NFC North: Draft Watch 2011

Draft Watch: NFC North

April, 21, 2011
4/21/11
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NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Each Thursday leading up to the NFL draft (April 28-30), the ESPN.com NFL blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: Dream scenario/Plan B.

Chicago Bears

Dream scenario: There is no doubt the Bears' top draft priority is to elevate their offensive line personnel, and typically tackles are valued more than guards or centers. Typically, most blue-chip tackles are off the board by the No. 29 overall pick. So the Bears can only hope that one of the draft's five or so first-round tackles drop to the bottom of the first round. They would be more than pleased to get Wisconsin's Gabe Carimi, Colorado's Nate Solder or even Mississippi State's Derek Sherrod. If nothing else, a first-round tackle would give the Bears more flexibility in determining the best positions for 2010 starters Chris Williams, Frank Omiyale and J'Marcus Webb.

Plan B: If all five tackles are off the board, the next step would be to identify the top guard available. The Bears' offensive line needs are equal across the board. That guard could be Danny Watkins of Baylor. But don't rule out general manager Jerry Angelo pushing hard to trade down and out of the first round if none of the tackles are available.

Detroit Lions

Dream scenario: I don't think there's any question here. The Lions should be thrilled if Nebraska cornerback Prince Amukamara is available at their No. 13 overall slot. He has elite speed, good cover skills, none of the baggage of Colorado cornerback Jimmy Smith and fills a huge need. The Lions really don't have a surefire starting cornerback under contract at the moment.

Plan B: If Amukamara is off the board, the Lions will need to make a character decision on Smith. They brought him in for a pre-draft visit at the facility last month and presumably have a handle on what type of person he is. If they're comfortable, Smith fills the same need as Amukamara. If not, the Lions are in a position to take the best offensive or defensive lineman available.

Green Bay Packers

Dream scenario: We've noted that it would be surprising for a blue-chip offensive tackle to be available at No. 29. The likelihood drops accordingly at No. 32. But truth be told, drafting a high-caliber offensive tackle might be the Packers' best-case scenario. Bryan Bulaga, their top pick in 2010, is already entrenched at right tackle. But at some point they'll have to replace left tackle Chad Clifton as well. It's doubtful a high-caliber left tackle will drop to No. 32, but we can dream, right?

Plan B: There would be nothing wrong with drafting an outside linebacker here, especially if a prospect like UCLA's Akeem Ayers is available.

Minnesota Vikings

Dream scenario: Honestly, the dreamiest scenario is one of the top two quarterbacks dropping unexpectedly. It's so dreamy that I don't know if I can even consider it dream-scenario worthy. In all likelihood, Auburn's Cam Newton and Missouri's Blaine Gabbert will be long gone by No. 12. But if one of them drops, the Vikings would be stunned and thrilled. Even if, say, Gabbert falls past the Arizona Cardinals at No. 5, the Vikings would have to consider it a blessing and should gladly pay the price it would take to move up.

Plan B: In all likelihood, Newton and Gabbert will be off the board. You could argue that a quarterback is so important that the Vikings should just target the next man on their list at No. 12. But given the Vikings' need, the next-best scenario would be to draft the best offensive or defensive linemen available at No. 12 and then find a way to trade back into the first round to select a quarterback somewhere below No. 20.

Draft Watch: NFC North

April, 14, 2011
4/14/11
12:00
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NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Each Thursday leading up to the NFL draft (April 28-30), the ESPN.com NFL blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: Draft Philosophy.

Chicago Bears

General manager Jerry Angelo has emerged from what amounted to a two-year draft hiatus following the high-profile trades for quarterback Jay Cutler and late defensive end Gaines Adams. It will be interesting to see if any philosophical shifts are detectable in what will be the Bears' first draft since Angelo overhauled his front office. Director of college scouting Greg Gabriel departed, his position was dissolved and Tim Ruskell was hired to oversee the college and pro scouting departments. To this point, there has been a general sense that Angelo -- a onetime scouting director himself -- has been drawn to individual players he likes more than he has been guided by a larger plan to build a balanced team. Case in point: He has drafted 18 defensive backs and 11 offensive linemen over his tenure. Six of those 11 offensive linemen were taken in the seventh round, part of the reason the Bears are short-handed at the position this offseason.

Detroit Lions

If the Lions have proved anything under general manager Martin Mayhew, it's that they value every last drop of the draft. In some instances, Mayhew has gone to great lengths to secure an extra pick, no matter what round it is in. On at least two occasions, he has traded a player recently signed as a street free agent or claimed on waivers for a seventh-round draft pick. In several cases, Mayhew has included those picks in trades for other players. This spring, he and the Lions appealed a relatively mild NFL tampering discipline, hired a prominent attorney and achieved the slightest reduction in the penalty: A seventh-round pick lost in 2012 rather than 2011. Some teams consider seventh-round picks to be throwaways or places to grab a player otherwise destined for college free agency to avoid a bidding war on signing bonuses. Under Mayhew, the Lions use them as a daily commodity.

Green Bay Packers

Generally speaking, more is better for the Packers. It's been well-chronicled that Packers general manager Ted Thompson built his championship team almost exclusively through the draft, and that approach requires volume to gather enough depth and maximize the chances for hitting big on players. Thompson famously traded back into the 2009 first round to select linebacker Clay Matthews, but a betting man realizes it's far more likely that he will trade back in any given year to accumulate more picks. Thompson rarely pursues the hot name or flashy personalities or even flashy players. Case in point: Choosing nose tackle B.J. Raji over receiver Michael Crabtree in 2009. But there is no arguing with the Packers' approach under Thompson, which has built layers of quality -- if not elite -- depth at multiple positions across the board.

Minnesota Vikings

Every team insists that talent trumps need in the draft, but under vice president of player personnel Rick Spielman, the Vikings have drafted for need more often than you might think. Consider 2010. The Vikings entered the draft knowing their depth was thin behind injured cornerback Cedric Griffin, who was rehabilitating a torn anterior cruciate ligament. They also had lost backup tailback Chester Taylor via free agency. Their first two picks? Cornerback Chris Cook and running back Toby Gerhart. In 2009, they wanted to replace right tackle Ryan Cook. The answer was Phil Loadholt, their second-round pick. In 2008, the Vikings traded up to draft safety Tyrell Johnson because they knew starter Darren Sharper was entering his final season. There's a difference between taking what the draft gives you and maneuvering to make sure it gives you what you want. The Vikings lean toward the latter under Spielman.

Draft Watch: NFC North

April, 7, 2011
4/07/11
12:00
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NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Each Thursday leading up to the NFL draft (April 28-30), the ESPN.com NFL blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: history in that spot.

Chicago Bears

The Bears' top pick is No. 29 overall. Here are the past seven players taken in that spot, with their NFL team in parentheses:

2010: Cornerback Kyle Wilson (New York Jets)

2009: Wide receiver Hakeem Nicks (New York Giants)

2008: Defensive end Kentwan Balmer (San Francisco 49ers)

2007: Offensive guard Ben Grubbs (Baltimore Ravens)

2006: Center Nick Mangold (New York Jets)

2005: Defensive back Marlin Jackson (Indianapolis Colts)

2004: Wide receiver Michael Jenkins (Atlanta Falcons)

ANALYSIS: The bottom of the first round is a great place to find starting-caliber guards and centers. The top tackles are usually off the board. Fortunately for the Bears, they could use a guard or center just as much as a tackle. While coach Lovie Smith wants to bring back veteran center Olin Kreutz, a free agent, he will have to be replaced someday. And more depth at guard could allow the Bears to move 2008 first-round draft pick Chris Williams back to left tackle.

Detroit Lions

The Lions' top pick is No. 13 overall. Here are the past seven players taken in that spot, with their NFL team in parentheses:

2010: Defensive end Brandon Graham (Philadelphia Eagles)

2009: Defensive end Brian Orakpo (Washington Redskins)

2008: Running back Jonathan Stewart (Carolina Panthers)

2007: Defensive lineman Adam Carriker (St. Louis Rams)

2006: Linebacker Kamerion Wimbley (Cleveland Browns)

2005: Offensive lineman Jammal Brown (New Orleans Saints)

2004: Receiver Lee Evans (Buffalo Bills)

ANALYSIS: Unfortunately for the Lions, this isn't a great spot to get an elite cornerback. Those types of players are usually drafted in the top seven or eight picks. (The Lions are hoping that Nebraska's Prince Amukamara somehow slips through the cracks.) This is a nice area to draft a second-tier defensive lineman, and this year, the Lions will probably have their pick of offensive tackles as well.

Green Bay Packers

The Packers' top pick is No. 32 overall. Here are the past seven players taken in that spot, with their NFL team in parentheses:

2010: Cornerback Patrick Robinson (New Orleans Saints)

2009: Defensive tackle Ziggy Hood (Pittsburgh Steelers)

2008: Defensive end Phillip Merling (Miami Dolphins)*

2007: Receiver Anthony Gonzalez (Indianapolis Colts)

2006: Defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka (New York Giants)

2005: Offensive guard Logan Mankins (New England Patriots)

2004: Tight end Benjamin Watson (New England Patriots)

*First pick of second round.

ANALYSIS: There are some awfully productive players on this list. Part of the reason is that the previous year's most successful organization was in that spot and thus was more likely to make a good scouting decision. But it also tells us the Packers should have an opportunity to select a player who can make an immediate impact as long as they don't limit themselves to certain positions.

Minnesota Vikings

The Vikings' top pick is No. 12 overall. Here are the past seven players taken in that spot, with their NFL team in parentheses:

2010: Running back Ryan Mathews (San Diego Chargers)

2009: Running back Knowshon Moreno (Denver Broncos)

2008: Offensive tackle Ryan Clady (Denver Broncos)

2007: Running back Marshawn Lynch (Buffalo Bills)

2006: Defensive lineman Haloti Ngata (Baltimore Ravens)

2005: Linebacker Shawne Merriman (San Diego Chargers)

2004: Linebacker Jonathan Vilma (New York Jets)

ANALYSIS: This list tells us what we knew already: You can get a blue-chip, impact player here if you exercise good judgment. The Vikings' decision, of course, will be complicated by their need for a quarterback. What will they do if they have, say, a potentially elite pass-rusher like North Carolina's Robert Quinn available to them? Take Quinn and look for a quarterback later? Or prioritize the quarterback?

Draft Watch: NFC North

March, 31, 2011
3/31/11
12:00
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NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Each Thursday leading up to the NFL draft (April 28-30), the ESPN.com NFL blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: decision-makers.

Chicago Bears

General manager Jerry Angelo remains in place for what will be his 10th draft with the Bears, but this will be his first under the new structure he established last spring. Director of college scouting Greg Gabriel left the organization, and director of player personnel Tim Ruskell is now Angelo's right-hand man on all personnel issues. There have been some changes in the internal process, but ultimately Angelo has the final say on draft day. It's been a while since Angelo had a full complement of draft picks after gutting the past two years in trades for quarterback Jay Cutler and defensive end Gaines Adams. He'll pick No. 29 overall this year, the first time he's had a first-round draft pick in three years. Angelo's success in the first round has been mixed. Two of the six players he's selected in the first round over his tenure, tight end Greg Olsen and offensive lineman Chris Williams, figure as starters in 2011.

Detroit Lions

In two drafts since the Lions named him general manager, Martin Mayhew has upgraded the team's talent level and given its fans hope for continued success. It's true that Mayhew has benefited from high selections in those drafts -- he's made four picks in the top 33 over that stretch -- but it's worth noting all of them appear set for long careers. Those who have followed the Lions closely over the years know that hasn't always been the case for high draft picks. Moreover, Mayhew has refused to allow his style to be classified. In 2009, he drafted tight end Brandon Pettigrew at No. 20 overall, his top-ranked player remaining on the board, despite bigger needs at other positions. On the other hand, he targeted tailback Jahvid Best last year as the answer to a specific need. All of which makes him difficult to predict next month, which I'm sure is just the way he likes it.

Green Bay Packers

We might as well start calling this time of year "TTT" -- "Ted Thompson Time." The Packers' general manager has steadfastly relied on the draft to build his team, eschewing veteran free agency in all but a handful of cases, and the approach paid off with last season's victory in Super Bowl XLV. Most of the Packers' top players are Thompson draft picks, from quarterback Aaron Rodgers to receiver Greg Jennings to nose tackle B.J. Raji to linebacker Clay Matthews to safety Nick Collins. True to his personality, Thompson has half-jokingly lamented the time he lost to draft preparation during the Packers' Super Bowl run. He'll have a few extra hours in the first round, where he'll pick No. 32 overall thanks to that little championship thing his team won in February.

Minnesota Vikings

Vice president of player personnel Rick Spielman has run the team's draft for the past four years, although former coach Brad Childress had considerable influence when it came to quarterbacks. That's a big part of the reason why the Vikings are all but barren at the most important position in the game, and that's why it's been almost a singular focus for Spielman and his staff over the past few months. Spielman has a good working relationship with new coach Leslie Frazier, but it's reasonable to assume he will have more complete control over this draft than any other in his tenure.

Draft Watch: NFC North

March, 24, 2011
3/24/11
12:00
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NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Each Thursday leading up to the NFL draft (April 28-30), the ESPN.com NFL blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: schemes and themes.

Chicago Bears

As they look for offensive linemen, particularly tackles and even tight ends, the Bears need to make sure those players are quick enough to handle most one-one-one situations that come their way. Offensive coordinator Mike Martz's scheme emphasizes the number of players in pass routes and relatively rarely gives offensive linemen help against the pass rush. Running backs need to have receiving ability, and wide receivers need to have precise route-running skills. Defensively, the Bears' "Tampa-2" scheme puts a premium on active interior linemen who might be on the small side but can use quickness and technique to overpower opponents. Cornerbacks on the bigger side are also sought after so they can be physical with receivers of the line.

Detroit Lions

The Lions are continuing to transition from a former emphasis on smaller defensive players to ones with size. Their starting defensive tackles, for example, now weight 320 (Corey Williams) and 307 pounds (Ndamukong Suh), respectively. Backup Sammie Lee Hill is listed at 329 pounds. That philosophy will no doubt guide their search for outside linebackers and perhaps cornerbacks as well. Lions coach Jim Schwartz likes linebackers who can play multiple positions. Offensively, the Lions run a multiple scheme that puts an emphasis on pass-catching tight ends and multi-purpose running backs.

Green Bay Packers

As a 3-4 team, the Packers have to take special care that their outside linebackers are big enough to play on the line of scrimmage and their defensive ends are stout enough to play inside the tackle. For a 3-4 linebacker, pass rush takes precedent over coverage skills. Many 3-4 NFL linebackers played defensive end in a 4-3 at some point during their college careers. Offensively, the Packers like to zone block, and they look for offensive linemen who can play multiple positions and flip between both sides of the line. If you have trouble catching the ball, you're not going to get on the field much at any skill position -- including tight end and fullback -- in Packers coach Mike McCarthy's system.

Minnesota Vikings

New Vikings coach Leslie Frazier and offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave won't finalize their offensive scheme until they find out who their quarterback will be this season and moving forward. Musgrave plans to incorporate aspects of the team's West Coast scheme, but the Vikings won't be shopping for any particular body type or skill set. Vice president of player personnel Rick Spielman has hit big on a number of attempts to draft playmakers in recent years, from running back Adrian Peterson to receiver Sidney Rice to receiver Percy Harvin. Defensively, the Vikings will be looking for safeties who can cover the deep half of the field and for interior linemen who can stuff the run.

Draft Watch: NFC North

March, 17, 2011
3/17/11
12:00
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NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Each Thursday leading up to the NFL draft (April 28-30), the ESPN.com NFL blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: draft rewind -- examining the past five drafts.

Chicago Bears

Best choice: My initial thought was to nominate receiver Johnny Knox, a fifth-round pick two years ago out of Division-II Abilene Christian. Knox has 96 receptions in two seasons and is as close to a No. 1 receiver as the Bears have. But the 2006 decision to draft kick returner Devin Hester in the second round was inspired. Hester has changed the game and has become one of the best returners in the history of football. He has also made steady improvement as a receiver after converting from cornerback. Hester it is.

Worst choice: The Bears made Central Michigan defensive end Dan Bazuin a second-round pick in 2007. He was taken No. 62 overall but never played a regular-season down for the team. A left knee injury ended his rookie season and a second operation on the knee led to his release in the summer of 2008. I'm not sure if the Bears could have projected the knee problems, but bidding farewell to a second-round pick after one year is problematic.

On the bubble: Chris Williams, drafted as the left tackle of the future in 2008, missed almost half of his rookie season because of a back injury and has started at three different positions in the ensuing two years. As of today, the Bears aren't saying where he will play in 2011. The position changes could merit credit for flexibility, or they could be grounds for criticism because the Bears haven't been able to lock him down at left tackle as they have hoped.

Detroit Lions

Best choice: If you had the option between a pass-rushing, playmaking defensive tackle and a freakishly skilled receiver, which would you take? I would go with the former, which is why I'm making defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh my top Lions choice over the past five years. Receiver Calvin Johnson is an elite player, but to me, Suh plays a more important position. I realize Suh wasn't exactly a surprise pick at No. 2 overall in 2010, but it's rare that a player taken at that spot lives up to the hype so quickly.

Worst choice: This discussion is limited to the past five years, so we can't nominate receiver Mike Williams (2005). Many of the Lions' now-discarded draft picks were selected with former coach Rod Marinelli's Tampa 2 defensive scheme in mind, so it's not surprising they would no longer be around. There is no smoking gun in this time period, so I'll go with receiver Derrick Williams, a third-round pick in 2009 who has failed as both a No. 3 receiver and a kick returner.

On the bubble: Quarterback Matthew Stafford, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 draft, has missed more games (19) than he's played (13) in the past two years. His three-game appearance in 2010 suggested improvement over his 20-interception rookie season, but like any player, Stafford must find a way to stay on the field or he will be a bust.

Green Bay Packers

Best choice: Trading back into the first round in 2009 to select linebacker Clay Matthews was an inspired move. And tight end Jermichael Finley, you might recall, was a low third-round pick in 2008. But in this case, I have to go with finding one of the top receivers in the game at the bottom of the second round of the 2006 draft. Greg Jennings was the No. 52 overall pick that year and not exactly a household name after his Western Michigan career. But he was productive from the moment he arrived in Green Bay and earned a well-deserved Pro Bowl berth last season.

Worst choice: Tennessee defensive lineman Justin Harrell had a history of injuries when the Packers made him the No. 16 overall pick in 2007. Not coincidentally, injuries have prevented Harrell from establishing any sort of career. He has played in 14 games over four seasons, felled by back and knee ailments, among others. Because of the value of his draft position, Harrell gets the nod over Louisville quarterback Brian Brohm, who bombed after the Packers took him in the second round in 2008.

On the bubble: The Packers don't have a player who fits neatly into this category, but on a relative scale I would go with guard Daryn Colledge, a second-round pick in 2006. Colledge has started all but three games over the past five years, making several position changes along the way, but the Packers never seem willing to commit to him for the long term. That trend continued last month, when they tendered him as a prospective restricted free agent but didn't seem interested (yet) in a multiyear contract. Is this the year they find someone to take over his left guard spot?

Minnesota Vikings

Best choice: Defensive end Ray Edwards has 29.5 sacks in his five-year career, including 16.5 in the past two season, some significant numbers for a player taken in the fourth round of the 2006 draft (No. 127 overall). But it's hard to get past the value the Vikings have gotten from receiver Percy Harvin, their first pick (No. 22 overall) in 2009. They put a substantial amount of pre-draft work into his background, and he has not been responsible for any off-field issue that has been publicized. In two seasons, moreover, Harvin has 131 receptions and has been a force as a kickoff returner as well. The Vikings didn't fully grasp Harvin's migraine history, but I'm not sure if many teams did at the time.

Worst choice: Safety Tyrell Johnson, whom the Vikings targeted and traded up to the No. 43 slot in 2008 to draft, has been a disappointment and is not guaranteed a starting job in 2011. But as far as impact on the organization, it's hard to look past the decision to trade into the second round of the 2006 draft and select quarterback Tarvaris Jackson. There is no doubt Jackson had some physical skills to get excited about. But ultimately, that decision -- along with former coach Brad Childress' faith in his future development -- set back the franchise and left it in desperation mode this spring.

On the bubble: Right tackle Phil Loadholt was the No. 54 overall pick in 2009 and has started 31 of a possible 32 games since. But is that because he deserves to be an established starter in the NFL, or was he simply the Vikings' best option? There are mixed opinions about Loadholt's performance over that stretch, and it's not clear if the Vikings' new coaching staff considers him an unquestioned starter moving forward.

Draft Watch: NFC North

March, 10, 2011
3/10/11
12:00
PM ET
NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Each Thursday leading up to the NFL draft (April 28-30), the ESPN.com NFL blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: biggest team needs.

Chicago Bears

It's no secret that the Bears patched together a serviceable offensive line last season, one born of trial, error and desperation. But with an entire offseason to prepare, they will need a better Week 1 plan. The Bears need help across the line, and you could make an argument for any of the five positions as their top need. Center Olin Kreutz could relieve the situation by re-signing when the free-agent market opens, but otherwise the Bears don't have a single position with an established starter. It's not clear where incumbents Frank Omiyale, Chris Williams, Roberto Garza or J'Marcus Webb will play in 2011. Meanwhile, the release of defensive tackle Tommie Harris highlighted the Bears' need for an upgraded interior pass rush. The Bears would benefit from a pass-rushing defensive tackle as well as some depth behind defensive ends Julius Peppers and Israel Idonije.

Detroit Lions

The Lions have only two experienced cornerbacks under contract, Nate Vasher and Alphonso Smith. They offered 2010 starter Chris Houston a contract tender, but he is likely to be made an unrestricted free agent when the market opens. The Lions would like him to return but the situation's uncertain. In either event, cornerback is the Lions' top need this offseason. Running a close second is outside linebacker after the Lions released one starter, Julian Peterson, and issued a qualifying tender for another, Zack Follett, whose 2010 neck injury could preclude his return. There has been some discussion about moving middle linebacker DeAndre Levy to the outside, but that probably would still leave the Lions in search of two new starters. Finally, the Lions want more production from their No. 3 receiver after Bryant Johnson and Derrick Williams combined for 21 receptions last season. Good depth at tight end mitigates the urgency of this need, but the Lions are one injury away from a shortage at receiver.

Green Bay Packers

The Super Bowl XLV champions will get an internal boost at several positions from the 15 players who finished last season on injured reserve. As a result, this roster doesn't have many obvious shortcomings. But at the top of a short list is outside linebacker, where the Packers rotated three players opposite Clay Matthews last season. The Packers also must continue crafting their succession plan for longtime offensive tackles Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher. Last year's No. 1 pick, Bryan Bulaga, replaced Tauscher in Week 5. Bulaga could stay at right tackle, or he could ultimately take over for Clifton. In either case, the Packers eventually will need further reinforcements. The same is true at receiver, where veteran Donald Driver is 36 and No. 3/4 receiver James Jones could sign elsewhere as a free agent. Jordy Nelson remains under contract, but Driver's age and Jones' uncertain status make receiver a secondary area of need for the Packers.

Minnesota Vikings

As we've been discussing for months, the Vikings need to acquire at least one and perhaps two new quarterbacks. Their dream scenario is to draft one who is ready to start right away, but that might be difficult if they stay in the No. 12 overall slot. Short of that eventuality, the Vikings might be forced to draft a future starter and sign or trade for a short-term answer. The Vikings are also looking to replace two starters on their defensive line, left end Ray Edwards and nose tackle Pat Williams, and could have three starting positions in their secondary up for grabs. Only cornerback Antoine Winfield seems guaranteed of a starting spot. The receiver position could need an overhaul if they lose Sidney Rice to free agency and Bernard Berrian is ultimately released, as has been speculated.

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