Tom Oates column: NFC North rivals draft with eye on Packers

May 1, 2012

Green Bay general manager Ted Thompson filled needs all over his defense in the NFL draft, but the Packersí NFC North Division rivals also spent the three-day draft filling needs.

As in, they drafted players they need specifically to beat the Packers.

Indeed, it looked like Chicago, Detroit and Minnesota spent the weekend with one eye on their draft boards and one on Green Bay.

You donít even have to look at the names of the players they drafted to see that, just the positions they play. The NFC North drafts were heavy on players at positions that affect the passing game on offense or on defense.

The Bearsí six-man draft class consisted of a pass-rushing defensive end, two receivers and three defensive backs. Among their eight picks, the Lions chose an offensive left tackle, a wide receiver, a pass-rushing defensive end and three defensive backs. The Vikings had 10 selections and used the first seven on an offensive left tackle, three receivers and three defensive backs.

You canít blame those teams for taking a narrow draft focus. In going 15-1, including 6-0 in the division, the Packers scored more points last season than any team in NFL history except New England in 2007. The mandate is clear: If you want to beat the Packers, you have to slow them down or be prepared to win a shootout.

All three of the Packersí rivals made strides in that regard during the draft.

The Bears were very aggressive prior to the draft, finally giving quarterback Jay Cutler a go-to wide receiver when they traded for Brandon Marshall. In free agency, they added halfback Michael Bush, guard Chilo Rachal and even a backup quarterback in Jason Campbell so they can avoid a repeat of last year, when they were 7-3 with Cutler and 1-5 after he got hurt.

In the draft, Chicago got a pass-rushing partner for Julius Peppers when it took Boise State defensive end Shea McClellin on the first round. Most saw McClellin as a linebacker, but not the Bears. They gambled again in the second round, adding another big-play wide receiver in Alshon Jeffery, a major talent who had a troubled season at South Carolina.

For immediate impact, third-round safety Brandon Hardin might surpass both McClellin and Jeffery. Hardin missed the 2011 season with a broken shoulder, but safety has been a Bears weakness for years and safeties who can cover are becoming more important in the pass-happy NFL. Hardin was athletic enough to play cornerback at Oregon State.

After years of struggling, Detroit is the prime candidate to unseat Green Bay after going 10-6 last year. A defensive collapse in the second half of the season made the Lionsí off-season goals apparent. Or so we thought.

Despite a crying need for people who can cover, Detroit used its first-round pick on Iowa left tackle Riley Reiff and its second-rounder on Oklahoma wide receiver Ryan Broyles. Adding Reiff for pass protection makes sense because emerging quarterback Matthew Stafford has been injury prone. Broyles was ultra-productive in college, but was a questionable pick after having knee surgery in November. If healthy, he would give the Lions four wide receivers the equal of any in the NFL.

The Broyles pick indicates the Lions hope to beat the Packers in shootouts, though the rest of their draft was devoted to defense. Third-round pick Dwight Bentley of Louisiana-Lafayette must overcome his small-school background and contribute right away because the Lions need a starter at cornerback. If he canít do it, the Lions will hear about it because they passed on cornerbacks Casey Hayward of Vanderbilt, Trumaine Johnson on Montana and Josh Robinson of Central Florida to select Broyles. All went quickly after that, including two ó Hayward to Green Bay, Robinson to Minnesota ó within the division.

The Vikings wanted to improve their depth and did so by trading the No. 3 overall pick for the No. 4 pick and getting three extra picks while still landing the player ó USC left tackle Matt Kalil ó they wanted. That turned into a 10-man class that will start the Vikings on the road to recovery after a 3-13 season.

After finding protection for young quarterback Christian Ponder in the first round, Minnesota addressed its porous secondary with its next two picks. The Vikings traded up into the first round to take Notre Dameís Harrison Smith, one of only two high-end safeties in the draft. They took Robinson, a cornerback who ran a 4.29 40, in the third round and he should at least be the nickel back this season. Minnesota then took Arkansas wide receivers Jarius Wright and Greg Childs in the fourth round in an effort to make life even easier for Ponder.

The Vikings are a year away from contention, but if the Bears and Lions filled their needs in this draft, the NFC North could emerge as the best division in the NFL because both teams seemingly closed the gap on the Packers.

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If you've ever answered "Who has the ball?" with "It's halftime," you might recognize The Airhead. Check out the characters in our cartoon gallery of oddball fans.

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