Thursday, April 28, 2011

NFL Draft Preview: NFC North

Welcome to part six of our eight-piece preview of the 2011 NFL Draft. Three division still need to be previewed, and this installment will focus on the NFC North, home of the Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers.

Perhaps more than any other division in the NFL last season, the NFC North was incredibly unpredictable. Brett Favre was expected to lead the Vikings to a deep playoff run in his (real) last season in the league, but those plans fell through very quickly as the team started a miserable 3-7. The Lions showed progress and have a young core of talent to build around for the future  The Chicago Bears surprisingly won the division, as Jay Cutler appeared to mature and play smart football. But the story of the year in the NFC North was Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews and the Green Bay Packers, who underachieved for much of the season before finally turning the corner late in the season, and subsequently using that momentum to roll through the playoffs for the franchise's first Super Bowl title since 1996. With last season in mind, where will each team head in this season's draft? Hit the jump to find out.

Chicago Bears
2010 Record: 11-5 (Lost in NFC Championship)
Early Picks: 29th, 62nd, 93rd
Team Needs: Wide Receiver, Offensive Line, Outside Linebacker

The Bears got by last year with a strong defense and an improved Jay Cutler. They won lots of close games (only a 3 point margin of victory average), but the Bears were still an eleven-win team regardless. They beat who they were supposed to beat, and their only bad losses were a 3-point defeat to Seattle (which was later avenged in the postseason anyway) and a close lose to Washington. The team was powered by its 9th ranked defense, which needed to be stellar in order to overcome their 30th-ranked offense's lack of productivity at times.

If there was a wide receiver worth taking with the 29th overall pick, the Bears would grab him in an instant. Unfortunately for Chicago, there is a massive drop-off in talent at that position after A.J. Green and Julio Jones, so it seems like the Bears will be forced to look elsewhere. The Chicago offensive line was not very good last season, so it makes sense for them to try to add a lineman with their first round pick. If Mississippi State tackle Derek Sherrod is still available when it is their turn to pick, look for the Bears to select him without much hesitation. If he's already off the board, UCLA outside linebacker Akeem Ayers would be another option that would fill a need on their already good defense.

Detroit Lions
2010 Record: 6-10 (Missed playoffs)
Early Picks: 13th, 44th, 75th
Team Needs: Guard, Linebacker, Cornerback, Safety

Detroit continues to make strides with a young nucleus of talent that has a chance to turn this long-suffering franchise around. Led by young (but injury-prone) quarterback Matthew Stafford, all-world receiver Calvin Johnson (77 receptions, 1120 yards, 12 TDs), and last year's number two pick, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh (10 sacks, 6 tackles for loss), the Lions have the pieces necessary to become contenders in the future.

Detroit's biggest weakness is it that beyond Suh, the rest of the defense isn't very good. The linebacking corps needs an infusion of talent in order to be up to par, and the secondary is in desperate need of improvement, especially at the cornerback position. Unfortunately for the Lions, the top two corners (LSU's Patrick Peterson and Nebraska's Prince Amukamura) should be off the board by the time the 13th pick rolls around. The team needs any defensive talent it can get, however, so look for the top defensive player available, possible Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers or Wisconsin defensive end J.J. Watt, to be chosen instead.

Green Bay Packers
2010 Record: 10-6  (Super Bowl XLV Champions)
Early Picks: 32nd, 64th, 96th
Team Needs: Guard, Running Back, Outside Linebacker, Defensive End

The Packers head into their title defense with a deep, talented roster without much need for an overhaul. There are no positions that Green Bay is desperate to fill, although they would definitely like to add some depth to the offensive line and linebacker spots. The team is loaded at receiver and with star quarterback Aaron Rodgers (3922 yds, 28 TDs) set to repeat last season's performance, the offense seems set for next season.

With that in mind, look for Green Bay to target the defensive side of the ball with the 32nd pick in an effort to further improve an already good defense. Either an outside linebacker or a defensive end would make sense here. Only one outside linebacker, UCLA's Akeem Ayers, is rated highly enough to warrant being picked here, and there is a good chance he won't be available by the time the Packers pick. On the other hand, the top of the draft is loaded with good defensive ends, so it would not be a surprise at all to see Green Bay take a defensive end such as Ohio State's Cam Heyward.

Minnesota Vikings
2010 Record: 6-10 (Missed playoffs)
Early Picks: 12th, 43rd
Team Needs: Quarterback, Defensive Line, Safety, Center

Simply put, 2010 was a disaster for the Vikings. Brett Favre played terribly in his last season, the defense underperformed, and the team seemed to mail it in halfway through the season before coach Brad Childress was fired. Heading into 2011, with new full-time head coach Leslie Fraser, the Vikings need to rebuild, and this year's draft is the first opportunity to do so. The team still needs to figure out who its quarterback of the future will be, but the defensive line also needs a good deal of work.

The Vikings' strategy with the 12th overall pick comes down to how much they like this year's quarterback class. With Auburn's Cam Newton and Missouri's Blaine Gabbert sure to be off the board by this point, only Jake Locker (Washington), Ryan Mallett (Arkansas), Andy Dalton (TCU), and Christian Ponder (Florida State) would be left. And while none of these players are surefire NFL starting QBs, if Minnesota is enamored with one of them, do not be surprised if they select one of these four. If the Vikings find themselves unsatisfied with the quarterback class in general, a defensive end such as UNC's Robert Quinn or Cal's Cameron Jordan would be a good option.

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