NFC North Tour: Draft Dodging

With less than a week until the draft, we take our weekly swing around the NFC North. In Chicago, the Bears need line help after yielding 56 sacks. In Detroit, would the Lions gamble on Jimmy Smith? And in Minnesota, the Vikings need a quarterback — could it be Donovan McNabb?

Chicago Bears

The Bears' draft board is nearly finalized, and they have identified a handful of players they expect to be available when their first-round pick rolls around late next Thursday night at No. 29 overall.

"There are four, five, six guys that, based on our projections and our grades, would be in the running for the pick," said director of player personnel Tim Ruskell, general manager Jerry Angelo's right-hand man.

Conventional wisdom says the Bears will target an offensive lineman first, but they could use a three-technique defensive tackle to replace Tommie Harris, and they only have two linebackers under contract.

Since there are so many scenarios that could play out before the Bears are on the clock, they will have players at four positions targeted.

"Four is probably a good number," Angelo said. "If you can do that, that gives you the flexibility; or, you can take the best player available. But you still have to address your needs."

Nowhere is the Bears' need greater than at offensive line, given their yield of an NFL-worst 56 sacks last season. Angelo said at least five offensive linemen will be selected in Round 1, and as many as seven. Angelo would not say how many of them the Bears grade as first-rounders. If six or seven are off the board before the 29th pick, the Bears could turn their attention toward the defensive line or elsewhere.

The consensus top five offensive linemen are tackles Tyron Smith, Anthony Castonzo, Gabe Carimi and Nate Solder, plus guard-center Mike Pouncey; not necessarily in that order. After that, the consensus next best are Mississippi State tackle Derek Sherrod and Baylor's Danny Watkins, who was a tackle in college but projects to guard in the NFL. Both players have frequently been projected as the Bears' top pick in mock drafts.

While the line crop is considered good, the D-line class is excellent, especially at end, where seven could be first-round picks.

"It's really deep with the defensive line," Angelo said. "I thought last year was really good, but this year's even better. But it's a good year for offensive linemen, too. Maybe not the quality (of the defensive linemen), but the quantity is very good."

Detroit Lions

Prince Amukamara or Jimmy Smith?

Draftniks have been debating the relative value of those two cornerback prospects for weeks. The Lions have no doubt been having the same debate internally.

There is an outside chance Amukamara, from Nebraska, will fall to them at No. 13. Smith, from Colorado, is almost certain to be available. Amukamara has graded out higher than Smith on most draft boards mainly because of citizenship. There are no character issues with Amukamara, no failed drug tests or arrests for minors in possession.

Smith can't say the same.

Jimmy Smith
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
On the field, though, most scouts believe Smith is the greater talent and the riskier pick. Will the Lions, in desperate need of an elite-level corner, take that risk?

"It's really tricky right now," said ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. "I pushed (Amukamara) to No. 13 because I kept hearing Dallas was going to take an offensive lineman. St. Louis could trade up to No. 9 (Dallas) to get (receiver) Julio Jones, but that wouldn't impact the cornerback position.

"Jimmy Smith is the hot guy right now. He's moved up because the character issues and the off-the-field stuff isn't as big a deal as people thought it was. He's a top-10 talent and his improvement helps the Lions out a little bit. If they want to move down a little bit and look at Jimmy Smith they probably could because the teams picking after them don't really need a corner."

Kiper went further, saying he thought Smith would be a good choice even at No. 13.

"The teams I've spoken to feel very comfortable about Jimmy Smith," Kiper said. "If you are looking at talent, he's a top-10 guy. If the top teams in the league would take a player, and he's got great talent, it's not a stretch. If Philadelphia is looking at Jimmy Smith and Baltimore is looking at Jimmy Smith, then why shouldn't Detroit?

"Sometimes we look too much into value. Value now is based on team's own preferences. How they value a player. If they feel like they've done all their work on him and they're comfortable, then why not? Talent-wise, it's a no-brainer."

The Lions seem to agree with that. General manager Martin Mayhew spent some time with Smith during a pre-draft visit and he came away impressed.

"I am glad I met with him," Mayhew said during the NFL league meetings last month. "I feel better about him. He was a guy who made some mistakes but who seems to now realize the mistakes that he made. He's a young guy who's very talented. He has a really good skill level, good size and speed and if you look at our corners, we don't have that.

"He's an interesting guy. I have a better feel for him as a person now than before he came in."

Smith's measurables are eye-popping. He's 6-foot-2 1/4, 211 pounds, and he ran a 4.37 at the Combine. He has a long reach (77 inches) and thrives on playing physical, press coverage.

But Smith failed four drug tests at Colorado. He was busted for minor in possession. His intensity and work ethic were criticized. He raised more flags when he showed up seemingly out of shape at his Pro Day workout.

Mayhew hasn't taken many draft-day risks in his first two seasons. This might be the time to make one.

Minnesota Vikings

Although NFL teams are prohibited from discussing trades involving players during the lockout, there has been plenty of speculation and reports that the Vikings are interested in Washington quarterback Donovan McNabb.

That comes as a bit of a surprise considering new coach Leslie Frazier has made it clear his preference would be to draft and develop a quarterback.

Frazier has said that even if 41-year-old Brett Favre wanted to end his third attempt at retirement that Minnesota would have no interest in taking him back.

That makes sense given previous coach Brad Childress will be remembered for never developing or settling on a quarterback during his four-plus seasons in Minnesota.

The Vikings made the NFC title game with Favre in 2009, but followed that up with a last-place finish in the NFC North in 2010. Frazier, who was Childress' defensive coordinator from 2007 until Childress was fired last November, saw the pitfalls of the Vikings' failure to develop 2006 second-round pick Tarvaris Jackson.

That resulted in Childress' decision to go with a variety of veterans as stopgaps.

Frazier and Rick Spielman, the Vikings' vice president of player personnel, have spent much of their time in recent months vetting a quarterback class that includes Auburn's Cam Newton, Missouri's Blaine Gabbert, Washington's Jake Locker, Arkansas' Ryan Mallett, Florida State's Christian Ponder, Texas Christian's Andy Dalton and Nevada's Colin Kaepernick.

Newton and Gabbert are expected to be gone by the time the Vikings select 12th overall in the first round, but there is a good chance the other five will be available.

McNabb, 34, was benched last season in favor of Rex Grossman and the expectation is that once the lockout is finished McNabb will be released.

Assuming the Vikings do draft a quarterback, the unknown portion of this is if McNabb would be willing to come to Minnesota as strictly a stopgap before bouncing to another team in quick fashion.

A bridge quarterback might be a good alternative if there isn't time for a rookie to learn new offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave's system - which actually is supposed to be built in part around the new quarterback - but whether McNabb would be a good fit is a big question mark.

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