Let the countdown begin

Although the Pro Bowl has yet to be played, the end of the Super Bowl shifts all focus from the field to what team's look like on paper. Free agency officially begins a month from today and the Bears have their work cut for them in order to become the Panthers of 2004.

The Bears have two definite needs heading into free agency. Don't take that as the Bears only have two holes to fill in order to jump from NFC doormat to playoff contender, but there are two specific areas that need to be addressed.

The lines on both sides of the ball need an upgrade.

While defensive tackle jumps to mind, the Bears have to decide whether they are happy with their two young defensive ends in Alex Brown and Michael Haynes or if they need to add additional an pass rush threat. If Brown and Daniels are given the green light to start then Phillip Daniels is a likely salary cap casualty. He is due $3 million next year and despite being a dependable two-way player it's hard to justify that kind of coin to a player that produced just two sacks.

Jevon Kearse is likely to be given the franchised tag by the Tennessee Titans. If he does hit the open market he would command a contract similar to what Brian Urlacher received in the area of $50-60 million and a bonus of $15-20 million. Meaning he's out of the Bears price range as the team is currently $10 million under the salary cap.

Warren Sapp is the hot name in terms of the Bears search for help on the interior of the defensive line. However there is serious concern whether the veteran can play up to the level his mouth. Sapp, 31, could be on the downside of his career. Both Jerry Angelo and Lovie Smith have a relationship with Sapp dating back to their Tampa Bay days, which could sway them to believe they can control his volatile personality.

From this point of view the Bears would be better off staying away from and Sapp and putting all of their time and effort into getting a left tackle.

Walter Jones and Orlando Pace have multiple pro bowl selections, but are likely to be franchised tagged by their perspective clubs. The Chiefs John Tait and Packers Chad Clifton are both solid players, yet in an open market they could demand big money to leave their current positions with winning clubs. While there is a drop off from Pace and Jones to Tait and Clifton, any of the four would be a major upgrade over Mike Gandy.

Rex Grossman needs someone to protect his backside, as opposing defenses will come at him full throttle until he proves he can handle the pressure on a consistent basis.

Running back is a third area of concern, but it looks more likely that it will be addressed in the draft and could even be the focus of their first-round selection.

The hope is that the Bears can find a left tackle or interior defensive lineman in the free agent market and then fill the other need in the draft.

The deadline for clubs to designate franchise and transition players is February 24.


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