The pressure moves to the coaching staff after the Bears moved swiftly on the first day of free agency to bolster both sides of the ball.
The big headline was grabbing defensive end Julius Peppers, the marquee name in the free agent crop. The lack of a consistent pass rush attributed to the Bears' all around struggles in defending the pass last season.
General manager Jerry Angelo also signed running back Chester Taylor away from division-rival Minnesota. Taylor said he wasn't promised the starting job, but the Bears now have a much more formidable tandem along with Matt Forte'. Taylor, an excellent blocker and receiver, is considered one of the league's better third-down backs.
"I'm excited," Taylor said. "It's a great opportunity to get out here and showcase my skills and try to help the team get back to the Super Bowl. We've played (the Bears) ever since I've been in Minnesota and they always gave us problems. I just think it's [a team] on the rise."
To close out the first day of free agency, the team added Brandon Manumaleuna, a blocking tight end who played for offensive coordinator Mike Martz in St. Louis.
Angelo and coach Lovie Smith have also identified safety, specifically free safety, as a position the Bears want to upgrade in the offseason.
"After we came out of our (postseason) meetings, that was one position that we felt, at worst, we wanted to create more competition," Angelo said. "Not having a first- or second-round pick, it's hard to determine what's going to be there in the third round. But this is a pretty good draft for the secondary."
Last year, five players started games at free safety for the Bears. Kevin Payne started the opener, Danieal Manning took over for the next 10 games, rookie Al Afalava moved from strong safety to free safety for three games, and Josh Bullocks and Craig Steltz each started a game down the stretch. No one distinguished himself.
"We need to improve our safety position, period," Smith said. "As far as competition, maybe (it means) adding a couple guys. We haven't been pleased with the production we've gotten. We had one interception from the safety position (in 2009). That was one of the reasons I feel like our takeaways were down. We need to get more competition and just improvement in general."
The improvement could come via free agency or the draft.
"Hopefully, maybe we will be able to use (a draft pick) a little bit earlier (on a safety). But right now there is free agency, and there are some possibilities there also."
There are some talented safeties who will hit the market, starting with the Saints' Darren Sharper, who tied for the NFL lead with nine interceptions last year, proving that his age (34) is just a number.
The Bears passed on Sharper last year, when he was also a free agent. The Steelers' Ryan Clark is another quality player who would help at free safety, where the Bears appear to have a greater need than at strong safety.
"If there's the right person, we're going to take a look," Angelo said. "Obviously if you determine that as a position you want to upgrade, we'll look at both markets and we'll just see what free agency looks like. Obviously it's much more restrictive than what it has been in past years, so it's going to be a little bit harder to predict, but we're certainly looking."
Most of the Bears' safeties seem to fit the common description of a strong safety, solid and physical in run support but not exceptional ball athletes or very adept in coverage. But the free-safety types are the ones in demand in the current NFL, mostly because of the increased popularity of the passing game.
"Everybody's looking for a more athletic safety," Angelo said. "With what the offenses are doing in terms of spreading teams out, people are starting to look for more the athletic safeties.
"In the last few years you're starting to see those players go higher in the draft, but that position has evolved in personnel people's minds and in what (they) look for. It's becoming a more and more difficult position to find and to play."
"I think he deserves another chance," Smith said. "Dusty has made a couple of bad decisions, but he's a great guy. I hope he gets another chance, (but) right now he's not (part of our plans)."
Pace started the first 11 games last season but suffered a groin injury that sidelined him for three weeks. While he was out, the Bears moved 2008 first-round draft pick Chris Williams from right tackle to left tackle and then kept Pace on the bench after he recovered from his injury. Kevin Shaffer started the final five games at right tackle.
Pace signed a three-year deal with the Bears for $15 million, which included payments of $6 million in 2009. He would have been paid $4 million for the 2010 season and $5 million in 2011, when he would projected as a backup to Williams.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We have the resources to do what we want to do, and we will continue to go through the evaluations of potential players that are going to be out there." — General manager Jerry Angelo on the team's attitude entering free agency
So which defensive tackle will the Lions take with the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL draft — Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh or Oklahoma's Gerald McCoy?
Not so fast.
"Let's not just stop at defensive tackle," coach Jim Schwartz said.
"By no means is it down to those two guys," general manager Martin Mayhew said.
The Lions very well could take Suh or McCoy, especially if the Rams take Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford No. 1 overall and the Lions stay at No. 2.
But the Lions are wary of paying so much money for a rookie defensive tackle and are considering other options, such as Oklahoma State left tackle Russell Okung and trading down.
"The opportunity to move back is very attractive to us," Mayhew said.
The Lions spent a lot of time at the NFL Scouting Combine with Suh and McCoy, meeting with both players multiple times. They went over Xs and Os with each player.
"Obviously I think our scheme was a little bit different at Nebraska from what the NFL's asking me to do," Suh said. "But I think I'm a player that can adjust to things and definitely get used to playing and getting off the ball."
Suh played a two-gap system at Nebraska. McCoy played a one-gap system at Oklahoma more like what the Lions play. Some analysts rank McCoy ahead of Suh because they consider him a better penetrator.
"We played two different defenses, in my opinion," Suh said. "More or less, he had the freedom to penetrate. Me, I was more or less in the scheme of reading and playing through my man and then getting to the ball and disengaging. If I were to be in that same scheme as him or vice versa, I think it would be total opposites as it is right now."
Suh was more productive than McCoy was in college. Suh had 12 sacks, 24 tackles for a loss and 85 tackles last season. McCoy had 14.5 sacks, 33 tackles for a loss and 72 tackles in his entire three-year career at Oklahoma. He had six sacks, 15 1/2 tackles for a loss and 34 tackles last season.
But McCoy made his case. Why did Suh have more tackles? McCoy said his job was to disrupt plays, while Suh could allow plays to come to him. Why did Suh have more sacks?
"I mean, the Texas game was great," McCoy said, referring to Suh's 4.5-sack effort last season. "That helped. The guy had, like, five sacks in one game. That helps. Up until then, the sack number, we were pretty much neck-and-neck. But, I don't know, he wanted to win a Big 12 championship, so he went out there and dominated."
McCoy thinks he's well-suited for the Lions' system.
"They're an attack defense, get-up-the-field, penetrate, disrupt-type defense," McCoy said. "That's how we played at Oklahoma. That's how I play. So I think I fit in well there."
Asked to compare Suh and McCoy to Albert Haynesworth, who dominated for Schwartz in Tennessee, Schwartz said it was hard to compare someone coming out of college to "the highest-paid defensive tackle in the league." But in a sense, the Lions must do just that.
Haynesworth signed a seven-year, $100 million deal with the Redskins last year that included $41 million guaranteed. As the No. 1 overall pick, Stafford received a six-year deal worth a maximum of $78 million with $41.7 million guaranteed. Last year's No. 2 overall pick, Rams offensive tackle Jason Smith, received a five-year deal worth a maximum $61 million with $33 million guaranteed.
In other words, if the Lions draft Suh or McCoy, they will pay him like a Haynesworth before he has ever played an NFL game. That's a big reason why the Lions have let it be known they're interested in a trade.
Mayhew has said it would be tough, that any trade partner would be after a "specific player." But that's why their chances are better if the Rams pass on Bradford. Perhaps a team like the Redskins would want to trade up from No. 4, where the Lions could take Okung.
"We're comfortable staying there and drafting," Mayhew said. "We're comfortable moving back."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "They are. Yep. They're both very, very, very, very, very good." — Browns GM Tom Heckert, on whether defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy, candidates to be the Lions' pick No. 2 overall, are as good as advertised.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
The blunt words came first. An alleged harsh action soon followed.
Tired of the inadequacies they put up with the full 2009 season, the Packers gave punter Jeremy Kapinos the boot. The team elected to not give Kapinos a qualifying offer as an exclusive-rights free agent before the March 4 deadline, meaning the first-year player is a full-fledged free agent.
The struggles of Green Bay's special teams, including Kapinos, was a sore subject both general manager Ted Thompson and head coach Mike McCarthy addressed with reporters the previous week at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.
"He's a young punter," McCarthy said of Kapinos at the time. "There's some things he can do to improve physically, and my understanding is he's gone about that process already. But, he definitely needs to improve."
Kapinos won't get that shot with the Packers to redeem himself for a league-worst net average of 34.1 yards last season. He placed just 15 of his 66 kicks (22.7 percent) inside the opponent's 20-yard line, and he had 10 touchbacks.
"The punting performance was not what it needed to be," McCarthy said. "Too many touchbacks, not enough balls inside the 20, punts that are being returned at a 60 percent clip as opposed to 40, 45, where you would like to be. Those are the things that when you can say that's one individual can improve that, we need to hold that accountable and improve in that area."
Kapinos didn't take the news well, especially his perception of being the fall guy for the Packers' special-teams deficiencies. They were rated 31st out of the 32 teams in the annual special-teams analysis compiled by The Dallas Morning News' Rick Gosselin.
"I assume somebody needs to be held accountable or sacrificed for the net (average) and (inside-the-)20 production," Kapinos said in text messages to the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
"While I do admit I needed to improve and I was at fault for some of it, I won't agree with anyone I was the lone liability," Kapinos added. "I think it's very irresponsible to place the blame on one person. (Special teams) won't improve if that's the philosophy. I would hope there is a sense of accountability across the board."
By not retaining Kapinos, with whom they would have had exclusive rights to re-sign, the Packers have a significant vacancy to fill in the coming weeks. The only punter on the roster is Tim Masthay, a street free agent signed after the season.
Masthay, a Kentucky product, was an undrafted rookie who spent time with the Indianapolis Colts last summer but was out of football during the season.
Meanwhile, the Packers readied for the start of free agency March 5 by submitting qualifying offers to eight of their nine restricted free agents.
Green Bay placed high value on most of them, tendering Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins at the most restrictive first-and-third-round level, nickel back Tramon Williams at the first-round level and four players at the second-round level: safety Atari Bigby, defensive end Johnny Jolly and offensive linemen Daryn Colledge and Jason Spitz.
The Packers are reportedly in talks with Collins' agents on a long-term contract that he has openly desired since last offseason.
"We're working on it and have been (for) some time," Thompson said. "But, the cake is not done until it's done."
Green Bay also gave linebacker-turned-tight end Spencer Havner a qualifying offer as an exclusive-rights free agent.
Injury-prone running back DeShawn Wynn was the only restricted free agent not to be tendered. Rather than pay him the tender of $1.176 million, the Packers would like to bring Wynn back at a minimum salary of $545,000.
The Packers have five unrestricted free agents, including nose tackle Ryan Pickett, whom they designated as their franchise player.
Linebacker Aaron Kampman is expected to draw some interest at the outset of free agency, even though he's only three months removed from having surgery for a torn ACL and isn't expected to be ready until training camp in August.
Kampman wasn't keen on being moved from defensive end to linebacker in the Packers' new 3-4 scheme last season. So, the Pro Bowl pass rusher could be looking to move on after eight years with Green Bay to find a fit with a team that runs a 4-3 scheme.
"The business part of it I can't control," McCarthy said. "We're trying to keep Aaron Kampman and all our players. I can't control what other teams run on defense or what they come at him with (contract-wise) in a business standpoint. I just focus on trying to get better, and we can make him better. I think our defense will be better next year, and I think he'll have an opportunity to be better."
"It was simply a matter of we feel like Ryan's a good player," general manager Ted Thompson said. "We feel like he's a good teammate, a good leader of that group. I personally like him quite a bit.
"This gives us an opportunity to keep having some conversations and try to get something done. We'd like to do a multi-year deal with him, but there are differences where we are in the negotiations, and this was an avenue that we had to at least retain some right to be able to do that in the future."
"We will organizationally have a plan, and we will go about that plan," Thompson said. "What those internal thoughts are on what we will do or not do, I don't think it's for public consumption."
The Packers never came close to touching the salary cap in 2009.
Thompson, who is notoriously conservative when it comes to going after high-priced players on the market, added that the NFL's unsettled labor situation won't necessarily preclude him from being active in free agency.
"We're going to do what's best for the Green Bay Packers," Thompson said.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think Aaron was doing very good. It's a shame he got hurt, but he was doing fine. He's physical, he's got the ability to get thick on people. He can play the game. He sacks the quarterback, and that's unbelievably valuable in our league." — Packers general manager Ted Thompson, on free agent Aaron Kampman's transition from defensive end to linebacker in the team's new 3-4 scheme last season.