GM Angelo: Bears 'can get better, will get be
GM Angelo: Bears 'can get better, will get better'
By Brad Biggs
The Chicago Bears were the healthiest team in the league this season, so if they had to start a new season next week, they'd be in decent shape (even if quarterback Jay Cutler would be questionable with a sprained left knee).
General manager Jerry Angelo talked Monday about heading into 2011 with the roster he has in place, noting the Bears could field a team of 21 starters now. They're missing a third linebacker because Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs are the only players at the position still under contract with the exception of Hunter Hillenmeyer, who is on injured reserve and has an uncertain future given his history of concussions.
Yes, the building for next season starts immediately even if the Bears won't have a plan in place for at least a month if not longer. It's a multi-part process that involves the input of the coaches and personnel department, and all sides step back from the season so evaluations aren't made with emotions from the season that just ended.
The Bears have 14 players who will be unrestricted free agents and two who will be restricted free agents after a new collective bargaining agreement is reached. When that will happen, no one knows. The draft will be held beginning April 28 no matter what. If a CBA isn't hammered out until the end of summer, free agency won't happen until then.
"We feel good about the nucleus of this football team, the foundation that we've laid, going forward and I feel that our focus is going to be on continuing to build this team," Angelo said. "I'm not sitting here saying that we can't get better, we can get better and we will get better. We're going to do business as usual, we'll have a plan for free agency and I am sure we will be able to get a few players in free agency. We'll want to bring some of our own back and I am confident we will be able to do that. Like everyone else, we just have to plan accurately."
Angelo declined to address any players specifically, but we can get into this and see a couple things clearly. For starters, the Bears need to rebuild depth at linebacker where they have touted for a few years that they have far more than three starters. Pisa Tinoisamoa and Nick Roach are both free agents and both have a history of durability issues that must be considered. Tinoisamoa played on a one-year deal that included bonuses for games played, and he held up to play in 12 regular-season games and make 10 starts. Roach was tendered as an RFA last season and he played in 15 games. He's missed only three games over the previous three seasons, and is a core player on special teams. He had arthroscopic knee surgery in August and has suffered minor injuries throughout his career.
Linebackers Brian Iwuh, signed to replace Tim Shaw, and Rod Wilson, picked up when Hillenmeyer went on IR, are also free agents.
Special teams needs to be considered here. The bulk of Dave Toub's unit is set to enter the free market. Along with linebackers Roach, Iwuh and Wilson, cornerback Corey Graham, wide receiver Rashied Davis, running back Garrett Wolfe and safety Josh Bullocks also will be free agents. Devin Hester broke a two-year drought in scoring on returns this season, and one of the reasons was the chemistry he developed with his 10 blockers. Right there you're looking at about half that unit.
Now, the key to building a successful team -- and something that will be necessary with a salary cap, especially if it returns at a lower number than it was at in 2009 -- will be stocking the backup roles with young, cheap players. That is where draft picks come into play. You can't pay your backups across the board or it greatly restricts your flexibility under the cap. In other words, the Bears can't be paying veteran minimums to all of these experienced players. You need to find cheaper options for some of them, and that is where the challenge lies for Toub, who faces roster turnover more than any other coach on the staff on an annual basis.
The Bears have called Graham the best special teams player in the league and he led them with 25 solo tackles. The top six tacklers are all headed to free agency.
Player Total tackles Solos Assists
Corey Graham 25 25 0
Garrett Wolfe 18 12 6
Brian Iwuh 18 10 8
Rashied Davis 16 8 8
Rod Wilson 11 6 5
Josh Bullocks 10 7 3
So, special teams needs to be a primary consideration with every move made. How would the addition of a playter impact that unit?
Four starters, including Tinoisamoa, will be free agents. Center Olin Kreutz, nose tackle Anthony Adams and strong safety Danieal Manning are coming out of contract. It might be wise for Kreutz to be brought back on a short-term deal, especially if a transition player can be identified, someone with Kreutz to groom for the future while still starting. As previously reported, the Bears approached Adams and Manning about extensions before deals were given to long snapper Pat Mannelly and defensive tackle Matt Toeaina last month. They figure to be in the mix, but it's a two-way street once the player reaches the open market.
Adams is a respected leader in the locker room and while it took far too long for the coaching staff to realize he was more valuable than Dusty Dvoracek, he's finally in a position to make a difference. Manning is another player who provides value to special teams. The Bears spent the second half of the season rotating three safeties and that can't be something they want to continue in 2011.
Punter Brad Maynard didn't have a good effort in the NFC Championship Game, but he was solid in some bad weather games and is as good of a directional punter as will be available. It could be a position the team looks to save some money in, though. Maynard would like to return but no contract talks have been held.
Tight end Desmond Clark is likely at the end of the line with the Bears after eight seasons, seven of which were highly productive. The Bears are expected to bring back Caleb Hanie, who will be restricted, and it would be surprising if the team brings back wide receiver Devin Aromashodu, also an RFA. He certainly will be seeking a new opportunity.
Plenty of decisions lie ahead. The first order of business will be targeting whom the Bears would like to bring back and working on those players. Then, it will be fitting the pieces around the puzzle already in place.
Unrestricted free agents for 2011:
C Olin Kreutz
DT Anthony Adams
SS Danieal Manning
SLB Pisa Tinoisamoa
LB Nick Roach
CB Corey Graham
P Brad Maynard
TE Desmond Clark
LB Brian Iwuh
WR Rashied Davis
RB Garrett Wolfe
LB Rod Wilson
S Josh Bullocks
QB Todd Collins
Restricted free agents for 2011:
QB Caleb Hanie
WR Devin Aromashodu