Peter­son’s fu­ture with Vik­ings big ques­tion in NFC North

USA TODAY US Edition - - SPORTS - Nate Davis @ByNateDavis

With free agency start­ing March 9, USA TO­DAY Sports is look­ing at all eight NFL di­vi­sions and what could be in store for teams this off­sea­son, as well as the moves they should make. To­day, the NFC North.

CHICAGO BEARS

Prom­i­nent free agents: OLB Sam Acho, QB Matt Barkley, K Con­nor Barth, WR Josh Bel­lamy, QB Brian Hoyer, WR Al­shon Jef­fery, OL Ted Larsen, TE Lo­gan Paulsen, S Chris Prosin­ski, WR Deonte Thomp­son, WR Mar­quess Wil­son. Cap sit­u­a­tion: $52.4 mil­lion in cap space, ac­cord­ing to Over­the cap.com. Pri­mary is­sues for 2017: The Bears fin­ished last in the divi­sion in 2016 by a wide mar­gin. The of­fense and de­fense ranked in the mid­dle of the pack leaguewide. But Chicago’s 31 turnovers were the most in the NFC, and its 11 take­aways the fewest in the NFL — which ex­plains why the team strug­gled to score yet sur­ren­dered so many cheap points. Part of the prob­lem was a re­volv­ing door at quar­ter­back, where Jay Cut­ler and Hoyer were way­laid by in­juries.

Our ad­vice: The Bears are try­ing to trade Cut­ler, ac­cord­ing to news re­ports, and that’s prob­a­bly an over­due course of ac­tion. Whether they use free agency or take his re­place­ment with the third pick of the draft or in sub­se­quent rounds, it makes sense to re-sign Hoyer or Barkley as a bridge. Given Jef­fery’s 2016 sus­pen­sion for a per­for­mance-en­hanc­ing drug vi­o­la­tion and his in­jury his­tory, he’s not worth a sec­ond fran­chise tag at $17.5 mil­lion and prob­a­bly not a long-term in­vest­ment at any­thing other than some kind of home­town dis­count given the emer­gence of Cameron Mered­ith. Chicago has the re­sources to pur­sue a young cor­ner­back such as A.J. Bouye, Lo­gan Ryan or Tru­maine John­son and/ or block­ing help, and would be wise to do so.

DETROIT LIONS

Prom­i­nent free agents: RB Joique Bell, WR An­quan Boldin, S Rafael Bush, LB Josh Bynes, QB Dan Orlovsky, OT Ri­ley Reiff, WR An­dre Roberts, DE Devin Taylor, DT Tyrunn Walker, G Larry War­ford. Cap sit­u­a­tion: $32.8 mil­lion in cap space, ac­cord­ing to Over­the cap.com. Pri­mary is­sues for 2017: The post­sea­son trip was a pleas­ant sur­prise, cour­tesy of QB Matthew Stafford’s fre­quent heroics in his first year with­out WR Calvin John­son. Still, this club has holes. Detroit al­lowed op­pos­ing quar­ter­backs a col­lec­tive 106.5 passer rat­ing, worst in the NFL. Of­fen­sively, the Lions didn’t have any­one rush for more than 357 yards. And they are set to take hits on both sides of the line of scrim­mage.

Our ad­vice: There are short- and long-term con­sid­er­a­tions. Stafford’s con­tract ex­pires af­ter the 2017 sea­son, and given his im­por­tance and con­tin­ued de­vel­op­ment, it makes more sense to ex­tend him now rather than grant added lever­age in 2018. Los­ing Reiff and War­ford, who manned the right side of the of­fen­sive line, would be a blow, but it’s prob­a­bly not worth a huge ex­pen­di­ture for ei­ther given other is­sues. The best way to help the de­fense would be bol­ster­ing the pass rush, so mak­ing a run at a player such as DE Ja­son Pierre-Paul is worth con­sid­er­ing. Bar­ring that, gen­eral man­ager Bob Quinn might be best served to pay Stafford, then go bar­gain shop­ping for line depth, a line­backer and per­haps a vet­eran run­ning back af­ter the first wave of free agency has passed.

GREEN BAY PACK­ERS

Prom­i­nent free agents: TE Jared Cook, DB Micah Hyde, DE Da­tone Jones, RB Ed­die Lacy, G T.J. Lang, RB Chris­tine Michael, OLB Julius Pep­pers, OLB Nick Perry, CB Sam Shields, RB James Starks, C J.C. Tret­ter.

Cap sit­u­a­tion: $41 mil­lion in cap space, ac­cord­ing to Over­the cap.com. Pri­mary is­sues for 2017: Green Bay was in­ef­fec­tive run­ning the ball and stop­ping the pass — is­sues that were ap­par­ent even dur­ing the Pack­ers’ sec­ond-half surge and three play­off games. With a full off­sea­son to ad­just — and maybe with a side­kick added via the draft — con­verted WR Ty Mont­gomery seems ca­pa­ble of steady­ing the ground game, but the de­fense re­mains a worry.

Our ad­vice: GM Ted Thomp­son is no­to­ri­ous for es­chew­ing out­side free agents de­spite the con­tri­bu­tions of play­ers such as Cook, Pep­pers and S Charles Woodson over the years when Thomp­son has loos­ened the purse strings. QB Aaron Rodgers has made a pub­lic en­dorse­ment of Cook, whose re­turn to the lineup co­in­cided with the team’s late-sea­son hot streak. Thomp­son does tend to rein­vest in his own, so it seems likely that Hyde and, more im­por­tant, Perry will re­ceive of­fers. As im­por­tant as Lang has been to pro­tect­ing Rodgers, he might have to take a team-friendly deal to re­main given his age (29) and in­juries. But con­sid­er­ing Rodgers turns 34, Thomp­son also should strongly con­sider a splashy sign­ing that could put this team over the top. New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots ILB Dont’a Hightower and/or Buf­falo Bills CB Stephon Gil­more are the type of made-to-or­der per­form­ers who are young yet per­fectly ad­dress some of Green Bay’s glar­ing de­fi­cien­cies.

MINNESOTA VIK­INGS

Prom­i­nent free agents: RB Matt Asi­ata, TE Rhett El­li­son, G Bran­don Fusco, LB Chad Green­way, QB Shaun Hill, OT Matt Kalil, P Jeff Locke, CB Cap­tain Mun­ner­lyn, CB Ter­ence New­man, KR-WR Cor­dar­relle Pat­ter­son, OT An­dre Smith. Cap sit­u­a­tion: $21.4 mil­lion in cap space, ac­cord­ing to Over­the cap.com.

Pri­mary is­sues for 2017: A team that cratered to 8-8 af­ter a 5-0 start faces ma­jor de­ci­sions. GM Rick Spielman has the least amount of cap room in the divi­sion and no first-round pick af­ter his deal with the Philadel­phia Ea­gles last Septem­ber for QB Sam Brad­ford. No team had fewer rush­ing yards in 2016 than Minnesota, which was dev­as­tated by in­juries to RB Adrian Peter­son and the of­fen­sive line. A healthy Peter­son could go a long way to­ward re­vi­tal­iz­ing the of­fense ... but not for the $18 mil­lion he’s cur­rently owed for 2017 given he’s about to turn 32.

Our ad­vice: First on Spielman’s to-do list must be solv­ing the Peter­son dilemma. It seems like Peter­son wants to stay (at the right price), and he can prob­a­bly still be ef­fec­tive — es­pe­cially if he cedes enough of the load to Jer­ick McKin­non. Re­gard­less, Spielman needs the fi­nan­cial give­back be­cause free agency is Minnesota’s best hope of putting a func­tion­ing line in front of Peter­son and Brad­ford, who dinked and dunked his way through the sea­son to avoid con­stant pres­sure. Coach Mike Zim­mer’s previous job was on the Cincin­nati Ben­gals staff, so this might be a good time for him to re­cruit a blocker such as An­drew Whit­worth or Kevin Zeitler. And with Hill now 37, Minnesota also must take a se­ri­ous look at a more durable backup for Brad­ford given there is no guar­an­tee Teddy Bridge­wa­ter will play in 2017.

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