NFC North News

With the start of the draft less than 72 hours away it's time to examine the needs of the rest of the division.

Despite four strong moves in free agency - signing guard Damien Woody, cornerback Fernando Bryant, wide receiver Tai Streets and safety Brock Marion - the Lions probably have more holes than they can adequately fill in the draft.

But they should be able to made serious inroads into getting back to respectability and laying a foundation to compete in the NFC North by 2005.

Coach Steve Mariucci and president Matt Millen don't necessarily look at it that way. Mariucci already is on record saying the Lions can compete this year if they get a few well-placed additions in the draft.

That might be asking a lot, however, of a team coming off consecutive seasons of 2-14 in 2001, 3-13 in 2002 and 5-11 last year.

Last week, for instance, Millen was still working at filling glaring holes at right guard and weakside linebacker.

The latest guard candidate was Larry Allen, the 10-year Dallas guard who is being shopped by Cowboys coach Bill Parcells, presumably for a trade before the start of the draft.

The linebacker position - vacant after the loss of Barrett Green to the New York Giants - would be available to free agents Ian Gold of Denver or Warrick Holdman of Chicago if either is willing to play for what the Lions are willing to offer.

If the Lions can get those two jobs filled before the draft, they might actually come close to competing in the NFC North, as Mariucci has suggested.

DRAFT STRATEGY — If they stay at No. 6 in the first round, they are almost certain to get one of several top players - tight end Kellen Winslow, wide receiver Roy Williams or safety Sean Taylor. But team president Matt Millen might prefer to pass on the high-impact player at No. 6 for a chance to acquire additional picks later in the first and second rounds. Because of the depth of the draft at wide receiver and the likely availability of a solid running back in the late first or early second, the deal might actually make sense for the Lions. One problem: There always seem to be more teams willing to trade down for additional draft picks than teams eager to trade up and part with their extra draft picks.

TEAM NEEDS going into the draft — Wide receiver, running back, tight end, safety, outside linebacker.
WR — The Lions drafted Charles Rogers with the No. 2 pick a year ago and if they could land another top receiver this year, they'd have a matched set that quarterback Joey Harrington could work with. Even if they don't land Larry Fitzgerald or Roy Williams with the No. 6 pick overall, they could take a quality receiver later in the first or even in the second. Michael Clayton, Lee Evans or Reggie Williams could upgrade the Lions receiving corps.

RB — The Lions had the NFL's least productive running game last season, averaging less than 84 yards per game, and - going into the draft — have done nothing to improve it. They are counting on improved production from Artose Pinner and Shawn Bryson, two backs who were limited last year as they came off serious injuries and surgery, but Millen and Mariucci would like to add another tailback in the draft. They like both Steven Jackson and Kevin Jones but probably would not take them at No. 6, which means that - barring a trade - they will probably look for a back in the second round and hope a player like Michigan's Chris Perry will be available.

TE — By the end of the 2003 season, the Lions were starting an undrafted rookie - Casey FitzSimmons - ahead of Mikhael Ricks and two late-round draft picks from 2002, John Owens and Matt Murphy. FitzSimmons caught the ball well and Ricks eventually made some plays when pressed into duty after the team's receiving corps was decimated by injuries. But the Lions don't have a full-service tight end capable of making the tough catch over the middle, stretching the field or inline blocking. That's why they would like to have Kellen Winslow Jr. available when they draft.

S — The addition of free safety Brock Marion and cornerback Fernando Bryant alleviates some of the immediate pressure in the defensive secondary, but the Lions still need to upgrade the safety position. Brian Walker, expected to start at strong safety, has not played up to expectations the past two years, Marion is 34 years old and Terrence Holt still has much to learn about the NFL game in spite of a promising rookie season. Sean Taylor might not be as glamorous a selection as Winslow but he might be just as good a player in two years.

OLB — If the Lions land a weak-side linebacker in free agency before they get to the draft table, the pressure comes off. If not, they'll be looking for an outside backer - possibly late in the first day of drafting - probably to compete with last year's fifth-round pick James Davis for the starting job.

The focus seems to be on tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. as the player most likely to be drafted by the Lions if he is there when they exercise the No. 6 pick in the draft on Saturday.

They still like Miami (Fla.) safety Sean Taylor and would happily settle for either of the two top receivers - Larry Fitzgerald or Roy Williams - but Winslow's potential seems to be overshadowing the other players who are expected to be on the board when the Lions draft.

Winslow was one of the final visitors among the top draft candidates to visit the Lions training facility in Allen Park. They like everything about him and have no problem with his choice of Carl and Kevin Poston as the agents to represent him.

Although some teams reportedly have shied away from drafting players represented by the Postons, the Lions were able to work out a deal last year for first-round pick Charles Rogers and feel they would have no major problem if they draft Winslow.

— The Packers are looking at a first-round selection in the 20s for the third straight year. If they fare as well as they have the last two years it will be just fine with them.

Two years ago, they gave up a second-round pick to move from 28th to 20th in the first round and select wide receiver Javon Walker. After a shaky rookie season Walker's career took off as a deep ball threat in 2003.

Last year, they stayed at 29 and took Nick Barnett, who played quite well as their starting middle linebacker.

Now the Packers are at 25, a pick that has been more bad than good for NFL teams in the last quarter century.

Nine of the last 25 picks in that position have been unadulterated busts. The list includes running back Vegas Ferguson in 1980, cornerback Rod Hill in 1982, linebacker Billy Cannon Jr. in 1984, linebacker Emmanuel King in 1985, running back Terrence Flagler in 1987, running back Dexter Carter in 1990, running back Greg Hill in 1994, tackle Billy Milner in 1995 and defensive end Jon Harris in 1997.

Some other players clearly didn't meet expectations but at least contributed. The list includes safety Rick Sanford in 1979, cornerback Rod Jones in 1986, quarterback Tommy Maddox in 1992 and safety Antuan Edwards in 1999.

Two recent choices at 25, wide receiver Freddie Mitchell in 2001 and defensive tackle William Joseph in 2003, haven't done much of anything yet, especially Joseph.

Of the 25, just two made the Pro Bowl. Nose tackle Ted Washington (1991) has been to three and guard Jermane Mayberry (1996) has been to one.

The Packers returned all 11 starters from one of the league's best offenses a year ago. The re-signing of tackle Chad Clifton made that possible.

Now the charge for coach Mike Sherman will be to build up a defense that too often let him down. The Packers also tried that approach last year, using their first four choices for defense, but wound up with only Barnett contributing.

"We've got enough talent on offense," vice president of football operations Mark Hatley said. "Hopefully, we'll be able to add defensively."

Sherman has been a wheeler-dealer on draft day and the Packers won't by shy again. Last year, he traded up for defensive tackle Kenny Peterson in the third round, nose tackle James Lee in the fifth, linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer in the fifth and cornerback Chris Johnson in the sixth.

Time will tell, however, if he simply traded up for the wrong players.

The Packers remember the drafts engineered by Ron Wolf in 1995 and again in 2000 that produced five starters apiece. A great draft is what they could really use to put them over the top.

"You just have to have those every now and then," said Hatley, who engineered drafts in Chicago that produced five starters in 1999 and four in 2000. "You're not going to have one every year because your football team gets too good, but where we are right now with our football team, we need that."

TEAM NEEDS going into the draft — Cornerback, quarterback, defensive end, defensive tackle, safety.
CB — The Packers needed help even before Mike McKenzie's request to be traded was made last week. McKenzie is a solid starter but Al Harris is right on the edge so far as having enough speed to start and Bhawoh Jue doesn't inspire much confidence as a No. 3. The Packers have some other bodies (Chris Johnson, Michael Hawthorne, Derek Combs) but nothing is proven.

QB — If the Packers can complete a trade for Tim Couch they'll be out of the quarterback market. If not, they would be back to having Doug Pederson and Craig Nall behind Brett Favre. The club simply doesn't know how many more years Favre will play. What they do know is that they need to get busy before too much longer finding his successor.

DE — Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila played 87 percent of the snaps in 2003, too much for someone with his lithe body type. The other starter, Aaron Kampman, is a hard worker but won't wow anyone with his talent. Joe Johnson and Jamal Reynolds are expected to be cap casualties after June 1. The only backup of merit is Chukie Nwokorie.

DT — The starters are set with Cletidus Hunt as the three technique and Grady Jackson on the nose. The backups are in flux after the release of nose tackles Gilbert Brown and Rod Walker. Second-year men Kenny Peterson and James Lee are more suspects than prospects.

S — The Packers added former Bengal Mark Roman. He will battle Marques Anderson for the starting job opposite Darren Sharper. With Antuan Edwards having departed to Miami the only backups are Curtis Fuller and James Whitley.

* It's admirable that cornerback Mike McKenzie thinks so highly of Lionel Washington, the Packers' assistant secondary coach since he entered the league in 1999. But McKenzie is misguided if he thinks that by demanding a trade and bypassing the team's offseason workout program he is helping Washington or himself.

If Washington found the hiring of Kurt Schottenheimer as secondary coach so distasteful he would have resigned. Someone with Washington's demonstrated ability to teach cornerback play wouldn't have been out of a job for long.

It's a similar situation to what happened at defensive coordinator. Sherman promoted Bob Slowik from secondary coach to coordinator over Mark Duffner, another former NFL coordinator. Instead of quitting, Duffner stayed on as linebackers coach.

Organizations make these kinds of decisions all the time. The Lions defense as coordinated by Schottenheimer beat Green Bay and St. Louis in the final month of 2003 with a secondary so decimated by injury that he had to play golden oldies Otis Smith and Doug Evans, neither of whom can run at all anymore. He is supposed to be a solid coach.

McKenzie is a moody, rather mysterious individual. There's really no way to predict what he might do.

Clearly, the Packers need him. McKenzie also needs the paychecks from a $2.75 million base salary that kick in with the first regular-season game. No play, no pay.

Extending McKenzie in January 2002 for $17.11 million over five years turned out to be a bargain for Green Bay. Six months earlier, they extended Ahman Green for $18.375 million over five years. McKenzie got a $3.5 million signing bonus and a $1.75 million roster bonus in ‘03. Green got a $5 million signing bonus and a $1 million roster bonus in ‘02.

If the Packers renegotiate McKenzie's deal with three years left, Green would have an even stronger argument that the final two years of his contract should be improved.

One of McKenzie's best friends, cornerback Reggie Howard, struck it rich on the unrestricted market last month. No more than an adequate zone corner in Carolina, he signed a six-year, $21.54 million deal to be the No. 3 in Miami behind Patrick Surtain and Sam Madison. It contained a $4.5 million signing bonus.

Howard and McKenzie played together at Memphis State and are workout buddies in the Miami area.

It was a March like no other for free-agent cornerbacks. Buffalo's Winfield got a $12.81 million bonus from Minnesota. San Francisco gave Ahmed Plummer $11 million to re-sign. Shawn Springs, who appeared over the hill last year, got $10.25 million up front to move from Seattle to Washington.

If those deals didn't rankle McKenzie, maybe these did: San Francisco's Jason Webster to Atlanta ($7 million signing bonus); Jacksonville's Bryant to Detroit ($7 million); New Orleans re-signed Fred Thomas ($5 million); and Arizona's David Barrett to the Jets ($4.5 million).

The Packers haven't had a holdout of consequence since Dorsey Levens (44 days) in 1998. McKenzie could be the next.

No one will argue that the Vikings' most pressing needs are on defense. They need a right defensive end, a weak-side linebacker and depth at cornerback, defensive tackle and middle linebacker.

But don't be surprised if one of the players in this year's rich receiver class ends up going to Minnesota with the 19th pick.

The Vikings attended the workout of USC sophomore Mike Williams last week. They also like some of the other receivers who might be around when they pick in the first round, including Roy Williams of Texas.

The Vikings often were criticized for overlooking their defense on draft day under Dennis Green. Mike Tice then took an offensive tackle, Bryant McKinnie, in the first round in his first season as a head coach two years ago.

Tice and Vikings director of college scouting Scott Studwell finally changed course last year, taking Oklahoma State defensive tackle Kevin Williams in the first round and Maryland linebacker E.J. Henderson with their second pick.

Williams and Henderson will be anchors up the middle on the Vikings defense for years to come. Now, the Vikings need to address the perimeter of their front seven.

The Vikings lack speed and athleticism off the edge. They already addressed their other most glaring need -- cornerback -- when they paid the big bucks for Antoine Winfield in free agency.

The Vikings also plugged a hole at No. 2 receiver when they signed Baltimore's Marcus Robinson in free agency. The offense seems set, especially at the skill positions.

But it is possible the Vikings will choose to strengthen an already strong offense further in the first round of this year's draft.

DRAFT STRATEGY -- The Vikings will try to trade down from the 19th pick on Saturday if the best player available plays a position the Vikings don't need.

Last season, the Vikings were slated to pick No. 7. They wanted Oklahoma State defensive tackle Kevin Williams, but didn't think he was the seventh-best player overall.

They knew they could get him a couple of spots lower, at least. So they worked the phones with Baltimore and Jacksonville in a desperate attempt to make a trade downward.

The draft clock ran out on the Vikings, and both the Ravens and Jaguars leap-frogged the Vikings. The Vikings ended up with Williams and were happy. But they lost an opportunity to collect extra picks for selecting lower.

Williams took most of the sting out of the blunder, starting 16 games and leading the team in sacks with 10.5. He could be a Pro Bowl player as soon as 2004.

That won't stop the draft-day jokes that are sure to come. Remember, the Vikings also mismanaged the draft clock in 2002.

They had the seventh pick. Dallas had the sixth pick. When the Cowboys were on the clock, Kansas City, which had the eighth pick, tried to make a trade so it could take Ryan Sims, whom the Vikings also wanted.

The clock ran out on the Cowboys' selection. But the Vikings couldn't get their selection to the podium fast enough, allowing the Chiefs extra time to complete the deal with Dallas and steal away Sims.

Like the case with Williams, the Vikings settled for a player -- left tackle Bryant McKinnie -- who will be a successful starter for years to come.

The Vikings insist the way they handle draft day is just fine. They say they've learned from the last two years and will be ready to make a selection on time this year.

The Vikings were happy with last year's draft overall. All seven picks made the team and contributed. Williams was exceptional. No. 2 pick E.J. Henderson will start at middle linebacker this season. No. 3 pick Nate Burleson was a part-time starter and No. 3 receiver. No. 4 pick Onterrio Smith proved he can be a feature back, rushing for over 100 yards in back-to-back weeks. And one of their sixth-round picks, linebacker Mike Nattiel, was an outstanding special teams player and nickel linebacker.

Because of their success in the middle and later rounds, the Vikings have refused to part with any draft picks while discussing trades with teams this offseason. The Vikings have one pick in each round and, if anything, will try to add to that total by trading down whenever they can.

The Vikings insist they have a happy marriage between Scott Studwell's scouting department, Tice's coaching staff and the salary cap expertise of Vice President of Football Operations Rob Brzezinski.

Because their system depends on a consensus between three facets of the operation, the entire organization has spent long hours in draft meetings in recent weeks.

There is a mutual respect between all three groups. Tice enjoys the draft process and encourages his assistants to voice their true feelings. Studwell is well organized and enjoys the wisdom and years of experience of senior consultant Frank Gilliam and national scout Jerry Reichow, who has been scouting for the organization since 1966.

Despite losing their place in the first round last year, the atmosphere on draft day is good. Tice and Studwell are on the same page, and that page doesn't include giving up draft picks to move upward.

TEAM NEEDS going into the draft -- Defensive end, weakside linebacker, cornerback, wide receiver, offensive line.
DE -- The Vikings need a right defensive end in particular. They've moved Nick Rogers from linebacker to defensive end because of his pass-rushing skills. But even though Rogers played end at Georgia Tech, he's too small to be a consistent playmaker at right end. The other current options are Lance Johnstone, a good situational rusher who also is undersized, and Chuck Wiley, a forgettable player who was the starter at the end of last season.

WLB -- Some consider this the No. 1 priority because the Vikings are thin and potentially fragile at outside linebacker. Henri Crockett could end up at the weakside linebacker position, although the coaches aren't high on him and would prefer he backs up Chris Claiborne on the strong side. Speaking of Claiborne, he's coming off of shoulder and heel surgeries. It's not out of the question that he'll need part of the season to heal. If the Vikings draft an end that can start, Rogers can move back to linebacker.

CB -- The next need is a toss up between cornerback and receiver. We'll stick with the defensive side of the ball. Even though the starters are set with Antoine Winfield on the left and Brian Williams on the right, the nickel back is 32-year-old Ken Irvin and the dime back is Eric Kelly, who is pretty much a special teams guy. A bona fide cornerback could step in at nickel back and eventually take over for Williams, who can also play safety. Denard Walker forced his release by not accepting a pay cut this spring. The Vikings had already soured on Walker, but his exit does create a depth problem at the position.

WR -- The need decreased when Baltimore's Marcus Robinson was signed as a free agent. Robinson will start opposite Randy Moss. Nate Burleson and Kelly Campbell are solid Nos. 3-4 receivers, but Campbell is always an injury risk because of his small frame.

OL -- Center and the left side of the line is set. The right side is OK, but far from set if the right player can be added. RG Dave Dixon is 34 and probably in his last season. RT Mike Rosenthal is unspectacular. Lewis Kelly, presumed to be the heir apparent at RG, is the only backup of note under contract. The rest are practice squad players. Monday night games and a Sunday night game.

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