A look back before the draft

Lovie Smith's offense will look a lot different than Dick Jauron's, and not just because Terry Shea will be coordinating the group instead of John Shoop.

The Bears are expected to start the 2004 season with eight different starters on offense than the group that started on opening day last season.

Left tackle Qasim Mitchell is penciled in ahead of Mike Gandy, who started there last season. Rex Tucker is back at left guard after missing all of last season with a torn ankle tendon, and he will replace Steve Edwards, who did a commendable job as an inexperienced fill in and could be a future starter somewhere on the line.

Despite the fact that Gandy worked with the first unit line at right guard, free agent Ruben Brown will replace Chris Villarrial, who left for Buffalo via free agency. John Tait, the Bears' big-ticket purchase, upgrades right tackle, where Aaron Gibson started all 16 games last year.

The backfield underwent an even more extensive remodeling. Rex Grossman replaces Kordell Stewart and Chris Chandler, both of whom were released. UFA Thomas Jones will start ahead of incumbent 1,000-yard rusher Anthony Thomas, although the Bears still insist there's enough work for both players. Because of his superior blocking Bryan Johnson gets the nod at fullback ahead of holdover Stanley Pritchett.

At wide receiver Dez White was allowed to leave without a fight in free agency, and first-round disappointment David Terrell gets first shot at replacing him, although that could change if the Bears go for a wideout in the first round.

The new coaching staff believes the offense has been upgraded across the board, but there is concern from the outside that it could take a long time for so many new starters to jell.

"We feel that we have enough on our offensive side of the ball given what we're going to do with our scheme," Smith said. "I feel very good about our prospects on offense.

"How fast they come together, that's hard to say. Anytime you bring new players together, it's going to take some time. But I feel our coaches are understanding of that. The good news is we have quality players. It's not that we're playing with inexperienced, young players for the first time. That's not the case. At most positions we have good experience."

Smith makes a good point. Other than Mitchell and Grossman, who have played in just three NFL games apiece, the new guys have been around the block a time or two. And many of them should be at or approaching the pinnacle of their career.

Brown has been to the Pro Bowl in the last eight years of his nine-year career, and while he may have made it to Hawaii on reputation the past year or two, he was a great bargain at $4.5 million for three years.

Tait, at 29, is entering his sixth season, as is the 27-year-old Tucker, who was nearing Pro Bowl-level play before injuries derailed him the past two seasons. Johnson and Jones are entering their fifth season, and Terrell his fourth.

With the offense being the emphasis in free agency the Bears plan on using the draft to upgrade a defense already stocked with young talent. While a wideout is a definite possibility on day one of the draft, the defensive line is a priority.

"We felt like in the off-season free agency we did some good things for the offense and now it's the defense's turn so we've been looking real hard, particularly with the defensive linemen but it may not play out that way," said GM Jerry Angelo.


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