With six-time Pro Bowl linebacker Brian Urlacher still working his way back from a dislocated wrist that ended his 2009 season on opening day, the Bears increased their depth and experience at the position by re-signing unrestricted free agent Pisa Tinoisamoa to a one-year contract Monday.
Tinoisamoa, who will be entering his eighth season, signed with the Bears last season as an unrestricted free agent following six productive seasons with the St. Louis Rams. Although the 6-foot-1, 230-pounder won the starting job at strong-side linebacker, he suffered a sprained knee on the second play of the season opener and missed the next three games. He returned to start Game Five but suffered another knee injury in his first game back and missed the remainder of the year, finishing the season on injured reserve.
Tinoisamoa, 28, is expected to compete again for the starting job on the strong side. But he will face stiff competition from Nick Roach, who started 15 games last season, including 12 on the strong side.
"Nick Roach is a good football player," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "He can do it all. (As a pass rusher) he can beat a running back one on one, he's a good rusher. We'll be comfortable with him there."
Tinoisamoa's re-signing creates what should be a spirited competition throughout the off-season and into training camp and probably the preseason schedule. Tinoisamoa led the Rams in tackles in four of his six seasons in St. Louis, where he also intercepted seven passes and had 10 sacks.
Urlacher and weak-side linebacker Lance Briggs, who led the team with 147 tackles last season, have been voted to 10 Pro Bowls between them, including six by Urlacher. But with Urlacher and Tinoisamoa playing barely one game between them last season, Roach, Hunter Hillenmeyer and Jamar Williams all were asked to make major contributions.
With all six of their top linebackers expected back this season, that position should be one of the strongest on the team.
"We knew about Jay's arm, his athletic ability, all those things you can see on video," coach Lovie Smith said. "But when you get a chance to be around him, it's his toughness (that stands out) as much as anything. The quarterback of the Chicago Bears should be a tough guy, and that's what I saw. I saw his toughness in how he handled things and his toughness on the football field too. It's OK to slide once in awhile (to avoid contact), but that's not his mentality."
For the past couple years, Idonije has bounced back and forth between end and tackle, but now the coaching staff says he'll be able to focus on one position, but Idonije isn't entirely convinced.
"Prepare for everything is kind of how I'm looking at it," he said. "I'm excited about the opportunity to play end. That's the goal to come in and be able to rush off that end, whatever side they ask, and just get after the quarterback."
"He's 100 percent ready to go," Angelo said. "I feel great that he's back, and getting him back into form can only make us, not only a better defense, but a better football team."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "You're not going to field a Pro Bowler at every position, and you don't have to. The players that we presently have we feel good about. But we always want to create competition and better depth." — Bears G.M. Jerry Angelo
Shortly after the 2009 season, Lions general manager Martin Mayhew gave a frank assessment of the NFL's worst pass defense.
"When we rushed four, we couldn't get there," Mayhew said. "When we brought pressure, we couldn't hold up on the corner. So that was probably our weakness defensively."
Mayhew has overhauled his defensive line and secondary since, and he likely will continue doing so in the NFL draft. He could start by using the No. 2 overall pick on defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, a sack machine at Nebraska.
Cornerback Chris Houston certainly hopes he does. Asked whom he wanted the Lions to draft, Houston said: "A defensive tackle. It would make my job more easy." Asked if he had any names in mind, he laughed but didn't hesitate to say "Suh." Asked if he thought he would get his wish, he said: "Yeah, I do."
A good defensive line can make the secondary look better, putting pressure on the quarterback, forcing bad throws, creating opportunities for interceptions. The Lions already have added end Kyle Vanden Bosch and tackle Corey Williams. Vanden Bosch will start at right end. Williams will play the three techniques.
The secondary needs all the help it can get. The Lions went through so many defensive backs last year, it was difficult to keep count. And they haven't stopped shuffling. They have parted with three corners: Phillip Buchanon, Anthony Henry and Will James. They have added three others: Houston, Jonathan Wade and Dante Wesley.
Still more might be coming. The Lions have investigated Adam (Pacman) Jones. They have visited with Lito Sheppard. At least three defensive backs for pre-draft visits: Connecticut corner Robert McClain, Florida State corner Patrick Robinson and Virginia Tech safety Kam Chancellor.
"Everybody's just going in to compete," Houston said. "The best man will be here. Apparently, the Lions are making changes, and they want the best players out on the field. So that's who's going to be on the field when things come down to an end."
Not only do the Lions need talent, they need depth. Coach Jim Schwartz pointed out that teams dress players at defensive back more than at any other position.
"The other thing is that defensive backs get hurt at a higher rate than just about any other position on the field," Schwartz said. "The reason is, other positions have gotten bigger and bigger while defensive backs have stayed basically the same, especially corners. It's not a matter of if somebody gets hurt and has to miss a game, it's a matter of when. You have to be prepared.
"One person in the secondary who doesn't play well and makes mistakes can make the whole secondary look bad. It's how the whole secondary plays, and if there's one weak link in that chain, the whole group can look bad. And offenses are really good at finding that one guy and exploiting him."
"We signed him as a free agent in 2003 because we needed a tight end for our rookie camp," Lions president Tom Lewand said in a statement. "All he did was start in his first NFL game as a rookie and go on to play as many seasons at tight end as any player in Lions history, other than Jim Gibbons and Charlie Sanders."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I happen to think Suh and McCoy are better football players at their position than Okung is at his. And should you take a player that's better? And, usually, I say yes, because I think you dilute the overall quality of your roster when you pick a guy that you acknowledge is not as good as a guy that's available because of need." — NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock, who is leaning toward Nebraska DT Ndamukong Suh for the Lions at second overall in his mock draft, over Oklahoma DT Gerald McCoy and Oklahoma State OT Russell Okung.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
The Packers told Ahman Green that they wouldn't move on possibly re-signing him as an unrestricted free agent until after the April 22-24 draft.
The prospects of another available Pro Bowl running back playing in Green Bay also could hinge on what the Packers accomplish in the draft.
The team reportedly has put out feelers with Brian Westbrook, the dynamic but injury-riddled veteran released by the Philadelphia Eagles in February.
While Westbrook would be an upgrade over what the Packers have behind starter Ryan Grant, the team doesn't appear to be in a rush to make a serious run at him.
Plenty of questions remain about whether Westbrook, 30, will be healthy enough to play again and make an impact after he suffered two concussions last season. Westbrook also has been hampered by knee and ankle injuries.
Westbrook is determined to play this year and would be a natural fit for the Packers' West Coast offense, which the Eagles have long used under head coach Andy Reid.
The purported interest in Westbrook comes after Packers head coach Mike McCarthy gushed in late March about Brandon Jackson's progression as the team's top understudy to Grant.
Jackson excels as a pass blocker, but Westbrook would be more valuable in a third-down role with his playmaking abilities as a runner and a pass catcher.
This year's draft class is short on impactful running backs. Unless Green Bay is in position to take Cal's Jahvid Best, Fresno State's Ryan Mathews or Georgia Tech's Jonathan Dwyer with its picks in the late first and second rounds, Westbrook could be targeted as reinforcement.
While their focus is squarely on the April 22-24 draft, the Packers still need to get five restricted free agents to sign their tenders after the April 15 deadline for the players to receive offers from other teams passed.
Nickel back Tramon Williams received a first-and-third-round tender, and defensive end Johnny Jolly had a first-round tender. Left guard Daryn Colledge and strong safety Atari Bigby received second-round tenders. The team used the low right-of-first-refusal tender on fullback John Kuhn, an undrafted player.