Four Downs: NFC North
by Ryan Wilson
Because the Bears front office appeared to take off the months of February, March, and most of April, there was very little offseason maneuvering to report prior to the draft. The biggest news of free agency were the signings of Marty Booker and Brandon Lloyd to "bolster" the wide receiver corps. Those moves, coupled with re-upping Rex Grossman for another season ... well, you can probably guess how this movie will end.
After deciding that Alan Faneca wasn't worth pursuing, Chicago used their first-round pick on Vanderbilt left tackle Chris Williams. He will be given every opportunity to win the job, which will allow John Tait to move to right tackle, a position he played well in Kansas City. The club also drafted two more linemen in the seventh round: Georgia guard Chester Adams and Ohio State tackle Kirk Barton. Adams has a chance to make the roster simply because there isn't much quality in front of him, while Barton could end up on the practice squad.
Speculation had the Bears using the 14th overall pick on a running back -- either Jonathan Stewart or Rashard Mendenhall -- but the club wisely went offensive line before going after a rusher. Tulane's Matt Forte made his money at the Senior Bowl, and when Chicago selected him 44th overall, it unofficially marked the end of the Cedric Benson experiment. Following the bizarre events surrounding Benson's arrest in Texas earlier this month, head coach Lovie Smith announced that Benson would be the team's starter heading into 2008. Benson then promptly missed the team's organized workout without explanation.
Chicago got around to adding a wide receiver in the third round. Vandy's Earl Bennett has been compared to Hines Ward in terms of toughness and willingness to block, but he struggles to get open, which is more important in this offense than most. The Bears added Michigan State tight end Kellen Davis two rounds later. Physically, Davis is a specimen, but his lack of production will keep him on the bench behind Greg Olsen and Desmond Clark.
Arkansas defensive tackle Marcus Harrison (third round) could make the biggest non-special teams impact. He was considered a first-round talent, but a knee injury and the dreaded off-field issues (2007 arrest) saw his stock drop. LSU safety Craig Steltz (fourth round) will only see time in the secondary if there are a run on injuries (which isn't entirely out of the question given the unit's health history), but he's more likely to make his living on the league's best special teams unit.
Quarterback is the obvious answer, but the organization made it clear early in the offseason that Grossman and Kyle Orton would duke it out for the right to start. Williams immediately improves an average unit, but the Bears' left guard spot is still up for grabs. Terrence Metcalf and Josh Beekman are the frontrunners, but neither player was able to win a starting job outright last season.
Rookie Free Agents
Chicago finally got around to adding a quarterback -- two of them, actually, signing Southern Illinois' Nick Hall and Colorado State's Caleb Hanie. Obviously, both players come with questions, but the Bears are a favorite destination for rookie free agent quarterbacks. Florida's Chris Leak signed with the team a year ago, but failed to stick; with only two quarterbacks on the roster, Hall or Hanie may see a different fate. Marcus Stone was N.C. State's starting quarterback in 2005 before moving to tight end.
Lions president Matt Millen overcame his unquenchable thirst for first-round wide receivers and opted to address a legitimate team need: offensive line. Unfortunately, it looks like Millen picked the wrong guy in Boston College right tackle Gosder Cherilus. To be fair, the four best prospects -- Jake Long, Ryan Clady, Branden Albert and Chris Williams -- were all off the board, and if nothing else, Millen's heart was in the right place.
Of course, offensive line wasn't the team's only need, and some wondered why the Lions, also looking for a running back to replace Kevin Jones, didn't take Rashard Mendenhall. Selecting Mendenhall, the best running back in the draft according to some pundits, would've made sense, except that Detroit would still have a gaping hole on the right side of their line. Chicken, cart, meet egg, horse.
Detroit used their second-round pick on linebacker Jordan Dizon, an extremely productive college player whose best days could be behind him. The biggest question about the former Colorado star: Can a linebacker with the size of a safety and the speed of a defensive end really be productive in the NFL?
The Lions traded up in the third round to get a running back -- UCF's Kevin Smith -- and used the pick they received from the Browns for Shaun Rogers to draft Rogers' replacement on the roster: Florida State's Andre Fluellen. The team used its final third-round selection on Purdue linebacker/end Cliff Avril, who, like Fluellen, was more impressive at the NFL Combine than at any point in his collegiate career.
The club used its late-round picks to mine for special teams help, and safety Caleb Campbell, selected 218th overall, is the most intriguing of the bunch. The West Point grad is a 6-foot-2, 229-pound safety who could add some weight and eventually make the move to linebacker (although he currently weighs the same as Dizon).
Heading into the draft, Detroit had needs along the offensive and defensive lines, at linebacker, and at running back. They added depth at each position, even if the selections didn't do much to excite large swaths of the fan base. Detroit also used free agency (and the Shaun Rogers trade) to improve the secondary, landing Dwight Smith, Brian Kelly, and Leigh Bodden.
Warm bodies now litter the roster, and on paper, the Lions don't have any glaring deficiencies. That may change when offensive coordinator Jim Colletto tries to implement his "running game" with little success. Until then, though, lightly pencil this team in for 10 wins.
Rookie Free Agents
Detroit signed six rookie free agents, and N.C. State wideout Darrell Blackmon might have a shot to make the 53-man roster as a returner. Bethune Cookman safety Bobbie Williams could also sneak onto the team if Campbell doesn't pan out or is moved to linebacker.
Green Bay Packers
The Packers had no immediate needs heading into the draft. Cornerbacks Charles Woodson and Al Harris are both in their 30s, and with Bubba Franks gone, Donald Lee was the only tight end on the roster with any experience. But virtually every starter from last year's 13-win team returns. (The players who did leave will be conspicuous by their absence. For example, it will be odd to see Packers games with no Corey Williams.) Consequently, Green Bay didn't hesitate to trade out of the first round so the Jets could move up and select tight end Dustin Keller.
The Packers drafted wide receiver Jordy Nelson with the 36th overall pick. Nelson joined Kansas State as a walk-on safety before moving to wideout during his sophomore season. He was named a consensus All-American as a senior. At 6-foot-3, 217, Nelson is a big target, but some scouts don't think he possesses the speed to be a deep threat (Aqib Talib, Tampa Bay's first-round pick, disagrees). As he continues to learn the nuances of setting up defensive backs, reading coverages, and running routes, Nelson will be a valuable option behind Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, and James Jones. If Woodson decides he's not up for punt return duty, Nelson could be a dark horse candidate for the job; in five chances last season, he totaled 264 yards and two touchdowns, including a 92-yard effort against Baylor.
Twenty picks after taking Nelson, the Packers selected quarterback Brian Brohm, the player many people tabbed last fall as the likely first overall pick. As it turned out, injuries, a mediocre Louisville team, and a solid season from Matt Ryan caused Brohm to slide. He would be the third quarterback drafted after Ryan (No. 3) and Joe Flacco (No. 18).
The choice to use a second-round pick on a quarterback might seem like a commentary on the current uncertainty at the position following Brett Favre's (alleged) retirement. Instead, it speaks more to the fact that Green Bay quarterbacks have a whopping zero NFL starts among them (and if you include Craig Nall, who the team decided not to re-sign earlier this season ... it's still a big, fat goose egg). Similar to the running-back-by-committee approach most teams are now employing, having at least two quality quarterbacks is also becoming trendy.
With their third second-rounder, Green Bay drafted the eventual Woodson/Harris replacement, Auburn's Patrick Lee. Lee only managed a 4.53 40 time at the Combine, but NFL Network's Mike Mayock gushed over his physicality and ball skills. Given the Packers' fondness for press coverage, Lee seems like a logical fit.
Jermichael Finley surprised may people at the University of Texas when he declared for the draft as a redshirt sophomore. He'll get a chance to win the backup tight end job with the Packers, but will probably spend his first NFL season adding muscle to his 6-5, 243-pound frame and learning how to block.
In the fourth round, general manager Ted Thompson traded up 11 spots to select Wake Forest defensive end Jeremy Thompson. This is noteworthy for two reasons: It was the first time Thompson had traded up in nine years; and Thompson's brother, Orrin, is a Packers offensive lineman.
Central Florida offensive tackle Josh Sitton (fourth round) has impressed coaches during the shorts and t-shirts part of the offseason schedule, and LSU quarterback Matt Flynn (seventh round) will reprise his role as backup (prior to his senior year, he was JaMarcus Russell's understudy).
When the biggest concern (other than Rodgers) heading into training camp is whether outside linebacker Brady Poppinga will ever improve in pass coverage, the roster is in pretty good shape. Green Bay didn't draft a linebacker, but Brandon Chillar, signed in March from the Rams, will battle Poppinga for playing time.
Rookie Free Agents
The Packers may not have drafted Poppinga's competition, but they signed two linebackers as rookie free agents: Connecticut's Danny Lansanah and Fresno State's Marcus Riley. Both face long odds, and conventional wisdom suggests their best chance of making the club will be on special teams. Tight end Joey Haynos (Maryland) is an imposing target at 6-8, 260, and tight end Mike Peterson (Northwest Missouri State) is 25 years old and a converted running back and a strong blocker.
The Vikings only had five picks on draft weekend and just one selection prior to the fifth round, but the team made its big offseason move in the days leading up to the draft. Minnesota sent a fifth-rounder and two third-rounders to Kansas City for Jared Allen. At first glance, the price might seem steep, but the Vikings were in dire need of a pass rushing defensive end (Kenechi Udeze was diagnosed with leukemia and will miss the 2008 season, and Erasmus James is recovering -- again -- from left knee surgery). As Ned Macey pointed out in the AFC West Four Downs, in historical terms, the three picks sent the Chiefs' way (Nos. 15, 73, and 82) have historically yielded a mixed bag of NFL talent. With Allen, the Vikings know what they're getting and when they're getting it. For a team looking to make a postseason run, it was a heady move.
The club drafted Arkansas State's Tyrell Johnson in Round 2. Like the Bear's Forte, Johnson's Senior Bowl performance caused his draft stock to take off. Minnesota had him as the 17th-best player on their draft board ahead of Kenny Phillips. Darren Sharper and offseason acquisition Madieu Williams are entrenched at safety, but if Johnson is as good as the Vikings thing he will be, defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier will find ways to get him on the field.
Trading a first and two thirds for Allen signaled that the team was relatively happy with quarterback Tarvaris Jackson. In the fifth round, however, they selected USC's John David Booty. NFL Network's Adam Schefter writes that some in the league believe Booty could be the starter before the season is out. That seems like a stretch, especially since Booty's stocked slipped because of suspect arm strength and questionable decision making. That said, Jackson has much to prove and it's conceivable that a rocky start to the season could hasten a change.
Florida State defensive tackle Letroy Guion (fifth round) is a project. He started eight games last season only because Andre Fluellen, the Lions' third-round pick, was injured. Notre Dame center John Sullivan (sixth round) could eventually succeed Matt Birk, who is entering the last year of his contract. If Jackson State wide receiver Jaymar Johnson (sixth round), the Vikings' final selection, makes the team, it will likely be as a returner.
Left tackle Bryant McKinnie was arrested on a felony assault charge earlier this spring, and there's a possibility he could be suspended for violating the NFL's conduct policy. Marcus Johnson and Artis Hicks would be short-term replacements, but hopefully it won't come to that. Allen immediately improves the Vikings' pass rush, but with Udeze out and James' return uncertain, depth at defensive end might be a problem behind Ray Edwards and Brian Robison.
Rookie Free Agents
The Vikings signed USC offensive tackle Drew Radovich to a three-year deal that included a $23,000 signing bonus, which should portend good things for his future. NFLDraftScout.com considered Maryland linebacker Erin Henderson (brother of the Vikings' E.J.) a second- or third-round pick; he went undrafted, possibly because of persistent knee troubles and struggles in pass coverage. Miami quarterback Kyle Wright has the physical tools but, like most undrafted free agents, lacks consistency. Unless he's able to beat out Booty, Wright will be a developmental project on the practice squad in '08. Texas safety Michael Griffin is the twin brother of Michael, the Titans' first-round pick a year ago.