I have been pretty critical of the Chicago Bears' General Manager Jerry Angelo lately and have come to the realization that I am perpetrating one of my own pet peeves: I am criticizing without suggesting a remedy.
The Bears have as much talent and money invested in their defense as the Vikings do. They have a great young running back to build around and a couple of return men that can change the game.
So how would I get the Bears over the hump and on top of this division? Here's how:
1. Move to a 3-4 defense.
There are teams all over the NFL making this move this year, both because of greater talent depth at linebacker than defensive tackle in the NFL today and because, well, other people are doing it. I think it makes sense for the Bears.
The Bears have in Tommie Harris a man who could (and should) be one of the premier defensive tackles in the NFL. The problem with Harris is that he's injury prone.
The other problem is that because the Bears have not found someone to replace Tank Johnson to play next to Harris, he is forced to fight off double teams on almost every snap.
The Bears have big bodies at defensive end. Alex Brown plays both the pass and the run well, while Mark Anderson has struggled to get to the quarterback after a breakout rookie season. Adewale Ogunleye is getting paid too much for the production he provides (I'll get to him later), but he's still a solid defensive end.
By converting to a 3-4 defense, the Bears would be able to rotate two or three defensive tackles through the game, thereby keeping Harris fresh and helping him avoid injury. The Bears' lack of depth at tackle would benefit from this move.
The 3-4 would also allow Brian Urlacher's skills to be used better in the team concept. He doesn't appear to be what he was five years ago because of the scheme Lovie Smith employs, but because of declining ability and health.
Playing behind the revolving door at tackle hasn't helped Urlacher's production, and neither has him being called on to have his first step be backwards into pass coverage.
From the 3-4, the Bears could still employ the cover two that Lovie Smith refuses to move past. The essence of the cover two is two deep safeties covering halves of the field, with an umbrella of zone coverage underneath the two deep men.
By having four linebackers on the field, specifically two inside, that umbrella concept would be more easily accomplished.
In fact, by having two inside linebackers instead of one middle linebacker, the zone scheme would be more effective and free up an additional body to rush the quarterback more regularly.
As it stands now, the Bears have four down linemen rushing the quarterback ineffectively. In the 3-4, the Bears would be able to have four men in coverage across underneath the two deep safeties, with now five bodies able to rush the passer.
2. Release Ogunleye
For what he brings to the table he's simply no longer cost effective. His cap number was almost $6.4 million in 2008, the second highest on the roster (behind only Peanut Tillman).
For that money, the Bears got five sacks and 62 tackles. Lance Briggs, meanwhile, had a cap number just under $5.5 million and 110 tackles, three interceptions, and a half sack.
By releasing Ogunleye, in the context of a move to the 3-4, the Bears would be open to using his cap money to bring on another defensive end or linebacker and addressing the other through the draft.
There should be a number of options at either position still available at the 18th pick in the first round in April.
3. Sign Derrick Brooks to a two-year contract.
This would, ideally, be how the Bears used some of the money saved after letting Ogunleye go. Brooks might be older (he'll be 36 in mid-April), but he's still producing (he had 73 tackles last year).
But more important to the current Bears roster than his production would be his leadership. Brooks led the best defense in the NFL to a Super Bowl victory in Tampa when his defensive coaches included Lovie Smith and Rod Marinelli.
His knowledge of the cover two and his playmaking ability might help Urlacher and Briggs extend their careers by three years each. It also might bring a desire to win that the Bears have tried to embody but haven't realized yet.
In the wake of Mike Brown being allowed to leave as a free agent, the Bears need a vocal leader who makes plays. Brooks would be that.
Again, in the context of the 3-4, Brooks would play outside opposite Briggs. The Bears would then move one of their younger linebackers (you know, one of the talented young guys who was going to replace Briggs a year ago?) inside next to Urlacher. Maybe Michael Okwo will finally earn that roster spot.
4a. Trade Nathan Vasher and a draft pick for a high second round pick
4b. Select David Bruton, Safety, Notre Dame with the acquired pick.
The Bears actually have depth at corner—maybe the only position at which they can claim that right now.
With Tillman apparently being unwilling to move to safety (a move that would significantly improve the Bears defense and might buy Tillman another four years of a career), the Bears need a presence in the back of their cover two defense.
Vasher has a cap number north of $5 million and has been a solid, ball-hawking cornerback throughout his career.
In Bruton, the Bears would be bringing in a replacement for Mike Brown who has great physical ability. At 6'2" and 220 pounds, he's big enough to put a hit on someone.
With a 4.46 in the 40, he's fast enough to cover someone. Unlike Craig Steltz, he fills the two requisites to be an effective safety in the cover two.
5. Select Hakeem Nicks, WR, North Carolina, with the 18th overall pick in the draft.
I know that Darrius Heyward-Bey is the trendy pick at receiver that figures to be available when the Bears are on the clock, but there's a reason I'm proposing Nicks.
Heyward-Bey blew away the combine by running the fastest 40 time of any receiver. He didn't put up enormous numbers his final year in college, but lacked consistent quarterback play that, in college, means more than it does even in the NFL to a receiver's productivity.
However, my drawback with Heyward-Bey is that his skill set has been described by analysts including ESPN's Mel Kiper as a speed receiver who can stretch the field. The Bears are already paying a "wide receiver" to play that role in the offense; Devin Hester's abilities aren't going to be used for five-yard curls any time soon.
Nicks, however, has a bigger body than Heyward-Bey. While his 4.54 isn't going to light anyone's world on fire, if you saw any of the highlight-reel catches he had last year at UNC, you have no doubt that this guy's abilities translate well to the NFL.
If the Bears are looking for a bigger receiver to work the middle of the field and at least make an opposing safety think about him, Nicks might be a better fit than Heyward-Bey.
6. Sign OT Orlando Pace
Yes, I said it. Bring in the 13-year veteran who's had injury issues.
Here's why: because of his age and injury issues, he could come relatively cheap. And, let's not forget, he's been one of the best tackles in the game for more than a decade. I wouldn't mind last year's top pick, Chris Williams, taking notes from someone like Pace.
7. Sign Darren Sharper to play strong safety.
He's a ballhawk who's all about turnovers but also plays the run effectively. He's also a solid veteran leader who's played for two of the Bears' rivals, most recently the Vikings. His leadership would help replace Mike Brown in the secondary; his ability to make plays would be an upgrade from Kevin Payne.
Other teams might be offering a first round pick, indeed Detroit might offer the Broncos the farm for him, but none of the teams in the theoretical mix for Cutler have what the Bears could offer: a seasoned starting quarterback in return.
I'm not off the NeckBeard Bandwagon, but Cutler's skills are certainly in a class above those of Orton. While Orton has openly struggled with the deep ball, Cutler has a cannon arm.
I understand that this is the longest shot of the bunch, but one would have to believe that a first year head coach and general manager who have already screwed up the team's relationship with one franchise quarterback don't want to rest their jobs on the shoulder of a rookie. Orton would provide some level of job security because of his NFL experience.
What would be the net results of my action plan?
Skill positions - Cutler, Matt Forte, Hester, Nicks, Greg Olsen
Line - Pace, Beekman, Kreutz, Garza, Chris Williams
Line - Anderson, Harris, Alex Brown
Linebackers - Briggs, Urlacher, Jamar Williams, Brooks
Secondary - Tillman, Sharper, Bruton, Corey Graham
This is a roster that appears to be a lot more ready to compete with the Vikings. In fact, it looks like it could compete with the top tier teams in the NFC. The depth on the team wouldn't be greatly impacted, the salary cap wouldn't be an issue (the Bears are $20 million under the cap today).
Now all we need to do is convince Jerry Angelo that it's OK to make a few moves to improve the ball club...you know, the "job responsibilities" of a general manager?