NFC North Notes: Draft Strategies

The Sports Xchange discusses Detroit's need for a quality backup running back, whether Ryan Grant is in Green Bay's long-term plans and Minnesota's need to shore up its cornerback position.

Detroit Lions

There is no doubt about who the featured back is in the Lions' offense. That would be second-year player Jahvid Best, whom they traded up to draft with the 30th pick in 2010.

The question remains, though, is Best durable enough to handle the load?

He battled his way through 15 games last season - amassing 555 yards rushing and 507 receiving with six touchdowns - but he was fully healthy for just two games. In those two, the first two weeks of the season, he racked up 268 yards and five touchdowns.

The rest of the way, though, he was plagued by unrelenting turf toe injuries on both feet.

RB Jahvid Best
Joe Robbins/Getty

"It says something about him that he had that injury and continued to battle through," coach Jim Schwartz said. "A lot of guys would miss a month or more with that. It says a lot that he was willing to go out and battle through. He wasn't as good as he could be but he still contributed to the team."

The Lions made their commitment to him clear in the offseason by releasing veteran Kevin Smith, who battled knee and thumb injuries the last two seasons.

"Those are tough decisions," general manager Martin Mayhew said. "Kevin is a guy I really like, his competitiveness and his preparedness. But at the end of the day, you have to make these tough calls. I felt it was time to focus on other guys. It was time to move on."

That leaves Best and veteran Maurice Morris, with fullback Jerome Felton.

Aaron Brown, a speedster out of Texas Christian, has been largely unproductive in his two seasons and doesn't figure to be the in team's plans moving forward.

Thus, it is a good bet the Lions will be targeting a running back, and most likely it will be a back with some size and power to complement Best.

Thus far, the Lions have reached out to three running back prospects - Illinois' Mikel Leshoure, Oklahoma's DeMarco Murray and Hawaii's Alex Green.

Leshoure is probably out of reach for the Lions unless they trade down from their 13th pick. He is likely to go late first round or early second round. But he might be the prototype for what the Lions are looking for. He's big (6-0, 230) and thick and versatile. He has played out of multiple formations at Illinois where he displayed elusiveness and power.

Murray is very similar. He's 6-1, 207 and he also can make tacklers miss or run them over.

Green (6-0, 225) is a bit more raw, but he displayed a powerful burst at the combine. His 10-yard split in a 4.45 40-yard dash was 1.53.

Here are a few other backs the Lions might consider: Owen Marecic, fullback, 6-1, 244 from Stanford; Mario Fannin, 5-10, 231, Auburn; Da'Rel Scott, 5-11, 211, Maryland; and Roy Helu, 6-0, 219, Nebraska.

Green Bay Packers

Paper champion. It's a term Mike McCarthy has been fond of saying the last couple years but an expression for which the Packers' head coach has no fondness.

"History tells you over and over again, you start building your team and you focus on what it looks like on a piece of paper, that's a big mistake in my view," McCarthy said earlier this spring at the NFL league meetings in New Orleans.

While that was McCarthy's reaction to how Green Bay's name is scribbled on all sorts of paper as a good bet to repeat as league champion next season, those also are words to strongly consider when taking the Packers' approach to this year's draft at face value.

RB Ryan Grant
Christian Petersen/Getty

Running back is a position that, on paper, doesn't jump out as one of the team's few glaring needs. After all, Ryan Grant and James Starks give Green Bay potentially a dynamic 1-2 punch in the backfield.

However, there's no telling what kind of player Grant will be after he missed all but one game last season because of an ankle injury and whether Starks is the real deal following his breakout performance in the playoffs as a rookie. Plus, free agent-to-be Brandon Jackson could bolt.

What it all means is fans who may be clamoring for a pass-rushing stud to play opposite Clay Matthews or a blue-chip offensive tackle to pair with 2010 first-round choice Bryan Bulaga shouldn't be surprised if general manager Ted Thompson makes running back as much of a priority early in the draft.

There's too many "ifs" on the table for the Packers to feel secure and content going forward with their situation at the position.

Grant is fully healed from the surgically repaired torn ligament in his right ankle, an injury he sustained in the second quarter of the season-opening win at Philadelphia on Sept. 12. Yet, for all the optimism Grant has for being able to get on the field once the lockout is over, it's questionable whether he will regain his 1,200-yard form of 2008 and '09 as he inches closer to his 29th birthday in December.

"I'm excited, but also I'm not trying to rush things," Grant recently said in an appearance in Milwaukee.

The Packers were forced to wait on Starks in his abbreviated debut season. The sixth-round draft pick out of Buffalo was stymied throughout the offseason and training camp because of a hamstring injury, spent the first half of the season on the physically unable to perform list and didn't play until early December.

Fortunately for Green Bay, a fresh-legged Starks played a major factor in its late run to sneak into the playoffs as the NFC's No. 6 seed and win Super Bowl XLV. Starks' league-best output of 315 rushing yards in the postseason started with an eye-opening performance of 23 carries for 123 yards in the wild-card knockout of the Eagles in Philadelphia.

"What is exciting about him is his best football is in front of him," McCarthy said. "He has all the tools, the work ethic, the intelligence, the instincts to be an every-down player, and everything is in front of him."

Of course, that's high praise that looks good on paper. Starks has played all of seven games the last two years - he missed his final college season because of a shoulder injury - and one breakout performance doesn't always foreshadow greatness.

Grant and Starks will make for an interesting preseason battle, provided there is a preseason, and could be relegated to a time-share arrangement in an offense that prioritizes the pass anyhow with Aaron Rodgers at the controls.

Yet, with Jackson likely out the door, the Packers are left with a critical void to fill. Jackson, the team's second-round draft pick in 2007, never distinguished himself as every-down back material, but he was invaluable with his third-down blocking and pass-catching skills.

Neither Grant nor Starks seems cut out for that role should McCarthy decide to make only one his featured back.

Consequently, if the Packers aren't so lucky to have 2009 Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram of Alabama fall to them at No. 32 to end the first round, look for Thompson to give consideration in rounds two and three to the likes of Kansas State's Daniel Thomas, Cal's Shane Vereen and Hawaii's Alex Green if available.

If Thompson and McCarthy can get past Vereen's diminutive size (5-10) and proclivity for fumbles, his upside as a versatile contributor in a spread attack and being a dynamic kick returner to boot could be too good to pass on.

Minnesota Vikings

The Vikings selected Chris Cook with their first pick in the second round of last year's draft, but that doesn't mean cornerback won't be a priority again this year.

Starting left cornerback Antoine Winfield will turn 34 years old in June. Starting right cornerback Cedric Griffin has torn the anterior cruciate ligament in both knees in the past two seasons and Cook underwent surgery on both knees last season after suffering a torn meniscus in each.

The Vikings traded away Benny Sapp for wide receiver Greg Camarillo just before last season but quickly learned there was no such thing as too much depth at cornerback when Cook and then Griffin got hurt.

CB Asher Allen
Joe Robbins/Getty

Asher Allen, a third-round pick in 2009, struggled at times when used in a regular role and veterans Lito Sheppard and Frank Walker also saw time. Sheppard will be a free agent after a new collective bargaining agreement is in place and isn't expected to return.

Walker was signed as a free agent off the street after Griffin was injured four games into the season.

Louisiana State's Patrick Peterson will be long gone by the time the Vikings pick 12th in the first round, but there is a chance Minnesota could have a decision to make on Nebraska cornerback Prince Amukamara.

Amukamara is projected as a top-15 pick and was a finalist for the Thorpe award in 2010 after he started 14 games at left cornerback for the Cornhuskers. Amukamara, who is 6-0, 201 pounds, finished his collegiate career with five interceptions in 49 games, but all came during the 2009 season.

The Vikings could look to take a cornerback later in the draft given their multitude of needs (quarterback, offensive line, wide receiver, defensive line, etc.). Minnesota has only one pick in the first three rounds before having seven in the last four rounds, including two in the fifth, two in the sixth and two in the seventh.

Miami's Brandon Harris and Texas' Aaron Williams are projected as first- or second-round picks. Potential second- and third-round picks include Louisville's Johnny Patrick; Virginia's Ras-I Dowling; Texas' Curtis Brown; and Colorado's Jimmy Smith.

Williams is an interesting case because he's projected by some to move to safety and that's another spot at which the Vikings need help.

The Vikings are hoping Griffin and Cook can rebound from their knee issues, but a draft pick could fit into the equation as the eventual starting left cornerback.

Winfield is being used as a nickel cornerback and considering he isn't getting any younger he eventually will need to be replaced.

Of course, if Griffin can't return to form after the two knee surgeries there also is chance there might be an opening for playing time at right cornerback.

There is speculation the Vikings could trade back in the opening round to try to grab a quarterback such as Jake Locker or Christian Ponder and also recoup their third-round pick in making that move. It's possible the Vikings could turn that move into a cornerback.

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