Bear Essentials: Repairing the Roster

The Sports Xchange takes a look at the Bears' ongoing search for a big-play receiver, Cutler's reaction to the criticism he took in the playoffs, the team's restricted free agents and more.

The Bears have plenty of big-play ability at wide receiver with speedsters Devin Hester and Johnny Knox, but Earl Bennett is the only proven member of the cast with any size, assuming that inconsistent, 6-2, 201-pound free agent Devin Aromashodu doesn't return.

Bennett is a solid and reliable possession guy. He is unafraid to work the middle of the field, and quarterback Jay Cutler has confidence in him and his steady hands. But, at 6-0 and 204 pounds, Bennett is by far the biggest and strongest of the Bears' established receivers, and there remains a need for a big, physical player who can win jump balls, especially deep down the field.

The Bears thought Aromashodu would be that guy when the 2010 season started, but he displayed an aversion to contact, had some drops in the opener and spent the rest of the season in the doghouse. After catching five passes for 71 yards in the first game, he had five catches for 78 yards in the final 15.

The Bears brought in 6-4, 220-pound Canadian Football League import Andy Fantuz in the offseason and, while he brings great size, he is not the field-stretching type.


WR Johnny Knox
Scott Boehm/Getty

Knox (51 receptions, 960 yards, five touchdowns), Bennett (46-561-3) and Hester (40-475-4) are expected to be the Bears' big three again. The 6-0, 185-pound Knox took another huge step toward becoming a No. 1 receiver last year, after a 45-catch, 527-yard rookie season. But, even as he regained his old kick-return magic, the 5-11, 190-pound Hester seemed to regress as a receiver. He caught 17 fewer passes for 282 fewer yards than he did in '09, when he had 57 receptions for 757 yards and appeared at times to be the Bears' No. 1 receiver of the future.

Another undersized wideout, 5-9, 187-pound Rashied Davis, is also a free agent. But he has a better chance of returning than Aromashodu, given his huge contributions on special teams. Davis was phased out of the offense last year and caught only nine passes for 84 yards, but he stepped up in the season finale, when Bennett was hurt, and caught seven passes for 63 yards, proving he can still be a complementary receiver.

No one caught more than 51 passes for the Bears last season, but with running back Matt Forte (51 catches for 547 yards) and tight end Greg Olsen (41-404) involved in the aerial attack, a dominant No. 1 wide receiver isn't a necessity. But it's expected that the Bears will look to add a big pass catcher at some point in the draft.

Players like Indiana's Tandon Doss, Miami's Leonard Hankerson, Boise State's Austin Pettis and Pittsburgh's Jonathan Baldwin might be considered, although the Bears probably won't be thinking wide receiver until at least Round 3, and they might all be gone by then.

--Over the past 10 years, Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs have been as good as any two linebackers on the same NFL team, with 13 Pro Bowls between them.

But, as talented as Briggs and Urlacher are, a third linebacker is still required in the Bears' 4-3 scheme. At the moment, though, Urlacher and Briggs are the only two linebackers that the Bears have under contract.

Both players made the Pro Bowl last season, Briggs for the sixth straight time, and Urlacher for the first time in four years, putting to rest speculation that his considerable skills had faded away after a dislocated wrist in the 2009 season opener limited him to one half of one game.

Urlacher remains a crucial component in the Bears' Cover-2 because he still has the speed and athleticism to patrol the deep middle in some coverages and he still makes tackles in the running game from sideline to sideline. He led the team in tackles and with 13 pass breakups and with 11 tackles for loss.

Even though an ankle injury caused Briggs to miss one full game and most of another, he was second in tackles and tackles for loss and picked off two passes.


LB Pisa Tinoisamoa
Al Messerschmidt/Getty

Eight-year veteran Pisa Tinoisamoa started 10 games last season at strong-side linebacker, and Nick Roach started the other six, plus 15 in 2009 when Tinoisamoa was injured for most of the season. But both are free agents, as are backups Brian Iwuh and Rod Wilson, who did not figure heavily in the base defense except as emergency replacements.

The Bears had no intention of setting the market for Tinoisamoa. While he is an active and productive player when healthy, he missed four games with knee problems last season and 14 games in '08, also with knee afflictions

Roach, a four-year veteran, was tendered in the event he is a restricted free agent when there is a labor settlement. Even if he is unrestricted, the Bears might be forced to meet his price, although at 6-1 and 234 pounds, he's the kind of fast, agile Cover-2 linebacker who isn't as valuable to teams not running that scheme.

Because of more serious needs along the offensive and defensive lines, the Bears are not expected to address linebacker until the middle rounds. That's about where local product Martez Wilson should go based on his production at the University of Illinois and his instincts. But Wilson had a phenomenal day at the Combine, running the fastest 40 time of any linebacker, even though he weighed in at a rock-solid 250 pounds, so he could be drafted higher than he should.

Some project Wilson as a player who could develop into a dangerous pass rusher, and that would be appealing to the Bears, who registered a total of just 34 sacks, even with defensive end Julius Peppers.

A more likely scenario could see the Bears tabbing a player like Syracuse's undersized, athletic Doug Hogue in the middle rounds.

--As part of their five-game preseason schedule, the Bears will have two nationally televised games. They will open the preseason playing the Rams in the Hall of Fame Game on Sunday, Aug. 7, then will play at the New York Giants on ESPN on Monday, Aug. 22.

--Quarterback Jay Cutler made his first public comments since the NFC Championship Game when he was forced out because of a knee injury and was criticized on several levels by current players not on the Bears and analysts.

During the game against the Green Bay Packers, Cutler injured his knee in the first half, came back to play, then had a painkiller at halftime and started the second half. He was unable to continue. Coach Lovie Smith hadn't expected him to play after halftime.

Cutler told the Chicago Sun-Times, "To get to the point we were and the opportunity we had - I'm frustrated just like everyone else. But there's nothing we can do about it now. We have to learn from it and overcome it this year."

As for the opinions expressed afterward, even at the Super Bowl, Cutler said, "I was gone, and I stayed away from it all. But I can't say it didn't bother me that people questioned my toughness and desire to play. I think I've been through a lot here in Chicago, and I would have loved to play."


QB Jay Cutler
Jonathan Daniel/Getty

Asked about current players that questioned him, Cutler said, "They can think what they want."

Cutler noted he cared more about his teammates, and they voiced support.

"Those are the guys you are with a lot of the time," he said, "and those guys didn't flinch. I've got to thank them for that."

He concluded he will be fine "as long as the guys in my locker room have my back." As for his knee, Cutler said, "I'm good. It's one of those things that heals on its own."

--Unsigned unrestricted free agents are in limbo during the lockout, not knowing what the future holds, when the lockout will end and where they might be playing next season.

Bears defensive lineman Anthony Adams isn't a marquee player, but he did start all 16 games for the Bears last season.

"I don't like the uncertainty," Adams told the Chicago Sun-Times. "It really sucks when you've got family, and a kid on the way, and you don't know where you're going to be and how long you'll sign. It's not ideal, but it's a part of the business. You have to embrace it, and you have to be ready."

He also wonders what will happen to players in his position when free agent finally begins.

He said, "Guys like me could easily be out of the league and just be forgotten. It's got nothing to do with your talent and skill level. It's just the nature of the business. People can start drafting all these players and fill their rosters up, then they don't have a spot. That sucks, man."


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