Almost before the ink was dry late last week on the monster contracts signed by free agents Julius Peppers, Chester Taylor and Brandon Manumaleuna, fans wondered how the Bears could upgrade the free safety position.
Bears coach Lovie Smith has been wondering the same thing since the 2009 season ended.
"We need to improve our safety position, period," Smith said. "Maybe by adding a couple guys. We haven't been pleased with the production we've gotten."
There are several ways the Bears could go. They could use their first draft pick, 76th overall, to possibly get a starting-caliber free safety. But as with any draft pick, that's a gamble.
If the Bears want more of a sure thing, free agency is the way to go, but it's also a lot more expensive than a third-round pick would be.
The best option, in terms of talent, is the Rams' Oshiomogho Atogwe. In his five NFL seasons, Atogwe has been involved in 41 takeaways, more than anyone in the league. If Smith, who has preached takeaways from Day 1, were to create a free safety for his Cover-2 defense, it would be the 28-year-old Atogwe.
All Bears safeties combined had a total of one interception last season. Atogwe had just two in 2009, but he had a total of 13 picks in the two previous seasons.
The former second-round pick had started 60 straight games for the Rams before a shoulder injury knocked him out of the final four games last season. The injury required surgery, but Atogwe's rehab is on schedule, and he's expected to be back well before the start of training camp.
The Bears would not owe the Rams any compensation for Atogwe, since he was tendered at a low level. But St. Louis retains the right to match any offer, and it would take a lucrative bid to get them to fold. It's assumed that the Rams wouldn't let one of their best players go without a fight, but it's hard to figure out what the team and its new owner are doing lately.
Atogwe would not come cheaply. Antrel Rolle last week became the NFL's highest paid safety by signing a five-year, $37 million deal with the Giants that includes $15 million in guaranteed money, and Atogwe is worth that much at least.
"He's a better player than Rolle," one NFL source said of Atogwe. "The Rams say they want to keep him, but he's more than willing to move on if the money's there."
There are cheaper options available, especially if the Bears are willing to settle for a quick fix.
The Saints' Darren Sharper is coming off postseason knee surgery, and he's 34, but he tied for the NFL lead with nine interceptions last season, three of which he returned for touchdowns. He should get more than the $1.7 he received last year but would probably cost less than half of Rolle's annual salary.
Cornerback Lito Sheppard had six interceptions and 13 passes defensed in 2006 for the Eagles, but he was cut by the Jets last week before he was due a $10 million roster bonus. Sheppard would only make sense if the Bears revisited the idea of moving cornerback Charles Tillman to safety, which Smith has vehemently opposed in the past.
NOTES AND QUOTES
Local draft fans would love the Bears to trade up and get in the game a little earlier, but that's unlikely.
"I just don't feel we have enough [trade ammunition] to be able to do that," Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said. "Those top 40 picks are really coveted by most teams. It's very difficult to get teams to move out of those positions, so, in all likelihood, that's not going to happen. We really don't have enough to offer teams, and once teams get fixed on filling their needs and on players [they like], it's very tough to have them move. I've been in their shoes, and I wouldn't do it." ...
Assistant coaches Mike Martz, Rod Marinelli and Mike Tice have all been head coaches in the NFL, which might cause a head coach in a win-or-else situation to glance over his shoulder.
But Smith says that's not a concern.
"It's a great thing," Smith said. "This is the staff that I wanted. I looked at a lot of people. The more the better. We're trying to bring expertise. We're bringing a wealth of knowledge and experience to the group. It's my responsibility to get the best possible guys, period.
"If I had another position [open] and there was another former [head] coach out there that fit that criteria, I would jump on him, too." ...
There were great expectations for six-time Pro Bowl linebacker Brian Urlacher heading into last year's training camp, but they were dashed by a season-ending dislocated wrist in the first game.
Angelo said the still-rehabbing Urlacher, who hasn't been selected for the Pro Bowl since the 2006 season, still can return to that elite level.
"He's in good health," Angelo said. "He was in real good health last year going into the season. He had a real good offseason. But he had a freak injury unfortunately that shut his season down. We're very optimistic getting him back that he's going to be a very good player for us." ...
Based on his recent lack of production – just three interceptions in three years – since signing a five-year contract extension for $28 million before the 2007 season, Nathan Vasher was expected to be cut.
His 2010 base salary is $2.95 million, but the Bears have already paid him $12 million in bonus money, so they've borne the brunt of the financial commitment.
"He's on the roster," Angelo said. "We paid him his money, so it doesn't behoove us to let him go. We're going to take him to training camp. He didn't get a lot of playing time last year, as we all know. When he did play, he looked OK to me. We like him. No reason to do anything with him. If something happens in free agency, us wanting to do something, then we'd probably have to reassess our roster. But right now, it's business as usual."
QUOTE TO NOTE
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