The free agent signing period in the NFL begins Feb. 27, but it remains to be seen just how much money the Monsters of the Midway are willing to throw around in this tough economic environment.
There are immediate improvements that need to be made on both sides of the ball.
Offensively, the wide receivers are a joke right now, the offensive line could use some quality depth, and Matt Forte must have a complement at running back. And don't forget that general manager Jerry Angelo isn't sold on Kyle Orton at quarterback just yet and wants to bring in some more competition under center before training camp. The only offensive position that should be all-systems-go for 2009 is tight end, where Desmond Clark and Greg Olsen form an enviable one-two punch.
As for the defense, a pass-rushing end is paramount because this unit is simply not putting enough pressure on the enemy passer. A play-making safety would also be a quality addition, as fan favorite Mike Brown probably won't be back after suffering so many injuries the last several years. A new starter at strong-side linebacker would help, and more able bodies at tackle and cornerback are always necessary for any Cover 2 scheme.
According to the NFL experts at Scout.com, there are 18 five-star free agents that will be on the market this offseason.
On offense, quarterbacks Kurt Warner and Matt Cassell are atop everyone's wish list, although Warner is expected to re-sign with the Cardinals and Cassel has already been slapped with the franchise tag by the Patriots. As far as the pass catchers are concerned, T.J. Houshmandzadeh is the premier player out there and seems to be shopping himself to every team in the league because he wants so badly to get out of Cincinnati. Up front, Jordan Gross could step in at either left or right tackle for just about anybody and be a quality upgrade.
Defensively, Albert Haynesworth is arguably the best tackle in football and would completely transform any front four, while Terrell Suggs is a terror off the edge with 53 sacks in six seasons as a pro. Ray Lewis is still dominant at middle linebacker even while knocking on the door of 34 years old, so asking him to move over to the strong side would be laughable. There are some tremendous players to patrol the defensive backfield that can be had for a price, led by corner Nnamdi Asomugha and safety Jermaine Phillips.
Assuming Angelo can bring in just one five-star contributor, he needs to find a player that would plug a hole, fit the system, and won't break the bank in the process.
Houshmandzadeh would be the possession target the Chicago air attack desperately needs, but he's on the wrong side of 30 and might not be nearly as effective once he no longer lines up opposite Chad Johnson. A D-tackle combination of Haynesworth and Tommie Harris might be unstoppable, although the former was always a chronic underachiever before free agency loomed and the latter could be damaged goods. And while Cassell certainly looked like Tom Brady Lite this past season, remember Scott Mitchell was once Dan Marino Lite back in the day.
The player the Midway Monsters should be targeting is Oshiomogho Atogwe, the 5-11, 210-pound free safety from the Rams.
Lovie Smith's version of the Cover 2 simply doesn't work without solid play from both safeties, which has not been the case in the Windy City lately. The aforementioned Brown will go down in history as one of the greatest warriors in franchise annals, but the fact remains that he can't stay healthy after so many lower-leg problems since 2004. All that time on injured reserve seems to have caught up with the former Pro Bowler, as he didn't make many of his signature big plays in '08 and just couldn't finish a handful of games because of various bumps and bruises.
According to Howard Balzer, Publisher of Gridiron Gateway on the Scout.com network, Atogwe is "an ascending player that simply has a nose for the ball. Not great in run support but makes plays, whether it's interceptions or, his specialty, forcing fumbles. He excelled at those things with an average defense, at best, and a bad team."
Aside from Brown, Kevin Payne is a hard hitter but very undisciplined away from the line of scrimmage, Danieal Manning lacks the football knowledge necessary to be an every-down player, and fifth-round draft pick Craig Steltz still has a lot to learn. The coaching staff always likes the skill set Brandon McGowan brings to the table, although he's spent almost as much time on IR as Brown has during his career. Since there isn't one safety worthy of a selection in Round 1 of the NFL Draft this April, the odds of finding a rookie that can come in and start right away are slim at best.
That's why Atogwe makes a lot of sense for the Bears, as he can immediately step into the starting lineup at free safety and allow Payne to switch back to his more natural spot at strong safety. Atogwe is hardly a household name has never made a Pro Bowl, but he is durable, battle-tested, and always around the football. Smith's defense is predicated on forcing turnovers, and the one-time Stanford Cardinal – it never hurts to have a Stanford education in the secondary – intercepted five passes and forced five fumbles this past season.
And the Rams are in disarray as an organization, meaning Atogwe should be ready to move on to greener pastures.
The once-dominant Chicago defense was only 21st in the NFL in 2008 and a woeful 30th against the pass. The tackles and ends deserve a lot of the blame because opposing QBs had way too much time in the pocket more often than not, but the coverage down the field was also lacking. While Atogwe may never be a blanket in man-to-man situations, he has good instincts, closes on the football in a hurry, and times his blitzes well.
There are free agents on the market much sexier than Atogwe, but he's the one that could give the Bears the most bang for their buck heading into 2009.
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John Crist is the Publisher of Bear Report and a member of the Professional Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.
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