Not every need can be met via the draft. So what's a team to do? Thankfully, the free agency period will be here soon. To help get you ready for the opening of the NFL's annual talent marketplace on March 11, Elliot Harrison is taking a division-by-division look at all 32 squads' biggest priorities, starting with the NFC North.
Top priority in free agency: Safety.
Plain and simple, the Bears can't win games in 2014 if they get the same kind of safety play as they did in 2013. Chicago finished 30th overall in team defense (when's the last time *that *happened?), giving up a whopping 29.9 points per game, and ranked 25th when it came to third-down stops. Yes, the run defense was a huge part of that equation, but it should be noted that two key areas -- interior line and linebacker corps -- were hit hard by injuries. Major Wright and Chris Conte, meanwhile, flat-out struggled. Wright will be entering his fifth year in the NFL, and Conte will be entering his fourth, meaning these two are what they are at this point. Add the fact that Wright and backup Craig Steltz are headed for free agency, and it's clear that this position must be addressed. Jairus Byrd likely will be out there, but he'll also cost too much for the Bears, unless they cut some pricey veterans. T.J. Ward, who could be on his way out of Cleveland, might be a possibility. Re-signing Charles Tillman obviously would affect the secondary greatly, as well. One additional note: It's great that Shea McClellin could potentially play at linebacker after spending two seasons on the defensive line, but a position move by a third-year player doesn't always equal success.
Other areas of interest: Defensive tackle, defensive end, outside linebacker.
Top priority in free agency: Wide receiver.
If the Lions are taking a cornerback in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft, as some analysts have been speculating, then they absolutely must address the wide receiver position through other means, either via later rounds or -- if they want some proven talent -- free agency. Detroit, which led the NFL in dropped balls last season, recently cut Nate Burleson, the most reliable wideout on the roster after Calvin Johnson. Megatron will have mega trouble as he gets older if the team cannot scrounge up a complementary receiving option. Kris Durham is probably not the WR2 ... just a guess. Ryan Broyles, meanwhile, has not given Detroit much of a boost in his short career. Anquan Boldin, who helped the Ravens win a Super Bowl in 2012 when new Lions coach Jim Caldwell was the offensive coordinator in Baltimore, might have been a possible answer, but when last we checked, Boldin was staying with San Francisco. Although the salary cap always represents a fluid situation, the Lions are currently expected to have less than $10 million in space, making a guy like Hakeem Nicks or James Jones a plausible signing -- but not Eric Decker.
Other areas of interest: Cornerback, safety, tight end.
Green Bay Packers
Top priority in free agency: Defensive line.
The Packers' biggest need might not be sexy, but at least it's not running back anymore. (Which reminds me: Can Eddie Lacy play the nose, too?) General manager Ted Thompson has tended not to lean on free agency the way others in the league do, but with just four defensive linemen (Datone Jones, Josh Boyd, Mike Daniels and Jerel Worthy) currently under contract for 2014 -- none of whom have played more than two seasons -- this position group cannot be ignored. Pending free agent B.J. Raji could come back, especially after he finds the market is not what he expected it to be. He did not play well last season. In fact, Daniels was the Packers' best player up front. Green Bay should have around $30 million to play with, and while that doesn't all have to be allocated to free agency, picking up a nose tackle and a defensive end would make sense.
Other areas of interest: Tight end, safety.
Top priority in free agency: Linebacker.
Beyond veteran Chad Greenway, who's currently in line to fill a linebacker spot in Mike Zimmer's 4-3 defense in 2014? Michael Mauti? Gerald Hodges? OK, so this position might not seem like the Vikings' biggest problem to their fans, but it is probably tops among those needs that can actually be met in free agency. As for Minnesota's most pressing issue? Well, when it comes to finding a quarterback, better not to turn to the market, unless one likes the idea of Michael Vick or Josh McCown as "the franchise." Of course, we should point out that Christian Ponder is still out there (we kid, we kid). Back to linebacker: Maybe a guy like Audie Cole can step in and play in the middle all year, but right now, Minnesota is lacking in true playmakers at the position. Finding guys to fit Zimmer's system is the ticket here. Making an overture to Donald Butler would've been a bold stroke, but he's staying in San Diego. Or the Vikings could take a swing at Brandon Spikes, who is not expected to be re-signed by the Patriots. He's just 26 and still has upside. Zimmer has done more with less.
Other areas of interest: Quarterback, defensive end, offensive guard.