Around the NFC North
Tommie Harris, who was drafted in 2004, was the Bears' best first-round draft pick in the last 10 years.
Harris made three straight Pro Bowls, from 2005-07, and he was the quintessential, disruptive 3-technique tackle that the Bears crave in their Cover-2 scheme. But Harris' play had deteriorated so badly since his last Pro-Bowl trip, that the Bears cut him on Feb. 28 rather than pay him a $2.5 million roster bonus, a $500,000 workout bonus and a $2.31 million base salary for 2011.
Now, the Bears badly need a 3-technique tackle to replace Harris, and his successor is not on the current roster.
In addition, Anthony Adams, who has played on the nose and at the 3-technique, is an unrestricted free agent. Even if the Bears re-sign the underrated, underappreciated Adams, which they should, they're still thin at a position that general manager Jerry Angelo and coach Lovie Smith have prioritized. The 6-0, 310-pound Adams is a bit undersized for the nose, but he is active and has enough quickness to occasionally disrupt.
Marcus Harrison (6-3, 312), a third-round pick in 2008, showed flashes as a rookie playing both tackle positions, but he has been a career underachiever who seems to have regressed. He lacks a great work ethic and, as a result, suited up for just five games in 2010 and finished the season with one tackle. The hope for Harrison is that more snaps in training camp and the preseason will motivate him to put forth more of an effort and make an impact. If not, he won't be back next season and, depending how the draft and free agency go, he might already be playing for a roster spot.
Solid, blue-collar worker Matt Toeaina was given a contract extension late last season. But the 6-2, 308-pounder is more of a role player and, although he can also play both tackle spots, he's better suited to nose tackle.
The 6-3, 260-pound Henry Melton opened some eyes last year, but that was as a situational tackle, where he displayed some pass-rush ability, notching 2.5 sacks in limited snaps.
The full-time tackles - Adams, Toeaina, Harris and Harrison - had a total of 5.5 sacks. Harris had eight all by himself in his last Pro-Bowl season.
Illinois' Corey Liuget is a player with traits similar to Harris, but he is not considered to have as much upside as Harris did. Still, Liuget would upgrade the interior line immediately and could easily be in the starting lineup on opening day. However, the Bears would probably need several bits of good luck to have the Illini junior still on the board at No. 29. Iowa's Christian Ballard is a more realistic possibility if the Bears decide they must have defensive line help before addressing the offensive line.
And, if character concerns cause North Carolina's Marvin Austin to slip far enough, the Bears could get a steal in the second round.
In a perfect world, Nebraska cornerback Prince Amukamara would somehow fall to the Lions at No. 13. General manager Martin Mayhew and coach Jim Schwartz would be doing cartwheels in the war room.
They acquired Chris Houston from Atlanta last season and that alone was a major upgrade at the right cornerback position. But Houston, a four-year veteran, is intent on exploring free agency - whenever that might be once the new collective bargaining agreement is set.
The Lions have tendered him, but he said he still wants to explore other options.
That leaves a whole lot of uncertainty on both sides. The Lions also re-signed veteran Nate Vasher before the lockout, but they see him more as a nickel back and reserve.
They have three young promising corners - Aaron Berry, Alphonso Smith and Prince Miller, but as Mayhew said before the combine, they showed great promise but didn't do all that much in the games.
Smith, before injuring his shoulder, posted a team-high five interceptions. But he was also famously torched against the Patriots on a nationally-televised Thanksgiving Day game.
So cornerback continues to be a position of need, but the consensus among draft experts is that Amukamara, as well as No. 1 ranked cornerback Patrick Peterson from Louisiana State, will be long gone by the time the Lions are on the clock.
Which brings us to talented but troubled Colorado cornerback Jimmy Smith.
Would the Lions be interested in a self-proclaimed shutdown cornerback? One who has great size (6-2, 211 pounds), good speed (4.37), long reach (77 inches) and thrives on playing physical, press coverage?
Of course they would.
But would they draft that same player if they learned he might have some character issues; that he had some minor brushes with the law and four failed drug tests during his college career? That he already fired one agent and hired another before he even competed at the NFL scouting combine?
There are definitely some red flags, but the answer to the question is - they haven't ruled him out. If the Lions could trade down into the 20s and maybe acquire another pick (they only have five in this draft), they could take a chance on Smith.
"I learned a long time ago that you can't judge a guy on a quote, on what a guy said or what you heard that he said," Mayhew said. "If you don't know the guy, you can't judge him."
Mayhew spent some time getting to know Smith recently when Smith came in for a pre-draft physical. As you might expect, the person he met was far different than the one he'd read about.
"I was impressed with Jimmy Smith," Mayhew said. "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 better feel for him as a person now than before he came in."
Mayhew made it clear that he and his staff still had a lot of research to do before he knew whether Smith would end up on the Lions' draft board, but he's certainly still in the discussion.
"I am glad I met with him," Mayhew said. "I feel better about him. But, in terms of determining who we might take, or is or isn't worth taking a risk on, we've not made those decisions yet."
The falloff after Smith is pretty steep. Other defensive backs the Lions may have on their board for the later rounds include Brandon Harris, 5-11, 195, Miami; Aaron Williams, 6-1, 195, Texas; Brandon Burton, 6-0, 190, Utah; Corky Allen, 6-1, 197, Citadel; Johnny Patrick, 6-0, 219, Louisville.
Green Bay Packers
Contact between team officials, including coaches, and the players is forbidden during the ongoing lockout.
That doesn't mean talking, texting or tweeting in this ultra-interactive age can't be done in roundabout ways.
Packers head coach Mike McCarthy didn't say so directly to Chad Clifton, but McCarthy recently heaped praise on his veteran left tackle. McCarthy gushed at the league meetings in New Orleans that the last six games of the 2010 season, which culminated with the Super Bowl XLV victory, were the best in Clifton's illustrious 11-year pro career.
That's reassuring for an organization that would like to do without some substantial rebuilding in the afterglow of winning a 13th league title.
As it is, general manager Ted Thompson must prepare for the day the resilient Clifton can no longer overcome countless physical setbacks and be effective as the trusted blind-side protector for first Brett Favre and then Aaron Rodgers. Clifton, who earned a second Pro Bowl nod as he started every game for the first time in three seasons, turns 35 in June.
Replacing Clifton is probably a decision that won't have to be made for at least another season, but having an insurance policy in place is advisable given Clifton's gimpy track record the last few years.
Thompson actually went about finding an heir when he took Iowa's Bryan Bulaga in the first round of last year's draft. Bulaga, however, played a modicum of snaps at left tackle as a backup and instead started 16 games, including the playoffs, at right tackle after Mark Tauscher suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the first month. Bulaga endured growing pains in making the adjustment from his natural position, but he acquitted himself down the stretch.
Bulaga will remain the starter on the right side - Tauscher, who had manned the position since he broke in as a seventh-round draft pick in 2000, is iffy to remain with the team - but at some point he will be in line to replace Clifton.
Or, if the Packers feel good enough about keeping Bulaga where he is, then they will need Clifton's ultimate successor in place after paying the price for trying to plug in the likes of left guard Daryn Colledge and T.J. Lang as emergency stopgaps in the past.
So, don't put it past Thompson to target offensive tackle on the opening night of the draft for the second straight year.
As many as six tackles could be taken in Round 1, which is slated to end with the Packers' picking 32nd. Other than USC's Tyron Smith, who is projected to go in the top 10, any of the other elite prospects could be sitting there for Green Bay to take.
The rest of the best includes Boston College's Anthony Castonzo, Wisconsin's Gabe Carimi, Colorado's Nate Solder, Mississippi State's Derek Sherrod and Villanova's Benjamin Ijalana.
If the punishing Carimi were to fall through the cracks and remain on the board when Green Bay's turn is up, Thompson surely will hear from outside the Lambeau Field draft room a loud refrain from fans wanting him to take the home-state standout. The 6-7, 327-pound Carimi started all four years on the left side for the Badgers, won the Outland Trophy in 2010 and had the audacity at the February Scouting Combine in Indianapolis to proclaim himself the best tackle in this year's draft class.
"You're always hopeful to work with these Wisconsin guys," McCarthy said after watching Carimi at Wisconsin's pro day in early March.
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