In this day and age of the salary cap, the draft is even more vital to contending teams. Hit on your middle and late round picks and you have depth for the long season ahead. In the future, when a starter leaves via free agency, you have a replacement groomed and ready to step in. Miss on those mid-to-late round picks and you have holes that may never be filled during the coming season and some potentially devastating salary cap problems.
Arguably this has been GM Jerry Angelo's strongest point of the draft. In his first season he selected Alex Brown and Bobby Gray in the fourth and fifth-round respectively. Brown has locked down the right end role and is looking to hit double-digits in sacks. Gray impressed as a rookie before dislocating his wrist, which cut his season short. Last year he split time with Mike Green (7th round selection) at strong safety and the two will compete for the role this year.
Last season Angelo potentially had one of the best drafts in Bears history. This season there is a good chance that five of his selections will be in the starting lineup to open the season. Michael Haynes and Rex Grossman are expected to start as first-round selections. At the time Charles Tillman was a surprise choice in the second-round, but looks to have Pro Bowl in his future. While the first two rounds were solid, Angelo made the draft with the rest of his selections. Lance Briggs (3rd round) started 13 games as a rookie and Lovie Smith is depending on him to be a major playmaker in his new look defense. Joe Odom (6th round) is competing with Bryan Knight (5th round) for the strong-side linebacker job. Justin Gage will compete with David Terrell for the right to start opposite Marty Booker. At worst Gage will be the third receiver and will share time with fellow '03 fifth-round selection Bobby Wade.
While Thomas Jones and Anthony Thomas have gotten all the hype at running back, two former sixth-round selections will compete for the third running spot. Adrian Peterson and Brock Forsey have both shown flashes of being serviceable backups, but only one could make the 53-man roster.
Two third-round picks on the roster have been to the Pro Bowl. C Olin Kreutz and WR Marty Booker were taken in 1998 and 1999 respectively. Kreutz is arguably the NFL's best center, while Booker is easily the Bears best receiver and already has the two highest reception totals in team history for a single season.
Jerry Azumah had a great collegiate career as a running back. However when Mark Hatley took Azumah in the fifth-round of the 1999 draft the team had a different position in mind. Azumah has spent the past five seasons as a cornerback, but it was his skill with the ball that earned him a Pro Bowl selection as he led the NFL in kick return average last season.
The year that Brian Urlacher and Mike Brown were the Bears first two selections a kicker was taken in the sixth-round and has been the most consistent player on the roster for four seasons. Admittedly, Paul Edinger struggled mightily at the end of last season, but he's still the most accurate kicker in team history at 76.6 percent conversion rate.
So, while first round picks get big headlines, still bigger contracts and saturation coverage in the press, the overall success of a draft is determined in the team's "war room". Long after the crowds of fans and press have gone home and the commissioner hasn't been seen on the podium for hours it's in this unglamorous setting that the foundation for championships are made. If the Bears hope to succeed in 2004 and beyond, success in the middle and later rounds of this draft will be crucial.
Jason Klabacha contributed to this report.