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Brian Billick on NFC North's draft needs

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Brian Billick

Brian Billick served as head coach of the Baltimore Ravens from 1999-2007, winning Super Bowl XXXV. He has also authored books, including More Than A Game: The Glorious Present and Uncertain Future of the NFL. Follow him on Twitter.

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Billick shares his thoughts on the NFC North's draft needs and the top defensive lineman prospects.

March 18 | March 16 | March 15 | March 14

March 18

 

Vikings have areas of concern

 

The collapse of the Metrodome roof was symbolic to the fall of a team that was only a win away from the Super Bowl a season before.

Brian Billick

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Going into next season, there are now more questions than answers with the Minnesota Vikings. Especially playing in a division that houses both teams from the 2010 NFC Championship game.

Defensively, what had been an NFC staple for several years has begun to show its age. Kevin Williams, Pat Williams, Jimmy Kennedy, Ben Leber and Antoine Winfield are all in the 30 or above club.

Offensively, there is a great deal of talent at wide receiver, running back and tight end. However, the offensive line has not performed up to its billing and the quarterback situation is a huge question mark.

In 2005 the Vikings passed on Aaron Rodgers ... twice. Once, to draft wide receiver Troy Williamson at No. 7 and again at No. 18 picking defensive end Erasmus James. Neither lived up to their hype and even more noteworthy both aren't on the roster.

If one of the top quarterbacks fall to No. 12 (Vikings), it will be interesting to see if they are willing to pass. If so, there should be several appealing options at offensive line, but very limited options in their other area of concern — defensive back.

The Vikings will have to make due with only two picks in the first two days of the draft because they gave up its third round pick in the Randy Moss trade (also not with the team).

Minnesota has the tough NFC South as its out of division opponent along with Arizona and Washington. They will also pick up the AFC West as their out-of-conference foes.

 

Baylor DT fits primarily as a nose tackle

 

Baylor defensive tackle Phil Taylor was relatively unknown nationally before his coming out party at the Senior Bowl. Taylor originally played for Penn State before being arrested following a fight at a fraternity party in 2008.

Taylor was subsequently suspended and dismissed from the team, and then decided to transfer to Baylor where he became a full-time starter in 2010.

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Phil Taylor finished the year with 35 tackles, seven for loss and two sacks — fairly average statistics. It was at the Senior Bowl, where he consistently beat top of the line competition in one-on-one drills, that he began to garner Top 5 defensive tackle consideration.

In Mobile he showed that he plays with good leverage and better than average agility for a man his size. He showed an outstanding ability to stay square against double teams and had a great push in goalline situations.

One area of weakness is once his initial burst was stalled, it was hard for him to get a secondary rush or change directions to mirror the play.

Taylor is going to be a 3-4 nose tackle and be asked to plug gaps and free up linebackers, which suits his 6'3 1/4 334-pound frame. But oddly enough, his size (more specifically his weight) is actually a true concern of NFL scouts. At one point in time, Taylor weighed in over 360 pounds. His weight will need to be controlled if a team invests millions of dollars in him.

 

Stephen Paea has raw talent but is still learning

 

Stephen Paea opened a lot of eyes when he threw up 49 repetitions in the bench press at last months NFL Combine. But when you evaluate him as a player, you see much more than just a olympic worthy weight lifter.

Paea has been a consistent performer during his college career at Oregon State.

He had five, three and six sacks in 2008, 2009 and 2010. In addition, he had at least one tackle for loss in 12 of the last 18 games and holds the school record with nine forced fumbles.

Keep in mind, Paea is still learning how to play the game — he didn't start playing football until his senior year of high school.

I was looking forward to watching Paea participate at the Senior Bowl, but he injured his knee in the first practice and was unable to go the rest of the week.

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Paea's main role at Oregon State was to be a space-eating, run-plugging squatty body.

Compared to Nick Fairley, he wasn't asked to provide an intimidating pass rush. What he did do was collapse the pocket and forced the quarterback outside the tackle box on multiple occasions.

Whenever you have a player that can provide an inside push, it is going to make your rush ends that much more impactful as they turn the corner. For Paea to take his game to the next level, he will need to combine that low and hard initial burst with an increased ability to change direction. For now, he is just a powerful straight ahead player.

 

Kickoff return rule change would drastically alter the game

 

I find the proposed kickoff change being discussed by the NFL Competition committee to be a fascinating debate.

The rule change is presented as a way to minimize the impact of big hits and injuries — more specifically, concussions that can occur because of them. Anytime you are talking about player safety it is hard to argue against it. I applaud the league and the Competition Committee in its efforts to continually make the game safer. In this case, I think they have gone too far.

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CHANGE OF MIND

The kickoff has been moved up to the 35-yard line. How will it affect the game we love?

By moving the kickoff up to the 35-yard line you will remove a major part of the tactical and strategic workings of the game. This will all but guarantee that offensive drives will start on the 25-yard line (touchback). The statistical difference between an offense starting with a touchback compared to starting on the 30 or 35-yard line is substantial.

Years ago, when Mike Holmgren and Rich McKay first purposed moving the spot of the kickoff back to the 30, it was done with a passionate plea to return the excitement of the kickoff return play. Teams developed kickers that were capable of kicking the ball out of the back of the end zone and returns were diminishing.

One of the reasons Holmgren was a proponent was because, as the then-head coach of the Green Bay Packers, he knew that Mitch Berger and the Minnesota Vikings were one of the best teams in the league at kickoff returns, particularly in the sterile environment of the Metrodome. As he told me during the debate, “I am tired of having to go the length of the field on every drive.” Mike had not been able to beat the Vikings in Minnesota in his first five years as the Packers head man.

Unless the statistics show an overwhelming increase of injuries in return situations, I don’t see the justification for making the change. I think, perhaps, it is more an effort to again show the players that the league is interested in their well-being than a genuine effort to limit concussions.

 

March 16

 

 

Cam Jordan will transition well into next level

 

California defensive lineman Cameron Jordan is an interesting prospect that NFL scouts will not have to anticipate how he will adapt as a 5-technique in a 3-4 scheme. He has been playing that role for four years in Berkeley, and that is rare to find in the college game.

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Cameron took advantage of his time at the Senior Bowl. Cameron stood out in the game, and maybe even more importantly during the drills at practice.

He consistently beat the opposition in one-on-one pass rush drills with an array of pass rush moves including swim, rip, spin and bull rush. During the week at the Senior Bowl, Jordan may very well have played his way into a late first round selection.

On tape, Jordan relies on his technique and overall power to control the line of scrimmage. He not only held up blockers, but also made plays of his own even after the departure of Tyson Alualu (last year's surprise draft pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars).

Like Kerrigan, Jordan is a high energy player that plays with a great motor. He played in 50 of 51 total games at California which will provide consistency through durability for his future team.

Jordan knows what it takes to play in the NFL as his father, Steve Jordan, was a six-time Pro Bowl tight end, whom I had the pleasure of coaching in Minnesota.

 

Teams will find a place for Purdue's Kerrigan

 

Purdue defensive end Ryan Kerrigan is quickly becoming a hot name in this year's draft, and rightly so. Last year for the Boilermakers, Kerrigan led all FBS players with 26 tackles for loss, second with five forced fumbles and third with 12.5 sacks. Kerrigan was the teams captain and defensive MVP.

At the NFL Scouting Combine, he measured in at 6-foot-3 7/8 and 267 pounds while doing 31 reps in the bench press and running a 4.71 40-yard dash. With those workout numbers and his production on the field, Kerrigan is poised to become a first round draft pick.

On tape Kerrigan shows a motor that never quits — chasing down plays from behind and hustling through the whistle. That hustle shows up in his secondary rush in which he still gets to the quarterback after initially being held up at the line of scrimmage.

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He isn't an elite quick twitch guy, but he consistently plays with great leverage and strength. He understands his assignments and plays within his role on the defense. Kerrigan could improve of his overall flexibility as he does appear to be a little stiff in the hips.

Kerrigan is a natural 4-3 defensive end, but his athletic and playmaking ability has teams considering him as a 3-4 OLB as well. Defensive end makes most sense, but you can always find a place for an intelligent playmaker such as Kerrigan.

 

Mizzou LB Smith is a high-end prospect

 

Missouri linebacker Aldon Smith reminds me of John Abraham of the Atlanta Falcons. Right now, he is a hybrid OLB/DE, but I believe he will be better off adding a couple of pounds and becoming a full-time defensive end.

He is a raw talent that is still learning the game, but his 17 sacks in 23 games make him an attractive prospect.

Smith had a more statistically impressive 2009 season with 11.5 sacks and 46 tackles. Smith uses his length in the pass rush game to interrupt passing lanes and hold off lineman trying to get into his chest. He has the agility to keep his feet when opponents attempt to cut block him and shuffles down the line to stay involved in the play.

Even with his 17 career sacks, Smith did not just play a "sick-em" role for Mizzou's defense. He stayed stout in the run game and often took on pulling guards to clog up the hole. He shows good awareness and a feel for where the ball is at all times — which is scary considering he is coming out as redshirt sophomore.

In the game against Oklahoma, Smith displayed his overall athleticism when he intercepted a pass and returned it 58 yards.

With an early run on defensive lineman in this year's draft, look for Smith to go anywhere between 10-20 overall.

 

Draft strategy changes with uncertain free agency

 

It is anybody's guess whether free agency will begin, as it usually does, prior to the draft. Or if it will begin after the draft for the first time since NFL free agency has come into existence.

Coaches and general managers hate uncertainty.

Even worse, they hate when their routines are changed and they don’t have history to learn from when making major decisions.

We like to compile stats, spreadsheets, case histories and various lists to determine whether we will fill a void by picking up a free agent or drafting a prospect.

It is the classic what came first: the chicken or the egg. I have spoken with several GM’s and coaches that would prefer for free agency to come after the draft. This way, they can focus more specifically on their needs with the new rookies factored in the overall makeup of the team.

The argument goes like this: What happens if we take someone in free agency, then the ‘best player available’ in the draft plays that same position? Now, we have wasted valuable cap space on duplicating the position. Once that position is filled in free agency and you get to the draft, you convince yourself that the player that fits your remaining need is indeed the 'best player available' when in fact, you have let your previous signing sway your judgment into bypassing a better player because of your need.

Most teams would prefer to keep the system as it has been with free agency before the draft. I had the amazing experience working with Ozzie Newsome in Baltimore, and he is brilliant at filling needs in free agency, then having the discipline to truly stay with the 'best players on the board' draft strategy.

That is how we ended up with Todd Heap after we had signed future Hall-of-Famer Shannon Sharpe. Ozzie said, “It is very comforting to know that I don’t have to go one way or the other in the draft because of need. It allows you to trust your board and just compile the best group of football players you can.”

 

Bears must acknowledge some areas of interest in draft

 

The Chicago Bears reclaimed the NFC North and found themselves in the NFC Championship game with a familiar formula: Play good defense and run the ball.

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Even though the Bears ranked 30th in the NFL in offense, they cracked the code after the bye week to find the right mix of run and pass behind mercurial quarterback Jay Cutler in Mike Martz’s offense.

Offensive line coach Mike Tice did an incredible job of bait-and-switch with an offensive line that was virtually unchanged from the year before. The Bears have taken four offensive linemen in the first three rounds in the past decade and only Chris Williams, the 14th overall pick in 2008, remains with them.

Sitting at 29, there should be plenty of attractive offensive line choices in April's draft. I look for them to take the best available lineman, regardless of him being a tackle or guard.

Likewise, they have drafted four wide receivers early in the draft over the last ten years, and only one that remains is Earl Bennett, who they got in the third round in 2008.

Pro Bowler return specialist, Devin Hester, has shown flashes of excellence as a wide receiver, but for Cutler's progression, they will add another one either via draft or free agency.

Defensively, the Bears returned to form and have a solid front seven.

With the disappointing play and subsequent release of interior defensive lineman Tommie Harris, the Bears may look to re-enforce this area in a draft that is very deep with defensive line talent.

Their 20th ranked pass defense is going to be tested this year playing Aaron Rodgers twice and Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, Josh Freeman, Philip Rivers, Matt Cassel and Michael Vick in the out-of-division schedule. So don't be surprised if they look to add depth to their secondary as well.

 

March 15

 

 

Labor uncertainty could hurt veteran free agents

 

Quarterback Marc Bulger is the perfect example of a free agent who likely could get screwed with the current lack of a collective bargaining agreement. By all accounts, Bulger has found his competitive rhythm again in Baltimore.

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When I last sat down with Bulger in the 2008 season, he was a defeated man. The mess in St. Louis, defined by a meager offensive line and no receivers, had Bulger questioning his abilities.

Yet, this is a guy who has a career completion percentage above 60 percent and a 4,000-yard year with 24 touchdowns and eight interceptions in 2006.

By going to Baltimore and backing-up/mentoring Joe Flacco, Bulger has been rejuvenated by being around a talented group or players and solid coaching staff.

Herein lies the dilemma. Two teams that should be very interested in Bulger’s services are the Arizona Cardinals and the San Francisco 49ers. Both are good teams that are a quarterback away from again being competitive in their division (albeit the NFC West).

In a normal year, both would begin to court Bulger while keeping an eye on the draft with the possibility of taking Blaine Gabbert, the only quarterback in this year's draft worthy of a top-10 pick in my opinion. This way, Bulger could give them a solid veteran starter as Gabbert is molded into an NFL quarterback. Or if for example, Arizona were to decide that the No. 5 overall pick has greater value at another position, say Von Miller or Robert Quinn, they wouldn’t be forced to draft a quarterback because of the already acquired Bulger.

San Francisco, on the other hand, is in even a tougher spot. Gabbert would be a good value for them at No. 7, but they have to be concerned that he may not slip past Arizona. In my opinion, the cost and sacrifice is too much to move up.

If free agency doesn’t happen until after April, then both these teams may address their quarterback issues in the draft, and Bulger, who is 33, may have fewer suitors for his services. He can go back to Baltimore as a backup where he made $3.8 million last year, not bad for a guy who did not have to take a snap.

But at this stage of his career, he may want to give one more run at a starting position. Because of the lack of CBA, he may not have that chance.

 

Questions about Fairley

 

It is safe to say that Nick Fairley was as important to Auburn as was Cam Newton. He was a game changer on the defensive line that had the ability to take over games, as shown in the BCS National Championship Game.

Last year, he registered 11.5 sacks and 24 tackles for loss, an Auburn record. Those are very impressive numbers, but they don't carry through his entire college career.

In 2009, he accounted for only 1.5 sacks and 14 total tackles. When you see numbers like that, you question personal drive, work ethic, passion for the game, maturity, etc. Teams will address, or already have, those concerns during personal workouts and interviews leading up to the draft.

When watching Fairley, you see a defensive tackle that is not limited to a specific gap or technique. Fairley has the unique ability to line up anywhere along the front, regardless of scheme and be a playmaker. He could play inside in a 4-3, five technique in a 3-4, or even play the nose on any given down making it very difficult for the offense to prepare for him in the week leading up to the game.

He has a tendency to get a little high and loses his center of gravity and base. In college, he made up for it with extremely quick feet and great hands. He slaps off the blockers hands and gets "skinny" through the hole to be a presence in the pass rush game. He shows more flexibility and quickness than he does overall power.

 

Dareus a top-3 pick

At 6-foot-3 7/8 and 291 pounds, Fairley will be evaluated against Alabama's Marcell Dareus as the best defensive tackle. At this point in time, I would give a slight advantage to Dareus.

 

Checking in at 6-foot-3 1/8 and 319 pounds is Marcell Dareus from Alabama. I have him ranked as my top interior defensive lineman in April's draft.

Dareus provides a different skill set than Nick Fairley, being that he is more of a space-eating, run-stuffing, traditional defensive tackle than he is a big time playmaker.

Dareus will most likely play the nose in a 3-4 defense and his main role will be to keep offensive lineman from getting to the second level, freeing up his linebackers make all the plays.

He plays low and stout with a heavy anchor. He uses his arms to lock out and shed blockers to disengage and slide in the direction of the ball carrier. Once broken free, Dareus doesn't have very good closing speed, but he plugs up the holes in the middle of the field and forces running backs to run around him. He plays with more overall strength than his 24 repetitions in the bench press suggest.

Not withstanding a player boycott, Dareus won't be in the green room very long on draft day, as I look for his name to be called within the first three picks.

 

Packers can draft for depth

 

Regardless of how they do in the 2011 draft, The reigning Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers are primed for an influx of talents.

With the return of injured linebackers Nick Barnett and Brad Jones, running back Ryan Grant and tight end Jermichael Finley, the Packers are already good enough to repeat. Not only do they get these starters back, but they have also created depth by developing the younger players who had to step up last year.

With that said, Green Bay will not be forced into a selection in April's draft, but rather select the best available talent still available. Instead of viewing its No. 32 pick as the last pick of the first round, it will look at it as having the first pick of the second round, and each ensuing round after that.

Offensively, they may continue to retool or add depth to the offensive line after selecting offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga in the first round last year. There should be some intriguing offensive line options sitting there at 32, with the run on defensive lineman likely to occur early.

Grant and the emerging James Starks could be a good tandem, but I would not discount taking a running back before the end of Day 2.

Defensively, Dom Capers has done a masterful job of accumulating a linebacking corps that is versatile and talented. At safety, the Packers are relatively young, and they hit a home run in undrafted free agent Tramon Williams who was waived by the Houston Texans (would they love to have him back right now).

Charles Woodson has been brilliant the last few years, but at some point they may need to develop his replacement and at the same time add nickel depth.

The Packers face the deep NFC South, up-and-coming St. Louis, and the New York Giants as their out-of-division foes. They get a bit of a break with the AFC West being their out-of-conference opponents.

 

March 14

 

Lions could look to draft offensive linemen

 

For any team that will not make the playoffs, it looks for a strong regular-season finish as a platform to gain momentum going into the next season.

The Detroit Lions are the poster child for that, having won their last four games, including wins against the 10-6 Tampa Bay Bucs and the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers (albeit without Aaron Rodgers).

It has been a long road for coach Jim Schwartz and general manager Martin Mayhew. But after two solid drafts that include eight starters, Detroit will look to increase its recent draft success beginning with the 13th overall section in 2011.

Detroit seems content on offense with youth and talent at wide receiver, running back and tight end. However, you can never have enough good offensive lineman, particularly with a quarterback who has been injured each of the past two years.

Using their first-round pick on an offensive lineman would be a viable choice as they need to develop depth and an eventual replacement for Dominic Raiola, but they may find value there on the second day of the draft.

Defensively, Schwartz and Mayhew have built an impressive front seven via both the draft and free agency.

Ndamukong Suh proved to be the most dominate inside presence in the NFL and DeAndre Levy, when healthy, anchors the inside linebacking corp.

Where the Lions really need to upgrade is in the secondary. Getting Safety Louis Delmas in the second round in the 2009 draft was a coup, and they have tried to address the cornerback position via trades for Chris Houston from Atlanta and Alphonso Smith from Denver last year.

Still, a couple of defensive backs during the first two days of the draft would be well advised. With the 13th pick and cornerback Patrick Peterson being long gone, the Lions would love to have Prince Amukamara fall to them. For that to happen, Prince would have to get past Dallas and Houston, both being in the market for cornerbacks.

If both Peterson and Amukamara are gone, they will need to decide if Jimmy Smith, Aaron Williams or Brandon Harris are capable of being selected that high. If not, they will look back to offensive linemen or potentially an outside linebacker to replace Julian Peterson.

Having to face the Packers and Bears is always challenging, plus they pick up the NFC South, San Francisco and Dallas in their out-of-division conference games. They will face the AFC West in the their out-of-conference games.

 

How good is Da'Quan Bowers?

 

Rated by many as the best defensive end in this year's draft, Da'Quan Bowers led the NCAA with 15.5 sacks and won the Nagurski Award as the top defensive player.

He also had the second most tackle for loss with 26, a Clemson record for defensive lineman.

Bowers measured 6-foot-3 and 280 pounds at the NFL Scouting Combine. He completed 22 repetitions in the bench press. Bowers did not compete in the running drills because of a tear in his miniscus.

When you evaluate his performance at Clemson, you see an athlete that plays a lot stronger than his 22 repetitions would suggest. He has an aggressive bull rush off the edge that violently stuns the offensive tackle and gets him off balance. Although he doesn't have elite quickness on the snap, he will be able to work on his timing and explosion off the ball with his position coach in the NFL.

Bowers is also very stout against the run, which is rare for an elite pass rusher. He stays strong as the line of scrimmage and sheds blocks without giving any ground at the point of attack. Bowers plays with great leverage and holds up surprisingly well against double teams.

Many of the records Bowers broke at Clemson where that of a previous first-round selection, Gaines Adams, Bowers' mentor and close friend.

 

Quinn could be elite player

 

Robert Quinn is another defensive end who is drawing a lot of attention as the potential No. 1 draft pick.

When watching Quinn, one thing stands out more than anything else ... his ability to use his hip movement, dip under and turn the corner when rushing the passer. Often lineman struggle to even get a hand on him, let alone an adequate punch.

To make him an elite pass rusher in the NFL, he will want to develop an array of moves, rather than just rely purely on his speed rush technique. Even Dwight Freeney can't use his patented spin move on every single play!

Quinn is different than Bowers in the fact that he is a pure pass rusher that struggles to hold up against the run. Because of that, NFL teams may have an opportunity to scheme against him and run to his side of the field — taking advantage of the running lanes he creates by rushing hard outside.

Keep in mind that all of this observation comes from his sophomore year! Having been suspended his entire junior year for receiving travel accommodations and jewelry, makes him a very tricky evaluation.

He reported to the NFL Scouting Combine at 6-foot-4, 265 pounds. He ran a 4.7 40, completed 22 bench press repetitions, jumped a 34-inch vertical and a 9-foot-8 broad jump.

I see him going in the top 10, but not before Bowers, Marcell Dareus, and Nick Fairley. When a team does select him, they will get an impressive young athlete who very easily could mature into an elite NFL player.

 

Defensive end gains momentum

 

J.J. Watt is a defensive end prospect who is gaining a lot of momentum going into April's draft.

J.J. has always been considered a top-five defensive end is this year's class, but recently some experts are now considering him a top-10 overall pick.

I have him ranked as my third best defensive end behind Quinn and Bowers, but he differs slightly in overall skill set. While Quinn and Bowers both play a traditional positions in a 4-3 defense, Watt will give his team versatility both inside and outside. I see him being most impactful as a five-technique in a 3-4 defense.

Tagged: Falcons, Bears, Lions, Packers, Vikings, Ravens, Pat Williams, Julian Peterson, Ben Leber, Kevin Williams, Nick Barnett, Aaron Rodgers, Ryan Grant, Tramon Williams, Chris Houston, Chris Williams, Matt Ryan, Earl Bennett, Louis Delmas, Alphonso Smith

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