NFC North Notes: Filling Roster Holes

The Sports Xchange looks at Detroit's offensive line issues, Green Bay's options in replacing free agent wide receiver James Jones and how Minnesota can shore up its tight end position in the draft.

Detroit Lions

For the first time in nearly a decade, the Lions last season played the same offensive system with the same coordinator and the same offensive linemen for consecutive seasons. They are hoping to make it three straight seasons in 2011.

So why the need to draft an offensive lineman?

Left tackle Jeff Backus, though he is coming off one of his best seasons and has started 160 straight games, will be 34 and in the final year of his contract. Right tackle Gosder Cherilus is coming off microfracture knee surgery. In fact, Cherilus has had knee surgery the last two offseasons.

"How far (Cherilus) goes in the future is going to depend a little bit on each of those (surgeries), but we all feel a lot better about where he is as a player now," coach Jim Schwartz said. "He made a really big step last season."

Cherilus won the starting right tackle spot in training camp last year, after missing all of the offseason work, and played consistently until sustaining another knee injury late in the season.

T Gosder Cherilus
Scott Boehm/Getty

"The biggest key is how well he can deal with the knee injuries, whether he can put it behind him or whether it is something that's going to be a constant problem," Schwartz said. "A lot of players deal with injuries and this might be something he's going to have to play with. That doesn't mean he can't do the job."

Backing up the tackles are fifth-year Corey Hilliard, who could be a free agent, and developmental second-year tackle Jason Fox. Fox got into the final game of the season, but struggled all season with a knee injury.

The Lions also have some depth issues in the middle. Center Dominic Raiola will be 33 and guard Stephen Peterman played through a nagging foot injury all season. Veteran Dylan Gandy was the only backup to those two positions last season.

That, plus the fact that the draft is loaded with talented linemen (as many as five could be taken in the first round), could lead the Lions to taking one with the 13th overall pick.

General manager Martin Mayhew, though, wanted it known that just because they may draft an offensive lineman, doesn't mean he thinks the pass protection was weak last season.

"How many sacks did we give up last year?" he asked. "We gave up 27, which was tied for sixth in the league. I feel like (offensive coordinator) Scott Linehan, (offensive line coach) George Yarno and the offensive line did an outstanding job. I also believe that until you are No. 1 you can always strive to improve."

Mayhew said he was tired of reading reports about the Lions having trouble protecting their quarterbacks.

"Maybe I am reading too much into it, but it's like it's a negative about our team and I don't see it as a negative," he said.

That said, all three quarterbacks were injured at various points last season.

Because of the depth of linemen in this draft, the Lions could conceivably wait until the third round and still get a quality player. If they chose to use their 13th pick, they would most likely choose from a group including Southern Cal's Tyron Smith (who is projected to go before 13 on most mock drafts), Boston College's Anthony Castonzo or Wisconsin's Gabe Carimi.

If they wait until the second or third rounds, they could pick from a group that includes Villanova's Benjamin Ijalana, Colorado's Nate Solder, Mississippi State's Derek Sherrod, Florida's Marcus Gilbert and Virginia Union's David Mims.

Most likely, they would take a tackle over a guard or a center, but they have spent some time with Florida center Mike Pouncey.

Green Bay Packers

Team president Mark Murphy has plans to host a season-opening football game at Lambeau Field on the Thursday night of Sept. 8, as he recently wrote in a form letter to Packers season-ticket holders.

Murphy's eternal optimism amid the ongoing lockout about the 2011 NFL schedule starting without a hitch notwithstanding, there's a good chance one of Green Bay's receivers will be stamping "return to sender" on a different missive from the club.

James Jones would like nothing more than a starting opportunity, and he acknowledged earlier in the offseason that he would have to look elsewhere for that since Greg Jennings and Donald Driver are entrenched at the top of the depth chart.

WR James Jones
Scott Boehm/Getty

"I don't know if that will ever happen here with Donald playing until he's 40," said Jones, whose rookie contract expired after last season.

That is indeed the golden age to which Driver, who turned 36 just days before the Packers' Super Bowl XLV victory Feb. 6, aspires to play. Yet, the team's fringe No. 2 wideout is descending in the twilight of his record-setting, 12-year career as he produced his worst numbers in nine years - 51 catches for 565 yards and four touchdowns - and ended his injury-laden season watching the second half of the Super Bowl on the sideline after suffering a high ankle sprain.

The talented Jones would be a worthy successor to pair with emerging star Jennings. Jones, however, doesn't seem inclined to wait out Driver for the day he's relegated to spot duty and figures to have suitors' clamoring for him once the labor dispute ends and free agency begins.

The Packers delivered a one-year tender to Jones before the lockout on the chance the four-year veteran would be a restricted free agent, per the 2010 CBA parameters. Such a gesture, rather than reward Jones with a long-term deal following his career-best season (50 catches, 679 yards, five touchdowns), speaks to reservations the team has with its former third-round draft pick.

Jones' big-play abilities often were mitigated by a penchant for key drops. He had 10 last season, including potentially damaging would-be touchdowns in postseason games against Philadelphia (wild-card round) and Pittsburgh (Super Bowl) that Green Bay held on to win.

Quarterback Aaron Rodgers seemingly grew tired of Jones' yo-yo performances. Although he never called out Jones, Rodgers indirectly levied some criticism when he spoke of Jordy Nelson's breakout effort of nine receptions for 140 yards in the Super Bowl.

"Jordy is a consistent contributor for us," Rodgers said.

Even with Jennings, Driver and a budding Nelson back in the fold for next season, along with playmaking tight end Jermichael Finley after he missed most of the 2010 campaign because of a knee injury, look for Green Bay to target a receiver early in the draft.

The Packers, as they sit at the end of Round 1 with the No. 32 pick, won't be in the running for top-10 wideouts A.J. Green of Georgia and Julio Jones of Alabama.

There's a dropoff to the next tier of receivers, but Green Bay could get good value if it were to trade out of the first round and position itself higher in Round 2 - as it did in 2008 with Nelson - to take Maryland's Torrey Smith, Miami's Leonard Hankerson, Kentucky's Randall Cobb or Troy's Jerrel Jernigan.

Smith, Cobb and Jernigan have the dynamic versatility as speedy receivers and kick returners that would be endearing to head coach Mike McCarthy. He wants to bolster the team's ineffective return game by having a player who would have to contribute at another position.

Minnesota Vikings

Rick Spielman recently said the Vikings have five potential positions that they could fill in the first round of this month's draft, although the team's vice president of player personnel wasn't willing to provide any further details.

It's no secret that quarterback is at the top of that list with defensive end, cornerback and offensive line also areas of need.

Although the position hasn't been included very much in the discussion, tight end is another area the Vikings are likely to address at some point in the three-day draft. Coach Leslie Frazier even mentioned the spot at the NFL league meetings last month in New Orleans.

This would be the second year in a row the Vikings would select a tight end.

TE Visanthe Shiancoe
Scott Boehm/Getty

Last year, they took Penn State's Mickey Shuler with the first of two seventh-round picks. The team liked Shuler's potential and was very disappointed when he was lost on waivers to the Miami Dolphins after the Vikings decided to keep veteran Jeff Dugan on the 53-man roster.

One issue is the Vikings feel they are getting long in the tooth at tight end.

As far as the current group, Visanthe Shiancoe will turn 31 in June and is due to become a free agent after the 2011 season. Jim Kleinsasser is 34 and Dugan will turn 30 this month and it's not entirely certain he will again be part of the final roster coming out of training camp -- assuming there is a training camp.

Notre Dame's Kyle Rudolph is the top-rated tight end in the draft and is projected to be a first-round pick. The Vikings likely wouldn't go the tight-end route until the third day of the draft on April 30 when rounds four through seven will be conducted.

The Vikings did bring in Tulsa fullback/H-back Charles Clay for their top-30 dinner this week at Winter Park and it's possible the franchise could choose to go in that direction to help build some young depth with a player who could do some work at tight end and in the backfield.

Shiancoe is clearly the Vikings' top tight end and it's expected his numbers in new offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave's offense will improve from last season when he caught 47 passes for 530 yards and two touchdowns. Shiancoe's receptions placed him second on the team to Percy Harvin's 71. The main dropoff for Shiancoe was in touchdown catches. He had a team-leading 11 scoring catches in 2009.

The Vikings clearly would like to get Shiancoe signed to an extension after a new Collective Bargaining Agreement is completed, but they also must prepare for his potential departure.

Kleinsasser and Dugan are known more for their blocking, with Kleinsasser being among the NFL's best at that job. His contract expires after the 2011 season as well and this will be his 13th season.

In addition to Clay, potential targets could include Tennessee's Luke Stocker, Nevada's Virgil Green, Arkansas' D.J. Williams and Florida Atlantic's Julius Thomas.

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