Bears general manager Jerry Angelo has spoken of utilizing free agency along with the draft to improve the team in the offseason.
But, with free agency hinging on a new collective bargaining agreement, which isn't imminent, there's a good chance it won't start on time March 4, or anytime soon if there is a lockout.
Whenever free agency happens, the Bears will not duplicate the spending spree of last season that brought Julius Peppers, Chester Taylor and Brandon Manumaleuna. Angelo recognizes there is room for improvement.
"I'm not sitting here saying that we can't get better," the general manager said. "We can get better, and we will get better. We've got a full complement of draft picks. I feel we're going to do business as usual. We'll have a plan for free agency, and I'm sure we will be able to get a few players in free agency. We'll want to bring some of our own back, and I'm confident we will be able to do that."
The Bears do not have a strong history of getting immediate contributions from their draft choices, so any quick fixes would probably have to come via free agency.
Last year, only seventh-round pick J'Marcus Webb made more than a nominal contribution, although his improvement while starting 12 games at right tackle was a revelation and a source of hope for the offensive line, which has been a weakness for some years.
The 2009 draft class, likewise, has yet to have much of an impact aside from fifth-round sleeper Johnny Knox, who is arguably the go-to guy in a mediocre group of wide receivers. Fourth-round pick D.J. Moore showed promise as a nickel back in 2010 after accomplishing nothing as a rookie, and defensive lineman Henry Melton proved to be effective as a nickel pass rusher.
But keeping their own free agents might be just as important for the Bears. Without center Olin Kreutz's leadership and experience in the middle, the Bears' offensive line would have been a complete disaster in 2010. So, even though he'll be 34 before training camp starts -- whenever that might be -- and has 13 years of wear and tear, the Bears need him back for at least one more year to help guide a group in transition. That, and the fact that there's no heir apparent waiting in the wings at Halas Hall, make Kreutz indispensable.
Defensively, there are three starters who will be unrestricted free agents: nose tackle Anthony Adams, linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa and safety Danieal Manning. Adams was the most productive this season, starting all 16 games and leading the interior linemen in tackles with 36.
Tinoisamoa, an eight-year veteran, missed 14 games in 2009 and four this season plus parts of a couple others with knee problems. He'll be 30 before training camp starts. Nick Roach, a four-year veteran who may or may not be unrestricted, depending on the language in a new CBA, has played well in place of Tinoisamoa in the past and might be a better way to go.
Manning started 16 games and has been a full-time starter in four of his five seasons, but it seems like the Bears are always looking for an upgrade. Still, Manning is valuable on special teams as a kickoff returner and has played both safety spots and nickel back. But, with last year's third-round draft pick, Major Wright, waiting in the wings, the Bears won't set the market for Manning.
Among the others, Corey Graham and Rashied Davis are most valuable for their versatility and special teams contributions.
Imagine how spectacular his rookie season might have been had he played with two healthy shoulders?
Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who became just the sixth defensive tackle in NFL history to win the Associated Press Defensive Rookie of the Year award, revealed he played with a right shoulder injury all season.
He sustained the injury during his senior season at Nebraska. He had surgery on Jan. 10, causing him to miss a start in the Pro Bowl.
Still, bad shoulder and all, Suh posted 10 sacks and was a dominant presence for the Lions.
"He's never acted like a rookie, not from the day he came in here," said defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham during the season. "He never played like one and never acted like one.
"It's the combination of outstanding skills, power, speed and balance -- but, mostly, it's the mental makeup and maturity. I'm telling you, when I first talked to him, I thought I was talking to a 10-year veteran."
Suh was the first rookie defensive tackle named to the All-Pro team since 1950. He was the seventh Lions' rookie to win rookie of the year honors and the first defensive player since Al "Bubba" Baker in 1978.
"There are a lot of rookies who can handle the physical part of it, but it's the mental part that gets to them -- especially at that position," Cunningham said. "He withstood the power of the double teams week after week after week. That's tough to do, that drains a player physically -- but, mostly, it drains them mentally."
Suh was omnipresent in Dallas during Super Bowl week. Not only was he doing public relations work for the league, he was busy talking up the Lions to potential free agents. One of those potential free agents was Falcons linebacker Stephen Nicholas.
"Oh, definitely," Nicholas told the Detroit Free Press. "Suh had an awesome year this year. Moved people around, threw a couple people around. A lot of good things out of that guy were happening. I think they're definitely starting to turn things around."
That's been Suh's message. He will tell anybody who'll listen that the expectation next season is for the Lions to make the playoffs.
"Without a doubt. I love expectations," Suh said. "I love having to work and have high standards. ... I have my own high standards. It's even better to have other people have those high standards for you."
A year ago, the Vikings were coming off an overtime loss in the NFC title game at New Orleans, confident that with much of their roster returning they would be able to make another run at the Super Bowl.
There were a few tweaks that needed to be made, but for the most part confidence was high quarterback Brett Favre would return (he did) and that the success of a 12-4 season could be repeated (it wasn't).
Things are different this February around at Winter Park.
With Brad Childress having been fired as coach in November, and Leslie Frazier being named to the job on a permanent basis after spending six games as interim coach, the Vikings are looking to rebound from a 6-10, last-place finish in the NFC North.
And getting back to the top certainly won't be easy considering arch-rival Green Bay won the Super Bowl and advanced to that game by beating NFC North rival Chicago in the conference title game.
There is plenty of work to be done by Frazier, vice president of player personnel Rick Spielman and everyone else associated with the Vikings, but the most important item on the agenda is going to be finding a quarterback.
The Vikings desperately need to end their string of short-term fixes at the position and find someone who can take over that spot for the long term.
Among all the faults Childress might have had, his inability to identify a quarterback might be the biggest thing that will stick in the memory of many fans. Childress did draft Tarvaris Jackson in the second round in 2006, his first season as coach, but that never worked and it's expected Jackson will depart as a free agent.
Meanwhile, the list of veteran quarterbacks who started games during Childress' tenure in Minnesota included Brad Johnson, Brooks Bollinger, Kelly Holcomb, Gus Frerotte and Favre.
When he was named coach a day after the regular season ended, Frazier made it clear that even if Favre decided he really didn't want to retire again, the Vikings would be going in a different direction.
What nobody knows at this point, including the Vikings' brass, is which direction that will be. The Vikings hold the 12th pick in the first round of the draft and could look to take a quarterback or move up in order to get one.
Missouri's Blaine Gabbert, Auburn's Cam Newton, Arkansas' Ryan Mallett and Washington's Jake Locker all are candidates to go in the opening round.
The Vikings also could again look to the free-agent market for a veteran to assist in the development of a rookie as he develops. The dilemma is that with the collective bargaining agreement set to expire in early March the only sure thing at this point is that the draft will take place in April.
The Vikings ended the season with rookie Joe Webb as their starter. A sixth-round pick in 2010, the Vikings had initially planned to shift Webb to wide receiver.
Despite the fact Webb showed potential, it's likely the Vikings will go in a different direction when looking for their quarterback of the future.
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