General manager Jerry Angelo, head coach Lovie Smith and Bears assistant coaches and scouts will be paying particular attention to offensive tackles and wide receivers, as this year's Scouting Combine got under way Thursday at Indianapolis' Lucas Oil Stadium.
This is considered a strong draft class at both positions, which is fortunate for the Bears since that's where their two greatest needs lie.
The Bears are way overdue to start allocating some resources to the offensive line, which has been all but ignored in recent drafts. Prior to taking Chris Williams with last year's first-round pick, the Bears had not taken an offensive lineman in any of the first three rounds since 2002, when they selected Marc Colombo in the first round and Terrence Metcalf in the third.
In the next five drafts the Bears had 32 picks in the first five rounds but used just one on an offensive lineman, taking Josh Beekman in the fourth round in 2007. That's why, if John Tait retires and John St. Clair leaves via free agency, the Bears wouldn't have any tackles who have ever started a game in the NFL, although Beekman started all 16 games last season at left guard.
"We want to use the draft as a strong vehicle to build our team," Angelo has said in the past. "Fiscally, it's sounder. Obviously when you develop your own players, it's easier to reward them."
The consensus is that at least five offensive linemen could be rewarded with first-round money this year: Virginia's Eugene Monroe, Baylor's Jason Smith, Alabama's Andre Smith, Arizona's Eben Britton and Mississippi's Michael Oher. The first three are expected to be gone before the Bears pick at No. 18, but all five will be evaluated closely by Angelo and Co.
NFL teams are allowed to interview up to 60 of the 333 players invited to this year's Combine, which runs through Feb. 24. Workouts begin Saturday with offensive linemen, tight ends and kickers. On Sunday, quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers will run, jump and shuttle as best they can to boost their stock before the draft on the final weekend in April.
Six wide receivers could come off the board in the first round, starting with Texas Tech's Michael Crabtree and followed by Missouri's Jeremy Maclin, Maryland's Darrius Heyward-Bey, North Carolina's Hakeem Nicks, Rutgers' Kenny Britt and Florida's Percy Harvin. Crabtree and Maclin are rated a notch above the other four, all of whom might be available at 18.
The Bears have devoted a bit more attention to receivers in the past few years, but it hasn't resulted in much production.
They took Earl Bennett in the third round last season, but he hardly played and didn't catch a single pass. In the two previous years, the Bears didn't use any of their 16 picks on a wide receiver, although 2006 second-round pick Devin Hester was switched to that position after being drafted as a cornerback and return specialist. Mark Bradley, a second-rounder in 2005, and David Terrell, a first-rounder in '01, both wound up in the "bust" category.
Three of the Bears' best wide receiver picks since Angelo began running their drafts in 2002 were starters for other teams last season: the Vikings' Bernard Berrian, a third-rounder in '04, and Bobby Wade, and the Titans' Justin Gage. Wade and Gage were both fifth-rounders in '03.
Harvin has some durability issues despite his myriad talents. (Doug Benc/Getty Images)
NEWS AND NOTES
St. Clair, 31, has also started games at left guard for the Bears and has expressed his desire to remain in Chicago. Left tackle was predicted to be a major trouble spot for the Bears last season when St. Clair was forced into a starting role there after spending his first three seasons with the team as a backup tackle. With a couple of exceptions, when he struggled against the Vikings' Jared Allen, St. Clair played better than others expected. But his performance didn't surprise the nine-year veteran from Virginia.
"I have confidence in my ability. I always have, and I thought I proved it in the past," St. Clair said. "If you have questions, it's part of the game. But I always have confidence in my game."
As a unit the Bears' offensive line was adequate last season, but because of the ages of Tait, St. Clair and 11-year veteran center Olin Kreutz (31), it was a position the Bears were expected to address in the draft. It becomes a greater concern if Tait retires and a critical need if they lose St. Clair, who thought he and the offensive line as a group performed well last season.
"You have your ups and downs, but that's the way it is with everybody," he said. "I don't care if you're a Pro Bowler or what. I think I played pretty well. But we play as a line, as a group, so it's about all of us, and I think we've played well all year."
The Bears were 26th in yards per game last season, tied for 14th in points and 12th in preventing sacks. …
Marty Booker's second go-round with the Bears didn't come close to living up to his first tour of duty.
Booker, who had back-to-back seasons of 100 and 97 catches in 2001 and '02 that accounted for 2,260 yards and 14 touchdowns, was released Feb. 13 after catching just 14 passes last season.
The 32-year-old Booker had one year and $1 million remaining on the two-year, $3.5 million deal he signed last offseason as an unrestricted free agent after he was released by the Dolphins following four seasons in Miami. Booker was selected by the Bears in the third round of the 1999 draft and was a Pro Bowl pick in 2002. He was traded during the 2004 preseason for defensive end Adewale Ogunleye.
Booker's '01 and '02 seasons were the two most productive in Bears history in terms of receptions, and his streak of catching at least one pass in 60 straight games is also a franchise record. Booker's 329 receptions in six seasons with the Bears are tied for third in team history.
But the 6-foot, 205-pound 10-year veteran battled knee and other nagging injuries throughout the 2008 season that caused him to miss three games and numerous practices. Booker caught just three passes in the final nine games of the '08 season.
When Booker and Brandon Lloyd were signed three days apart early last March, they were expected to be major players in the Bears' passing attack. Lloyd got off to a fast start with 15 catches for 251 yards in the first four games but then missed five games with a sprained knee and wasn't much of a factor the remainder of the season with just 11 more catches for 113 yards in his final seven games.
Lloyd, who was playing on a one-year, $645,000 deal, is an unrestricted free agent who is not expected back with the Bears.
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