The first and second rounds of the 2014 NFL draft are where the Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings can all take the biggest strides toward next season's NFC North title.
A strong early haul might add the two missing pieces needed for the Packers to win a fourth straight division crown. A similar success rate for the Bears, Lions or Vikings could be enough to finally dethrone Green Bay atop the final standings.
The first and second rounds are where the game's biggest stars are found. The teams that consistently find talent and difference-makers early in drafts typically win big, while misses and busts can set a hurting franchise back and ensure more high picks in future years.
The first two rounds are especially important in this year's draft, as the Vikings, Lions and Bears all pick within the first 15 selections of each round. The Packers sit at No. 21 and No. 53 in a draft lauded as one of the deepest in recent years.
Below, we will run down the ideal scenario in the first and second round for each NFC North team. The division would heat up in a hurry if these dream fits came to fruition.
First Round: DT Aaron Donald, Pitt
Second Round: FS Jimmie Ward, Northern Illinois
There were several reasons for the Bears' stunning collapse on defense last season. Yet somewhere near the top of the list was the early loss of Henry Melton, who tore his ACL in Week 3 and then sat out the final 13 games. Without the disruptive abilities of Melton at the 3-technique, the Bears suddenly couldn't stop the run (Chicago gave up 88.7 rushing yards per game from Weeks 1-3 and 178.2 from Week 4 on) or force turnovers (11 in the first three weeks, 17 the final 14).
Melton is now in Dallas with former Bears defensive line coach Rod Marinelli. One of the Chicago's primary goals in this draft should be to find his replacement.
Donald, a slightly undersized 3-technique oozing with Melton's same disruptive tendencies, is the ideal candidate. A firecracker off the snap who plays with natural leverage and instincts, Donald has the potential to be a player who produces eight to 10 sacks from the inside—one of the rarest commodities in football. If he lasts all the way to No. 14, the Bears can run to the podium and make the selection.
Bypassing the need at safety with their first pick would give the Bears real incentive to look hard at the position in the second round, especially if a versatile, athletic player like Ward was still on the board. While somewhat undersized, Ward is the best pure cover safety in the entire draft, which should be appealing to Bears general manager Phil Emery.
“People are sacrificing a little bit in the size area in terms of getting players that can be more active and successful in coverage,” Emery said of the safety position, per Kevin Fishbain of Chicagofootball.com.
The Bears need to get better at every level of defense. Adding Donald to a defensive line that has already acquired Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young would turn a weakness into a strength. Ward would be an immediate starter and an obvious upgrade on the atrocities Chicago suffered through at the safety position a year ago.
First Round: CB Kyle Fuller, Virginia Tech
Second Round: OLB Kyle Van Noy, BYU
Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack is the true dream pick for the Lions, who want to both bolster the pass rush and find a new starter at outside linebacker. Mack does both, and he brings to the NFL Von Miller-like production potential for a 4-3 defense. But he's almost certainly locked into the top five, and trading up to get him isn't Detroit's most cost effective move.
Instead, the Lions can find the perfect NFC North corner in the first and then take a slightly lesser version of Mack in the second.
Fuller is an ideal fit for Detroit's division, which features tall, twitchy receivers such as Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Jordy Nelson and Cordarrelle Patterson. The Virginia Tech corner is 6'0" tall with almost 33" arms, giving him ideal length to combat the bigger receivers. He also ran the 40-yard dash in under 4.5 seconds and finished the three-cone drill in under seven. Combine his fluid athleticism with the anticipation, awareness, closing speed and ball skills that show up so frequently on tape, and Fuller might just emerge as the best cornerback in this draft.
He also fills a hole at one of Detroit's biggest positional needs.
While Van Noy might not be a carbon copy of Mack, he is the kind of linebacker the Lions could use on either the strong or weak side. With a well-built frame and surprising athleticism, Van Noy can rush the passer off the edge, pursue downhill in the running game or flip his hips and cover backs and tight ends in space. He'll enter the NFL ready to contribute on all three downs.
There's also the added benefit of reuniting Van Noy with Ziggy Ansah, who together formed a wrecking-ball duo that gave BYU 17.5 sacks and 35 tackles for losses during the 2012 season.
Taking Fuller and Van Noy doesn't allow the Lions to add a receiver in the first two rounds, but it's a worthwhile trade-off. The Lions are well positioned on offense, and adding two talented players at key positions gives Detroit's defense a chance to go from good to elite.
Green Bay Packers
First Round: ILB C.J. Mosley, Alabama
Second Round: S Terrence Brooks, Florida State
Good defenses remain built up the middle, which includes inside linebacker and safety. The Packers are woefully deficient at each position, with two mostly average starters at inside linebacker (A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones) and only one solidified starter at safety (Morgan Burnett). Predictably, Green Bay finished last season ranked 25th against the run and 21st in takeaways.
Fixing inside linebacker will likely take a first-round pick. The drop-off between Mosley, Ryan Shazier and Chris Borland—the consensus top-three at the position—is massive, making it unlikely to find a difference-making starter deeper into the draft. Yet Mosley or Shazier could both be available at No. 21, and each makes sense for the Packers.
Mosley is the pick because he's easier to project into a 3-4 defense. Plug him next to A.J. Hawk, and the Packers are immediately better in both the base defense and nickel package. Shazier is a superior athlete with a higher ceiling, but he's more of a projection in Green Bay's three-man front. Can the Packers afford to risk plugging another square peg into a round hole?
At safety, Dom Capers needs a player to finally thrive in Nick Collins' old role as a deep center fielder. Replacing an All-Pro is unlikely, but Brooks played cornerback at Florida State before transitioning to one-high safety for a national championship defense. He has the range, awareness and physicality to start right away alongside Burnett.
And in all reality, the Packers probably can't get through the first two rounds without addressing the safety position. It's too big of a need, and the depth of talent in this draft too shallow, to count on answers being found later on.
First Round: DT Aaron Donald, Pitt or CB Kyle Fuller, Virginia Tech
Second Round: Trade back into first round for QB Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville
Maybe no team in the NFC North could improve as drastically in the first two rounds as the Vikings, especially in the scenario laid out above.
Minnesota doesn't appear dead set on a quarterback at No. 8 overall, possibly because of harbored fear from the failed selection of Christian Ponder back in 2011. Reaching and missing at the position is not an option this time around.
Instead, the Vikings can get an instant impact defender to help Mike Zimmer's rebuild in the first round and worry about quarterback later (or maybe just a few picks down the road).
Donald is essentially a slightly smaller version of Geno Atkins, whom Zimmer developed and set loose to the tune of 29.0 sacks over three-and-a-half seasons (he tore his ACL after nine games in 2013). The Vikings have four good players up front in Everson Griffen, Brian Robison, Linval Joseph and Sharrif Floyd, but adding Donald to the mix would give Zimmer the kind of disruptive and versatile line he always deployed in Cincinnati.
If Donald isn't the pick, Fuller also makes a lot of sense. As noted above, his length and anticipation are perfect for the NFC North. And teaming Fuller with Xavier Rhodes (who played really well down the stretch as a rookie in 2013) and Captain Munnerlyn (experienced slot corner) would provide the Vikings with a very attractive trio of coverage cornerbacks for the foreseeable future.
Minnesota could then solidify itself as a serious Day 1 winner by moving back into the first round to grab Bridgewater, who has real potential to slide down the board.
His flaws have been unfairly dramatized throughout a draft process that has seen him tumble from the unquestioned top quarterback to—on some boards—out of the top five at the position. It's a fall that could benefit the Vikings, who would find great value by moving back into the first round and securing the potential fifth-year option on a legitimate franchise quarterback.
Minnesota may be a year out from challenging again for the NFC North crown, but grabbing Donald or Fuller and Bridgewater on Thursday would give Zimmer's club a real chance at getting things turned around right away.
Zach Kruse covers the NFC North for Bleacher Report.