the same time, the Green Bay PackersJordan Love was the least experienced quarterback in the NFC North.

How things have changed.

The Lions confirmed their status as a worthy contender — and not just a team that caught fire for a hot minute — by winning the division title by three games, followed by their run to the conference championship game. And now only one starting quarterback in the division has more experience than Love.

After the Chicago Bears moved on from Justin Fields and the Minnesota Vikings from Kirk Cousins, the Packers now have the second-most experienced starter in the division with Love (Year 2) — behind only Detroit’s Jared Goff (Year 4 in Detroit).

As the Bears begin anew with No. 1 overall pick Caleb Williams and the Vikings decide whether to start rookie J.J. McCarthy (No. 10 pick) or ease him in, each organization is plotting its course forward.

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

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

Detroit Lions



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Biggest offseason addition

Collectively, there wasn’t one big splash, but the Lions’ front office made a plethora of moves while being aggressive in upgrading the defensive unit. That 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 allowed opponents to score a touchdown on 23% of their drives, which ranked 25th in the league in 2023.

What’s left to do on the roster?

Patching up holes on defense was the biggest emphasis of the offseason. Looking at the offense, which flourished 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’ third-leading receiver with 40 receptions for 608 yards and five touchdowns. He won’t be easy to replace.

Assess the Lions’ QB situation

The Lions have secured Goff as their guy after signing him to a four-year, $212 million contract extension this offseason that’ll lock him in through 2028. Goff has revitalized his career in Detroit, helping the organization win two playoff games in a single postseason for the first time since 1957, while collecting 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 biggest surprise?

Wide receiver Jameson Williams. The No. 12 pick of the 2022 draft has shown flashes of his playmaking ability, notably in the NFC Championship Game, where he scored both a rushing and receiving touchdown. He is expected to take on a bigger role this season. Williams will finally enter the regular season unfettered, allowing him to completely focus after missing the first 11 games of his rookie season while recovering from a torn left ACL (suffered in college) before serving a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s gambling policy at the start of last season. — Woodyard

Green Bay Packers



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Biggest offseason addition

For a team that was seemingly headed in the right direction after last season’s playoff run, there were still plenty of changes. Coach Matt LaFleur wiped out the entire strength and conditioning staff and hired Aaron Hill from the 49ers 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 revamp that position. But that all pales in comparison to bringing in Jeff Hafley as defensive coordinator to replace the fired Joe Barry. While Hafley has extensive NFL assistant coaching experience, he came directly 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 roster?

The Packers have three kickers on the roster — incumbent Anders Carlson, veteran Greg Joseph and unproven Jack Podlesny. But that doesn’t mean one of those three is certain to be the Week 1 kicker. While a three-man kicking competition is almost unheard of, special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia seems content to carry the competition through training camp. “It might be those three, it might be three other ones, I don’t know,” Bisaccia said. “It might be six.”

Assess the Packers’ QB situation

At the amazement (and perhaps envy) of the rest of the NFL, the Packers have done it again. Love’s play last season in his first year as the starter sure makes it look like they will continue their remarkable run of quarterback success from Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers and now to Love. At some point before the season, he’ll likely get one of the biggest — if not the biggest — quarterback contracts. The only matter to settle is whether Sean Clifford is the backup for a second straight season or if rookie seventh-round pick Michael Pratt can win the job.

Who will be the biggest surprise?

Christian Watson — with the surprise being that he finally gets over his hamstring issues. Early reports on the ultra-talented receiver indicate he and the team have gotten a handle on what the issues have been over his first two seasons. If that’s the case, Watson could be in line for a big campaign. — Demovsky

Minnesota Vikings



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Biggest offseason addition

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

What’s left to do on the roster?

One of general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah’s operating principles is to get a full, and sometimes time-consuming, evaluation of players on the roster before seeking reinforcements. So the Vikings are likely to spend some time deciding whether they have a No. 3 receiver on their roster, following K.J. Osborn‘s departure to the New England Patriots. They also need to evaluate Blake Brandel as a possible starter at left guard, as well as a large group of holdovers and newcomers at cornerback.

Assess the Vikings’ QB situation

McCarthy is obviously the Vikings’ quarterback of the future, but they signed veteran Sam Darnold prior to the draft with the hope of avoiding a rushed ascension of a rookie into the starting role. Darnold has genuine supporters within the building, starting with coach Kevin O’Connell, and there is real hope that he can play credibly enough to avoid the typical pressure to play McCarthy before he is ready. It’s a matter of when, not if, McCarthy becomes the starter, but the Vikings hope Darnold can extend the “when” for as long as McCarthy needs him to.

Who will be the biggest surprise?

Wide receiver Brandon Powell. During the O’Connell era, the Vikings’ base offense has been 11 personnel, which generally means three receivers. So unless O’Connell is going to dramatically change that approach in his third season, there is a significant need for a third player to complement Justin Jefferson and Jordan Addison in 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. — Seifert

Chicago Bears



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Biggest offseason addition

The obvious answer is Williams, the 2022 Heisman Trophy winner who the Bears hope will solidify the quarterback position. Beyond that, the trio of receivers he’ll be throwing to forms one of the best units in the league. Chicago lacked depth last season behind DJ Moore, who put up a career-best season in 2023. Now the Bears’ receiving corps features Keenan Allen, who set the Los Angeles Chargers‘ single-single record for receptions (108) and led the team with 1,243 receiving yards last season, and rookie Rome Odunze, who led all FBS programs in receiving in 2023.

What’s left to do on the roster?

Despite drafting Austin Booker in the fifth round, the Bears still have work to do to fortify their pass rush after finishing last season 31st in sacks (30) and with the lowest sack percentage in the NFL (4.64%). Re-signing edge rusher 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.

Assess the Bears’ QB situation

Coach Matt Eberflus quickly and expectedly named Williams QB1 ahead of his first practice at rookie minicamp. The No. 1 overall draft pick was brought into an incredibly favorable situation with above-average pass protection, a Pro Bowl running back (D’Andre Swift), a revamped receiving corps and two security-blanket tight ends at his disposal. The Bears’ schedule also looks like it will be beneficial for Williams getting his feet wet in the NFL with a home opener against Tennessee and head-to-head matchups with six rookie or Year 2 quarterbacks in the first 10 weeks of the season.

Who will be the biggest surprise?

A pass-first offense. The Bears have fielded 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 for offensive coordinator Shane Waldron to get creative with the team’s passing attack. Don’t be surprised to see Chicago’s offense transition into a pass-first approach with a unit that ranked 27th last season climbing into the top 10 within the first half of the season. — Cronin

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