Work in Sports
NFC Central Draft Preview
Posted: Wednesday April 12, 2000 04:55 PM
By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated
Total picks: 6
Priority positions: DE, WR, LB, RB
The state of things: The Bears are on their way up after bottoming out in 1998, but they still lack enough playmakers to put a serious dent in their division rivals. That's why the emphasis in this year's draft will be on speed and proven difference makers. The Bears, at No. 9, have a litany of choices. Many have them staying put and taking one of the draft's most intriguing prospects, New Mexico's versatile Brian Urlacher, the former safety who is projected as an outside linebacker who will never have to leave the field. The Bears also might consider Michigan State receiver Plaxico Burress, who would give them another big, impressive downfield threat to pair with Marcus Robinson. Running back still needs help, too, thanks to the underachieving Curtis Enis. If a Thomas Jones or Shaun Alexander should happen to linger on the board, the Bears would be tempted to snap up a featured back who can catch the ball in their freewheeling offense and focus on linebacker or defensive end in the second round.
The hunch: There's been talk about the Bears trading down to acquire more than their paltry six picks, and that could happen if both Urlacher and Burress are gone. But in most scenarios, at least one of them if not both remains at No. 9. With Chicago's defensive needs, Urlacher makes too much sense to ignore.
Total picks: 6
Priority positions: OL, RB, CB, DL
The state of things: The surprising Sanders-less Lions went as far last season as their offensive line and running game took them. In the first half, both units worked better than expected and Detroit started 6-2. In the second half, both units broke down and the Lions slumped to 2-6 and 8-8. Detroit can't let that pattern doom another season. Jacksonville's James Stewart was signed to lead the running backs, but Detroit could still be in the market for a big-time runner. If Wisconsin's Ron Dayne should still be around at No. 20, the Lions have a decision to make. Chances are he won't be, and the Lions will think offensive line with their top pick. Another Badger, tackle Chris McIntosh, would fill a need, and guard Travis Claridge of Southern Cal would allow the Lions to leave last year's No. 1, the behemoth Aaron Gibson, at right tackle for now. With the depth of the cornerback crop, look for the Lions to address their depth concerns at the position in the second or third round. Depth at defensive line will also vie for Detroit's second or third selection.
The hunch: The Lions rarely play it risky on draft day, and Claridge or McIntosh would be two more examples of that trend. Both are solid bets that would improve the Lions' neediest position. Dayne would be the sexier pick, but here's guessing Detroit won't be faced with that decision.
Total picks: 14
Priority positions: DL, LB, TE, WR
The state of things: Tied with Cleveland for the most selections in the draft, the Packers could use multiple picks at both defensive line and linebacker, an approach that worked fairly well in the secondary last season. General manager Ron Wolf is again prepared to throw a lot of bodies at the problems. The defensive line lost its best rusher, Keith McKenzie to the Browns, and Vaughn Booker is gone, as well. At linebacker, the team wants to replace strong-side starter George Koonce, and on the weakside, Brian Williams is coming off knee surgery. On offense, the shaky status of tight end Mark Chmura, both on and off the field, leaves that position in the spotlight. While Miami tight end Bubba Franks has gotten some ink as the Packers' possible No. 1, it's more likely that Green Bay will take the best available defensive end or linebacker at No. 14. Tennessee's Shaun Ellis or maybe Kansas State's Darren Howard figure to be the names to know at end, while Syracuse linebacker Keith Bulluck has played both outside and middle and offers the versatility and playmaking the Packers covet.
The hunch: Green Bay's young secondary made some strides last year, but they can't keep up in the land of the big receiver -- the NFC Central -- if the Packers don't generate more pass rush. That spells defensive end in the first round and should translate into Ellis at No. 14.
Total picks: 10
Priority positions: DE, CB, G, RB
The state of things: One thing can be counted on regarding the Vikings' 2000 draft: They won't be taking many chances and they will be taking defense, defense, defense. After the Dimitrius Underwood debacle of 1999, the Vikings will play it safe on the character issue and choose their players primarily with regard to need. That's where the defense comes in. With Duane Clemons and Chris Doleman gone, both starting defensive end jobs are up for grabs. Fernando Smith and John Burrough are the best of the current bunch. The Vikings at No. 25 will address the end shortage, unless the three or so players they like -- Virginia Tech's John Engelberger, Tennessee's Shaun Ellis and Kansas State's Darren Howard among them -- are all gone. Then the Vikings would turn to cornerback, where they give Ohio State's Ahmed Plummer the edge over Jackson State's Rashard Anderson. The Vikings could use one of their two second-round picks on a running back, since Robert Smith can be a free agent in 2001 and Leroy Hoard probably won't be back, and could take as many as three offensive linemen in rounds three through six.
The hunch: This is a pivotal draft for Dennis Green, who may be coaching for his job this season if the Vikings fall out of the playoff picture for the first time in five years. With free agency and the salary cap stripping them of key players, the Vikings must replenish with this 10-pick draft. The safest pick at their first-round spot would figure to be Engelberger.
Total picks: 6
Priority positions: OT, LB, TE
The state of things: The Bucs are very close to dominating this division for the foreseeable future and one more quality draft should do it. The Bucs parlayed their two No. 1 picks -- 13 and 27 -- into the trade for the Jets' Keyshawn Johnson. Tampa Bay doesn't pick until late in the second round now as a result of the Johnson deal. Tampa Bay really helped its interior line by signing ex-Viking Pro Bowl picks Jeff Christy and Randall McDaniel, but left tackle Paul Gruber is a question mark after breaking his leg in the playoffs and right tackle remains a trouble spot. The Bucs think young Jamie Duncan will replace Pro Bowl middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson, but they could spend their second-round pick on that position in the second round.
The hunch: By nature, Tony Dungy is conservative and usually errs on the side of caution. But with Tampa Bay so close to a legitimate Super Bowl run, caution is not called for. The Bucs rolled the dice and landed that big receiver who's so necessary in the NFC Central, so their draft will now not be quite so prolific.