With the return of 2002 first-round draft pick Marc Colombo seriously in doubt, the Bears are again in a near-crisis situation at left tackle for the third straight season.
Colombo's rehabilitation from a dislocated left kneecap in November of 2002 and ensuing complications continue to drag on without much cause for optimism. As a result, the Bears are likely to address their weakness at left tackle in free agency, which begins March 3, or in the college draft April 24-25, or both.
G.M. Jerry Angelo said the Bears would be more active in free agency than at any time since he arrived on June 12, 2001. The Bears have about $10 million worth of salary-cap room and will have even more when high-priced veterans like Phillip Daniels and Warrick Holdman are released or have their contracts restructured. Pro Bowl left tackles Orlando Pace (Rams) and Walter Jones (Seahawks) are unrestricted free agents, but both have been kept off the market when they were designated "franchise" players by their respective teams. So has Green Bay's Chad Clifton. But if Kansas City's John Tait or Miami's Todd Wade remain available, the Bears could bid.
"I see us being more active probably than since I've been here," Angelo said. "The obvious reason is we've got a new coaching staff, so our schemes are going to be different. We have a few square pegs in round holes, (and) we have some cap room. We'll be aggressive at certain positions. I see us pursuing some people."
Last season, Mike Gandy, a guard, began the season at left tackle for the Bears and started the first 14 games before missing the final two with a shoulder injury. It was clear Gandy was not a viable, long-range solution at the most important position on the offensive line, although he could have a future inside at guard, where there is less of a demand for athleticism. First-year player Qasim Mitchell started the final two games and appeared as though he'd be better suited at right tackle. Mitchell suffered a fractured fibula in the season finale.
Back in 2002, Bernard Robertson opened the season at left tackle but played himself out of the lineup and was replaced by Colombo, who started five games and showed promise, toughness and tenacity before his injury. Gandy started at left tackle the final six games of the season.
Less than two weeks away from free agency, Bears general manager Jerry Angelo was asked if he considered left tackle an area of need.
"It's a concern," Angelo admitted at the NFL's Scouting Combine. "Could we go on and do what we did last year? Yes, we could. Mike (Gandy) has got a lot of experience now. Is he the ideal, prototypical left tackle? No. We're putting Mitchell there as well. He did play two games last year. He showed some good things and some not-so-good things. But we feel that he's got the traits to play it. So we start out with those two and go from there, and/or anything that we would conceivably do in free agency or maybe the draft.
Colombo remains a long shot despite his persistent and strenuous efforts to come back.
"When we drafted him, our plan was to keep him at left (tackle)," Angelo said. "When he got hurt that changed some things. Not knowing for sure when he's coming back, and even if he's coming back, we will just answer that when the time comes. If he's up and ready for camp, and they give him the green light, and he feels good, we'll probably start him on the left side.
"If that looks good, he stays there. If we've done something differently from a personnel standpoint, then we also know that he could be a right tackle. He played both in college. The big thing is getting back on the field and that will resolve itself."
Or not. It's been more than 15 months since Colombo even practiced, and it will probably be at least another five months until he's able to do so, if then.
"We're guardedly optimistic Marc will be back and going again," Angelo said. "It's hard to say for sure what the timetable is. I talked to him before I left. He's telling me he's doing more than he's ever done (since the injury) and feeling a lot better as well. He will get in his stance, he's able to come out of his stance, he's doing drill work now. So he's picking the pace up, and I would think that in about another week or two he's going to start doing more testing.
"Is he going to be ready for the minicamps? No. He won't. Really, what the plan will be is to get ready for (training) camp."
The Bears won't be ready for training camp until they address the left tackle problem, a lesson they should have learned the past two seasons.
NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
"I just think when people say you need veteran coaches that have been in the league, I think you need teachers," Smith said. "On Tony Dungy's first staff in Tampa ... we were college guys coming in. He looked at guys that he thought could coach football. I think it's a little bit more important to have veteran leadership in the coordinator positions. But the rest of it is having good teachers to teach a system, and that's what we have."
Eight members of Smith's 16-man staff will be coaching for the first time ever in the NFL this season. Defensive coordinator Ron Rivera has seven years' experience as an NFL coach, making him the dean of Smith's staff in experience. Offensive coordinator Terry Shea has three years' of NFL experience, as does special-teams coordinator Dave Toub. All three of them, plus Smith, will be NFL rookies this year at their specific positions.
"I wanted to have some college coaches on the staff," Smith said. "The brightest minds in college ball to be able to add some youth to (the staff) that way. It's just a combination of a lot of different things, coaches I've been around, and I consulted with a lot of people about guys, too, and came up with this staff. I'm real excited about our entire staff,"
Running backs coach Tim Spencer, wide receivers coach Darryl Drake, tight ends coach Rob Boras, defensive line coach Karl Dunbar, assistant offensive line coach Harold Goodwin, offensive assistant Mike Bajakian, assistant secondary coach Torrian Gray and defensive assistant Lloyd Lee are all moving up this year from college to the NFL.
Lovie Smith believes addition by subtraction will improve the Bears' defense that he's inherited. Especially among the defensive linemen, it's weight that will be subtracted.
"Initially we're going to get our players down (in weight)," Smith said. "We don't put a big emphasis on size, we put a big emphasis though on speed, and we'll do that. On our defensive front, we're going to get the guys down, and there's some good players there that can play a lot better than they did. We're going to get them faster, we're going to let them know exactly what's important in this defense, and I think they'll step up."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think it's a real good top (of the draft) and I feel real good that where we're at (No. 14), that we should get a real good player. Usually a draft is loaded more on the offensive side than the defensive side. I would say this is probably the same. I would say it can go down to 15 to 20 (quality players)." — Bears GM Jerry Angelo.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
NEEDS/DRAFT PRIORITIES: Defensive tackle - UFA Keith Traylor won't be back, and holdovers Bryan Robinson and Alfonso Boone are ordinary players, not the kind of playmakers that Lovie Smith needs for his defense; Offensive left tackle - Mike Gandy filled in here for most of the past two seasons, but he's a guard, and he plays left tackle like a guard. 2002 first-round draft pick Marc Colombo may never make it back from a dislocated knee cap suffered in November of that year; Running back - Anthony Thomas is OK but nothing special, and the Bears do not have a home run threat on the roster at running back; Wide receiver - The Bears need a complement for Marty Booker, preferably one with big-play capabilities.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (6): OG Corbin Lacina; CB Todd McMillon; FB Stanley Pritchett; DT Keith Traylor; OG Chris Villarrial; WR Dez White.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (2): OT Mike Gandy; DE Joe Tafoya.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS (2): OT Steve Edwards; WR Ahmad Merritt.
PLAYERS RE-SIGNED: None.
PLAYERS ACQUIRED: None.
PLAYERS LOST: None.
MEDICAL WATCH: OT Marc Colombo will not be ready to compete in minicamps and is shooting for the start of training camp, but he may not be able to come back at all after suffering a dislocated knee cap in November of 2002 and ensuing complications; OG Rex Tucker (torn right ankle tendon) is already back in action and should be 100 percent by the March minicamp; QB Rex Grossman (fractured right index finger) should not be hindered during minicamp practices.
Matt Millen has taken his share of abuse for the Lions' 10-38 record in the three seasons since he was hired as the team president, but he has a chance this year to make some serious inroads into the Lions' talent deficit.
Although the Lions never had the kind of salary cap problems that cause teams to cut Pro Bowl players and start a grass roots rebuilding program, they are in a much more enviable cap position this year than they were in Millen's first three years.
By all estimates, they will have somewhere between $12 million and $15 million in cap room as they begin shopping for unrestricted free agents this week.
They made a bid to get four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey in a trade with Washington but didn't have the resources to pull it off.
As a result, they missed out on Bailey but they won't have to concede a huge chunk of cap money to him before going to the free agent market and they have all of their top draft picks in tact for the draft in April.
"This year, given our cap situation, we have a real good opportunity to add to our football team,'' coach Steve Mariucci said. "So we've got to make real good decisions.''
After missing out on their opportunity to get Bailey, the Lions top priority in free agent is expected to be a quality cornerback to join last year's free agent prize - Pro Bowler Dre' Bly - in the defensive secondary.
It is expected the Lions will pursue one of the good young cornerbacks - an Antoine Winfield of Buffalo or an Ahmed Plummer of San Francisco - who will have several good years ahead of him, rather than pursue an older player who would have a shelf life of only two or three more seasons.
NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
Russell suffered season-ending knee injuries in 1997 and again in 1998 in preseason games with the Lions, and was released in 1998 when it became obvious he wouldn't be able to play effectively.
"I've still got problems,'' Russell said during the NFL scouting combine. "I just can't run any more. I can ride a bike but I can't run or change direction.''
At that time Lions coach Bobby Ross offered Russell a chance to stay with the team in a scouting capacity, but he felt he needed time to think about his future.
As it turned out, he landed a job scouting with the New England Patriots, living in Boulder and scouting the west. He was with them briefly in 2001 and rejoined them last season.
Although he enjoys working for the team that has won two of the last three Super Bowls, Russell said he still holds the Lions organization in high regard.
"The Lions always took great care of me,'' he said. "They were really good to me through the whole thing. I'll always contend that's a class organization, especially with stories you hear from some of the other teams. I think the Ford family does a good job.''
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We do need to become younger. We're the oldest team in the NFC. That's not necessarily anything to brag about but that's how it is. I love veteran players, I love them dearly but what happens is they need to be - at some point - replaced by younger players, so we're going to do some of that this year.'' — Coach Steve Mariucci on the Lions roster.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Lions are certain to get younger in at least one area - at right guard, where 41-year-old Ray Brown started all season. As much as the Lions love Brown for his leadership and his work ethic, it is extremely unlikely he'll be back for the 2004 season.
Coach Steve Mariucci and president Matt Millen will look for a free agent who can take over that job or draft a player who can play guard or give them the flexibility to move one of their current tackles to guard. One way or the other, they have to be younger on the offensive line.
The offensive line is only one of the areas of need, however. And it is not even the area of greatest need.
Mariucci needs another cornerback (probably in free agency) as well as a safety (probably in the draft), a running back (either free agency or the draft) and a tight end.
Initially it looked like the Lions would go after two starting guards but - given their other needs - they might have to be content with Eric Beverly back at the left guard and just look for a right guard.
NEEDS/DRAFT PRIORITIES: Cornerback - They have two third-year players - Chris Cash and Andre' Goodman - coming off injuries that kept them out of the 2003 season but the Lions feel they need another established corner to pair with Dre' Bly in the secondary; Safety - Corey Harris is 34 and Brian Walker has not had the desired impact in his two seasons since being signed as a UFA from Miami. Sean Taylor from Miami (Fla.) would be a very nice fit; Running back - RB James Stewart missed all of last season with a shoulder injury and his contract for 2004 isn't a good fit in the salary cap, so the Lions will be looking for younger, faster, more explosive legs.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (15): OG Eric Beverly; OG Kerlin Blaise; OG Ray Brown; RB Shawn Bryson; QB Ty Detmer; CB Doug Evans; LB Jeff Gooch; LB Barrett Green; DE James Hall; WR Shawn Jefferson; P John Jett; DT Kelvin Pritchett; CB Otis Smith; S Bracy Walker; LB Brian Williams.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (6): WR Scotty Anderson; LB Donte' Curry; P Nick Harris; QB Mike McMahon; WR Reggie Swinton; FB Stephen Trejo.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS (7): CB Chris Cash; S Julius Curry; WR Eddie Drummond; WR David Kircus; LS Jody Littleton; OG Josh Lovelady; CB Leonard Myers.
PLAYERS RE-SIGNED: None.
PLAYERS ACQUIRED: None.
PLAYERS LOST: None.
MEDICAL WATCH: WR Charles Rogers is scheduled to begin offseason workouts in early March, well ahead of the rest of the Lions. Coming off a broken collarbone that healed slowly and only now - four months after the injury - is he being given approval to begin upper body conditioning.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Tackle Chad Clifton was named the Packers' franchise player but the two sides continued to work toward a long-term agreement.
The Packers used the tag reluctantly because it would mean a $7.021 million cap hit when the league year starts Wednesday.
If they have to carry Clifton's enormous cap charge through much of the offseason they can probably forget about signing that mid-level free-agent safety or defensive lineman they so badly need. It would appear they simply wouldn't have the salary cap room to do it.
"I'd rather not speak to our plan in free agency," club vice president Andrew Brandt said. "What we talked about is creating a situation necessary to accomplish what we need to accomplish. In every situation, there's balance. You have to balance your cap room with what you want to accomplish in free agency."
So far Clifton has rejected the club's offer of a $10 million signing bonus.
Of the 16 players designated as franchise players the last two years, nine played the next season for the one-year tender, two were traded and one was released. Only four agreed to long-term deals, and two were kickers-punters and another sat out all of training camp before agreeing to a long-term deal.
Agent Jimmy Sexton is looking for a signing bonus in the $12.5 million range with a per-year average of $5.5 million.
Brandt acknowledged that the hefty $7 million salary Clifton is guaranteed this year makes it easier for him to stand firm on his demands.
However, the Packers have the option of rescinding their franchise designation at any time. Should negotiations go nowhere, they could bail out before Wednesday and let Clifton test the market.
The club's record for highest signing bonus, $12 million, went to quarterback Brett Favre in July 1997.
"It's gonna take probably $12 (million)," Sexton said.
Said Brandt: "The message is that Chad wants to be a Packer. In my position, I can get jaded because I hear that all the time and players may leave for more money. But I do believe that and I believe we want him, and in that sense I'm optimistic.
"The money is substantial. The question comes down to, how substantial?"
Clifton, 27, fits Green Bay because he hails from a small town in Tennessee and isn't interested in bright lights. He revels being part of an exceptional offensive line that has been together since 2001 and no doubt remembers how coach Mike Sherman stood up to Tampa Bay's Warren Sapp on his behalf in November 2002.
Twelve months ago, the Dallas Cowboys re-signed left tackle Flozell Adams for $25 million over five years. Partly because his rookie contract was five years compared to Clifton's original four-year deal and also because of fewer injuries, Adams had 76 starts under his belt compared to Clifton's current total of 48.
Adams' signing bonus was $10 million.
"It's a year old," Sexton said. "When Flozell signed with Dallas last year a lot of people thought it was a bad move. Because Bill (Parcells) coached the hell out of him he played great. But if you look at the facts on the table I think people think Chad Clifton has been a better first four-year player than Flozell Adams was."
Clifton is a gifted pass blocker but isn't without flaws. He amassed 10 false-start penalties in 2003 and was the least effective run blocker on the line, which Sexton acknowledged.
Still, the Packers are fearful of breaking up their offensive mix and are petrified about exposing Favre's blindside.
A $12 million signing bonus for Clifton also would surpass the bonuses of $11 million to Favre in 2001 and Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila in 2003, the $10 million to Antonio Freeman in 1999 and the $7 million to Darren Sharper in 2001.
NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
Tobin, who has been out of football since being fired by Detroit as defensive coordinator after the 2001 season, will advise coach Mike Sherman in all areas of the team.
Sherman said that Philbin turned down opportunities to be a No. 1 offensive line coach in the NFL to remain in Green Bay. He has six children.
Campen was the Packers' starting center from 1990 until Week 4 of the ‘93 season, when he suffered a career-ending hamstring injury. He has been coaching in the high school ranks for nine years in California.
Also interviewed for the job that went to Campen was Jeff Dellenbach, a utility offensive lineman for the Packers from 1996-'98. He interviewed with Sherman at the Senior Bowl last month.
Last year, Dellenbach began his coaching career by serving as the Miami Dolphins' assistant offensive line coach on a voluntary basis. He continues in that role.
The Houston Texans have more than two teams agreeable to their trade parameters for the baseball-playing quarterback but the Packers aren't one of them and have shown absolutely no inclination to become one of them.
An NFL source close to the situation said the Packers apparently believe Brett Favre will play several more seasons and will be content to sift through an excellent quarterback class and select one in the middle rounds this year.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Some people would say, ‘Just pay the guy. He's a left tackle.' But I'm trying to do what's best for the Packers." — Vice president Andrew Brandt on Chad Clifton.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Chicago Bears have given the agent for defensive end Phillip Daniels permission to shop his client and the Packers expressed almost immediate interest, according to a source.
Daniels, 30, is due a $1 million roster bonus March 3 but the Bears won't pay it because they're changing defensive schemes and want quicker linemen. Mark Hatley, the Packers' vice president of football operations, brought Daniels to Chicago with a lucrative contract in February 2000 as an unrestricted free agent.
In four seasons for the Bears Daniels started 59 of a possible 64 games and had 23 sacks. He made 41 starts for Seattle from 1996-'99 and had 21 1/2 sacks.
Daniels, 6-5 and 288 pounds, has started at both ends and played some tackle on passing downs. He would be an alternative either to Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila or Aaron Kampman on early downs.
NEEDS/DRAFT PRIORITIES: The Packers will be looking to improve their shaky defense in the early stages of the draft. They would like to replace Marques Anderson as the starting strong safety. They would like to sign a defensive end to be in the rotation at the least. Possibly, he would take some playing time away from Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila. They need a cornerback, because Bhawoh Jue is the best that's behind Mike McKenzie and Al Harris. And they would like to find the heir apparent to Brett Favre.
FRANCHISE PLAYER: OT Chad Clifton (tendered at $7.021M).
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (8): P Josh Bidwell; S Antuan Edwards; WR Antonio Freeman; CB/S Michael Hawthorne; QB Doug Pederson; DT Larry Smith; OT Marcus Spriggs; TE Wesley Walls.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (4): CB Bhawoh Jue; LB Torrance Marshall; TE David Martin; DT Rod Walker.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS (6): OT Kevin Barry; RB Tony Fisher; LB Paris Lenon; CB James Whitley; LB Marcus Wilkins.
PLAYERS RE-SIGNED: S Curtis Fuller.
PLAYERS ACQUIRED: None.
PLAYERS LOST: None.
MEDICAL WATCH: The Packers' three nose tackles last season either have undergone or soon will undergo arthroscopic knee surgery.
Grady Jackson and Rod Walker have had the operations and Gilbert Brown probably will have his surgery.
Another defensive lineman, DE Aaron Kampman, had arthroscopic surgery performed on his right knee.
Meanwhile, wide receiver Javon Walker has undergone surgery in Houston to remove bone spurs from his ankle and to clean out his shoulder joint. Both operations were regarded as mild but he might be placed under some restrictions for the post-draft minicamp.
Guard Marco Rivera also had arthroscopic knee surgery Feb. 13, five days after playing in the Pro Bowl.