Two Utah Players Could Help Bears

One of the better non-BCS conference programs in the country, Utah has two prospects that could help the Chicago Bears immediately: offensive lineman Zane Beadles and free safety Robert Johnson.

A couple of Utah prospects make sense for the Bears, who won't have a pick until the third round of next month's draft but still have holes to fill at safety and on the offensive line.

It's difficult to project which players will be available when the Bears finally get around to their first pick, which is 76th overall, but they would probably be delighted if Utah's Zane Beadles was still on the board.

Beadles was mostly a left tackle in college, starting there for the past three years. But several NFL talent evaluators project him to guard, where he started for the Utes as a freshman. While he seems to lack the athleticism necessary to play left tackle in the NFL, he could also find a home at right tackle.

The Bears could use him at guard or right tackle. That would allow them the flexibility of starting Beadles at whichever of those two positions isn't filled by Frank Omiyale, who started at guard most of last season but has had more experience at tackle.

Another Utah player the Bears could target on draft weekend is safety Robert Johnson, who was not invited to the NFL Scouting Combine but could be a sleeper. Johnson already has a visit set up with the Bears at Halas Hall on April 6.

The Bears were among 16 teams represented at Utah's Pro Day last Monday. Afterward, Vikings regional scout Kevin McCabe told the Daily Utah Chronicle, "[Johnson] has got great ball skills, and he has great range. He made a lot of great catches down in the corner."

Johnson measured a fraction over 6-2 and weighed in at 203 pounds. He ran the 40 in the 4.6 range, which is adequate, but his 4.06 in the 20-yard shuttle and 6.56 in the three-cone drill would have been tops among safeties at the combine.

S Robert Johnson
Getty Images: Steve Dykes

The Bears have changed starting safeties 41 times since Lovie Smith was hired as head coach in 2004. The free safety starter has changed 21 times, while the strong safety starter has changed 20 times. Last year the Bears opened the season with rookie Al Afalava at strong safety, and he started the first eight games until he suffered a shoulder injury. Josh Bullocks replaced him for one game, Afalava returned to start twice more at strong safety but then switched to free safety for three starts before missing the last two games with a knee injury. Kevin Payne started three games at strong safety after Afalava moved to free, but Craig Steltz started Game 15 before Payne returned for the finale.

Payne started the season opener at free safety but was benched after that game in favor of Danieal Manning, who started the next 10 games. He was benched in favor of Afalava, but Bullocks took over in Week 15 and Steltz started at free in the season finale.

The Bears would like to stop the revolving at safety, or at least slow it down.

Despite earlier indications to the contrary, the Bears on Wednesday cut former Pro Bowl cornerback Nathan Vasher, eliminating his $2.95 million salary for the 2010 season, in addition to the $3.45 million he would have earned in 2011 and the $3.7 million he would have been due in 2012.

Unfortunately for the Bears, they've already paid Vasher a $9.5 million signing bonus as part of the five-year, $28 million contract extension he signed on June 26, 2007, a year and a half after his first and only Pro Bowl appearance. Vasher also received roster bonuses of $2 million in 2007 and $2.5 million in '08. He had no more bonus money due, which is why, despite three straight unproductive and injury-marred seasons, it seemed plausible that he would at least go to training camp and compete for a job this summer.

"We paid him his money, so it doesn't behoove us to let him go," Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said last month. "We're going to take him to training camp."

But the Bears believe they can get more production for less money from free agent cornerback Tim Jennings, who was signed on Tuesday. Charles Tillman and Zack Bowman will go to training camp as the starters, with Jennings, Corey Graham, D.J. Moore and Woodny Turenne expected to compete for backup positions.

After intercepting 16 passes and starting 35 games in his first three NFL seasons, Vasher started just 11 games in the next three seasons and intercepted only three passes. He suffered a severe groin tear in the third game of the 2007 season and played in just one more game that year. A wrist injury that required surgery limited him to eight games in '08.

Vasher's Pro Bowl appearance followed a 2005 regular season in which he intercepted eight passes, one of which he returned 45 yards for a touchdown against the Packers. That year he also established an NFL record, since broken, for longest scoring play in history, when he went 108 yards with a missed field goal against the 49ers at Soldier Field. ...

Defensive end Julius Peppers will continue to wear No. 90 in 2010, the same number he wore for eight years with the Carolina Panthers before he left via free agency to join the Bears last Friday.

Third-round defensive lineman Jarron Gilbert wore No. 90 last season as a rookie, but no new number has been announced for him. When Peppers visited Halas Hall last Friday, he was asked how much he would pay to have Gilbert relinquish the number.

"Hopefully, he'll give it up out of respect," Peppers said, laughing.

No word yet on how much, if any, money was exchanged for the switch. Peppers' six-year deal with the Bears could pay him as much as $91.5 million if he hits every incentive. ...

On Tuesday, former Colt Jennings was signed to a two-year contract. The four-year veteran became a free agent when he was not tendered a contract offer by Indianapolis.

The 5-8, 185-pound former second-round pick (62nd overall) out of Georgia had two interceptions in each of the past two seasons, when he started a total of 17 games. Jennings is expected to compete for a job as the Bears' nickel cornerback and on special teams, his two primary roles last year with the Colts. ...

Chester Taylor will keep the No. 29 that he has worn his entire NFL career.

Unrestricted free agent running back Adrian Peterson wore No. 29 with the Bears for the past eight years, and Friday's announcement about Taylor retaining his number was the latest indication that Peterson, an unrestricted free agent, will not be back with the team. ...

The offseason schedule is officially set through June's organized team activities (OTAs), although the start of training camp won't be known until the preseason schedule is released.

The rookie minicamp, as usual, will be the first weekend after the draft, which this year becomes a three-day affair, with the first round beginning at 6:30 Thursday night, April 22. Rounds 2 and 3 will be Friday, starting at 5 p.m., and Rounds 4-7 are on Saturday beginning at 9 a.m.

Rookie minicamp is at Halas Hall the following Saturday and Sunday, May 1-2. The full-team minicamp is Friday-Sunday, May 21-23, also at Halas Hall.

OTAs commence June 2 and run through June 24. Practices will be Monday through Thursday most weeks, although there will be two open dates, probably at the end of the sessions, since only 14 OTAs are permitted.

Training camp can begin 15 days before the first scheduled preseason game. Offseason workouts begin March 29.

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