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.
"We very much want to extend Lovie (for) the job that he's done and his staff," Angelo said. "So our focus, our intent is to extend Lovie. We wanted to wait until the (2010) season's over. The season is officially over for us, and that will be part of the business at hand in these next several weeks."
Angelo did not say how long of an extension Smith would be offered.
"We're fine; we'll get into that (later)," Angelo said. "We have a number of things on the agenda, and we'll talk about that, and when there's something to announce, we'll announce it. It's that simple."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's a relief because it's been some time. But I've always felt that you can't take a star from the sky. It can be cloudy, but sooner or later you have to shine, and I guess this is my shining time." -- Former Bears DE Richard Dent, who was voted into the Hall of Fame last Saturday after a nine-year wait.
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."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Jim Schwartz reminds me a lot of Tom Landry in that a lot of coaches in this league can talk about offense, can talk about defense, but Jim is one of the guys that can talk about the salary cap and understand the salary cap. He can understand the value of an offensive guard to your team as far as the salary cap is concerned. He's a guy that knows the rules, he's a guy that -- you want to know how to center the ball, Schwartz can show you how to center the ball. The guy has got a great, varied ability to understand the complete spectrum of the National Football League." -- NFL analyst Gil Brandt, to the Detroit Free Press.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Not even 48 hours had passed since their coronation as league champions before the Packers started to look ahead to and forecast their prospects for next season.
"I tell you what, Green Bay, we're going to be right back here next year doing the exact same thing," quarterback Aaron Rodgers shouted to the warm delight of more than 56,000 shivering fans who braved subzero wind chills Tuesday at Lambeau Field for a celebration for the league champions.
The Packers came home from North Texas triumphant, having beaten the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-25 in Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium on Sunday night.
By the end of the sold-out victory event late Tuesday afternoon, the offseason had started for Green Bay. Whether it will be a shorter hiatus than usual before the players reconvene for spring workouts remains to be seen since there's the all-important matter of a new collective bargaining agreement between the league owners and players to be resolved.
"The new season has begun for myself and (general manager) Ted Thompson," said head coach Mike McCarthy, who guided the Packers to their first league title in 14 years in his fifth year on the job.
McCarthy gave his assistants an overdue break of about two weeks before the staff will be back to work Feb. 21 to turn their attention to the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, which starts a few days later.
The Packers will be in a cozy position of needing to just reload their roster at a few positions. If a CBA is in place in early March and the parameters for free-agent status fall in line with its predecessor, Green Bay has 11 players on its season-ending 53-man roster who would become unrestricted free agents.
Not only is it likely the team will have little turnover with personnel, but the roster will be bolstered by the return of the majority of the 15 players who finished the season on injured reserve. Among those casualties, halfback Ryan Grant, tight end Jermichael Finley, safety Morgan Burnett, defensive end Mike Neal and linebackers Nick Barnett, Brad Jones and Brandon Chillar are impact-type players who figure to be back in the fold next season.
Consequently, what the Packers pulled off this season by getting into the playoffs as the last seed in the NFC with a 10-6 record and then ripping off four straight wins away from home in the postseason to reclaim the Vince Lombardi Trophy is widely viewed as the start of a championship splurge.
McCarthy, however, tempered his expectations about how much more talented the 2011 team should be.
"Talent, that's such a dynamic word and component of your football team," McCarthy said. "I think it's a great lesson for everyone in our building to learn. The most important thing is we need to be the best football team again next year. We can be maybe the most talented and best football team, but sometimes the most talented team doesn't win. We were the best football team in the National Football League this year and lost a lot of talent due to injuries. It's a great experience for us to learn from. It will be a great experience for us to draw from. I felt that coming out of training camp that we were a very talented team on paper.
"Yes, we have an opportunity to start (next) season as a very talented football team," he added. "But, we have to make sure we're the best football team, that everybody's doing their role, doing what they're supposed to be doing at the level they're supposed to be doing it. Because that was a great experience to watch this group of men pull together and fight through the adversity that they needed to and play their best football when it counted."
Receiver Donald Driver, at 36 the elder statesman of the team, understands things will be different for the first time since breaking into the league in 1999. Yet, amid the lofty expectations that already are on the team, he is eager for a repeat performance of how this season finished.
"Now, we've got the dart on our backs," Driver said. "Everybody's coming to get us now. We're the champs. The bull's eye is there. All we've got to do is go out there and take care of business, and I see it once again - Super Bowl champs, back to back."
Turns out Nelson suffered a contusion to a bursa sac in his left knee during the 31-25 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV on Sunday.
"He'll be fine. It won't be a serious injury," head coach Mike McCarthy said Wednesday. "Obviously, it looked bad. It was a pretty significant injury that he fought through the fourth quarter and played with. (He) played very well but played injured. A lot of credit should go to Jordy Nelson for fighting through that."
Nelson led the Packers in the game with nine catches for 140 yards, including a 29-yard touchdown in the first quarter to start the scoring. The 140 receiving yards is the most by a Packer in the team's five Super Bowl appearances.
Veteran cornerback Charles Woodson didn't finish Sunday's game because of a broken left collarbone, which he sustained late in the first half. McCarthy said Woodson won't need surgery.
Barnett suffered a season-ending wrist injury Oct. 3, missing the last 16 games, including playoffs. That opened the door for Desmond Bishop to start alongside A.J. Hawk on the inside, and Bishop responded with 121 tackles (second on the team) and earned a contract extension late in the season.
The emergence of Bishop, along with the expected return of Brandon Chillar from a shoulder injury that kept him out the last two months, has raised doubts about Barnett's future with the team. Barnett, Green Bay's first-round draft pick in 2003, is signed through 2012.
"I think I'll go to training camp in the best shape of my life, with the biggest chip on my shoulder I've ever had," said Barnett, who had surgery on the wrist in mid-October. "We'll let the cards or the chips fall where they may. I think it's going to be hard to deny my hunger that I'm going to show coming into training camp next (season). But, we'll see what happens.
"You guys (the media) are more worried because you guys are looking for a story about who's going to be here and who's not going to be here. I'd love to finish my career out as a Packer. I've got two years on my contract. So, that's what I plan on doing."
The White House said in a statement that Obama "commended Coach McCarthy on his leadership in guiding the team through a rash of injuries both throughout the season and during the game. He also asked the coach to pass on how impressed he was with Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers' game and season. The president told McCarthy that even a (Chicago) Bears fan can appreciate what the victory means to the people of Green Bay and Wisconsin and said he looks forward to hosting the team at The White House, just as Charles Woodson predicted."
McCarthy doesn't know when the Packers will make that trip to Washington, D.C., because of the uncertainty with a new collective bargaining agreement for the NFL. The Super Bowl champions typically are honored by the president at The White House in the spring.
"It was great to talk to Mr. President," McCarthy said. "It was a neat conversation. He was very complimentary of our football team and what we endured as a football team. Very complimentary of Aaron Rodgers, notable of Charles Woodson."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I still go to Starbucks every morning. Got a cup with 'Congratulations' on it (Wednesday); that was nice. But, other than that, they still charged me. So, everything's staying the same." - Head coach Mike McCarthy, on whether he expects his life to change after winning the Super Bowl.