The Bears' biggest concern in this year's annual meat market at the NFL Scouting Combine will be determining which of the biggest players are the best.
Job 1 this offseason is an upgrade on the offensive line, especially at tackle, and fortunately for the Bears there are six in this draft who get first-round grades from scouts.
But general manager Jerry Angelo has shown little desire to address that area in his six seasons of running the Bears' draft. Not once in the past five drafts has Angelo selected an offensive lineman in the first three rounds, and he's taken just one in the first four rounds since 2003 – Boston College guard Josh Beekman last year.
It's not that Angelo doesn't like big guys. It's just that, in the early rounds, he's been much more inclined to take one on the other side of the ball. In his last five drafts, Angelo has taken two defensive linemen in the first round, two in the second and another in the third. This year, he'll at least be tempted to look at offense first.
Michigan's Jake Long, the unanimous top offensive lineman available, will be long gone by the time the Bears pick at No. 14, and Boise State's Ryan Clady is also expected to be off the board by then. But if the Bears have their pick of Vanderbilt's Chris Williams or Pitt's Jeff Otah, they could come away with a 10-year fixture at left tackle.
Southern Cal's Sam Baker and Boston College's Gosder Cherilus are also first-round possibilities who might last until the end of the round if the Bears trade down. But Cherilus' ability to play the more-important left side is questionable, and Baker had a disappointing senior season while battling injuries.
"Otah could be there for the Bears," according to an NFL draft/personnel expert, "but you can't count on it. There will be a run on offensive tackles at some point. If Otah's gone, then they're probably looking at Chris Williams. Unless they go with a defensive tackle."
There are even more first-round prospects on the defensive line than the offensive line, although most of them are ends. But there are at least three tackles who might give the Bears an exceptional interior presence when teamed with three-time Pro Bowler Tommie Harris.
The Bears thought they had the interior defensive line well stocked last season. Nose tackle Dusty Dvoracek, a third-round pick in 2006 who missed his rookie season with a foot injury, showed great promise last preseason. To be sure the D-line was deep enough, the Bears also traded for veteran Darwin Walker during training camp, even though they had already signed another solid veteran, Anthony Adams, as an unrestricted free agent.
But Dvoracek suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first game, and Walker was ineffective for most of the season while he battled nagging injuries. Dvoracek must now be considered an injury question mark, and Walker had his $5.2 million roster bonus rejected Monday – he's now a free agent. Adams played well for much of the season, but he also fell victim to the injury epidemic that thwarted the interior of the Bears' line, missing the final three games with an elbow injury that required surgery.
The Bears' problem on draft day, if they want to add an impact player at defensive tackle, is that the top two players, Louisiana State's Glenn Dorsey and Southern Cal's Sedrick Ellis, will already be spoken for. The consensus No. 3 defensive tackle, North Carolina's Kentwan Balmer, probably isn't worthy of being chosen until the end of the round because he didn't make much of an impact until his senior season – partly because of a questionable work ethic.
So offensive tackle probably is the more likely choice for the Bears unless there is an early run on that position, which is possible considering there are several teams ahead of them that could use help protecting a (right-handed) quarterback's blind side. While Otah has great athleticism to go with exceptional size (6-foot-6, 339 pounds), Williams also has above-average athleticism and good size (6-6, 318) with room to grow on a sizable frame.
"The Bears like Williams," the NFL source said. "He's played left tackle (the past two seasons), he's one of the most natural athletes at the position, and he's smart (31 Wonderlic score)."
The Bears will try to determine this week if Williams is a smart choice for them.
NEWS & NOTES
It wasn't quite the same as Michael Corleone settling all family business in one day, but the Bears on Monday began what could just be the start of their purge of high-priced veterans.
WR Muhsin Muhammad
Nam Y. Huh/AP Images
They cut 34-year-old wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad with three years left on the six-year, $30 million contract he signed three years ago and, as expected, decided not to pay ineffective, 30-year-old defensive tackle Darwin Walker a $5.2 million roster bonus.
The release of 35-year-old offensive right tackle Fred Miller became official an hour later. Miller, like Muhammad a 12-year veteran, signed a five-year, $22.5 million deal before the 2005 season. His release will save the Bears several million dollars since his base salary for 2008 would have been $4 million and he was due a $500,000 roster bonus on March 4.
On the flip side, a year after giving his starting job at defensive right end to Mark Anderson, the Bears rewarded Alex Brown with a two-year contract extension, apparently realizing the error of their ways. Brown, who outplayed Anderson last season, is now signed through 2011. …
General manager Jerry Angelo expects to know fairly soon whether the 2008 Bears will need a major renovation or just a rebuilt offensive line.
Thursday afternoon at the NFL Scouting Combine, Angelo confirmed that the Bears have made what he considers "aggressive" fair-market offers to big-name unrestricted free agents Lance Briggs, Bernard Berrian and Rex Grossman, who are eligible to receive offers from other teams starting Feb. 29. The Bears have decided not to place the franchise tag on Berrian, which would effectively keep him off the market but lavish a $7.848 million salary on him next season. They prefer a long-term deal at a lower yearly salary.
Angelo wouldn't speculate on the chances of any of the three returning. With the potential windfall of the open market just a week away, it's likely all three will at least explore their options.
"In all likelihood they will," Angelo said. "I'm sure they know right now what their marketplace is. All we can control is what we can do. We made it clear we wanted them back. They've made it clear that they would like to be back, and we're going to do our best to make sure those things happen."
The Bears will not offer a contract to 13-year veteran guard Ruben Brown, an unrestricted free agent whose 2007 season ended at the halfway point with shoulder surgery. Combined with Monday's release of right tackle Fred Miller, the Bears are now looking for at least two starters on the offensive line.
It appears that Grossman may be the best bet to return, and he is still considered a priority. …
Brian Urlacher's neck surgery caught Jerry Angelo by surprise, but the Bears' general manager is confident the six-time Pro Bowl player will be fine.
"Brian's doing well," Angelo said. "He's rehabbing in Phoenix under our direction. Everything we've heard has been positive based on the surgery. It did come up unexpectedly. It wasn't anything that we [knew about in advance] as in most surgeries. But he's feeling a lot better, and we are very optimistic. What he's going to do in the offseason program and how that's all going to work out, I don't know that yet."
Angelo said Urlacher's recent injury history won't influence the team's approach to re-signing Pro Bowl weak-side linebacker Lance Briggs, an unrestricted free agent as of Feb. 29. He also said that Briggs' recent off-the-field problems with paternity and driving won't make the Bears shy away.
"Are those issues that we've talked about internally?" Angelo self-questioned. "We have. But we're OK with Lance. We've had Lance for a long time, and we know him. In terms of what he does at Halas Hall, he has been exemplary – his durability, his practice habits. Everything that we do or ask him to do, he's been great for business. Certainly we're always concerned about the citizenship, but a lot of that ties into his own personal life. We're comfortable with him, and hopefully we'll be able to get a good resolution." …
Bears assistant special teams coach Kevin O'Dea joined the New York Jets as their special teams coordinator Wednesday after spending the last two seasons assisting Dave Toub with the NFL's top-ranked unit.
O'Dea, who will be entering his 15th season as an NFL assistant, replaces Mike Westhoff, who stepped down after last season to undergo surgery for bone cancer in his left leg that will require extensive recovery time. Before joining the Bears, O'Dea, 47, was special teams coach for the Arizona Cardinals for two seasons.
QUOTE TO NOTE
"We want to bring in players that make us better and fill needs, but we want to bring in guys who create good chemistry and a good locker room. I really believe this: If you do not have a good locker room, you are not going to have a good football team, irrelevant of what your talent level is." – Bears GM Jerry Angelo on drafting for character.