November 19, 2012 at 1:00 am

Josh Katzenstein: NFL Monday Countdown

It's time to talk draft: Lions should target safety or defensive end

LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo has four sacks and 32 tackles this season. (Stacy Revere / Getty Images)

It's time to think about the draft.

With Sunday's 24-20 loss to the Packers, the Lions' uphill climb to the playoffs just became vertical.

If 10 wins is the magic number, the Lions (4-6) would have to win out to have a chance. If for some reason nine wins is enough, the Lions would need to go 5-1, and five of their remaining opponents have winning records.

Based on everything they said Sunday, Lions players aren't ready to close this season, so don't expect some kind of slump for better draft position. Besides, it wouldn't necessarily help them.

Teams that miss the playoffs generally want to be rewarded with a higher draft pick, but that may end up being counterintuitive for the Lions this year. The better their pick, the more likely the Lions will have to draft for value rather than need.

Even if the Lions sign Louis Delmas — not a guarantee with his lingering knee problems — their top need is safety. Ricardo Silva and Don Carey have been adequate in their playing time, but both are backups in an ideal world. And Erik Coleman, a nine-year veteran, will be a free agent.

The Lions are currently tied with seven other teams for the eighth pick. The problem is most draft analysts don't have a safety ranked in the top 15.

The top safety prospect right now is Texas' Kenny Vaccaro, who is ranked No. 17 overall by ESPN's Mel Kiper and No. 21 by Todd McShay.

If the Lions pick in the top 12, that would be a big stretch. The Lions definitely need a safety, but solid players like Georgia's Shawn Williams, Florida's Matt Elam, LSU's Eric Reid and Oklahoma's Tony Jefferson could all be available in the second round.

Cornerback could also become a pressing need if the Lions don't sign Chris Houston at the end of the season, but he's played well enough this season that the Lions can't afford to lose him.

McShay and Kiper both have Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner ranked No. 11, but if the Lions keep Houston, they should be content at cornerback with 2012 picks Bill Bentley, Jonte Green and Chris Greenwood all a year older.

The Lions' next need, defensive end, is the one they'll most likely fill in April. The 2013 class is full of big, athletic defensive ends that should be able to start on opening day.

The Lions likely can't afford free agent Cliff Avril, and Kyle Vanden Bosch is 34, so the Lions could be starting two new defensive ends next season. Third-year backup Willie Young has taken a step back and has zero sacks this season after having three in the same role last year.

Defensive end Lawrence Jackson will be a free agent, but hasn't done much to prove he can start next season. And rookie Ronnell Lewis, a fourth-round pick, was brought in mostly for special teams.

In a best-case scenario, LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo (6-5, 240 pounds) will still be on the board when the Lions draft. Mingo has taken a step back statistically this season after having eight sacks and 15 tackles for loss in 2011.

Despite Texas A&M's Damontre Moore passing Mingo as the No. 1 defensive end, Kiper and McShay have Mingo in the top eight. If he's there and the Lions don't want to leap for a safety, Mingo should be the pick.

If Mingo is gone, there are plenty of other defensive end options: Florida State's Bjoern Werner (6-4, 225), Florida State's Tank Carradine (6-4, 255) and LSU's Sam Montgomery (6-4, 260) all rank in the top 20 for Kiper and McShay.

McShay also has Oregon defensive end Dion Jordan (6-6, 239) at No. 14.

The 2013 class is also plentiful with offensive linemen. Tackle Gosder Cherilus will be a free agent next year, and the Lions gave up five sacks to the Packers Sunday, despite Clay Matthews being out.

Michigan junior tackle Taylor Lewan (6-8, 309) keeps climbing up draft boards and could be an option in April.

Around the NFC North

With the Packers' win over the Lions Sunday, Green Bay (7-3) is only a half-game behind the Bears for first place.

The Bears (7-2) play at San Francisco Monday night in a battle of backup quarterbacks (Jason Campbell for the Bears and Colin Kaepernick for the 49ers).

The Vikings (6-4) had a bye this week and are just 1.5 games back. They also have the luxury of a 2-0 start in the division (both wins over the Lions) and visit Chicago next Sunday.

Entering Monday's game, the NFC North is the best division in football with 24 total wins, two better than the NFC South.

NFC wild-card race

The Lions might not be as involved as two weeks ago, but the NFC wild-card race is shaping up to be a battle at the end of the season.

Currently, two NFC North teams (Green Bay and Minnesota) control their own destiny, but four teams are right on their heels.

Seattle (6-4) still has three home games, so the Seahawks will likely finish with at least nine wins. Tampa Bay is also 6-4 and has two easy home games against Philadelphia and St. Louis, but two games against Atlanta and one at Denver will be tough.

In fact, the key game for the Bucs is a Week 15 matchup at New Orleans. Suddenly, the Saints (5-5) are back in the playoff race after winning five of six. New Orleans, though, still has a home game against the 49ers and road games at the Falcons, Giants and Cowboys.

And those Cowboys (5-5) are still in the hunt, too. They have two games against the Redskins and one at home against the Eagles that should help them. But games at Cincinnati, and home against Pittsburgh and New Orleans, will decide the Cowboys' season.

Texans lose a star

The Lions are a team searching for good news, and they may have some.

Houston cornerback Jonathan Joseph suffered a hamstring injury in Sunday's overtime win over Jacksonville and sounds unlikely to play Thursday. Joseph would've been the primary cornerback responsible for covering Calvin Johnson.

The Lions may also have a little more confidence knowing the Jaguars took the Texans to overtime and led for almost the entire second half before losing 47-43.

Of course, 9-1 Houston is still pretty daunting.

jkatzenstein@detnews.com

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