As many as seven offensive linemen are talented enough to be drafted in the first round. Unfortunately for the Bears, they only have one first-round pick.
"It's a good year for offensive linemen, probably one of the better years," Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said. "I think most of the personnel people will echo that. We've got a couple of juniors who came out (Boise State's Ryan Clady and Virginia's Branden Albert) who are very, very good players and have created a lot of quality and quantity at offensive line."
Senior tackles Jake Long (Michigan), Jeff Otah (Pittsburgh) and Chris Williams (Vanderbilt) are all expected to go early in the first round, along with Clady. USC's Sam Baker and Boston College's Gosder Cherilus could also fit later in the first round or early in the second
The timing for a bumper crop of O-linemen couldn't be better for the Bears who, after the offseason release of right tackle Fred Miller and left guard Ruben Brown, are looking at a major rebuilding project up front.
"Whenever you take two starters out of the picture, that's a big area of concern," coach Lovie Smith said. "We feel like we have a plan."
The Bears may have a plan, but they don't have the personnel to implement it yet.
Ideally, they want someone who can step in and play the critical left tackle spot right away, protecting the quarterback's blind side. That would allow 33-year-old John Tait to switch from left tackle to right tackle, replacing Miller. That could upgrade both tackle positions, which would be an impressive step toward improving an offensive line that went from experienced to antiquated almost overnight.
"That's one thing we've talked about," Angelo said of moving Tait from the left side to the right. "You see a lot of players who played left tackle in college come in and move to the right side because it's a little bit easier to develop them and bring them along. Then in a year or two you move him over to the left side."
Long and Clady are both expected to be off the board by the time the Bears' 14th pick comes due, but the Bears hope either Otah or Williams is there when they're on the clock. There's no guarantee that either will be able to start on the left side as a rookie, but most scouts believe they have that potential.
Of the two, Williams is more athletic, agile and a better pass blocker. Otah is bigger, stronger and more effective as a run blocker. Williams (6-6, 315) is also more of a finished product, having spent five years at Vanderbilt, while Otah (6-6, 339), who didn't play football until his senior year in high school, is a bit of a project.
McGowan, who originally was signed by the Bears as an undrafted free agent from Maine in 2005, started a career-high nine contests in 2007 and played in 14 games. He was sixth on the team with 80 tackles (52 solos) and tied for third with the first two interceptions of his career. He was also sixth with 10 special-teams tackles. Had another team signed McGowan, which was highly unlikely, the Bears would have received a second-round draft pick in return.
But the 24-year-old McGowan is expected to contend for significant playing time with the Bears this season. The situation at safety is unsettled, and that may be a position they address in the draft, although it is considered an "anemic," group this season, according to general manager Jerry Angelo.
McGowan started in Game One when the Bears opened with a three-safety alignment, filled in three games when starting safeties Mike Brown, Adam Archuleta and Danieal Manning were injured at various times and finally took the full-time strong safety job for the final five games of the season when Archuleta was benched. In his career, McGowan has started 12 times and played in 23 games with 110 tackles (72 solos).
Brown has missed 43 of the last 64 games because of various injuries, and he might be forced to agree to a restructured deal to remain on the roster. Archuleta's status is also uncertain, since his production last season hardly matched his paycheck, which is too hefty for a player used primarily on special teams as Archuleta was by the end of last season.
Kevin Payne showed promise as a rookie last season but suffered a season-ending arm injury in Week Four. Like McGowan, Archuleta and even Brown, Payne is seen as more of an in-the-box safety, who is much more valuable in run support rather than in coverage. Danieal Manning, a second-round pick in 2006, has started 29 games in his first two seasons but has yet to play up to the level expected for someone with his physical gifts.
Without Brown and Archuleta, the Bears lack experience at safety, but they contend there is enough talent without adding personnel.
"There's more concern there because they're younger players," Angelo said. "But we feel good about the players that we have, and we feel good that we can win with these players even if we didn't do anything outside of what we have on the present roster."
Coach Rod Marinelli is taking a more hands-on approach within the Lions' organization — especially in draft preparation — and more than ever before, he is the face of the franchise.
Vice chairman Bill Ford Jr. and team president Matt Millen both strongly praised Marinelli at the NFL owners' meetings in Palm Beach, Fla.
"I think Rod's a really good coach," Ford said. "I think he's very organized, and he's got a really good process in place. He knows exactly the kind of player he's looking for. It's taking him some time to get the roster the way he'd like it, and I believe in what he's doing.
"I think Rod is a consummate professional. He lives and breathes coaching. He'd rather do that than anything else in the world. He'd rather coach 24 hours a day than eat or sleep. And he brings a discipline not just to the players but to the whole process of coaching that I think we needed."
Ford declined to say much about Millen, whom he pushed to hire in the beginning. Millen has gone 31-81 in his tenure.
Millen called Marinelli the "main piece of this thing."
"I think he'll work you to death; he wants a team that way," Millen said. "He'll study you to death; he wants a team that studies.
"Is he the best coach in the National Football League? I don't know how you measure that. But if he's not, he's always working to that, and he wants the team to do the same thing.
"All we're asking to be is a reflection of who he is and what he espouses, and I think that's enough to win. I really believe that. I think if we have players who play like Rod coaches, we're going to be successful."
If all this puts more pressure on Marinelli to turn around the franchise, he doesn't mind.
"I like that," Marinelli said. "I thrive on that. I want that. And it puts it on me, not the team."
"I'm going to keep pounding that," Marinelli said at the NFL owners' meetings in Palm Beach, Fla. "Hold me accountable to it. I need that. I'm just going to bust my tail on that, as hard as I can go, as well as I can do in that area."
The coaches have tried harder to communicate their wishes to the scouts. The Lions have started researching prospects earlier and have spent more time with them. They won't be afraid to take players they really like, even if others think they aren't worth the pick.
His first year, Marinelli talked about finding football character — guys who love the game and will do anything to play. His second year, he continued to talk about it and describe what he wanted to his scouts. But after last year's draft, Marinelli added a visual element. He told each of his coaches to make a tape of the qualities he wanted to show the scouts.
During training camp, the scouts attended team meetings every day so they could gain an even greater understanding of how Marinelli wanted the team to operate.
"You can't expect these guys to know what you want," Marinelli said. "You have to sit down and go over it a lot. ... The more you can do that, we're talking the same language."
The Lions began interviewing prospects earlier than usual this year, in January at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. They began bringing prospects to team headquarters earlier, too.
The last two years, the Lions crammed in as many as seven or eight visits a day. This year, they started earlier so they could limit the visits to two or three a day in order to have more their time with each individual.
"I felt, the first two years, there were so many in a day, I didn't get a good feel for these guys," Marinelli said. "When you bring in seven or eight a day, I don't do as good a job for myself."
The Lions hope to limit their misses by ignoring projections and ratings of other teams to wind up with a collection of prospects they like.
"The worst thing is, that's the guy you like, and you're not willing to take him early, and somebody else takes him," Marinelli said. "Now, the guy that's left there, do you like him as much?"
GREEN BAY PACKERS
When the Packers open the 2008 season with a Monday night home game against division rival Minnesota on Sept. 8, Aaron Rodgers is expected to make his starting debut at quarterback on the move.
Head coach Mike McCarthy is prepared to tap into Rodgers' mobility as Green Bay moves on without Brett Favre, who retired last month after 16 years as their starter.
"Aaron's extremely athletic," McCarthy said April 2 at the league owners meetings in Palm Beach, Fla. "I've said this before, I did not evaluate him properly in the movement phase of quarterback play when he came out of college. I did not see the athletic ability at Cal-Berkeley that I've been able to witness since we've worked together since my arrival here."
McCarthy was the offensive coordinator at San Francisco in 2005 when Rodgers entered the draft after starring for two years at Cal. Rodgers distinguished himself as a passer in Jeff Tedford's system, pulling the ball down just 160 times for 336 yards on the ground.
After the 49ers passed on Rodgers to take quarterback Alex Smith with the first pick in the 2005 draft, Rodgers fell all the way to the Packers at No. 24 in the first round.
McCarthy took over as Green Bay coach the next year and has been grooming Rodgers for this time, when he no longer will he be referred to as Favre's heir apparent. McCarthy is so confident that the team won't experience a dropoff with the transition that he's going to keep the playbook status quo with Rodgers at the helm.
"I think our offense will be very similar to last year's approach," McCarthy said. "When you look at (Favre and Rodgers), both of them can make any throw in the book. I think Aaron has a top-level arm in the NFL. There's not a throw that I would not be comfortable with him making."
Meanwhile, McCarthy would be shocked if Favre, 38, were to reconsider his retirement and make his way back from his home in Mississippi to Green Bay for another season.
"Time will tell. I don't think so," said McCarthy, who recently spoke with Favre. "He's content with his decision. When I talked to him, he'd just gotten off a bulldozer moving trees. He definitely doesn't miss the offseason program. I think he'll feel it about September when opening day starts. That's when you have to worry about it. For 17 years in a row, his fall has always been around football."
Favre has yet to file his retirement papers with the league office, which general manager Ted Thompson said wasn't a concern for the team.
McCarthy stressed that the run blocking in the interior of the line has to get better heading into next season.
"As a whole, this group (of linemen) is one of the better pass-protection units in the league, in my opinion, and one of the better ones as a group that I've been a part of," McCarthy said April 2. "I think that's something that kind of gets swept under the carpet because of the criticism of some of the things that happened in the running game, particularly early in the season.
"In developing an offensive line, pass protection usually comes second. This group has done a great job with it. That's the thing we're excited about because we feel very confident we can throw the ball to win against anybody. We showed signs of that last year, and we need to continue that. But, we need to improve inside in the run game."
The Packers were the worst running team in the league after Week 10 last season. The second-half emergence of fourth-stringer Ryan Grant, who had been obtained in a trade with the New York Giants before the season started, enabled Green Bay to finish No. 21 in the 32-team loop with an average of 99.8 rushing yards per game.
Although Jason Spitz won McCarthy's approval for his consistent play at right guard down the stretch, the coach indicated that both guard spots would be up for grabs.
Daryn Colledge is the incumbent at left guard but was spotty with his performances. Junius Coston has starter's ability but was dogged by an ankle injury late in the season. Allen Barbre, a tackle in college, is athletic and was developed as a left guard as a rookie last year, giving him a shot to compete for the starting job this year.
"We need to continue to find that continuity," McCarthy said. "We'll continue to be competitive as far as how we line those guys up."