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Dissecting the Draft: NFC team strategies

A capsule look of the major needs and a possible course of action for the NFC teams in the 2012 NFL Draft, which will take place at New York's Radio City Music Hall from April 26-28.

NFC EAST

Dallas (8-8)

Top Needs: WR, S, OLB

First Three Picks: No. 14, No. 45, No. 81

Number of Selections: 8 (1, 2, 3, 4, 4, 5, 6, 7)

Shoddy defensive play was a prime culprit in Dallas' 1-4 finish to last season, therefore it's hardly shocking that the majority of prospects rumored to be on the team's first-round radar come from that side of the ball. Defensive tackles Dontari Poe (Memphis) and Fletcher Cox (Mississippi State), South Carolina cornerback Stephon Gilmore and three Alabama players -- safety Mark Barron, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw -- have all been heavily linked to the Cowboys, and all would aid a unit that displayed signs of age while fading badly down the stretch this past year. Dallas won't be ignoring offense in this draft, however, as the offseason departure of 2011 breakout performer Laurent Robinson has made finding a reliable No. 3 receiver a chief objective and a backup tight end would be of use as well. Though the Cowboys appear set at running back with second-year standout DeMarco Murray and former first-round pick Felix Jones, both have had durability issue during their careers, so don't discount Jerry Jones spending a second-day selection at the position to bolster the group.

N.Y. Giants (9-7)

Top Needs: RB, WR, DT

First Three Picks: No. 32, No. 63, No. 94

Number of Selections: 7 (1, 2, 3, 4, 4, 6, 7)

The defending Super Bowl champions enter the draft seeking replacements for a pair of key contributors to their latest championship run, wide receiver Mario Manningham and running back Brandon Jacobs. And with leading rusher Ahmad Bradshaw a significant health risk due to chronic foot problems, acquiring some protection in the form of a first or second-day selection figures to be in the team's plans. Manningham's exit leaves New York without a dependable No. 3 receiver, while the ACL tears that tight ends Jake Ballard and Travis Beckum sustained in the Super Bowl has created a dangerously thin situation at that position even after the recent signing of ex-Cowboy Martellus Bennett. The Giants could also use a bit more interior depth along the defensive line, an area in which general manager Jerry Reese has been a proponent of stockpiling high-ceiling talent in the past, so an early pick on a young tackle makes some sense as well. Reese did spend a second-round choice on the promising Marvin Austin in last year's draft, but the former North Carolina Tar Heel hasn't played regularly since 2009 because of a pectoral injury and college suspension.

Philadelphia (8-8)

Top Needs: S, OLB, RB

First Three Picks: No. 15, No. 46, No. 51

Number of Selections: 9 (1, 2, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 6, 6)

The Eagles are usually active movers on draft day, and with an extra second- round pick gained from last summer's Kevin Kolb trade and nine selections overall, they appear to have the flexibility to maneuver up or down the board to obtain a player they covet. Philadelphia also has a history of targeting the trenches early in the draft, as seven of the franchise's 11 first-round choices in the Andy Reid era have come from the offensive and defensive lines, and the team has shown a lot of interest in Mississippi State defensive tackle Fletcher Cox during the scouting process. The Eagles have also closely studied quarterbacks Ryan Tannehill (Texas A&M) and Kirk Cousins (Michigan State), and it wouldn't be a shock if they make a play for either one considering Michael Vick's age and injury history and the lack of an ideal backup, though they'd likely have to get into the top 10 to land the fast-rising Tannehill. Last month's trade for veteran DeMeco Ryans has stabilized a shaky situation at middle linebacker, but there's more quantity than quality at the outside flanks, and the safety positions remain dicey despite Reid having invested a second-round pick there two straight years. A versatile running back that can spell All-Pro LeSean McCoy may also rate among Philly's draft priorities.

Washington (5-11)

Top Needs: QB, ILB, OL

First Three Picks: No. 2, No. 69, No. 102

Number of Selections: 7 (1, 3, 4, 4, 5, 6, 7)

The Redskins made their draft intentions abundantly clear by orchestrating a bold trade with St. Louis back in March, shipping their first (No. 6 overall) and second-round (No. 39) selections plus two future first-rounders to the Rams to secure the No. 2 overall pick and place themselves in position to land one of this year's prized quarterback prospects, either Baylor playmaker Robert Griffin III or Stanford's Andrew Luck. With Luck expected to go to Indianapolis with the top choice, Griffin stands as the most likely candidate to end Washington's longstanding quest for a top-flight signal-caller, and the reigning Heisman Trophy winner's arm strength and elite athleticism make him a natural fit for Mike Shanahan's offense. Shanahan and general manager Bruce Allen will allocate the rest of the draft towards replenishing depth and filling less crying needs, with an eventual successor to soon-to-be 37-year- old inside linebacker London Fletcher and competition for injury-prone right offensive tackle Jamaal Brown near the top of the list. Washington does have an extra fourth-round pick as compensation for the 2010 trade of quarterback Jason Campbell to Oakland.

NFC NORTH

Top Needs: OL, DE, WR

First Three Picks: No. 19, No. 50, No. 79

Number of Selections: 7 (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7)

Protecting quarterback Jay Cutler has been a major problem for the Bears over the past two seasons, therefore it wouldn't be a stretch if the team spends another high draft pick on an offensive tackle even after grabbing promising right-side regular Gabe Carimi in the first round last year. Depth is needed behind Carimi and inconsistent left-side starter J'Marcus Webb regardless, and the guard positions could use some retooling as well. The overtures made to free-agents Mario Williams and Jeremy Mincey during the offseason also suggest that Chicago will be in the market for a pass-rushing end to team with perennial Pro Bowler Julius Peppers, and last month's trade for Cutler confidant Brandon Marshall doesn't completely rectify the club's flimsy situation at wide receiver, as speedster Johnny Knox's 2012 status is cloudy due to a serious back injury and the mercurial Marshall has encountered his share of trouble away from the field. Look for the Bears to use the later rounds to inject some youth into other areas of the defense, namely linebacker and the interior line.

Detroit (10-6)

Top Needs: CB, OT, OLB

First Three Picks: No. 23, No. 54, No. 85

Number of Selections: 7 (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 7)

A series of outstanding drafts has built the up-and-coming Lions to the point where the 2011 playoff participants can now use the early rounds to focus on fixing specific weaknesses, and there are two areas that stand out as potential deficiencies on an otherwise well-stocked roster. The most glaring hole is at cornerback, as Detroit's pass defense collapsed down the stretch of last season and veteran starter Eric Wright left via free agency, and the team may not hesitate to take Alabama's Dre Kirkpatrick or South Carolina's Stephon Gilmore if either is still around at the No. 23 overall pick. The Lions will also have an eye on an offensive tackle, with longtime left-side starter Jeff Backus having shown signs of breaking down and former first-round choice Gosder Cherilus entering the last year of his contract. Outside linebackers Justin Durant and DeAndre Levy are also set to hit free agency after this season, so future replacements may also be sought after there at some point of this draft, and there's still some concern at running back despite the recent high selections of Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure. Best has been plagued by concussions throughout his brief pro career, while Leshoure missed his entire rookie season with a torn Achilles.

Green Bay (15-1)

Top Needs: OLB, S, DE

First Three Picks: No. 28, No. 59, No. 90

Number of Selections: 12 (1, 2, 3, 4, 4, 4, 5, 6, 7, 7, 7, 7)

Though the Packers remain in very good shape over the long haul, as a team that won a Super Bowl in 2010 and lost just one regular-season game last year fields one of the league's youngest rosters and has most of its core members under contract for the foreseeable future, the defending NFC North champs still could use some fine-tuning. General manager Ted Thompson probably won't sway much from his subscription to taking the best available player, a philosophy that's bred considerable success, but it's likely he'll be spending a lot of attention towards repairing a suspect defense that allowed the most yards in the NFL this past season. Green Bay still lacks a reliable complement to pass-rushing terror Clay Matthews at outside linebacker, and the team failed to come up with an adequate fill-in for free safety Nick Collins after the three-time Pro Bowler sustained a potentially career-threatening neck injury in September. A lack of impact players at the end spots also contributed to last year's defensive downturn, so it's almost certain Thompson will be using at least one of the Pack's 12 picks on solidifying that department. He'll also be on the lookout for a developmental quarterback to replace free-agent departure Matt Flynn and possibly another running back, as veteran Ryan Grant has yet to be re-signed and leading rusher James Starks has had difficulty staying healthy over his career.

Minnesota (3-13)

Top Needs: S, OL, WR, MLB

First Three Picks: No. 3, No. 35, No. 66

Number of Selections: 10 (1, 2, 3, 4, 4, 4, 5, 6, 7, 7)

After tying a franchise record for losses in a season in 2011, the Vikings head into a very important draft with 10 total picks and several areas in need of an upgrade. Chief among them is the left side of the offensive line, where longtime anchor Steve Hutchinson's release creates a gaping hole at guard and tackle Charlie Johnson is coming off a rough year as young quarterback Christian Ponder's blind-side protector. With the third overall selection, Minnesota is in perfect position to take the best left tackle prospect of this class, Southern California's Matt Kalil, and kick Johnson inside, though general manager Rick Spielman has publicly acknowledged he's open to trading down if a team meets his asking price. Expect Spielman to also set his sights on a wide receiver early on to give Ponder another playmaker alongside top target Percy Harvin, whose injury history increases the importance of bolstering that position. On defense, the Vikings will be likely seeking some help at safety, a continual sore spot in recent years, and may bring in reinforcements at cornerback as well considering Antoine Winfield's age (35 in June) and fellow projected starter Chris Cook's off-field issues. Veteran E.J. Henderson's departure also makes middle linebacker a concern, though the team appears comfortable with the unproven Jasper Brinkley as a stand-in.

NFC SOUTH

Atlanta (10-6)

Top Needs: OL, TE, DE

First Three Picks: No. 55, No. 84, No. 157

Number of Selections: 6 (2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 7)

Last year's bold trade-up to land promising wide receiver Julio Jones has left the Falcons a bit short-handed in this draft, as the team sent its 2012 first and fourth-round picks to Cleveland as part of the package to make the move. General manager Thomas Dimitroff's strategy this time around could be geared towards addressing age issues at a few key positions, with prolific tight end Tony Gonzalez, top pass rusher John Abraham, longtime center Todd McClure and backup quarterback Chris Redman all in their mid-30's and nearing the end of the line. The most pressing concern on the offensive line may not be at McClure's spot, though, as former first-round choice Sam Baker has disappointed at left tackle and enters the final year of his contract, plus there's a void at right guard. If a young defensive end that can pressure the quarterback is still on the board at Atlanta's late second-round selection (No. 55), Dimitroff likely won't hesitate to strike. If not, that pick could be used to nab Gonzalez's eventual replacement. The Falcons probably won't have a chance at the top tight end of this class, Stanford's Coby Fleener, but have shown interest in Louisiana-Lafayette's Ladarius Green.

Carolina (6-10)

Top Needs: DT, CB, LB

First Three Picks: No. 9, No. 40, No. 104

Number of Selections: 7 (1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 6, 7)

Moving the football and scoring points weren't problems for the Panthers in year one of the Cam Newton era, but preventing the opposition from doing so was a major challenge last season. As a result, expect Carolina's 2012 draft class to be heavily skewed towards the defensive side. The most obvious weakness resides in the middle of the line, even though the team invested third-round picks on tackles Sione Fua and Terrell McClain in the most recent draft. Both appear to be complementary players rather than impact performers, however, and veteran Ron Edwards turns 33 in July and is coming off a torn triceps. Finding a big, physical cornerback to play alongside standout Chris Gamble and who can allow the diminutive Captain Munnerlyn to move to a more suitable role covering the slot will also be a high priority, and the injury histories of outside linebacker Thomas Davis and right offensive tackle Jeff Otah create a need for additional depth at those positions as well.

New Orleans (13-3)

Top Needs: DL, CB, WR

First Three Picks: No. 89, No. 122, No. 162

Number of Selections: 5 (3, 4, 5, 6, 7)

General manager Mickey Loomis and his staff will have ample time to survey their board, as the Saints aren't scheduled to pick until near the bottom of the third round after dealing away their first-round selection to grab running back Mark Ingram during last year's draft and having their second-rounder stripped as punishment for the team's well-publicized bounty program. When the defending NFC South champions are finally on the clock, odds are Loomis will be seeking reinforcements to a defense that had trouble getting to the quarterback in 2011 and is now short at cornerback following Tracy Porter's free-agent departure. With proven pass rusher Will Smith facing possible league discipline for his involvement in the bounty scandal, the need for someone who can bring pressure from either the outside or the interior becomes even more pronounced. Though New Orleans re-signed Marcus Colston and appears well set at wide receiver, don't discount the club using one of its five choices on adding another target for Drew Brees and the league's best passing attack.

Tampa Bay (4-12)

Top Needs: LB, RB, S, CB

First Three Picks: No. 5, No. 36, No. 68

Number of Selections: 6 (1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7)

Tampa Bay's uncharacteristic big spending on this year's free-agent market helped take care of a few of the team's greatest areas of deficiency, but there are still some holes to fill on a very young roster that experienced its share of growing pains last season. The Buccaneers are looking for a dependable running back with receiving skills to pair with bruiser LeGarrette Blount, who doesn't offer much in the passing game and was plagued by fumbling problems during his sophomore slump, as well as added help to a defense that was routinely shredded down the stretch of 2011. Tampa is believed to be extremely high on Trent Richardson and would seriously consider taking the dynamic Alabama back if he's available at its No. 5 overall choice, with LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne a strong option as well if the club stays put. With only six picks at the Bucs' disposal at the moment, trading down to augment the selection total may also be an avenue general manager Mark Dominik pursues. Dominik would like to come away with a starting-caliber linebacker, one of the team's biggest weak spots a year ago, and a difference-maker to a secondary that allowed 30 touchdown passes this past season.

NFC WEST

Arizona (8-8)

Top Needs: OT, OLB, WR

First Three Picks: No. 13, No. 80, No. 112

Number of Selections: 7 (1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 6, 7)

There are three positions that stand out as problem areas on Arizona's current roster, so expect the team to spend its No. 13 overall draft choice on either an offensive tackle, outside linebacker or wide receiver. Pass protection was a huge liability for the Cardinals in 2011, with the line's allowance of 54 sacks the second-highest total in the league, and obtaining a tackle that can step in alongside returnee Levi Brown and man either side is a must. The promise that youngsters Sam Acho and O'Brien Schofield have displayed makes outside linebacker less of a trouble spot, but neither is a proven commodity and there's virtually no depth behind them. Arizona would likely take a hard look at South Carolina tweener Melvin Ingram, who fits the mold defensive coordinator Ray Horton looks for in an edge rusher, if he's still on the board when it selects. Though the Cards have one of the game's premier receivers in Larry Fitzgerald, another outside threat that can draw double teams away from the perennial All-Pro would further diversify the offense. Don't rule out general manager Rod Graves trading down in the first round as well, since the Cardinals sent this year's second-rounder to Philadelphia in last summer's deal for quarterback Kevin Kolb. Grabbing a developmental passer is also a possibility, as neither Kolb nor cohort John Skelton was particularly consistent under center this past season.

San Francisco (13-3)

Top Needs: OG, DL, S

First Three Picks: No. 30, No. 61, No. 92

Number of Selections: 7 (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7)

The 49ers will have all but two starters returning from last year's near-Super Bowl squad, with wide receiver Josh Morgan and right guard Adam Snyder the lone significant defections. The additions of ex-Giant Mario Manningham and the unretired Randy Moss should offset Morgan's loss. leaving an interior lineman that can offer Snyder's versatility as the most prominent deficiency on the roster. Building some depth on the defensive line will also be a priority in this draft, as All-Pro tackle Justin Smith turns 33 this season, end Ray McDonald has battled knee problems and nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga is an impending free agent. The Niners applied the franchise tag to playmaking safety Dashon Goldson, but could look for a successor if unable to sign him long-term, and the team may not be finished tinkering at wide receiver in its effort to help boost an offense that finished 30th in passing yards last season.

Seattle (7-9)

Top Needs: DE, LB, RB

First Three Picks: No. 12, No. 43, No. 75

Number of Selections: 6 (1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7)

After re-signing workhorse running back Marshawn Lynch and picking up Matt Flynn in free agency to take the reins at quarterback, the Seahawks can concentrate on adding a few more pieces to an improving defense at the outset of this draft. Seattle is set at one defensive end with the often-overlooked Chris Clemons, but no other lineman produced more than three sacks last season, therefore finding a quick edge rusher likely ranks near the top of the team's to-do list. Though the linebacker corps was bolstered with the signings of veterans Anthony Hill, Barrett Ruud and Matt McCoy, the fact that all three received only one-year deals could mean Pete Carroll isn't done shopping for a long-term solution, preferably in the middle. Boston College's Luke Kuechly, the consensus top inside linebacker prospect, has been a popular prediction in mock drafts for Seattle's 12th overall pick. Among the secondary needs is a change-of-pace back that can catch the ball and spell Lynch. The Seahawks come into the draft with only six selections, having dealt away their fifth-rounder for Lynch two years back.

St. Louis (2-14)

Top Needs: OLB, WR, OL, CB

First Three Picks: No. 6, No. 33, No. 39

Number of Selections: 8 (1, 2, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 7)

The Rams already made headlines prior to the draft by engineering a blockbuster trade with Washington that netted the struggling franchise two future first-round picks and an extra second-rounder this year in exchange for moving down from its original No. 2 overall slot to No. 6. And there are indications that St. Louis may not be done dealing, as the three selections the team holds in the top 40 and eight overall probably still aren't enough to satisfy its plethora of needs. Chief among them is a game-changing wide receiver that can provide the offense with a vertical threat, which is why former Oklahoma State star Justin Blackmon and talented Notre Dame product Michael Floyd are commonly pegged as potential fits if the Rams stay put. The addition of feisty veteran Cortland Finnegan fills a gaping hole at cornerback, but opposite-side starter Bradley Fletcher's two ACL tears in the last three years make LSU's Morris Claiborne a realistic option at No. 6 as well. The Rams are also reportedly enamored with Alabama running back Trent Richardson, and with Steven Jackson showing signs of decline and no viable backup behind him, that's also a direction they can go early on. Later rounds will likely be used to bring in potential starters at three other positions that require upgrading -- outside linebacker, defensive tackle and left guard.