Sixth of an eight-part series
With the NFL draft coming up April 26-28, we examine each team's personnel and identify its top three needs going into the draft, subject to any free-agent signings it may make before then.
Overview: A lack of success in the draft, particularly in the early rounds, is a big part of the reason Jerry Angelo is out of the league and Phil Emery was hired to replace him as general manager in January. The Bears set out this offseason to close what they perceived as a talent gap between themselves and the teams that finished ahead of them in the NFC North last season. The process began with a trade for WR Brandon Marshall, addressing a longtime need for the team, and didn't end there, as the Bears were active in free agency, but Emery made his way up the ranks as an evaluator of college prospects. He describes himself as a believer in building through the draft, and expectations are high for him heading into his first round as the leader of the war room, where he’s in line to have seven picks (one in each round, starting with the 19th overall pick) at his disposal.
Need No. 1: Defensive end
Looking to upgrade their pass rush, the Bears made a strong push to sign DE Jeremy Mincey in free agency, but he decided to re-up with the Jaguars, and the Bears then turned to DE Israel Idonije, who was re-signed to a one-year deal. They are more likely to look at defensive end than defensive tackle for pass-rush help in the draft, but surrounding DE Julius Peppers with a better supporting cast up front — at tackle and end — is needed to put more pressure on quarterbacks.
Need No. 2: Cornerback
They re-signed Tim Jennings, who was benched late last season, to a two-year deal, but Zack Bowman and Corey Graham departed in free agency, and the lack of depth at cornerback has to be addressed. The Bears have not spent high draft picks on corners under Lovie Smith. They have a Pro Bowler at the position in Charles Tillman, but he turned 31 in February. Jennings and nickel back D.J. Moore lack ideal size but can make some big plays. Ideally, the team will bring in a rookie to challenge Jennings for a starting spot.
Need No. 3: Offensive tackle
We had a very limited look at 2011 first-round pick Gabe Carimi, whose season ended after two starts at right tackle when he sustained a knee injury and underwent multiple procedures to repair it. When healthy, he looked like he had the makings of being a good piece on an O-line that struggled to protect QB Jay Cutler for much of the two seasons that Mike Martz ran the "O." Carimi still has much to prove, as does inconsistent OLT J’Marcus Webb, and the Bears should be looking for more talent up front — inside and outside.
Overview: You have to turn back the clock to 1992 to find the last time the Lions were drafting this late in Round One. Detroit, which holds the No. 23 overall pick, has most of its starting spots locked up, as a vast majority of players from last year’s wild-card entrant are slated to return. The pass defense, which fell apart late in the season, is the most pressing concern for Jim Schwartz’s club. The Lions' depth, while exceptional along the defensive line and solid overall, figures to be bolstered with a few members of this draft class, too. Overall, Detroit has seven picks, having forfeited a sixth-round pick as part of a penalty for tampering with a Chiefs player in February 2010 and having picked up a seventh-round pick from Seattle in the 2010 trade of OT Tyler Polumbus.
Need No. 1: Cornerback
The secondary was a concern even before CB Eric Wright signed with Tampa Bay. The Lions are set at one of the CB spots, as Chris Houston is a solid starter. But uncertainty reigns at the other spot. Aaron Berry, ex-Colt Jacob Lacey and Alphonso Smith are among the veteran options to replace Wright. However, this is a position where a rookie could come in and challenge for playing time right off the bat.
Need No. 2: Offensive tackle
The Lions have their starters for 2012 in the fold, with stalwart Jeff Backus on the left side and 2008 first-rounder Gosder Cherilus manning the right side. However, Backus is coming off a torn biceps and turns 35 years old in September. Also. Cherilus is entering the final year of his contract. A young tackle, one capable of backing up on both sides and potentially having the ability to play some guard, too, would be a nice addition to the depth chart.
Need No. 3: Running back
The Lions are a pass-first offense, but more RB depth would not be a bad idea with Jahvid Best (concussion) and Mikel Leshoure (Achilles) coming off injury-shortened seasons. Best and Leshoure figure to be the top two backs if healthy, and veteran Kevin Smith also stands a chance to be a contributor after a productive stint in 2011. The Lions don’t necessarily need to add a back early, what with other needs more pressing, but the more capable ballcarriers in Detroit, the better, considering last year’s injury woes.
Green Bay Packers
Overview: Packers GM Ted Thompson, no doubt, had an extra bounce in his step at the March NFL owners meetings after receiving four compensatory draft picks, the maximum number allowed in any given year. Green Bay was awarded two additional fourth-round picks (Nos. 132 and 133 overall) and two additional seventh-round picks. Also possessing an extra seventh-rounder from the Jets, Thompson now has 12 total picks and is in a good position to perhaps move up in the first round, which he did with such great success in 2009, when he jumped up to select star OLB Clay Matthews.
Need No. 1: Defensive end
The biggest need, by far, is another pass rusher or two who, besides Matthews, can provide consistent outside pressure. Without DRE Cullen Jenkins, a quality pass rusher who signed with the Eagles, the Packers tied for 27th in sacks in 2011 (after ranking second in 2010) and managed only six sacks in the last seven games, including the playoffs. The team hoped second-year pro Mike Neal would replace Jenkins, but Neal has been an injury-prone disappointment who will be suspended the first four games of 2012 after violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances.
Need No. 2: Free safety
With the future of Nick Collins remaining very uncertain, the Packers really could use help at free safety. After Collins was lost last year with a scary season-ending neck injury in Week Two, the communication in the secondary left a lot to be desired, as the Packers went on to surrender the most passing yards in franchise history (299.8 yards per game). Morgan Burnett switched over from strong safety to replace Collins, but Burnett is much better suited for the strong side. Charlie Peprah, who took over for Burnett as strong safety, is better as a reserve.
Need No. 3: Center
It would appear the Packers will get by at the center position well enough for the short term with ex-Colt Jeff Saturday replacing Scott Wells, a free agent who signed with the Rams. But Saturday turns 37 in June, and it behooves the Packers to draft a potential long-term replacement. It’s conceivable Evan Dietrich-Smith, who is entering his third NFL season, eventually could fill the bill, but he projects more as a guard than a center.
Overview: The Vikings appear to be in the draft’s pole position, so to speak, with picks one and two all but signed, sealed and delivered. We know Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III will be first and second, so now that leaves the Vikings at No. 3. They have several needs to fill and easily could stay there and choose a talented player. But league sources have indicated that the Vikings might be very interested in moving down and collecting more picks. With the continued buzz of a few players, the market could develop. The team has two compensatory picks in Round Four, and after all is said and done, it once more could land another big class, a year after drafting 12 players and seeing most of them contribute in some form as rookies.
Need No. 1: Offensive left tackle
The OLT spot is the biggest single need. This is a power run team that was badly overmatched with underpowered Charlie Johnson manning the position a year ago. And protecting QB Christian Ponder has to be the priority. There is no single player on the roster who can fill this void with any sense of comfort right now, and the coaches know it. Turning back to Johnson, except for in an injury situation, just isn’t a realistic option, as hard as he competed last season. He’ll be best as a guard or swing tackle. Even money says the Vikings will come out of this draft with their starter at left tackle — whether it’s with the third pick or perhaps a bit lower on if they can make a trade.
Need No. 2: Wide receiver
We’ll give the slight edge to receiver as, like the left tackle theory, you have to protect your investment in Ponder and give him as much help as you possibly can. Percy Harvin can do his thing in the slot if he’s healthy, and the team appears to have a good thing going at tight end with Kyle Rudolph and John Carlson. But outside of that, who is Ponder throwing to? Michael Jenkins is solid and wholly unspectacular. Devin Aromashodu is talented but highly unreliable. What they need is an outside-the-numbers burner at split end who can tilt the field, take the eighth man out of the box and give Ponder a home-run hitter.
Need No. 3: Cornerback
Cornerback is less of an individual need in the sense that the team’s cover-2 scheme, the theory goes, can cover up some talent deficiencies. Only problem: That didn’t work out so well last season. Antoine Winfield is great, but he turns 35 in June and is coming off an injury. Cedric Griffin is gone, and though Chris Cook has excellent potential and has been cleared of any legal wrongdoings, he still can’t be considered the most accountable player on the roster. More is needed — the team seeks tough, physical zone corners who can reroute receivers and play disciplined in space. However, if the chance to draft an elite talent came up — say, LSU’s Morris Claiborne — the temptation might be too great to pass up.