Just like last year, the NFC North goes through Green Bay.
The Packers laughed off free agency, saving their money for their own biggest target: Randall Cobb. That move alone should guarantee that Green Bay's offense picks up where it left off in January. Nothing about the Packers suggests a letdown beyond an injury to Aaron Rodgers. Their Super Bowl window is wide open.
The Lions roared into the playoffs last season, but getting back won't be easy after Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley signed elsewhere in free agency. There's still plenty of talent on offense with Calvin Johnson catching passes opposite Golden Tate, but Suh's absence, especially, is devastating for Teryl Austin's second-ranked D.
The Vikings continue to sign ex-Bengals to help coach Mike Zimmer's defense, but the burning question remains: Will Adrian Peterson wear purple in 2015? If so, he returns to a team with a promising young quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater, which is more than we can say for the Bears, who pray that coordinator Adam Gase can correct Jay Cutler's play.
Not much has changed in the NFC North, where closing the gap on Green Bay remains a work in progress. When you own the game's finest quarterback, as the Packers do, everyone else is just playing for second place.
1. Green Bay Packers
Why the rest of the North should worry: Because very little has changed.
Despite their disastrous playoff loss to Seattle, Green Bay refused to panic or veer away from their team-building model: Ignoring the open market in favor of building through the draft.
Staring down a talent-packed roster, general manager Ted Thompson successfully accomplished his top task: Fending off the competition to re-sign Cobb. The Packers deserve plenty of credit for convincing the NFL's premier slot man to turn down better deals elsewhere. Thompson also retained Bryan Bulaga as a reliable right tackle along Green Bay's offensive line.
» Finding cornerback help: Along with losing Tramon Williams to the Cleveland Browns, the Packers also saw Davon House depart for Jacksonville. You can't have enough cover men in today's NFL, and it wouldn't shock us to see Green Bay grab one with the No. 30 overall pick unless they feel Casey Hayward can shift outside.
» More D-line help: History tells us Thompson will use the draft to fortify Green Bay's defensive front. After all, the GM has nabbed a tackle or end by Round 3 in each of the past three drafts.
2. Detroit Lions
Why they remain second fiddle: While the Packers successfully re-signed their own valuable free agents, the Lions couldn't find a way to keep Ndamukong Suh or fellow defensive tackle Nick Fairley. The front office added Haloti Ngata to help fill the void, but Suh's departure could signal the end of Detroit's "Wide-9" front, which was primarily built around the mauling, behemoth lineman.
» Suh and Fairley replacements: The Lions lack proven performers behind the 31-year-old Ngata, making the interior line an immediate need if Austin plans to continue with his four-man front.
3. Minnesota Vikings
On the heels of Teddy Bridgewater's mostly promising rookie campaign, the team upgraded at wideout by trading for the fleet-footed Mike Wallace while saving $5 million in cap space by dumping Greg Jennings. Wallace gives the Vikings a bona fide No. 1 target to pair with the promising Charles Johnson. If Cordarelle Patterson can shake off last year's disappointing campaign and Kyle Rudolph can stay healthy, Norv Turner's air attack will soar. That said, the O-line needs help.
The biggest question is clear: Will Peterson start the season in a Vikings uniform? If he does, Zimmer's squad has the bodies to field a balanced offense and a defense that should improve in Year 2.
» Find offensive linemen: Left tackle Matt Kalil is coming off a brutal campaign and his contract runs out after 2015. It's not too early to find a tackle in the draft; Minnesota also needs help at guard.
4. Chicago Bears
Last offseason, we were crowing over Marc Trestman as a quarterback whisperer supreme. Now he's gone, replaced by coach John Fox and two outstanding assistants in offensive play-caller Gase and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. We consider it an upgrade across the board, one that should bring stability to a team that spiraled into the abyss in 2014.
» Keep adding defense: The Bears over the past two offseasons have added a pack of pass rushers in McPhee, Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young. They still need more help at inside linebacker and throughout the secondary. NFL Media's Lance Zierlein believes cornerback Trae Waynes could be the target at No. 7, while Charles Davis sees Chicago plucking up Missouri defensive end Shane Ray. Both make sense.
» Find tomorrow's quarterback: Despite their lukewarm praise, the Bears barely believe in Cutler. They simply couldn't find a better option in free agency. Oregon's Marcus Mariota is a realistic draft-day target if he falls to No. 7. If not, look for Chicago to nab a prospect in the later rounds.