All week we've been taking a look at how the NFC's divisions have been affected by this year's free-agent shuffle. After tackling the East, South and West, the old Black-and-Blue Division, the NFC North is up.
Let's examine the thinking these teams may have going into the 2013 NFL draft.
General manager Phil Emery was one of the more active players in free agency this year. The Bears have made three key pickups so far. None of those acquisitions were bigger than signing LT Jermon Bushrod from New Orleans to try to solve their offensive line woes and help prolong the career of franchise QB Jay Cutler, who was sacked 44 times and knocked down 87 in 2012. Chicago also upgraded at TE with Martellus Bennett and made a great move by keeping DT Henry Melton, who is one of the more underrated defensive linemen in the league.
With the 20th pick in the first round, the Bears could have a few options at inside linebacker. Georgia ILB Alec Ogletree would be the first that comes to mind. From a talent standpoint, this would be a steal for Chicago at 20. In my opinion, Ogletree is one of the most athletically gifted prospects on tape in this class. Similar to Urlacher, Ogletree is a former safety who moves well in space, covers a lot of ground and holds a tremendous amount of versatility. He is a flat-out playmaker in every sense of the word.
Ogletree has his flaws. He needs to continue to get stronger at the point of attack and can do a better job of using his hands when taking on blocks. In addition, he comes with some character baggage that teams must take a hard look at it. Reports are, however, that his football character is strong and on tape he's a potential top-10 talent who could end up being a steal for a team like Chicago in the back half of the first round.
Notre Dame's Manti Te'o is another option at this point. Te'o has taken an absolute beating from the media since a poor national championship performance, the bizzare girlfriend scandal and a subpar combine showing where he clocked a 4.82 40-yard dash. For me, the latter of the three is the most concerning because on tape, Te'o doesn't show great range in coverage. This brings up concerns for Te'o in terms of scheme fit with the Bears, who asked their mike linebacker to do a lot and cover a lot of space. Make no mistake though, Te'o is a quality football player who possesses outstanding instincts and would bring a lot of toughness and leadership to a Bears defense that has hung their hat on those traits for many years.
If the Bears elect to go another route in the first round, they could target prospects like Oregon's Kiko Alonso in the second round or Florida's Jonathan Bostic early on Day 3 as they do not currently hold a third-round pick. Alonso doesn't have ideal instincts and can freelance at times, but he plays the game at a million miles per hour and has a knack for making plays.
Another option for the Bears in the first round could be the offensive line or looking to add a young cornerback.
Should either of two guards -- Alabama's Chance Warmack or North Carolina's Jonathan Cooper -- still be on the board, I believe either would bring strong value at that point. Warmack brings elite power and balance to his game while Cooper possesses upper-echelon athleticism, awareness and brings potential versatility to play center, if need be. Getting a Warmack or Cooper with the addition of Bushrod would instantly upgrade their offensive line and make Cutler a happy man at the same time.
By signing RB Reggie Bush, the Lions did well to give QB Matthew Stafford another toy and a versatile element out of the backfield with their pass-happy offense. In addition, Detroit targeted the defensive side of the ball, particularly in the secondary re-signing DS Louis Delmas, DS Amari Spievey and CB Chris Houston, and adding versatile DS Glover Quin to the mix to try to help the spotty play in 2012.
After losing OT Gosder Cherilus to Indianapolis and with the recent retirement of Jeff Backus, Detroit will need to address the tackle position. If the Lions choose to go this route, they are in great position to get one of three top-tier offensive tackles in this year's class: Texas A&M's Luke Joeckel, Central Michigan's Eric Fisher or Oklahoma's Lane Johnson, who may have the most upside of the group but is the least NFL-ready. All three appear to be pure left tackles, which would force last year's first-round pick Riley Reiff over to right tackle. This could make sense as they need to protect Stafford, who has struggled to stay healthy in recent years. Also don't overlook the fact that the Lions' coaching staff includes up-and-coming OL coach Jeremiah Washburn, who had an in-depth look at the both Fisher and Johnson during the Senior Bowl week.
If the Lions elect to look elsewhere with the fifth pick -- at defensive end or at continuing to add depth in the secondary with CB Dee Milliner out of Alabama -- they could try to target a tackle early in the second round. Prospects like Syracuse's Justin Pugh, Florida State's Menelik Watson and Oregon's Jake Long could be possibilities. Pugh is one of my favorite prospects in this draft, and while he may lack elite length to play outside, he certainly has the feet and plays with the balance to overcome the odds. Let's not forget about the Atlanta Falcons' LT Sam Baker, who, like Pugh, was scrutinized coming out because he was under 6-5 and had short arms (32.75 inches). But he has worked out just fine. Even if Pugh doesn't end up at tackle, the Lions will still get strong value and what I believe is a potential ProBowl-caliber interior lineman.
Watson and Long are in the same mold. Both have extremely high ceilings. They also have the length and athleticism but they have only two years of college football experience and one year against FBS competition. I believe Long is less of a project than Watson at this point. He comes from a great pedigree, plays with a more aggressive demeanor and made clear strides on tape from his first start at left guard against Cal to his final start at right tackle against Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl.
Detroit also has a glaring need at defensive end after losing Cliff Avril to the Seahawks and releasing Kyle Vanden Bosch to clear cap room. The front-runner -- and what would make most sense here -- is BYU DE Ezekiel Ansah. At 6-5 and 270 pounds, Ansah runs like a deer and it doesn't take a super scout to realize he is a freak in terms of athleticism when turning on his tape. He has raw power and his explosiveness also jump out on tape. No question Ansah needs to learn to play with better pad level at times and use his hands better to shed and work through contact. But I was surprised at how instinctive he was at playing the game after only two years and being a starter for just half a season. To me, Ansah has the highest ceiling of any prospect in this class with the capability to become a highly impactful LDE at the next level.
If Ansah is off the board, then defensive ends like Oregon's Dion Jordan or even LSU's Barkevious Mingo could come into play. Jordan is another rare athlete in terms of his length and the fluidity to play in space. He is one of the most versatile defenders in this draft to fit as RDE or potential SLB in the Lions' 4-3 scheme. Not to mention he has a huge upside as a pass-rusher.
If the Lions opt to wait until later to address the defensive end position, don't be surprised to see them jump on Florida State's DE Cornellius "Tank" Carradine in the early second round. The junior college transfer is coming off an ACL injury against Florida. However, reports are his rehab is ahead of schedule and he may be able to work out for teams in April. Carradine has an ideal frame, sets the tone against the run and plays with a nonstop motor. He needs seasoning and coaching as a pass-rusher, but he has all the tools to develop. I believe his value would clearly exceed the medical risk at this point.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
It will be interesting to see how Green Bay attacks the draft. The Packers have plenty of needs and being slotted at the 26th pick, it inevitably comes down to which player on their board falls to them.
If they elect to draft offense in the first round the offensive line, running back, wide receiver and tight end positions all need to be addressed.
Of those, the offensive line holds the most positional value. Up front the Packers allowed 51 sacks, ranking behind only the Cardinals for most in the league. Not to mention they averaged under four yards per rush in 2012. Second-year players LT Marshall Newhouse and Derek Sherrod have not lived up to expectations. Yes, Green Bay has one of the few quarterbacks in Aaron Rodgers who can put a cape on his back, but upgrading this area would do them well.
Where the Packers are drafting, they will not be able to get one of the top thee offensive tackles in Joeckel, Fisher or Johnson. Should a player like OG Cooper drop to them, you would have to believe the Packers would quickly pull the trigger. Also Pugh may make sense here. I've already gushed about him as a player, but I believe he has the type of versatility to play all five positions. Cooper and Pugh have the skill sets to potentially line up at center, which is another area of need with Jeff Saturday retiring and backup Evan Dietrich-Smith being relatively unproven and on the final year of his contract.
Other options at this point could be Alabama OT D.J. Fluker should he be there or Watson, which for me would be a bit of reach that high.
The Packers need to find a feature back and Alabama's Ed Lacy could be in the mix. Lacy has exceptional size, power, above-average agility and runs angry. However, he has had problems staying healthy throughout his career. After dealing with injury issues with RBs James Starks and Alex Green the past few seasons, Thompson may elect to wait until later in the draft to address the position. Options that could handle a heavy workload include Michigan State RB Le'Veon Bell later in Day 2 or grabbing small-school RB Miguel Maysonet out of Stony Brook with one of their two fourth-round picks.
On the perimeter, WRs Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson are as solid as they come while James Jones is coming off a career season. However after losing Greg Jennings to division-rival Minnesota, it wouldn't be a bad idea to continue to provide targets for Rodgers to throw to. Tennessee receivers Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter could be options here. However after watching more tape and gathering more information from scouts, I've become skeptical about spending a first-round pick on either. The Packers may be better off waiting until down the road with such a deep receiver class because Marshall's Aaron Dobson, USC's Robert Woods, Oregon State's Markus Wheaton or West Virginia's Stedman Bailey could be fits.
Don't rule out tight end either as Jermichael Finley has dealt with injuries and has seen his production dip a bit the past few seasons. Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert would make sense here. He can stretch the field and has the body control and hands to cater to Rodgers' type of velocity and accuracy.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Packers need to add size and depth up front, both defending the run and generating pass rush. NT/DT B.J. Raji is signed for one more year with a second-year option, and his play down the stretch may bring up questions in investing a long-term deal on him. Not to mention last year's second-round pick Jerel Worthy suffered a torn ACL late in the year. He needed reconstructive surgery and may not be ready for the start of the 2013 season.
Georgia DT John Jenkins could be an option if still on the board at this point. Jenkins has a bit of a sloppy build but he is a massive run-stopper who eats up space and plays hard on tape. The Packers could also look to the second round where Missouri Southern DT Brandon Williams would bring good value late. Williams quietly had a strong Senior Bowl week, stepping up against higher-level competition. Williams also flashes as a pass-rusher with 27 career sacks.
Green Bay could also look to find help at safety at some point. Last year's fourth-round pick Jerron McMillian showed promise but Morgan Burnett is set to be an unrestricted free agent after next year. The safety class is loaded this year and prospects like South Carolina's D.J. Swearinger, Syracuse's Shamarko Thomas, Georgia's Bacarri Rambo and Fresno State's Phillip Thomas, who has been getting some buzz in scouting circles, could bring strong return in the second- to fourth-round range.
After an ongoing saga, the Vikings finally unloaded Percy Harvin to Seattle but received an extra first-round pick this year. In the wake of Harvin's absence, general manager Rick Spielman signed Jennings while re-signing WR Jerome Simpson for another year. The Vikings also re-signed Phil Loadholt to a four-year deal to secure the edges along the offensive line, while attempting to add interior depth by signing OG Seth Olsen after losing Geoff Schwartz to the Chiefs.
This has left the Vikings with options at picks No. 23 and 25 in the first round. They more than likely will address the defensive side of the ball with at least one of these picks. This could go in the direction of defensive tackle, cornerback or middle linebacker.
The Vikings could infuse some youth in the defensive line. DT Kevin Williams is entering his 11th season and coming off his lowest production in his 10-year career. In addition, the Vikings owe Williams $7 million in the two remaining years on his contract. Reports are they are reworking his contract but nothing has been settled yet.
Defensive coordinator Alan Williams implemented more of a Tampa-2 scheme so the Vikings may trend toward up-the-field disruption from their defensive tackles. Missouri DT Sheldon Richardson has the type of quickness and athleticism to be a perfect fit, but more than likely will be off the board by then. There are better odds that UNC DT Sylvester Williams could still be on the board and he would bring solid return at this point. Scouts I've talked to have differing opinions on Williams. He battled a right ankle injury for part of his senior campaign which hurt is production. However, when watching Williams at 100 percent on tape, he's a disruptive player with quick feet along with heavy and violent hands. You can just look to the Virginia tape in mid-November for evidence.
Another possibility for the Vikings would be to move back into the early second round, acquire future picks and target a player like Purdue DT Kawann Short. While Short's film can run hot and cold at times, he would be a good value in that early Day 2 range.
With the release of veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield, the Vikings could be in the market to continue to add talent in the back end. Last year Minnesota took S Harrison Smith in the first round and CB Josh Robinson in the third. Smith played well and appears to have a bright future; Robinson flashed but also had some typical rookie woes down the stretch.
Washington's Desmond Trufant could be a viable option at this point. Trufant doesn't provide much against the run, but his cover skills are evident on tape. He is fast, has quick feet and loose hips to stick with receivers. In addition he has ample experience in the slot and should be able to come in immediately and handle the nickelback responsibilities.
Cornerback is one of the deeper positions in this draft and Minnesota could still get a quality prospect in Boise State's Jamar Taylor, Southeast Louisiana's Robert Alford, both of whom would be good fits on Day 2. Sam Houston State's Dax Swanson and South Florida's Kayvon Webster are under-the-radar Day 3 prospects.
Finally with defensive coordinator Williams trending toward a heavy dose of Tampa-2 coverages, there is a need to find an athletic mike linebacker to cover ground. This puts Ogletree in play should he drop. I've already talked about Ogletree, and his range and fluidity in space makes him an ideal fit for this type of scheme.
On offense, even with the signing of Jennings, Minnesota must continue to add weapons on the perimeter. Although highly unlikely at this point, if West Virginia's WR Tavon Austin is still on the board at No. 23, Minnesota should be sprinting to the podium. Austin isn't as big as Harvin, but he has proved durable and, make no mistake, Austin can contribute in a similar role. I believe Austin is the biggest weapon in this draft with a dangerous combination of quickness, explosiveness and vision to manufacture a home run at any point.
While Austin's being available would be more wishful thinking, Minnesota could look to California's Keenan Allen as well as Patterson or Hunter. Allen doesn't have the upside of the other two, but he also doesn't have as much risk factor. He is a physical and underrated route-runner who has excellent body control and hands in catching the ball.
Minnesota could also look to Day 2 to address this position where Clemson's DeAndre Hopkins would be an ideal fit. Also Tennessee Tech's Da'Rick Rogers, Arkansas' Cobi Hamilton and TCU's Josh Boyce could be options in the early Day 3 range.
Finally the Vikings could look to address the interior offensive line, particularly at guard. Cooper and Warmack would be excellent picks at this point. If neither is available, then Minnesota could target Kentucky's Larry Warford, Kent State's Brian Winters or Tennessee's Dallas Thomas in the Day 2 range.