Key ingredient

LAKE FOREST - The most critical off-season move facing general manager Jerry Angelo is finding defensive linemen.<p>

New Bears coach Lovie Smith has been with the team less than two weeks, but didn't mind saying what he needed from his new boss.

"I think in order for our system to work we have to have a big pass rusher, especially an outside pass rusher," new Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "Just about every year I've been in the league we've had at least one double-digit sacker, really two sometimes. So whatever you call it, that's what we have to have on defense."

The Bears last year set a franchise record for fewest sacks in a season with 18. Defensive linemen had only 12 of those sacks.

Former Bears defensive coordinator Greg Blache had insisted sacks were overrated. Smith never will say this because the very basis of his scheme has to do with pass rush pressure from his defensive line.

"You just look at what you can get from a sack," Smith said. "I know in St. Louis Leonard Little was able to sack the guy and strip the football quite a bit. That's better than an interception, getting a sack and stripping the ball.

"No, I don't think sacks are overrated at all. I think it's something that we're going to put a big emphasis on, the sacks and the turnovers."

In St. Louis, Smith benefited from pass rushing ends like Leonard Little and Grant Wistrom. He could play cover-2 zone coverage without gambling a lot due to their presence. He doesn't want to have to rely on blitzing or tricks to create pressure.

"I think we can create plays to pick up the pass rush, different blitzes and things like that," he said. "But if you're talking about (playing) Cover-2, Cover-2 is based on a four-man rush. You have to be able to get pressure from them. That's one of the things that we will look at real hard to make sure that we have. We're trying to put together a front four that can actually get pressure on the quarterback."

Considering the Bears have invested a first-round and fourth-round draft pick on defensive ends the last two years, the obvious place to improve the rush is in free agency. They could ensure themselves a developed player rather than one in need of seasoning.

Wistrom and Tennessee's Jevon Kearse are the primary targets of pass-rushing hungry teams in free agency. It's possible both could still be locked up long term of be tagged franchise or transition players, which would require pursuing teams to give up compensatory draft picks.

Free agency starts March 2 and the Bears are about $11 million under the salary cap, so they have money available. They also could free up more money by cutting defensive end Phillip Daniels, who has one year left on his contract. During the regular season Daniels said he expected to be back, but that was before the coaching change. He has averaged less than six sacks a year since signing a $24 million deal.

Denver's Bert Berry is a young player who came into his own with 11.5 sacks last year and is an unrestricted free agent. Another Broncos end, Reggie Hayward, had 8.5 sacks last year and is a restricted free agent.

Smith's ties to St. Louis may get a special look for restricted free agent end Bryce Fisher, who's had five sacks in backup duties for three years.

Chiefs veteran unrestricted free agent Eric Hicks has 35.5 career sacks and 14 in 2000, but has tailed off the last few years.

With two young ends already, the Bears might take a closer look at defensive tackles who can get up field. The Bucs' Warren Sapp is the big-dollar unrestricted free agent with ties to Angelo through Tampa Bay.

His age may make him a bit extravagant for a building team, but at 31 he is young enough to provide two to four more good seasons.

Smith's ties to St. Louis could come into play at this position. Potential Rams free agent defensive tackle Brian Young has shown flashes of pass rush ability with 10.5 sacks, all in the last three years.

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