NFC North: 2014 Countdown to combine

Countdown to combine: Vikings QBs

February, 20, 2014
Feb 20
10:05
AM ET
INDIANAPOLIS -- We're wrapping up our Countdown to combine series this morning, since, well, the NFL scouting combine is here. Things get started at Lucas Oil Stadium today, so we'll conclude our preview by looking at one last position of need for the Vikings.

Position of need: Quarterback

This is an obvious one, isn't it? The Vikings have had a hole at the position for years, and could be back in the market for a quarterback three years after their ill-fated selection of Christian Ponder in the first round of the 2011 draft. At the moment, Ponder is the only quarterback on their roster after Matt Cassel opted out of his deal, and the Vikings have said they'd like to bring in a young quarterback. They might not have a shot at the top quarterbacks in the draft with the No. 8 overall pick, but they could find options in the second or third round of the draft, as well.

Three players the Vikings might be targeting:

Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M: The odds of Johnny Football still being available at No. 8 are slim, and the price to trade up and get him would be steep, but you never know. Some teams could pass on Manziel because of his size (we''ll see at the combine if he checks in under 6 feet) and his reputation for enjoying the spoils of his position. But he was the first freshman ever to win the Heisman Trophy, and it's tough to argue with his performance at Texas A&M. Russell Wilson and Drew Brees have proved short quarterbacks can succeed in the NFL, and the Vikings could use a dose of Manziel's swagger.

Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville: Another quarterback who could be gone by the time the Vikings pick, Bridgewater will nonetheless merit a long look from the Vikings. He might be the most polished quarterback in the draft, though his arm strength isn't on par with Manziel or Bortles, and his mobility will certainly attract plenty of attention. Though Adrian Peterson has said he'd like to play with Manziel, the possibility of Bridgewater and Peterson in the same backfield is enticing, too.

Blake Bortles, Central Florida: Some mock drafts have Bortles going ahead of Bridgewater or Manziel, which means there's a good chance he'll be gone by No. 8. He's probably the most traditional of the big quarterbacks in this draft -- he stands 6-foot-4, weighs 230 pounds and has an above-average arm -- so if the Vikings were to get a shot at him, they'd be acquiring a quarterback who could fit well in Norv Turner's offense.

Countdown to combine: Vikings DBs

February, 19, 2014
Feb 19
2:40
PM ET
INDIANAPOLIS -- Hello from Indiana, where we're setting up camp in advance of the NFL scouting combine. We're back at it with our Countdown to Combine series, looking at four positions where the Minnesota Vikings need help heading into the 2014 draft. It all leads up to our coverage of the combine, which begins on Thursday.

Position of need: Defensive back

The Vikings allowed more points than any team in the league last season, and a secondary that suffered in the wake of Antoine Winfield's departure was a big part of the problem. Josh Robinson struggled to fill the slot corner position Winfield had played so well -- to the point where the Vikings nearly brought Winfield out of retirement before their Sept. 29 game in London -- and cornerback Chris Cook continued to struggle in man coverage, exposing the team's passing game during a season when their safeties were beset with injuries.

Three players the Vikings might be targeting:

Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State: The cornerback would give the Vikings another big cover corner to pair with Xavier Rhodes. He's at the top of Mel Kiper Jr.'s cornerback rankings Insider, and could be the kind of player the Vikings can get if they wind up trading back a few spots from the No. 8 overall pick. New coach Mike Zimmer will likely use more man coverage than the Vikings have employed in the past, and being able to put Gilbert with Rhodes would be an impressive foundation for the Vikings' secondary.

Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State: He isn't far behind Gilbert in many rankings, and would bring a similar skill set; Dennard can also be a press corner, and like Gilbert, he would give the Vikings a corner with a knack for making big plays. That element, in particular, would be a welcome addition to the Vikings' secondary; Cook has started the second-most games in NFL history without recording an interception.

Jason Verrett, TCU: The 5-foot-10 corner would provide a different kind of option from Gilbert and Dennard; he would likely be able to step in and play slot cornerback, if the Vikings' new defensive staff didn't feel Robinson had grown enough to handle the job. In any case, it might behoove the Vikings to have another option for the position.

Countdown to combine: Packers part 3

February, 19, 2014
Feb 19
1:00
PM ET
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- As we head toward the NFL scouting combine, which starts Wednesday in Indianapolis, it’s a good time to look at the Green Bay Packers' greatest needs this offseason and which prospects general manager Ted Thompson might be taking a closer look at during workouts and interviews this week.

Which position is the greatest need could be debated, but there’s no arguing that it’s on the defensive side of the ball. Before things get underway at Lucas Oil Stadium, we’ll look at three areas on defense where the Packers need help.

Monday was dedicated to the safety position. On Tuesday, we looked at the defensive linemen.

We’ll wrap up the defensive side of the ball with the linebacker spots, both inside and outside.

Why the Packers need help: If the Packers are going to field a defense that at all resembles the units fielded by the NFC’s top two teams -- the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers -- they need to upgrade their linebackers. Specifically, they need more speed both on the outside and up the middle.

The Packers seem satisfied with A.J. Hawk but might be looking to upgrade the other inside spot, which was occupied most of last season by Brad Jones. The Packers gave Jones a three-year, $11.75 million deal that included a $3 million signing bonus.

On the outside, they continued their search for someone to complement Clay Matthews. Mike Neal’s conversion from defensive end went perhaps better than could have been expected. He had five sacks, including four in the last seven games, but is scheduled to be a free agent next month. For the second straight season, Nick Perry (a first-round pick in 2012) battled injuries and still hasn’t shown whether he’s a natural fit at outside linebacker.

Linebackers the Packers should be watching:

Chris Borland, Wisconsin: Probably the second-best inside linebacker in the draft behind Alabama’s C.J. Mosley, who almost certainly won’t be around when the Packers pick at No. 21. The only issue with Borland is that he’s a tad short at 5-foot-11, so he will need to have an impressive showing at the combine and his pro day in order to convince the Packers he can be effective.

Ryan Shazier, Ohio State: With the top two outside linebackers -- Buffalo’s Khalil Mack and UCLA’s Anthony Barr -- likely being top-10 picks, Shazier might be the best remaining option. But there are questions about whether he can rush the passer.

Michael Sam, Missouri: After revealing earlier this month that he is gay, Sam will be perhaps the most scrutinized player at the combine. Projected as a mid-round pick, teams will have to decide whether he can make the adjustment from defensive end to outside linebacker.

Countdown to combine: Packers part 2

February, 18, 2014
Feb 18
1:00
PM ET
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- As we head toward the NFL scouting combine, which starts Wednesday in Indianapolis, it’s a good time to look at the Green Bay Packers' greatest needs this offseason and which prospects general manager Ted Thompson might be taking a closer look at during workouts and interviews this week.

Which position is the greatest need could be debated, but there’s no arguing that it’s on the defensive side of the ball. Before things get underway at Lucas Oil Stadium, we’ll look at three areas on defense where the Packers need help.

Monday was dedicated to the safety position.

Now, we look at the defensive linemen.

Why the Packers need help: All three of the preferred starters – Johnny Jolly, Ryan Pickett and B.J. Raji – are scheduled to become free agents next month unless the Packers work out new deals. Even if some or all of them return, the Packers need more from their front, especially in terms of a pass rush. That trio combined for just one sack (by Jolly) last season. To be sure, they don’t get many third-down pass-rushing opportunities, but they haven’t cashed in on many of their rushes of late. Raji hasn’t had a sack since 2011, while Pickett has been sackless since 2010.

The Packers have a couple of promising, young defensive linemen in Mike Daniels (6.5 sacks last season) and Datone Jones, their 2013 first-round pick, but Jerel Worthy (second round in 2012) hasn’t produced yet.

Dom Capers will always need a sturdy nose tackle in his 3-4 scheme, but considering how little base defense he plays, there may be a greater need for smaller, athletic linemen.

Defensive linemen the Packers should be watching:

Louis Nix III, Notre Dame: It’s a thin defensive tackle class, so it’s possible the 6-foot-3, 340-pounder from Notre Dame could go in the top half of the first round, and he might be the third-best defensive line prospect behind South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney and Florida State’s Timmy Jernigan. Clowney could go No. 1 overall and Jernigan is better suited for a 4-3 scheme. Nix is an ideal 3-4 nose tackle and could replace either Raji or Pickett.

Stephon Tuitt, Notre Dame: Nix’s teammate is a versatile lineman who could play either end or tackle in the Packers’ scheme. A high-motor player who gives maximum effort, something not all 6-6, 303 pounders can do.

Ra'Shede Hageman, Minnesota: Viewed as better pass-rusher than run-stopper who has rare athleticism for a 6-6, 318 pounder. Also has shown flexibility to play multiple positions on the defensive line, something Capers likes.

Countdown to combine: Vikings LBs

February, 18, 2014
Feb 18
12:00
PM ET
MINNEAPOLIS -- We're back at it with our Countdown to combine series, looking at four positions where the Vikings need help heading into the 2014 draft. It all leads up to our coverage of the NFL scouting combine from Indianapolis.

Position of need: Linebacker

In many ways, this has been a position that's needed upgrading for years. Chad Greenway made the Pro Bowl in 2011 and 2012, but the Vikings' production at middle linebacker has suffered since E.J. Henderson retired, and it became obvious last year they needed a dynamic, playmaking linebacker, as well as a permanent solution in the middle of their defense. It's possible both of those needs could be met in the same player.

Three players the Vikings might be targeting:

Khalil Mack, Buffalo: The 6-foot-3 linebacker has been linked to the Vikings in a number of mock drafts and with good reason; he'd be the kind of athletic linebacker who'd make offenses take notice. As dependable as Greenway has been, the Vikings haven't had a true thumper in their linebacking group for some time. Mack would likely start at weakside linebacker, assuming the Vikings liked what they saw of Audie Cole enough to give him another try in the middle. If Mack played there, he might also give the Vikings some of what they thought they'd get with Desmond Bishop in that spot last year -- a physical linebacker who can rush the passer.

C.J. Mosley, Alabama: If the Vikings were looking for a middle linebacker, Mosley might be their best option. He's particularly strong in pass coverage -- where Erin Henderson flailed at times last year -- and he's got the size to help in the run game, as well. Mosley sustained a nasty knee injury in the 2012 BCS National Championship, and dislocated his elbow last year, but if he shows himself healthy enough to merit first-round consideration, he could get a strong look from the Vikings at No. 8. General manager Rick Spielman has also talked about the possibility of trading back for more picks, and if the Vikings did that, they might still be able to get Mosley at, say, No. 10 or 12.

Anthony Barr, UCLA: He could be gone by the time the Vikings pick at No. 8, particularly if there's a team that sees him being able to bulk up enough to play defensive end in a 4-3 scheme, but he'd be another strong option at outside linebacker. Barr is 6-4 and nearly 250 pounds, so he'd certainly have the size to be an imposing outside linebacker. His best fit could be with a team looking for a 3-4 outside linebacker, but Barr's pass-rushing skills could make him an attractive fit in the Vikings' scheme, as well.

Countdown to Combine: Bears

February, 18, 2014
Feb 18
9:00
AM ET
With the NFL combine starting Feb. 22, here's a look at Chicago's positions of need and which prospects the Bears might be looking taking a closer look at in Indianapolis. Positions of need are listed in order of importance.

Position of need: Defensive end

Questions remain as to whether the Bears should cut or retain defensive end Julius Peppers, who produced 11 sacks or more in 2011 and 2012, but finished 2013 with 7.5 sacks. That production isn't bad for most, but most players don't carry a cap charge of $18.183 million in 2014, which is why a decision on Peppers remains one of the club's top offseason priorities.

Complicating the situation is the fact former first-round pick Shea McClellin hasn't produced at a level commensurate with his draft slot, while veteran starter Corey Wootton is set to hit free agency. David Bass, Cheta Ozougwu and Cornelius Washington are the only other defensive ends on the roster, which means the team could look to the draft or free agency for more help at the position.

The problem is the 2014 draft isn't very deep at defensive end, which makes keeping Peppers or adding through free agency attractive options.

“Julius had a lot of good games like a lot of our players, and he had games he would want back,” Bears general manager Phil Emery said. “We will work through each and every player on our squad to determine where we're going with him in the future. Julius is under contract. We're proud he's a Bear, and that's where we're at.”

Emery has talked in the past about players that transcend scheme. Below are a few potential Bears options capable of playing in multiple defensive schemes.

Three players the Bears could be targeting

Kony Ealy, Missouri: Versatility sticks out as a hallmark of Ealy’s game. At Missouri, he lined up in different spots all along the defensive line, and also stood up on the outside as a rusher. Projected to be taken in the mid-to-late first round, Ealy could play the role of a traditional 4-3 defensive end, but is believed by some to be better suited to play outside linebacker in a 3-4 system.

Stephon Tuitt, Notre Dame: Big enough (6-foot-6, 312 pounds) to play inside in a 4-3 scheme or at end in a 3-4. Over the past two seasons, he’s produced 19.5 sacks. Tuitt is projected to be a late first-round or second-round pick, and despite his scheme versatility, he might not be the type of penetrating force the Bears covet from their defensive tackles, but he’s plenty capable of holding the point against the run.

Kareem Martin, North Carolina: Lined up at defensive end and defensive tackle at the Senior Bowl, according to reports, and is coming off an 11.5-sack senior season. Martin appears to be more of a traditional 4-3 end at 6-foot-6, 272 pounds, but he believes he could play outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme. Martin’s draft projections vary widely, but if he falls into the second or third round, he could be a solid addition for Chicago.

Countdown to combine: Packers' needs

February, 17, 2014
Feb 17
2:20
PM ET
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- As we head toward the NFL scouting combine, which starts Wednesday in Indianapolis, it’s a good time to look at the Green Bay Packers’ greatest needs this offseason and which prospects general manager Ted Thompson might be taking a closer look at during workouts and interviews this week.

Which position is the greatest need could be debated, but there’s no arguing that it’s on the defensive side of the ball. Before things get underway at Lucas Oil Stadium, we’ll look at three areas on defense where the Packers need help.

First up is safety.

Why the Packers need help: The Packers made a $24.75 million investment in strong safety Morgan Burnett last offseason, when they gave him a four-year extension that included an $8.25 million signing bonus. If Burnett is to live up to the rest of that contract, he will need to make far more impact plays than he did in 2013, when he failed to come up with a single interception for the first time in his four-year NFL career.

In fact, Packers safeties didn’t pick off a pass the entire season, the first time that’s happened in Green Bay in more than 50 years.

Here’s how bad their safety play was: Jerron McMillian, who opened the season as one of the starters while Burnett was sidelined with a hamstring injury, was released in early December and hasn’t been picked up by another team. Third-year pro M.D. Jennings, a former undrafted free agent, started every game at free safety but at different points in the season was splitting time with Chris Banjo and Sean Richardson, a pair of undrafted players. Jennings is scheduled to be a restricted free agent next month.

Thompson has drafted only one safety (McMillian in the fourth round in 2012) since he picked Burnett in the third round in 2010. He still has not adequately replaced three-time Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins, whose Packers career ended in Week 2 of the 2011 season because of a neck injury.

There may be only two or three safeties with first-round grades, but the Packers should be in position to take one of them at No. 21.

Safeties the Packers should be watching:

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama: An underclassmen who is known for his strong instincts and cover skills, he will likely be the first safety taken and could be gone before the Packers are on the clock. He looks like a free safety prospect, although he can come down and play in the box against the run. If Thompson likes him enough, perhaps he might be willing to trade up to get him.

Calvin Pryor, Louisville: Another underclassman who looks like he has the speed to cover ground and find the ball in the deep part of the field. Could push Clinton-Dix and overtake him as the top safety in the draft. It’s unlikely both will be gone by the time the Packers are on the clock.

Jimmy Ward, Northern Illinois: At 5-foot-11, he’s shorter than Pryor (6-2) and Clinton-Dix (6-1) and might be better suited for strong safety. However, he has shown the ability to cover with range and match up against bigger tight ends and receivers. Had a strong showing at the Senior Bowl last month to boost his stock.

Countdown to Combine: Vikings

February, 17, 2014
Feb 17
12:00
PM ET
MINNEAPOLIS -- Welcome to our Vikings-specific preview of the NFL scouting combine, which kicks off on Thursday in Indianapolis. We'll be previewing four positions this week the Vikings could address in the draft. I'm inclined to stay away from the quarterback position, since we've talked so much about it already (and will continue to talk about it). This can be a place to look at the other areas the Vikings could address, many of them being on defense. We'll get started there, with a look at the defensive line.

Position of need: Defensive line

The Vikings could be facing a time of transition at the position, with both Jared Allen and Kevin Williams set to hit free agency after burnishing their Hall of Fame credentials in their time in Minnesota. Defensive end Everson Griffen is a free agent, as well, though the Vikings seem likely to re-sign him. But the team could still be in the market for a taller defensive end along the lines of the ends new coach Mike Zimmer had in Cincinnati, in addition to another defensive tackle.

Three players the Vikings might be targeting:

Louis Nix (DT), Notre Dame: Nix is an absolute load at nose tackle, and could give the Vikings the kind of impenetrable force they haven't had since Pat Williams. He could free Sharrif Floyd up to be the kind of upfield pass-rusher Zimmer had in Bengals' three-technique tackle Geno Atkins (and the Vikings had for many years in Kevin Williams). There are concerns about Nix's health after he had surgery to repair a torn meniscus, and he could have knee problems at his size (6-foot-2, 342 pounds), but he'd immediately change the face of the Vikings' run defense.

Ra'Shede Hageman, Minnesota: The Vikings should know plenty about the 6-foot-6 Hageman already, and they could give him a chance to continue his career in TCF Bank Stadium, where they'll play the next two seasons. The 6-foot-6 Hageman profiles as an interior lineman. He might not be refined enough to play defensive end in a 4-3 scheme, where he'd be asked to rush around the edge, but his size and athleticism could pique the Vikings' interest, whether he'd be an interior lineman or merit a look on the outside.

Kony Ealy, Missouri: We're assuming Jadeveon Clowney will be gone by the time the Vikings pick at No. 8, but a player like Early or Notre Dame's Stephon Tuitt could make sense if the Vikings are in the market for the kind of tall defensive ends new coach Mike Zimmer had in Cincinnati. Ealy had eight sacks last season, and at 6-foot-5, 275 pounds, he'd give the Vikings a player with a similar physical profile to Allen, who is a free agent this spring.

Countdown to Combine: Bears

February, 17, 2014
Feb 17
9:00
AM ET
With the NFL combine starting Feb. 22, here's a look at the Chicago Bears' positions of need and which prospects the team might be looking taking a closer look at in Indianapolis. Positions of need are listed in order of importance.

Position of need: Defensive tackle

The Bears lost two defensive tackles in franchise player Henry Melton and his reserve, Nate Collins, over a span of 15 days last season, leading to a domino effect that would collapse the entire defense into ineffectiveness, not to mention failure of historic proportions.

The Bears gave up the most points (478) and total yards (6,313) in franchise history, and in the process surrendered 10 100-yard rushing performances, in addition to a 211-yard outing by Minnesota's Adrian Peterson. Bears general manager Phil Emery took responsibility for the Bears not having a successful contingency plan up front to counteract all the losses.

"It starts with me," Emery said at the end of the season. "We had injuries. They are not an excuse. So for me, I have to look at did we have enough depth to win football games? The answer is no. From a personnel perspective, from my perspective, I had not done enough to provide enough depth. We were at least one defensive lineman short. At the tackle position going into the season, for that fourth tackle, we felt like we had a tackle signed in Sedrick Ellis; that didn't work out (because he retired on the eve of training camp. That's on me. The fact that we couldn't replace Sedrick, that's on me. We didn't have enough pass rush from the outside or the inside. We needed one more."

Look for the Bears to try to fulfill that need in May during the NFL draft.

Melton and Collins are free agents, as are Jeremiah Ratliff and versatile end/tackle Corey Wootton, who is recovering from offseason hip surgery, and Stephen Paea is entering the final year of his original rookie deal.

Three players the Bears might be targeting

Timmy Jernigan, Florida State: Projected as a penetrating one-gap defensive tackle, Jernigan fits Chicago's scheme, provided it decides to continue to operate out of a 4-3 front in 2014. Jernigan appears to have more upside than Melton in terms of his ability to disrupt running plays in the backfield. At the very least, Jernigan could come in and become a part of the team's defensive line rotation as a rookie if he doesn't outright win a starting job.

Louis Nix III, Notre Dame: Probably not an ideal fit for a one-gap scheme, but has ideal size to produce as a two-gapping 3-4 nose. The question is whether the Bears plan to transition over to that front. If so, Nix might be the perfect foundation for that construction project. Based on the team's current personnel, it might not be ready just yet to make the 3-4 transition, which means Nix might not be Chicago's man at No. 14.

Aaron Donald, Pittsburgh: Not as tall as Melton, but similar in terms of weight (288 pounds, but he could easily get up to 300) and skillset. Like Melton, Donald is probably most disruptive as an interior pass-rusher, but some scouts think he might be capable of holding the point consistently as a run defender. Donald fits what the Bears do defensively, but again, the caveat is whether the team decides to continue running the current scheme in 2014.

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