Today marks 12 years since the Chicago Bears won a playoff game. The team has only one division championship since then. As the Tampa Bay Buccaneers demonstrated this season, the playoffs are as much about the quality of divisional opponents as anything.
With the Minnesota Vikings’ loss to the New York Giants, every NFC North team is officially in its offseason. With starkly different trajectories, the foreseeable future of the division is taking shape.
Surprisingly, the Lions may stand as the Bears’ biggest obstacle in the coming years. With young, talented players on both sides of the ball courtesy of excellent drafting, Detroit can afford to spend its $17,941,447 in cap space on a quality defensive back, guard, or both.
With the sixth overall pick in this year’s NFL Draft, a quarterback is very much on the table, but Jared Goff played well enough in the second half of the season to warrant a little faith. Typically, I don’t award much credit to losing Super Bowl quarterbacks (Rex Grossman and Aaron Rodgers have the same number of NFC Championships). Still, Goff was good enough to lead the Rams past the Drew Brees Saints in the 2018-2019 conference championship.
Believe it or not, the Lions are entering a championship window. Goff is 28 and has plenty of game left in him, so don’t be surprised if Detroit takes Quentin Johnston at number six to complement Amon-Ra St. Brown. Jalen Carter could also shine alongside Aiden Hutchinson. As the rest of the division collects themselves, the Lions have a relatively clear path in 2023.
Ouch, that looked like it hurt. In an otherwise excellent game from Kirk “Kohl’s Cash” Cousins, the $35 million man threw a checkdown on 4th and long to end Minnesota’s season.
As one Bears fan pointed out, perhaps too soon, the Vikings are entering the offseason in a salary cap conundrum. Despite a disappointing defensive performance, five of the top 10 cap hits come from aging defensive players. Harrison Smith, a 33-year-old free safety, will take a $19.2 million bite out of the budget. Za’Darius Smith, who only cost $3 million this season, will claim $15.6 million in 2023. On the other side of the ball, 32-year-old Adam Thielen was the 59th-best receiver in the league this season. Next year he will cost just under $20 million.
Minnesota was all in on 2022. Collectively, these big contracts put the Vikings in an $8 million hole for the upcoming year. The short-lived playoff stint dropped their first-round pick to number 24, likely out of reach of a truly season-altering rookie.
It’s a catch-22. The Vikings can’t afford to keep their most expensive players, but they really can’t afford to replace them either. The championship window is closing but remains just open enough to entice the front office to mortgage more of the future. For now, the Vikings will remain so close yet so far away.
Green Bay Packers
Speaking of salary cap hell, the Packers are in an even worse position than the Vikings— large in part thanks to number 12.
Aaron Rodgers wasted no time getting cryptic following a season-ending loss to the Lions when he told Jameson Williams he wanted to “hold onto” his jersey after the game. Initially signaling he may be retiring, Rodgers quickly walked it back saying there are “many reasons” why he’d want to keep the uniform. He also noted that he wouldn’t hold the team “hostage” regarding his future, but how could he help himself?
Green Bay enters the 2023 offseason with a $21.8 million salary cap deficit. Wow. After 39-year-old Rodgers, 31-year-old David Bakhtiari has the second-highest salary on the team taking a cap hit of $29 million. One of Rodgers’ favorite targets, wide receiver Allen Lazard, will enter free agency with a market value of $11 million per year.
Along with Lazard, the Packers stand to lose Keisean Nixon, Adrian Amos, and Robert Tonyan to higher bidding teams. Like the Vikings, the Packers can’t afford to keep them and can’t afford to replace them. Burn baby burn.
Meanwhile, the Packers’ young talent, namely Devonte Wyatt and Quay Walker, proved to be undisciplined and capable of throwing games due to poor sportsmanship and weak character.
“Here comes the money. Here we go, money talks…Money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money,” Naughty By Nature said.
Chicago enters the 2023 offseason, not in a deficit but in an absurd surplus. With $120 million in cap space, General Manager Ryan Poles is ready to make a splash— nay, several splashes.
Thanks to Chicago legend Lovie Smith, the Bears also possess the top draft pick— kicking off what will be a frenzy of trade offers from quarterback-hungry teams. Ideally, the Bears will remain in position to select Will Anderson Jr. from Alabama, a fearsome edge rusher nicknamed “The Terminator.”
Aside from unrivaled offseason potential, the Bears have young talent to build around. Jack Sanborn, Jaquan Brisker, and Braxton Jones all earned spots on this year’s All-Rookie Team— more than any other NFC North team. Justin Fields exploded as the most improved player of the year despite having fewer offensive weapons. The holes are numbered but fillable.
Chicago remains at least one year behind Detroit’s rebuild but has a more sustainable path toward dominance.
Image Courtesy of NFL.com