NFC North Tour: Draft Dodging

The Vikings are doing their homework on all of the top quarterback prospects. The Lions badly need to upgrade their outside linebackers. The Bears need to upgrade their pass protection after Jay Cutler was sacked 52 times.

Minnesota Vikings

New Vikings coach Leslie Frazier made one thing very clear during his one-hour visit with the media at the NFL league meetings in New Orleans. If he has his way, the Vikings are going to address their need for a quarterback through the draft.

"Even if there were free agency, we might still look at quarterbacks (in the draft), unless there was a free-agent quarterback that had youth and you knew you were going to have him for a number of years," Frazier said. "With a veteran guy, we'd still be looking at drafting a guy, because we need to build around a young guy who is likely to (stick around)."

The Vikings hold the 12th overall pick in the first round and it remains unclear which prospect they covet. The list of potential candidates includes Missouri's Blaine Gabbert, Auburn's Cam Newton, Washington's Jake Locker, TCU's Andy Dalton, Arkansas' Ryan Mallet, Florida State's Christian Ponder and Nevada's Colin Kaepernick.

The Vikings are doing their due diligence on all, although clearly they would have to trade up if they want a shot at getting Gabbert or Newton. Frazier mentioned on more than one occasion that moving up might be a possibility.

Frazier again made it clear that no matter what happens in the Vikings' pursuit of a quarterback — free agency and trades are off limits right now because of the NFL lockout — that he won't be making a late-summer call to Brett Favre to attempt to talk him out of retirement.

Right now, the quarterbacks on the Vikings' roster are Joe Webb and Rhett Bomar, who was signed late last season off the New York Giants practice squad.

Webb started the final two games of the season after Favre suffered a concussion and led the team to a victory over Philadelphia before finishing up with a loss at Detroit.

In four games, Webb completed 54 of 89 passes for 480 yards with no touchdowns, three interceptions and a 61.1 passer rating.

While the Vikings have said all the right things about giving Webb a chance to compete, the reality is he was drafted in the sixth round last April with the intention that he would be moved to wide receiver.

That didn't happen after coach Brad Childress saw Webb throw in a rookie camp, but Childress is gone and there is a chance Webb could end up in some type of wildcat role.

The Vikings don't own a third-round pick because they dealt it to New England in the Randy Moss trade last fall. Frazier knows if he's going to get his wish of bringing in a rookie starter that it almost certainly will have to be early in the draft.

"I can't imagine a scenario where we wouldn't add a quarterback (in the draft) at some point," Frazier said. "If you're going to get a franchise-type guy that you can build around, he usually comes earlier than later — the first or second round. It's an aberration to get a Tom Brady in the sixth round."

Detroit Lions

Without question, the Lions' weakest link in 2010 was their outside linebackers. Thus, it is no surprise that the three players who started most of the games are gone — Julian Peterson was released, Landon Johnson is a free agent and Zack Follett suffered a serious neck injury that has his NFL future still very much in doubt.

That leaves two young veterans — Ashlee Palmer and Bobby Carpenter — as the only outside linebackers on the roster, not including Caleb Campbell, a special-teams ace who spent most of the season on the practice squad.

General manager Martin Mayhew said recently that he thinks both Palmer and Carpenter can evolve into capable starters, but he is still looking to upgrade.

The problem is, this draft is especially bereft of quality outside linebackers, particularly ones that would fit the Lions' 4-3 defensive scheme.

"The biggest thing, if you are a 4-3 outside linebacker with us, your ability to rush the passer isn't as important as your ability to play behind the ball, make tackles and play in coverage," coach Jim Schwartz said.

There is no shortage of pass-rushing linebackers available at this draft and very few that fit Schwartz's description, certainly none worth the Lions' 13th overall pick.

"There's not a ton (available)," ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said. "Teams are going to have to do some very astute scouting to find linebackers in that third- fourth- fifth-round area that would be factors right away."

The one wild-card in that discussion is North Carolina's Bruce Carter. Before injuring his knee, Carter was projected as a first-round pick. Post-reconstruction surgery, though, he has fallen off most experts' boards.

"I think he's really slipped back," Kiper said. "I didn't like him as much (before the injury)."

The Lions, though, haven't completely given up on him. They brought him in for a physical and were encouraged.

"Talking with our doctors, he is on schedule with his rehab," Mayhew said. "He'd be like where Kevin Smith and Brandon Pettigrew were last year going into camp. If he was with us, (Carter) would be a guy that might start on the physically unable to perform list, but he's coming along and moving in the right direction."

Still, he's not a guy the Lions would take until maybe the third round, at the earliest.

The Lions might decide to fill one of the outside linebacker vacancies from within. During the league meetings, Mayhew and Schwartz admitted there was a chance that starting inside linebacker DeAndre Levy could be moved to the outside.

Levy might move to the outside next season.

"Part of our criteria for linebackers is that we like multi-dimensional players," Schwartz said. "That means the ability to play inside or outside and that means being good against the run and pass. That's one of the reasons we drafted (Levy). Wherever he played, he's played well. He can move around."

Schwartz made it clear, though, that moving Levy wasn't Plan A. Once he was healthy, Levy was a stabilizing presence last season.

"One of his strengths is his ability to control the defense," Schwartz said. "There is value to having him in the middle. But he's confident in doing both and he's had success doing both."

The only way the Lions would move Levy is if they could acquire a proven veteran to replace him in the middle. One candidate could be potential free agent Stephen Tulloch, whom Schwartz coached at Tennessee.

Among the traditional 4-3 outside linebackers that might have value for the Lions, at least as Kiper sees it, include:

—Mason Foster, 6-1, 245, Washington. Projects to be a low-risk pick and a potential starter on the strong side. He showed good range against the run and the ability to cover backs and tight ends man-to-man. Kiper considers Foster to be rising through the draft process and thinks he would have value as a third-round pick.

—Ross Homan, 6-1, 240, Ohio State. A bit undersized, but could play on the weak side. He showed excellent speed and is considered better against the pass than the run at this point. Another player that could go in the third or fourth round.

—Lawrence Wilson, 6-1, 229, Connecticut. He showed good athleticism, but needs to gain strength. Kiper projects him to go in the fourth through sixth rounds.

—Colin McCarthy, 6-1, 238, Miami. He has been impressive throughout the draft process, though Kiper still considers him to be a late-round pick.

Chicago Bears

Bears general manager Jerry Angelo drafted Chris Williams in the first round (14th overall) in 2008 with the idea that he'd be the team's left tackle for the next decade or so.

Williams started the first two games there last season but was hurt and replaced and wound up starting the last 11 games at left guard. Now, the question is: Does Williams deserves another shot at left tackle or will he remain a starter at left guard?

Either way, the Bears need help on the offensive line, and determining Williams' future will help Angelo pinpoint offensive linemen in the draft.

"I really don't care where we have Chris, personally," Angelo said. "I want to make sure that when everything plays itself it out, after we get through this period of allocating players, that we get the five best players on the field."

Offensive line coach Mike Tice spent a good portion of last season trying to figure that out. After he did, the Bears' front wall showed improvement but still was never better than mediocre. Additional young talent remains a must.

Jay Cutler was sacked 52 times in 15 games last season, more than anyone in the NFL.

Center Olin Kreutz will be 34 before training camp begins and right guard Roberto Garza turns 32 this week. They can't go on forever. There is some youth on the roster, but Williams and right tackle J'Marcus Webb are already starting. None of the current backups appear to be starter material and none of the starters are indispensable.

Left tackle Frank Omiyale got better over the course of the season, but there is still much room for improvement, and he might be better suited at right tackle.

It's also possible the Bears will decide Williams' fate after they make their first pick, No. 29 overall, depending on whom they take. After an injury-marred rookie season, Williams started the first 11 games in 2009 at right tackle and transitioned to left tackle for the final five games.

That's where he started the first two games last season. But a hamstring injury sidelined him for three games and necessitated the move of Omiyale from right tackle to left. Williams was plugged in at left guard when he returned and started the final 11 games there with mixed results.

"We have a few options, a few directions we can go," coach Lovie Smith said. "Chris has played both tackle positions and guard for us. We don't have to make those decisions right now. We just know that Chris is a part of our future, and once we lock him into a position — maybe the one he's in right now — I'm anxious to see exactly where we end up playing him."

If the Bears still believe Williams has a future at left guard, they can target a tackle or an eventual replacement for Kreutz. The 13-year veteran is eligible for free agency, but the Bears are expected to re-sign him for another year or two.

Florida center-guard Mike Pouncey and Colorado tackle Nate Solder have been mentioned as possibilities for the Bears, but it's doubtful either will be available near the end of the round. Danny Watkins, who played left tackle at Baylor but projects to guard in the NFL, might be a more realistic prediction, and Mississippi State tackle Derek Sherrod and Miami tackle-guard Orlando Franklin are other considerations.


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