For the past month, NFL teams have evaluated and graded every player on their roster. They've determined whom they want to keep and who can leave. Their priority lists are stacked for offseason acquisitions. As they head to the scouting combine this week, they have a clear picture of their perceived strengths and weaknesses.
I'm all about improving a team through the draft, but I've never understood why some fans and media members put more faith in the nebulous form of a future draft pick over a player who has spent a year or more in the team's program. If everyone is doing their jobs well, those players should be in better position to help out than a rookie just out of college.
In that spirit, let's take a look at one player on each NFC North team who -- with reasonable development -- could help alleviate some pressure to acquire upgrades at his position. (Hat tip to Aaron of Kansas City, Mo., for suggesting the idea as part of last week's mailbag request.)
Player: Defensive lineman Jarron Gilbert
Status: Entering second year. Turns 24 in September.
2009 performance: One tackle in four games.
2010 hopes: The road couldn't be paved any more clearly for Gilbert, the Bears' top pick of the 2009 draft. Left end Adewale Ogunleye is a pending free agent and is expected to move on. Ogunleye's likely replacement, Gaines Adams, died last month. That left Gilbert and Henry Melton as the remaining internal candidates to start at left end. Good outside pass-rushers almost never become available on the free-agent market, and without a pick in the first or second round this season, it will be difficult for the Bears to draft one capable of making an immediate impact. To this point, Gilbert's greatest claim to fame is being the draft prospect who jumped out of a pool. He spent most of 2009 in an unofficial redshirt year under defensive line guru Rod Marinelli, so it's hard to know if Gilbert is capable of holding down a starting job in 2010. It's not even clear if the Bears consider him an end or a tackle. But if it's the former, Gilbert will get every opportunity to help the Bears out of this jam.
Player: Running back Aaron Brown
Status: Entering second year. Turns 25 in October.
2009 performance: A total of 1,166 all-purpose yards, mostly via kickoff returns.
2010 hopes: Starting tailback Kevin Smith is rehabilitating a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee while also trying to overcome two shoulder injuries that slowed him in 2009. Backup Maurice Morris is also under contract, but Morris doesn't have the kind of big-play abilities Brown displayed last season. The Lions were exasperated at times with Brown's mental errors, but perhaps an offseason of studying can help him move past those issues. He might not be an ideal every-down back, but Brown could add an explosive element to the Lions' offense if they trust him enough to put him on the field. His development could ease some of the urgency to add further depth behind Smith and Morris.
Player: Defensive back Will Blackmon
Status: Entering fifth year. Restricted free agent. Turns 26 in October.
2009 performance: Played three games before tearing anterior cruciate ligament in left knee Oct. 5 at Minnesota.
2010 hopes: Because the Packers haven't revealed their tender offers for restricted free agents, we can't say with certainty that Blackmon will return to the Packers in 2010. But based on the typical timetable for ACL rehabilitation, Blackmon should be cleared for the start of training camp. And if he's healthy and ready, Blackmon would add experienced depth to a position ravaged by injuries at the end of last season. With Al Harris rehabilitating a similar injury on a later timetable, the Packers might have to open camp with nickelback Tramon Williams as a starter. It's always possible that a rookie could help at nickelback, but all things equal, the Packers would probably be more comfortable with veteran experience at the position. Jarrett Bush struggled in that role during some games last season, opening up an opportunity for Blackmon if he's up to it.
Player: Cornerback Asher Allen
Status: Entering second year. Turned 22 in January.
2009 performance: 27 tackles, one interception, one forced fumble in 10 games.
2010 hopes: The Vikings need Allen to become a full-time player, if not a starter, to avoid facing a sudden shortage at cornerback. Starter Cedric Griffin's status is uncertain after he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during the NFC Championship Game; it would be a surprise if Griffin is cleared for the beginning of training camp. The 2009 nickelback, Benny Sapp, is a pending unrestricted free agent and probably earned himself a decent contract after making seven starts in 2009. I'm guessing the Vikings don't want to overpay to bring back Sapp, especially considering Griffin will eventually return and that fellow starter, Antoine Winfield, is signed through 2013. As a rookie, Allen had a strong training camp but was buried on the depth chart when the season began. He's aggressive against the run, a decent tackler and displayed solid instincts when on the field. A natural progression would make him the nickelback in 2010, a role that would allow him to fill in for Griffin. Otherwise, the Vikings will have to shell out more money for Sapp or another free agent.