NFC North Tour: Draft Dodging

We take our weekly trip around the NFC North to catch up on the draft plans of the Packers' division rivals. The Bears could use a linebacker to put with Urlacher and Briggs. The Lions could use help at their uncertain tackles. And the Vikings have to consider a tight end.

Chicago Bears

Over the past 10 years, Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs have been as good as any two linebackers on the same NFL team, with 13 Pro Bowls between them.

But, as talented as Briggs and Urlacher are, a third linebacker is required in the Bears' 4-3 scheme. At the moment, though, Urlacher and Briggs are the only two linebackers that the Bears have under contract.

Both players made the Pro Bowl last season, Briggs for the sixth straight time, and Urlacher for the first time in four years, putting to rest speculation that his considerable skills had faded away after a dislocated wrist in the 2009 season opener limited him to one half of one game.

Urlacher remains a crucial component in the Bears' Cover-2 because he has the speed and athleticism to patrol the deep middle in some coverages and he makes tackles in the running game from sideline to sideline. He led the team in tackles and with 13 pass breakups and with 11 tackles for loss.

Even though an ankle injury caused Briggs to miss one full game and most of another, he was second in tackles and tackles for loss and picked off two passes.

Eight-year veteran Pisa Tinoisamoa started 10 games last season at strong-side linebacker, and Nick Roach started the other six, plus 15 in 2009 when Tinoisamoa was injured for most of the season. But both are free agents, as are backups Brian Iwuh and Rod Wilson, who did not figure heavily in the base defense except as emergency replacements.

The Bears had no intention of setting the market for Tinoisamoa. While he is an active and productive player when healthy, he missed four games with knee problems last season and 14 games in 2008, also with knee afflictions.

Roach, a four-year veteran, was tendered in the event he is a restricted free agent when there is a labor settlement. Even if he is unrestricted, the Bears might be forced to meet his price, although at 6-foot-1 and 234 pounds, he's the kind of fast, agile Cover-2 linebacker who isn't as valuable to teams not running that scheme.

Because of more serious needs along the offensive and defensive lines, the Bears are not expected to address linebacker until the middle rounds. That's about where local product Martez Wilson should go based on his production at the University of Illinois and his instincts. But Wilson had a phenomenal day at the Combine, running the fastest 40 time of any linebacker, even though he weighed in at a rock-solid 250 pounds, so he could be drafted higher than he should.

Some project Wilson as a player who could develop into a dangerous pass rusher, and that would be appealing to the Bears, who registered a total of just 34 sacks, even with defensive end Julius Peppers.

A more likely scenario could see the Bears tabbing a player like Syracuse's undersized, athletic Doug Hogue in the middle rounds.

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.

"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."

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 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.

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.

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 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 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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