The Bears wouldn't have made it to Super Bowl XLI with glaring needs, but if you look below the surface, they have several areas of concern that must be addressed if they intend to return to the Big Game.
The offensive line is above average, but it is aging and in decline. It needs an infusion of youth, since none of the backups shows much promise as a starter. Among the current starters, only right Robert Garza will be under 30 when training camp starts. Left guard Ruben Brown, an unrestricted free agent, is already 35, and left tackle John Tait is already 32. Right tackle Fred Miller will be 34. If the Bears don't get an offensive linemen in the draft who can start immediately, they had better get one who can start soon, despite the lack of urgency voiced publicly by general manager Jerry Angelo.
"We can front up a pretty good offensive line," Angelo said. "We're prepared to go into the season. Terrence Metcalf has played here in the event Ruben doesn't come back. We have him slotted in there and then we stay the course with the other four."
Metcalf has started 20 games in five seasons with the Bears, and if he was considered a long-range solution, the team wouldn't have used free agency to bring in four of their five o-line starters in the previous three seasons.
Backup tackle John St. Clair is strictly a stopgap, emergency fill-in, and he'll be 30 next season. Interior backup Anthony Oakley is unproven.
"Could we use another young developing player somewhere in that line?" Angelo said. "Probably. But I don't necessarily look at it as a need. That would be a want, is what I'm saying."
Angelo may want offensive line help to be a want, but almost everyone else considers it a need.
The Bears also must shore up a linebacking group that has no proven backups and a disgruntled franchise player in Lance Briggs, who is threatening not to play. The safety position has strength in numbers but questions about health and quality abound.
"What we did last year worked very well," Angelo said. "I didn't foresee that being inevitable again this year."
Angelo didn't use the fourth overall pick in the 2005 draft on Benson just to watch him caddy for Jones.
"We like Cedric Benson," Angelo said. "It's his time; it's that simple. We feel strongly that he is ready."
The problem for Briggs is that there isn't much he can do about it. As the Bears' designated "franchise" player, Briggs is bound to them for the 2007 season at a salary of $7.2 million. If he doesn't play for the Bears, he doesn't play at all; or get paid.
Because he was a third-round draft choice, Briggs has played for close to the league minimum throughout his career, which was $585,000 for a fourth-year player in 2006 (Briggs made slightly more than $700,000). But Briggs has been a starter since the fourth game of his rookie season, and he's started 61 consecutive games, while playing at an elite level the past two seasons, when he was voted to the Pro Bowl.
"They need to either (rescind) the franchise tag, and let me move on, or trade me to another team," Briggs said. "Because that's about the only way this thing can have any kind of a positive resolution."
League rules prevent teams from tagging players and then shopping them according to Bears general manager Jerry Angelo.
"You can listen (to trade offers), and we're not opposed to that," Angelo said. "But that was not our intention."
Angelo said late Monday afternoon that he had received no trade inquiries regarding Briggs. That could change, now that the four-year veteran has gone public with his displeasure. Last off-season, a full year before his original contract expired, the Bears offered Briggs $33 million over six years, with approximately $15 million in guaranteed money. But he and agent Drew Rosenhaus turned it down, although the Bears believed they were on the verge of an agreement. At that time, Briggs and his agent were told by the Bears that the franchise tag was an option they would consider, failing a long-term deal that the team considered more than fair.
Benson is bigger and faster than Thomas Jones, who was traded to the Jets on Monday, and a more powerful runner, but he has not been as reliable or durable while chafing in his role as a backup. While Jones carried 610 times over the past two seasons, Benson was hampered by a sprained knee as a rookie, which sidelined him for six games, a shoulder injury during last year's training camp and a sprained knee in Super Bowl XLI.
"He's been hurt," Angelo admitted. "(But) he never was hurt in college. He had a lot of carries and four 1,000-yard seasons. I don't have that kind of crystal ball, so I can't say there isn't some concern. But he works pretty hard in the off-season and takes care of himself. It's a violent game, and if you get hit in the wrong place at the wrong time, you're going to get an injury."
The departure of the four-year veteran, which the Bears anticipated, diminishes their depth in the secondary and puts the safety position, specifically, in an uncertain situation. Mike Brown, a Pro Bowl pick in 2005, missed the final 10 games last season after undergoing foot surgery, and he's missed 28 games over the past three seasons. Aside from Brown, the only safeties expected back next season who have started in the NFL are 24-year-olds Danieal Manning and Chris Harris.
"Mike's rehabbing fine, but we have to protect ourselves given Mike's injury history," Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said recently. "On paper we have numbers. But (there is) a little bit more concern because of the durability issues."
Johnson, 28, who will make $1.5 million this year, was a fourth-round pick in 2003, and he started six games last season after Brown was hurt and played roughly 30 percent of the team's 2006 defensive snaps.
Johnson is the first of the Bears' unrestricted free agents to sign elsewhere but probably not the last. Angelo expects defensive tackles Ian Scott and Alfonso Boone to attract some suitors.
"We'd be naive to think they're not going to get some attention," Angelo said. "Our defense, for the most part played pretty well, and those players were a pretty big part of that."
Starting guard Ruben Brown, backup safety Cameron Worrell and backup wide receiver Justin Gage are also unrestricted free agents.
Hamilton, who has four years coaching experience in the NFL, spent last season as the 49ers' offensive assistant/quarterbacks coach. London spent the last three seasons at Duke, most recently as the Blue Devils' assistant running backs coach.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Going back and playing for the Bears again, no, I don't see that as an option. Not one more day. Not at all." — Bears franchise LB Lance Briggs.
The names are so seductive. Calvin Johnson. Adrian Peterson. Brady Quinn. Maybe JaMarcus Russell if the Raiders pass him up.
But more than likely, the Lions will take safe over sexy in this year's NFL draft. If they stay at No. 2, they probably will take offensive tackle Joe Thomas. If they trade down, they probably will take Thomas or someone like defensive end Gaines Adams. If they trade down far enough — or move up far enough later — they could take linebacker Patrick Willis.
Nothing really changed when the Lions acquired offensive tackle George Foster from Denver and signed free agent defensive end Dewayne White from Tampa Bay. The Lions still have the same needs. They still have the same philosophy.
The Lions have been seduced by offensive skill under president Matt Millen, and they have been burned by it. Quarterback Joey Harrington, the third overall pick in 2002, is bouncing around the league. Wide receiver Charles Rogers, second overall in 2003, is out of football. Wide receiver Mike Williams, 10th overall in 2005, is on thin ice.
But something changed after Millen hired coach Rod Marinelli. Last year, the Lions took linebacker Ernie Sims ninth overall, even though quarterbacks Matt Leinart and Jay Cutler were on the board — and offensive coordinator Mike Martz loved Cutler.
Sims filled a need for the Lions, and he fit Marinelli's philosophy. Marinelli is an old defensive line coach. He loves line play and defense — the Tampa 2 defense, specifically — and looks for fast, relentless, workaholic players all over the field.
Johnson? The Lions are already 1-for-3 with top-10 wide receivers. Peterson? The Lions already had a No. 2 pick with collarbone problems (Rogers). Quinn? If the Lions didn't take Cutler, why would they take him?
Expect Marinelli to go to the trenches.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "As you know, Tony Dungy and coach (Lovie) Smith are in the same system. Super Bowl. And that's where we're trying to get. I think we've got the players and the coaches to get us there." — New Lions defensive end Dewayne White, referring to the Tampa 2 defense also used by the Colts and Bears.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
General manager Ted Thompson entered free agency with more than $20 million to burn, and the notoriously conservative one has yet to relinquish a penny on players from outside the organization.
What happened within the opening-week signing frenzy, though, is dictating some to Thompson what his approach might have to be at the start of the draft. Thompson stuck to his guns of not overspending to retain aging featured back Ahman Green, who managed to strike it rich in oil country with a four-year, $23 million deal from Houston.
Now, it would seem the Packers are desperate to get someone to carry on Green's legacy of six 1,000-yard seasons in seven years with the team and four selections to the Pro Bowl. Thompson begs to differ, however.
"I don't feel we absolutely need someone," he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "Like with any other position, if we see someone who interests us, we'll pursue that."
Aside from making contact with former Tennessee starter Chris Brown, Thompson doesn't appear to be inclined to settle on what's left in the free agent bin, which isn't much.
Vernand Morency is the backfield heir for the time being, but the jury is out on whether he can carry a full load for more than just the two opportunities he had last season in relief of Green.
Consequently, Thompson may be thinking long and hard in late April about abandoning his annual tack of not trading up in an effort to get Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson or even Cal's Marshawn Lynch, who could go higher than the 16th spot where the Packers sit.
Meanwhile, Thompson's desire to land a veteran receiver initially fell by the wayside when Joe Horn signed with Atlanta before heading to Green Bay for a visit.
The Packers still are in the Randy Moss sweepstakes, but short of having the right combination to satisfy Oakland's demands, they could be compelled to draft a receiver right away.
Both backups received one-year deals with a base salary of $595,000.
White played all of seven snaps on defense last season but made his mark on special teams, leading Green Bay with 17 tackles. Walter appeared in five games after signing with the team late last season and is capable of playing every position on the line.
The Packers previously re-signed long snapper Rob Davis and tight end Donald Lee, as well as defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins, who would have been a restricted free agent.
The only unsigned unrestricted free agents are linebacker Ben Taylor, defensive tackle Kenderick Allen and quarterback Todd Bouman.
Henderson played in 188 regular-season games with the Packers, ranking fourth in team history behind Favre (239), Bart Starr (196) and Ray Nitschke (190).
"The Packers organization is extremely appreciative of his efforts over the past 12 seasons," Thompson said of Henderson. "His leadership and work ethic set an excellent example for everyone in our locker room. It is difficult to part with a high-character individual like William. He has been an influential person on several outstanding Packers teams over his career. He always will be considered a Packer."
Favre, 37, and Rob Davis, 38, are the only holdovers from the 1997 team that lost to Denver in Super Bowl XXXII.
The sold-out event was to include Thompson, head coach Mike McCarthy, more than 20 current players and about a dozen former players, as well as retired general manager Ron Wolf.
Season tickets between the 20-yard lines are now $72. Other sideline seats are $64. End-zone seats are $59.
The team indicated that the average ticket price of $63.39 ranks it about 20th in the 32-team league.
"Each year, we look at our ticket prices as they relate to the rest of the league and adjust accordingly," ticket director Mark Wagner said. "This increase keeps us in the middle of the pack in pricing, where we always try to be."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think for anybody, generally speaking, it would be tough to do. When you're a kid and you transfer a school and (at) that school you have all your buddies, regardless of if it was good times or bad times, it's still a tough time to leave." --- Running back Ahman Green, who spurned loyalty to the Packers after seven seasons and jumped at a move to Houston for a four-year, $23 million contract in free agency.