In Wednesday's Chicago Tribune the Bears ran a full-page ad in the sports section that read: "Despite the current labor situation, we're pushing forward. Doing everything we can to continue to improve. Keeping our heads in the game. We all want football. And when it's back, we'll be ready. Hitting the field with one goal in mind - winning a Super Bowl for Chicago.
The headline above the message featured the team's logo, a bear's head, followed by the words, "WITH US." Get it? Bear with us.
The day after the NFLPA decertified and the league announced a lockout of the players, Bears president and CEO Ted Phillips issued a statement:
"We're disappointed in the need to take this step, but it is necessary for the long-term health of our league. Ultimately we believe an agreement will be reached at the bargaining table. As an individual club, our team focus is on our preparation for the 2011 season and we want Bears fans to know we are going to continue to do everything we can within the League rules to prepare for a championship season. Our immediate focus is on preparing for the draft. We also continue to evaluate our team and will be ready to take advantage of all avenues to improve our team once a new collective bargaining agreement is reached.
"Some aspects of this offseason may look different, but our commitment to winning remains the same. We need to build off the success we had in 2010. We are committed to our fan base and appreciate their patience throughout this process. We will do our best to create opportunities for Bears fans to ask questions and keep them informed of what is happening with their team and the labor discussions. We still plan to host fan events this offseason starting with our 'Ultimate Weekend,' which includes our Draft Party and Bears Expo at Soldier Field.
"A deal will get done and we expect to play football in 2011. Our goal remains the same as we prepare to play, bringing a Super Bowl title back to Chicago."
On March 4, Phillips announced that Bears coaches and staff members would not face layoffs, furloughs or immediate pay cuts in the event of a lockout.
Phillips told team employees that the organization would proceed with a business-as-usual approach in an effort to maintain a competitive edge.
However, if the work stoppage causes regular-season games to be cancelled, Phillips said pay cuts would be instituted at that time.
--Wide receiver is not a position on the Bears that cries out for an upgrade as the offensive line does, but there is still plenty of room for improvement in the pass-catching corps.
There's no doubt that QB Jay Cutler needs better protection than he received last year, when the Bears allowed the most sacks in the NFL. But it's almost as important that the Bears provide Cutler with more weapons in the passing game.
They currently have just three wide receivers with NFL experience under contract, since six-year veteran Rashied Davis is eligible for unrestricted free agency, and four-year pro Devin Aromashodu was not tendered a contract offer, so he will be free to sign with any team when free agency begins.
That leaves the Bears with only Johnny Knox, Earl Bennett and Devin Hester returning in 2011, a group that is small in numbers and in physical size. None of the three are taller than 6-0, and only Bennett weighs more than 190 pounds.
Canadian import Andy Fantuz was signed to a reserve/futures contract last month, and the 6-4, 220-pounder is coming off a huge season (87 catches for 1,380 yards) with the Saskatchewan Roughriders. But there's no guarantee he'll enjoy the same success in the NFL.
So the Bears will be looking for a big, rangy downfield threat at some point in the draft, even though coach Lovie Smith is downplaying the need.
"It's amazing," he said when asked if his team needed more size at wideout. "Bigger body, faster guy ... we're going to try to improve the receiver corps just like all our positions. But our receivers did some good things this past year. Johnny Knox had some games where he really played well."
Knox did play well. His 960 receiving yards were 399 more than the Bears' runner-up, Bennett. But there were also games when Knox wasn't much of a factor. He had five games with less than 35 yards, and Hester seemed to regress a bit as a receiver while recapturing his magic in the return game.
--Include ESPN's NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. among the many who believe the Bears' greatest need this offseason is an offensive lineman.
"Offensive line is the big issue, be it a tackle or interior presence," Kiper said Wednesday on a national conference call. "They've got to protect (Jay) Cutler. You're not going anywhere unless Cutler is upright. He took too many hits and of course he got hurt in the playoff game."
Cutler was sacked 52 times in 15 games last season, more than anyone in the NFL. If the Bears address the line, they may want to decide where Chris Williams will play before they focus on a tackle, guard or center with their first-round pick at the No. 29 spot. It's also possible that the Bears will decide Williams' fate after they make their first pick, depending on whom they take.
The 6-6, 315-pound Williams was the Bears' No. 1 pick (14th overall) in 2008 because they envisioned him as the left tackle for the next decade. After an injury-marred rookie season, Williams started the first 11 games in 2009 at right tackle and transitioned to left tackle for the final five games.
That's where he started the first two games last season, but after a hamstring injury sidelined him for three games and necessitated the move of Frank Omiyale from right tackle to left, Williams was plugged in at left guard when he returned and started the final 11 games there with mixed results.
"We have a few options, a few directions we can go," coach Lovie Smith said. "Chris has played both tackle positions and guard for us. We don't have to make those decisions right now. We just know that Chris is a part of our future, and once we lock him into a position -- maybe the one he's in right now -- I'm anxious to see exactly where we end up playing him."
If the Bears still believe Williams has a future at left guard, they can target a tackle or an eventual replacement for 33-year-old center Olin Kreutz. The 13-year veteran is eligible for free agency, but the Bears are expected to re-sign him for another year or two. Age is also a concern at right guard, where Robert Garza will turn 32 later this month.
"You've got to just address (the offensive line)," Kiper said. "You've got to get better. Even though it improved as the season went along from where it was early, I think an interior presence -- Kreutz is getting up there in age -- or a tackle (should be the top priority)."
Kiper mentioned Florida center-guard Mike Pouncey and Colorado tackle Nate Solder as possibilities for the Bears, but it's doubtful either will be available near the end of the round. Danny Watkins, who played left tackle at Baylor but projects to guard in the NFL, might be a more realistic prediction.
--Trying to figure out what the Bears will do with the 29th pick in the draft on April 28 is a crapshoot for a number of reasons.
The Bears have several areas of need. This year it's even more difficult because, unlike other years, there probably won't be a free-agency period preceding the draft due to the work stoppage. Free agency usually begins early in March, and teams can start to shore up areas of weakness then. But, for now, the only help available is through the draft.
The 6-6, 315-pound Franklin was a three-year starter for the Hurricanes, and he played the all-important left tackle spot as a senior, after previously starting at guard.
Nawrocki explained his pick: "Although G.M. Jerry Angelo might prefer to find a replacement for Tommie Harris with this pick, the board could be more favorably filled with OL talent. Franklin could be the most physical blocker in this year's draft and perfectly fits the nasty disposition that OL coach Mike Tice seeks in the trenches."
Quote to Note
GM Jerry Angelo drafted Chris Williams in the first round (14th overall) in 2008 with the idea that he'd be the Bears' offensive left tackle for the next decade or so. He started the first two games there last season but was hurt and replaced and wound up starting the last 11 games at left guard.
Said Angelo, "I really don't care where we have Chris, personally. I want to make sure that when everything plays itself it out, after we get through this period of allocating players, that we get the five best players on the field."
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