With the offseason in full swing, let's take a look at one major question facing each NFC North team as it begins preparations for the 2011 season:
Yes, quarterback Jay Cutler didn't exactly finish the 2010 postseason on a strong note. It's been well-documented that the Bears need to upgrade their personnel along the offensive line. But here's another question to consider: How much longer can the Bears rely on their aging defensive stars?
The Bears' best defensive players will all be at least 30 years old when training camp begins. Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher turns 33 in May. Defensive end Julius Peppers turned 31 last month. Linebacker Lance Briggs will be 31 in November, and cornerback Charles Tillman turns 30 next week.
There were no indications last season that any of those players are slowing down, but time stops for no one. More importantly, the Bears don't have promising young players at any of their positions. (The one exception might be nickelback D.J. Moore, who might one day be ready to replace Tillman as a No. 1 cornerback.)
It's true that not many teams have an elite pass-rusher or No. 1 cornerback waiting in the wings, but this offseason wouldn't be a terrible time to start addressing at least one or two of these future problem spots. The Bears won the NFC North last season primarily on the strength of a resurgent defense, and you would think the Urlacher-Briggs-Peppers-Tillman core represents their best chance for a repeat performance in 2011. But the Bears will need to start addressing those positions if they hope to have a productive transition to the next generation of their defense.
Are the Lions cooked if Matthew Stafford can't stay healthy?
Consider this question a variation of the central theme of the Lions' offseason: Getting Stafford back into the saddle as their starting quarterback. There is every indication that he will recover from shoulder surgery in time for the 2011 season, whether or not it begins on schedule in September. What's impossible to know at this point is whether Stafford can make it through a full season after missing 19 of his first 32 NFL games because of injury.
But is this an either/or proposition? To take the next step toward being a playoff contender, do the Lions need Stafford? Or, can they continue to fortify their team to the point where they can cover for whatever drop-off there is between Stafford and backups Shaun Hill or Drew Stanton?
While it would be a setback for the franchise if Stafford can't stay on the field, it doesn't have to be a lethal blow. Remember, the Lions scored an average of 22.6 points per game last season with Stafford playing only one full game. Hill and Stanton proved more than adequate as backups. If the Lions can plug a few more defensive holes this offseason, their success might not be anchored to the health of their franchise quarterback. Just a thought.
Where will quarterback Aaron Rodgers find new motivation?
Before the 2010 postseason, Rodgers' career had been defined by closed doors. He drew motivation from the slights -- both real and perceived -- he absorbed from college recruiters, NFL draftniks, fans loyal to predecessor Brett Favre and media members who questioned his playoff acumen.
But after compiling a 109.8 passer rating in the Packers' playoff push, Rodgers is rightfully recognized among the top quarterbacks in the game. He was the Super Bowl XLV MVP and one of four quarterbacks in history to throw for at least 300 yards and three touchdowns, without throwing an interception, in a championship game.
"I guess I ran out of motivation, huh?" Rodgers said Feb. 7. "You know what, I'm always looking for challenges. I think the challenge now goes to repeating, scrutinizing this season, finding ways to get better. Obviously, being a perfectionist and having a quarterback coach who is as well, there's going to be plenty of time to work on things and plenty of things to work on."
As we discussed in Tuesday's SportsNation chat, there is at least one carrot remaining if Rodgers is looking for something new to chase: Becoming one of the best quarterbacks of all time.
It's well-known that the Vikings need to find a long-term answer at quarterback. But a parallel question of near-equal significance hasn't received enough attention on this blog. What kind of offense will that new quarterback be expected to run?
The Vikings spent the past five seasons in a run-based version of the West Coast scheme. They drafted and made free-agent acquisitions based on skill sets that excel in similar offenses. New coach Leslie Frazier hired Bill Musgrave to replace offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, however, and has charged him with developing a scheme that best fits the Vikings' roster.
"It will definitely be the Minnesota Vikings system," Musgrave told reporters last month.
Given their current personnel, it would make sense to incorporate elements of the West Coast scheme. And in reality, it's counterproductive to organize any offense based purely on arbitrary tenets. But every good offense has a personality and style, and those designations remain open-ended for the Vikings.
Will Musgrave build around tailback Adrian Peterson, minimizing a talented group of pass-catchers that includes Sidney Rice, Percy Harvin and Visanthe Shiancoe? Will he incorporate some of the aerial creativity of Mike Mularkey, whom he worked under with the Atlanta Falcons? What will he use as his base set? Two receivers? Three receivers? Two tight ends? On all counts, stay tuned.