Previewing some of the big decisions facing NFC North teams early in the 2012 offseason:
Our Air and Space division boasts arguably the top grouping of starting quarterbacks in the NFL. We have a presumptive MVP in the Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers, a 5,000-yard passer in Matthew Stafford of the Detroit Lions and, in the Chicago Bears' Jay Cutler, an upper-level starter who was having perhaps his best season before fracturing his right thumb in December. The Minnesota Vikings, meanwhile, are hoping for a big jump from first-round draft pick Christian Ponder in 2012.
The relatively settled nature of those starters overshadows what could be division-wide change in their backups. The Packers' Matt Flynn, the Lions' Shaun Hill and Drew Stanton, the Bears' Caleb Hanie and the Vikings' Sage Rosenfels are all pending free agents. Let's look at the decisions awaiting each team:
Packers: Flynn could draw interest as a potential starter from several teams, most notably the Miami Dolphins -- who hired former Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin as their head coach last week. The Packers' only chance to keep him would be to use their franchise tag, requiring a commitment of about $14 million in cash and cap space. That's not going to happen. The logical successor is third-string quarterback Graham Harrell, and the Packers might have revealed their intentions by promoting him to the active roster late this season when he began receiving interest from other teams.
Lions: Quarterback depth is valuable, but you wonder if a team with tight salary cap problems can afford to keep two vested veterans behind their franchise quarterback. Hill ($3.02 million) and Stanton ($900,000) accounted for about $4 million in cap spacein 2011, and if the Lions desperately wanted to shave that figure, they could promote Stanton and sign him to a cheaper contract than what Hill was paid last season. But Hill has a longtime association with offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and is generally considered one of the most reliable backups in the NFL. There are no easy answers here.
Bears: Hanie's disastrous stint as Cutler's replacement might have sealed his exit from Chicago. But the Bears will have new offensive leadership with coordinator Mike Tice and a quarterbacks coach/passing coordinator who has yet to be hired, so it's possible the new regime will have other thoughts. The Bears didn't think enough of rookie Nathan Enderle to start him in a meaningless Week 17 season finale, making it hard to imagine his ascendance to No. 2. That could leave veteran Josh McCown, another pending free agent, as an option. Or the Bears could seek help on the free agent market themselves.
Vikings: The situation in Minnesota is less clear-cut. Ponder remains the starter, and 2011 backup Joe Webb is under contract for 2012. Webb was impressive in one start and appearances in 10 other games, accounting for five touchdowns, but the Vikings' continued commitment to Ponder suggests they might look for other ways to use Webb. If he develops into a hybrid receiver/quarterback/returner, it's possible the Vikings would want an established veteran behind Ponder. That could be Rosenfels, a longtime favorite of general manager Rick Spielman, or he could come from elsewhere.