Assuming a labor agreement is eventually put in place, free agency promises to be another interesting few weeks for Chicago Bears fans.
Last season, Jerry Angelo struck in the early hours, securing Julius Peppers, Chester Taylor and Brandon Manumaleuna. With the Bears seemingly another couple players away, it could be a repeat performance again this year.
Here's a look at what we think are the top four positions of need for the Bears entering the 2011 offseason, as well as some potential targets.
- Ryan Terrell
1. Wide receiver
Nevermind that the average height of Bears wide receivers last season was 5-foot-10. Forget that their average weight was a paltry 192 pounds.
Sure, size is important. But a 6-foot-4 frame is not necessarily what the Bears' wideout corps needs. Instead, brass would be wise to add a veteran wide receiver with superb ball skills -- the ability, strength and will to fight for a ball in traffic.
Too many times last season Bears wideouts waited for the ball to come to them. Too many times Jay Cutler threw a ball up hoping, not expecting, Johnny Knox or Devin Hester to come down with it.
A wide receiver doesn't have to be 6-foot-4, 220 pounds to have ball skills. Think Steve Smith and Greg Jennings. Both are under 5-foot-11 and are in the upper echelon of players at their position.
A legit, polished No. 1 would fill out the Bears' depth chart nicely.
Knox would fall into an ideal role as a complementary No. 2. Hester's role on offense could be pulled back a bit for work in the slot or as a situational guy. Earl Bennett would be a valuable backup that could make some serious waves on third down.
Knox, Hester and Bennett, while solid players with bright futures, aren't going to make enough plays for Cutler to take a step forward next season.
And after a tumultuous start to his Bears career (42 INT in two seasons), it's about time Cutler be put in the best possible position to succeed.
On the roster: Devin Hester, Johnny Knox, Earl Bennett, Andy Fantuz.
Potential free agent targets: Sidney Rice (unrestricted), Mike Sims-Walker (unrestricted), Santonio Holmes (restricted), Braylon Edwards (unrestricted), Vincent Jackson (franchised), James Jones (unrestricted).
2. Defensive tackle (three-technique)
While wide receivers are key to the Martz system, it's the three-technique tackle that's paramount to Lovie Smith's Cover-2 defense.
The three-technique's job is to knife through the offensive line and disrupt the play, forcing some freelancing or even panic on a quarterback's or running back's part. Here's a good explanation of the three-technique's role in the Cover-2.
It's a position that usually dictates the entire defense's success on a given play. Warren Sapp made seven Pro Bowls at the position and Tommie Harris made three.
Of course, Harris was released by the Bears in late February after injuries resulted in a few lackluster seasons.
Matt Toeaina is the only ideal three-technique on the Bears' roster, and while he filled in nicely at times last season, even earning a few starts over Harris, it'd be a big gamble banking on him as the impact player the defense needs at the position next season.
Investing a fairly substantial contract in a three-technique tackle would be a big step for the Bears defense as it looks to build on a very good but not great 2010 season en route to elite status once again.
On the roster: Matt Toeaina.
3. Offensive tackle/offensive guard
Listing the offensive line as the third-most important position to address this offseason surely will raise some eyebrows.
But the Bears' O-Line, despite giving up a league-high 56 sacks, showed cohesiveness and growth late.
J'Marcus Webb performed admirably considering he was a seventh-round rookie just months prior.
Expect him to move over to left tackle heading into the 2011-12 season, and Jerry Angelo will want to continue to develop him as a potential draft steal -- which he hasn't had very much of in recent years.
Moving down the line, Chris Williams was OK at left guard after moving there in Week 4, and while Bears coaches maintain they're undecided about his 2011 position, it'd be a definite gamble to bank on him at one of the bookend positions.
At center, Olin Kreutz is expected to return for another season or two despite being an impending free agent. While his play has dropped a notch in recent years, he's a true leader of the unit -- something Angelo and coaches fully recognize.
Right guard and the other tackle position are where things get interesting.
Roberto Garza is under a very cap-friendly contract for two more seasons. But he remains an average player in a position at which the Bears could use a real thumper.
Omiyale, whose contract is a little beefier than Garza's, appears to be an average player as well. Despite showing flashes at times last year, he has underperformed in two Bears seasons. He could be a cap casualty as training camp unfolds.
Re-working that right side of the line -- assuming Webb is your left tackle -- is paramount this offseason.
Expect Angelo to shell out a fairly large contract -- potentially exceeding $20 million guaranteed -- for the best guard or tackle he can get his hands on, with a first- or second-round draft pick spent on one as well.
On the roster: J'Marcus Webb (T), Chris Williams (G/T), Frank Omiyale (G/T), Roberto Garza (G), Lance Louis (G), Herman Johnson (G).
Potential free agent targets: Tackles- Ryan Harris (unrestricted), Tyson Clabo (unrestricted), Jared Gaither (unrestricted). Guards- Robert Gallery (unrestricted), Carl Nicks (restricted), Marshall Yanda (unrestricted), Max Jean-Gilles.
When your chief division rival possesses a quarterback new to superstardom, the cornerback position becomes a premium.
Aaron Rodgers is only 28 years old and surely will be a big problem for the Bears for years to come. While they've historically done well against Rodgers, it's never too early to gameplan for him.
Bringing in a seasoned veteran defensive back would be a luxury pickup that could pay more dividends long-term than any other move.
The Bears do have promise at the position as the depth chart stands now, however. Charles Tillman, a consummate professional, had another solid season as the head guy, and still has two or three more solid years ahead.
Behind him are some question marks, with last year's nickelback, D.J. Moore showing some real potential to be a No. 2 corner. He could compete there with Tim Jennings, who was average if not suspect last season, if no significant moves are made at the position.
The free agent class's top player happens to be a cornerback.
Nnamdi Asomugha is expected to ink a contract in excess of $100 million, and as one of the few true "shutdown" corners in the game, many teams will be happy to give that type of green up for his services.
Will the Bears be one of those teams? It's doubtful, but it should not be out of the question. Not when Rodgers is in your division.
Can you imagine if Lovie Smith was able to adjust his defensive approach with Nnamdi in the fold? He could practically cut the field in half for his Cover-2 zone scheme. Far-fetched, yes, but a potential brilliant move.
On the roster: Charles Tillman, Tim Jennings, D.J. Moore, Zack Bowman, Joshua Moore.
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