By Brett Angel, Associate Editor Bears Offseason Needs
Making it to the Super Bowl can sometimes create the illusion that a team has very few weaknesses, and that they are already in perfect position to make a repeat run at the Lombardi Trophy the following season. But in many cases, playing in or winning the Super Bowl makes it more difficult to keep a roster in tact because the value of individual players can skyrocket based on the organization's overall success. At the moment, the Bears are hoping most of their offseason needs can be fulfilled by re-signing their own players to new contracts rather than dipping into the free agent pool. That could change in a matter of weeks, however, if the less fortunate teams around the NFL start throwing fistfulls of dollars at some of their most attractive free agents.
Areas of Need: For the first time since the last time the Bears represented the NFC in the Super Bowl (January 1986), addressing the quarterback position is not on the team's list of offseason priorities. Rex Grossman, for all his criticism, should only get better as he gains more experience, Brian Griese is one of the better backups in the league, and third-stringer Kyle Orton (if nothing else) has proven he is good enough to win at the pro level.
The two positions that general manager Jerry Angelo should be most concerned about upgrading are the offensive line and the secondary. The Bears' O-line was solid in 2006 in terms of both creating holes for its running backs (15th in rushing yards) and keeping Grossman upright (sixth in sacks-allowed), but four of the five starters will be 30 or older when next season begins and there isn't much depth. This unit was fortunate enough to stay remarkably healthy in 2006, but the cupboard is growing increasingly bare of young talent; something that cannot be ignored much longer.
Another season-ending injury to Pro Bowl safety Mike Brown (his third in the last three seasons) and the Bears' well-documented struggles against the pass late in the regular season reiterated the importance of stockpiling depth in the secondary. Fortunately, the Bears took necessary steps to address that need in each of the last two years, adding Chris Harris and Danieal Manning via the draft. Manning has the brighter future of the two and was forced into the starting lineup as a rookie, but you can bet Lovie Smith would prefer to have an experienced veteran playing center field against Peyton Manning with a championship at stake.
A year ago at this time, wide receiver and tight end were both considered areas of concern for the Bears, but both positions have sorted themselves out thanks to the resurgence of Desmond Clark and a breakout season from Bernard Berrian.
Love Smith's front seven is the team's strongest asset and that group will benefit greatly from the return of Pro Bowl defensive tackle Tommie Harris, who missed the final month of the regular season as well as the playoffs with a hamstring injury. The highest-profile free agent on the team is linebacker Lance Briggs, who is sure to get a monster deal elsewhere if the Bears don't make it a top priority to lock him up with a long-term deal. Whether or not the Bears keep him in Chicago could very well dictate the rest of the organization's offseason moves. Using the franchise tag on Briggs is an option, and would all but guarantee he remains in the Windy City for another year. But since the Bears have never used a franchise tag on any player, it will be interesting to see how they approach this situation.
Help is on the Way? How the Bears deal with Briggs will dictate the rest of their personnel decisions. Securing his long-term future with the team will require a lucrative contract, and if the two sides can comes to terms it will likely mean the Bears have a very quiet offseason thereafter. If Briggs signs elsewhere, the Bears will likely act fast to grab one of the remaining free agent linebackers available. Of those, London Fletcher is probably the most attractive. Fletcher would not command the amount of money or the long-term commitment that it would take to retain Briggs, and a two or three-year contract would buy the Bears enough time to draft and develop some more prospects at the position.
Depending upon what happens with Briggs, the Bears could target a linebacker with one of their first two picks in the draft, though Angelo would be wise to target at least one offensive lineman on the draft's first day. In fact, stockpiling two or three offensive lineman would not be a bad course of action since an above average running game and adequate pass protection had everything to do with Grossman's success when he played well. The Bears have plenty of talent at safety, but they would prefer to add a low-cost veteran to the depth chart who can provide some experience and leadership if Brown's injury problems do not subside. Unrestricted free agent Tony Parrish â€“ a former draft pick of the Bears who played his first four seasons in Chicago â€“ would fit that description.
The other potential development of the offseason is the job status of Bears defensive coordinator Ron Rivera. Rivera was a popular candidate for head coaching vacancies a year ago before returning to the Bears, and has been rumored to be on the preferred list of the Dallas Cowboys, who need to replace the recently retired Bill Parcells. In this case, the Bears postseason success has worked in their favor, as Rivera might very easily have earned himself a head coaching position somewhere if teams had been allowed to interview him during the playoffs. As it stands now, Rivera is expected to be back for another season as part of Smith's staff. Lovie, himself, is due for a new contract that is overdue in the eyes of most NFL coaching critics. He is currently the lowest-paid coach in the league, though that is sure to change within a few weeks following the Super Bowl.
I don't really agree with the Bears adding Tony Parrish. He's fairly old and not what the Bears need. If the Bears add another safety, it should be one who's more coverage oriented rather than run-support oriented. One of the biggest knocks on Parrish has been his lack of coverage skills. Currently, the Bears already have too many safeties who can hit hard, but none really who are true FS's who can cover the middle well. Unless he can be had really cheap though. Then, I've got no problem with signing Parrish.
I do agree with Fanball's suggesting the Bears need to start getting some young o-linemen though, although the Bears have had horrid luck with drafting guys who can stay healthy at o-line. Maybe Angelo's method of building the o-line via FA is the best way, even though Chicago ends up with a fairly overpaid o-line as a result.
Draft a safety, kill Rex Grossman, bury his body somewhere where the pigeons can crap on him all day, and go find a QB. ANY QB. Seriously, a high schooler could fumble the ball away and throw it to the other team.
Wants and Needs: The vast majority of the starters from last year's NFC Championship team are returning. Nevertheless, the Bears have their share of holes to fill this weekend. Rex Grossman is entering the last year of his contract. Head coach Lovie Smith appears committed to his controversial quarterback, but he and general manager Jerry Angelo could add another young arm if they secretly have doubts regarding Grossman. The trade that sent Thomas Jones to the Jets leaves a void in the backfield. Although former first-round pick Cedric Benson is slated to take over the starting job, the Bears might add some depth at the position. Wide receiver is another area of need, as Muhsin Muhammad will be 34 next month and former second-round pick Mark Bradley has spent too much time on the trainer's table. Starting offensive guard Ruben Brown is entering his 13th season and is working on a one-year contract. The Bears have one of the best defenses in the game, but trading Lance Briggs would leave a big hole at outside linebacker.
Potential Selections: The Redskins have offered to swap first-round picks in exchange for Briggs, who is threatening to sit out the first 10 games of the season in protest of being slapped with the franchise tag. If the Bears take the deal, they would give up their No. 31 overall pick for the No. 6 overall pick in this weekend's draft. Linebacker Patrick Willis' stock appears to be on the rise, but No. 6 overall is probably too early. Defensive tackles Amobi Okoye and Alan Branch will be mentioned as potential targets due starting defensive tackle Tank Johnson's legal troubles, but Angelo may believe he already addressed that issue by signing Anthony Adams in free agency. Free safety Laron Landry would make the Bears defense even better. They acquired Adam Archuletta from the Redskins, but Mike Brown's injury history might make Landry appealing. If the Bears sit tight with the No. 31 overall pick, they may opt for a guard such as Ben Grubbs. They could also grab a linebacker such as John Beason as insurance for Briggs. In fact, because they hold an early second-round pick, the Bears could potentially land both of those players.
Chicago's Picks: Round One: 31st overall Round Two: 37th overall (from Redskins through the Jets) Round Three: 94th overall Round Four: 130th overall Round Five: 168th overall Round Six: No pick (traded to Redskins) Round Seven: 221st overall (from 49ers through Browns), 241st overall