NFC North free-agent update

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco (5) pushes away from Chicago Bears defensive end Julius Peppers (90) during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 17, 2013, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Few NFL teams, much less any NFC North clubs, attacked this free agency period as aggressively as the Bears. Chicago Football has had readers covered the whole way, providing detailed reports and instant analysis for every Bears move.

Now, with about one month left before the NFL draft takes center stage, let’s get up to speed with the rest of the division’s key transactions since the offseason began.

The Packers, unsurprisingly, have been the quietest team in the NFC North with regard to team building. Unlike Bears GM Phil Emery, Ted Thompson doesn’t view voluminous free-agent signings as a viable method of roster construction. Instead, he assigns values to his own free agents, carefully choosing who to reward and who to let go, knowing that the players he opts not to re-sign – James Jones and Evan Dietrich-Smith, to name a couple – will net him more ammunition in next year’s draft in compensatory picks.

If Thompson does need to add veterans from outside the building, he’s more inclined to target street free agents who don’t count in the NFL’s compensatory pick formula, as he did last month with the splash signing of former Bears DE Julius Peppers, and the less-hyped acquisition of Letroy Guion.

Bears fans already are familiar with Peppers, who had a terrific four-year run in Chicago, even with last season’s regression. But he’ll be used much differently in Green Bay, where the Packers envision the 34-year old former All Pro as a hybrid player whose flexibility and unpredictability, they hope, will keep defenses guessing. Be prepared to see Peppers not only lined up all across the Green Bay defensive front, but also looming near the line of scrimmage in a two-point stance, making it difficult to predict which way he’s headed. His size and athleticism can still lead to major headaches for the Bears and other Packers' opponents.

Guion, a steady rotational tackle in Minnesota over the past four seasons, gives the Packers a younger option than free agents Ryan Pickett and Johnny Jolly. Just 26, he can line up in more than one spot and adds some quickness to the Packers’ front. It still needs help via the draft, but the Packers defense now has a pair of veterans who can contribute readily while they wait for younger players to develop.

The Packers reinforced their ascending ground game, re-signing James Starks and John Kuhn, both key players in their Week 17 playoff clincher at Soldier Field. Green Bay locked up its No. 1 CB Sam Shields, who’ll be challenged in coming years by the imposing Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall.

Few cornerbacks in the league have been more successful in slowing down Calvin Johnson than Charles Tillman. The Bears hope Tim Jennings will be up to the challenge against Golden Tate. Joining a pass-catching corps that includes “Megatron” and a pair of terrific yards-after-catch backs in Reggie Bush and Joique Bell, Tate’s arrival is huge for maligned quarterback Matt Stafford. Tate can also work inside, which could shine a spotlight on Kelvin Hayden or perhaps a rookie to limit the tough receiver’s damage.

Detroit swapped one hard-hitting safety, Louis Delmas, for another, former Raven James Ihedigbo. He’s four years older than Delmas, but more durable and more familiar to new coordinator Teryl Austin. The Lions’ depth at defensive end is now thin after Emery’s poaching of Willie Young and Israel Idonije.

The Packers and Lions, as currently constructed, are in precarious shape behind Aaron Rodgers and Matt Stafford, respectively. Green Bay still hasn’t locked up last year’s unsung hero, Matt Flynn, leaving Scott Tolzien one Rodgers injury away from action.  Meanwhile, the Lions downgraded while replacing longtime backup Shaun Hill with another familiar face, Dan Orlovsky.

The Vikings have taken arguably the most forward-thinking approach in the division to free agency. The success of Mike Zimmer’s tenure in Cincinnati stemmed from a deep and ferocious front four. Thus, Minnesota invested heavily this offseason in young linemen just entering the peak of their careers.

In addition to acquiring Linval Joseph and Corey Wootton, and re-signing Everson Griffen, who’ll replace Jared Allen, the Vikings nabbed playmaking slot cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and lengthy former second-rounder Derek Cox.

Minnesota is clearly looking ahead with these moves, loading up on pass rush and cornerbacks – a wise move in a division stacked with explosive passing attacks. As far as their own porous passing game is concerned, the Vikings believe Matt Cassel can build a bridge to a potential newcomer by adequately operating Norv Turner’s offense, predicated on power running triggering a deep play-action passing game.

Remember Minnesota’s decision to let Toby Gerhart escape for Jacksonville, however. Like their Chicago counterparts, the Vikings’ contingency plan behind their most valuable player – Adrian Peterson – is alarming.

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