2009 off-season wish list

January 6th, 2009 - 9:20 pm

It’s the time of the year when every beat writer, analyst, and football junkie likes to offer remedies for his team’s misfortunes. And while that advice is seldom accurate and never sought by the team itself, it’s fun nonetheless.

Allow me to indulge myself as I play armchair general manager and offer my off-season wish list for solutions to fix the Bears.

List in no particular order.

Sign a veteran quarterback to compete with Kyle Orton.
Back during the dog days of training camp, I wrote a post saying:

I don’t believe the Bears can go wrong either way [starting either Kyle Orton or Rex Grossman], at least, given what they have to work with.

What I meant by that was that Orton and Grossman are similar quarterbacks who have put up shockingly similar numbers. Orton has completed 505 of 913 passes (55.3%) for 5,319 yards with 30 touchdowns, 27 interceptions and a 71.1 passer rating in 33 starts, while Grossman has completed 521 of 962 passes (54.2%) for 6,164 yards with 33 TDs, 35 interceptions and a 70.2 passer rating in 31 starts. My question is, why did the Bears have to choose between either of these two guys? Why can’t Jerry Angelo once and for all upgrade the position by going out on the market and signing a proven signal caller? Well, Angelo has stressed that he’s not 100% sold on Orton and he’ll look to upgrade if the right player is available. As armchair GM, one of my top priorities is to sign — or trade for — a veteran QB to come in and compete for the starting job just like Orton and Grossman did last year.

Draft a rookie quarterback to develop.
Angelo acknowledged during his season-ending press conference that there were quite a few older quarterbacks who were having a great deal of success this year. Signing a veteran quarterback in the twighlight of his career might give the Bears immediate success, but they still need to draft a rookie who could possibly develop into the long-term solution at the position. I know a lot of fans are high on Caleb Hanie, and that’s fine, but there’s nothing wrong with entering training camp with 4 quarterbacks — in fact, it’s commonality among NFL training camps.

Draft or sign a backup running back.
The Bears added Kevin Jones with the belief he’d be a good supporting player for rookie Matt Forte. But something happened somewhere between the end of training camp and the end of the regular season that led the coaching staff to believe he didn’t deserve extra carries. Either they were so enamored with the player Forte turned out to be, or they were disappointed with Jones in some capacity. Regardless, Jones will likely depart via free agency and that’ll leave Adrian Peterson and Garrett Wolfe as the primary backups to Forte. Look around the league and you’ll see that most of the successful teams are ones that have multi-back offenses. The New York Giants, in fact, have three good ones. Baltimore, Tennessee, San Diego, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Carolina are all playoff teams that have utilized two or more backs this season and have done so at a high level. To cut down the injury probability to Forte, I would draft or sign a running back that could split carries with Forte in the same fashion that Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson excelled at in 2006.

Sign a veteran left guard.
I like Josh Beekman. I always have and always will. But his only position in the NFL is at center. If not there, probably nowhere. I think the Bears need to go back to grooming him to be Olin Kreutz’s eventual replacement. Kreutz will one day retire, and if Beekman is still around, he’d be a suitable replacement. When you have one of the best centers in the game, you’re bound to take a hit when you finally lose him, and surely the Bears would do that with Beekman taking over. But Beekman possesses some of the qualities they’d need at the position. With all that said, the Bears need to upgrade at the left guard position because Beekman just didn’t blow linemen off the ball this year. To really upgrade their run game, I would sign a big, nasty guard who thrives at knocking people off the line.

Re-sign John St. Clair.
St. Clair went above and beyond the call of duty this year as he was thrust into one of the toughest positions on the football field, left tackle, when rookie Chris Williams went down. With Williams’ return — knock on wood — St. Clair won’t be needed at left tackle, but he’s too valuable not to bring back. He’s a good swing tackle and can play both positions, as well as fill in at guard if needed. St. Clair played guard at the end of 2007, and would probably be an upgrade over Beekman, but I would keep him around as an insurance policy for either Williams or John Tait, and he might even be Tait’s replacement one day.

Draft an offensive lineman.
The Bears got a little younger on the offensive line with the addition of Chris Williams last year, but there’s still a lot of aging bodies up front. With the uncertainty of Williams’ back injury, plus how old Tait is getting, the Bears should draft another offensive tackle in addition to keeping St. Clair. If a more promising guard presents himself, then the Bears should take him instead. Regardless, the engine of a running football team — and a successful one, too — is the offensive line.

Sign a veteran wide receiver.
Brandon Lloyd will probably not be re-signed. Marty Booker may get cut with one year left on his deal. Rashied Davis had a bad case of the drops this year and isn’t much more than a No. 4 slot receiver, anyway. Nobody knows what to expect from Earl Bennett because the rookie couldn’t find the field all season. And Devin Hester… ah, yes, the illustrious No. 1 receiver the Bears have been raving about… is nothing more than a gimmick offensive weapon. In short, the Bears are devoid of both starting receivers. It should be a high priority of Angelo — and as armchair GM, it’d be one of my Top 3 priorities — to bring in a clear-cut veteran No. 1 receiver. The Bears tried to do it in 2005 when they brought in 2004′s league-leading receiver, Mushin Muhammad, but Muhammad didn’t pan out as expected. They need to make another leap of faith this off-season and lay the money down on the table for “the guy”.

Draft a rookie wide receiver.
Either Bennett isn’t what the Bears expected when they drafted him or they wrongly assumed he wasn’t as good as the other deadbeats ahead of him on the depth chart. Either way, there is more than one hole to fill at the position and signing a veteran won’t be enough. They have to draft another receiver — within the first three rounds — and preferrably one that complements whichever No. 1 receiver they sign. If they sign a speed receiver, they need a tall target who runs crisp routes and has great hands. If they sign a possession receiver, they need a speedster who runs better routes than Hester and can create separation between himself and the defender.

Utilize Devin Hester more out of the backfield.
I am convinced that Hester is no more than a gimmick offensive player. The Bears would be hard-pressed to prove me and any other skeptics wrong. Hester is not a bright player and is prone to mental lapses. If the Bears could have gotten value for him via a trade, I would have welcomed it. But it’s probably too late for that after his kick and punt return skills dropped significantly this year. So, what do you do with a player that is explosive with the ball in his hands, but can’t seem to get the ball in open space? Start moving him around the field, particularly out of the backfield. The Saints may have made a mistake drafting Reggie Bush second overall in 2006 because he’s a below average running back running between the tackles. But when he comes out of the backfield as a receiver, he’s extremely dangerous. He led the league — receivers included — in receptions until he got hurt midseason. The problem with Hester lining up in the backfield is that teams will know he is probably not going to run the ball, so pairing him with Forte in the backfield might be a wiser move. I would instruct Ron Turner to spend this off-season developing various plays and formations with Hester all over the field. Again, Hester’s mental capacity could limit how much he’s used.

Draft a pash rushing defensive end.
Following a 12-sack rookie season, Mark Anderson has completely disappeared the past two years. Alex Brown, while an all-around solid end, is not a pash-rusher, despite leading the team with 6 sacks this year. Adewale Ogunleye’s best sack total since the Bears acquired him five years ago was 10 in 2005. He’s averaged just 7 sacks in his five seasons with the team. If the Bears want their defense to thrive, the philosophy was, is, and always will be getting up the field quickly and disrupting the quarterback. The Bears tried to draft a pass rush specialist in Dan Bazuin, but that backfired horribly as he was cut after one year. If at first you don’t succeed, try again.

Fix the nose tackle position.
Tommie Harris is at his best when he doesn’t have to fight through double teams. The Bears need a nose tackle who will command the attention of two offensive linemen, allowing Harris to use is quickness to get pressure up the middle. Dusty Dvoracek was not the answer and I would cut him immediately. Marcus Harrison showed flashes of promise and he may be the solution to the problem. I love the way both Israel Idonije and Anthony Adams play, but neither one is the ideal starter. With so many other holes to fill, though, one of these three may have to suffice.

Draft or sign a strong side linebacker.
Hunter Hillenmeyer was once hailed by the coaching staff as a player who was always in the right position. Well, that sentiment seemed to change halfway through the season when Hillenmeyer missed a game with a hand injury and never got his starting position back. Nick Roach remained the starter for the rest of the season, but the Bears can do considerably better than him. I’ve heard rumblings about moving Brian Urlacher to the strong side and keeping Lance Briggs on the weak side and finding a more hard-nosed middle linebacker who doesn’t have a neck or back condition hindering him from fighting off blockers and playing more physical than Urlacher does. I wouldn’t be opposed to this idea at all, except finding a middle linebacker like that doesn’t come easy. Whatever the Bears do, getting their hands on a third linebacker — probably at the Sam position — to upgrade the unit should be on the list.

Sign a veteran safety that can start immediately.
Mike Brown is not a dependable starter anymore. Gone are the days when Bears fans can say, “When Mike Brown is healthy, he’s Pro Bowl caliber.” I said this last year and I’ll repeat it this year: the Bears need two solid starting safeties with Mike Brown as the third option competing for playing time. The first option would be to sign a proven veteran that can step into the starting lineup on Day 1 with the team. Preferably a free safety, because both Brown and Kevin Payne are better suited playing strong safety.

Draft a rookie safety that can start by Year 3, if not sooner.
Craig Steltz doesn’t strike me as a player that can work his way into the starting lineup. He reminds me more of the Todd Johnson and Cameron Worrell special teams stars. Danieal Manning — see below — is not an NFL safety. That leaves just Brown and Payne, and — hopefully — a veteran free agent as the only reliable NFL safeties. Drafting a rookie that can start within three years is imperative.

Throw in the towel on Danieal Manning as a defender.
After seeing Manning blow the same coverage in the season finale against Houston as he did in Super Bowl XLI against Indianapolis, I’m convinced he’s never going to be a reliable option at safety — or cornerback, or nickelback, or anywhere else the Bears want to try to move him. The Bears need to accept that and relegate him to returning kickoffs, something he did better than any other player in the league after moving to the position midway through the season.

Trade Nathan Vasher, or move him to free safety.
There’s a saying in football that you can never have enough cornerbacks, which is why I’m a little hesitant about this one. Plus, Vasher has been with the team for five seasons, which is valuable experience to be getting rid of. But he clearly is breaking down physically and might be better suited at free safety where he can get back to his days of ball-hawking and intercepting passes. Corey Graham emerged as a solid run defender at cornerback and played admirably against the pass in Vasher’s stead. The Bears cannot afford to be paying a nickelback the kind of money Vasher is making, so they have to play him, trade him, switch him, or cut him. But they can’t just demote him.

Draft a rookie cornerback.
If the Bears keep Vasher at cornerback, this priority becomes less important because of the depth the Bears have with Tillman, Graham, Trumaine McBride, and Zackary Bowman. But McBride’s small stature may hurt his NFL ability and it is still too early to tell what the Bears have in Bowman. Like the previous item says, you can never have enough good cornerbacks and the Bears should always be aware of a player that could improve the position.

Get new defensive position coaches.
The Bears have already achieved this item on my wish list as they’ll have new position coaches for the defensive line, linebackers, and defensive backs in 2009. Now, it becomes imperative that they choose the right successors at those three positions. Rod Marinelli would make a heck of a defensive line coach, a position he filled in Tampa Bay and did better than most others in the league.

Explore options for offensive position coaches.
I strong believe in Harry Hiestand’s ability to coach the offensive line, especially after he took a position of weakness and great concern and turned it into a respectable unit in 2008. And I don’t have a problem with Darryl Drake as receivers coach, particularly with the mountain of garbage he’s had to work with. He’s a good coach and demands a lot out of his players. Tim Spencer has done an admiral job with Matt Forte as well as Thomas Jones a few years ago. And how can you get rid of Rob Boras, who is coaching the team’s best position, tight end? But there’s always room for improvement and the Bears should consider all options for improving an average unit.

Hire Rod Marinelli in some capacity.
Speculation of Marinelli joining the Bears was rampant by midseason when it was pretty clear he would get fired for yet another dismal season with the Lions. It hit overdrive when both Smith and Angelo singled him out and gave him praise, with Angelo going so far as to saying he’d love to have Marinelli on staff. But with Marinelli exploring other options, there’s no guarantee he’ll join. As armchair GM, I would stop at no expense to get him on the team. A lot of skeptics will ask why the Bears would want an 0-16 coach on their team. The reason is because he may not be a good head coach, but he’s an extremely talented defensive coach who has had success in this defensive scheme and would help light a fire under a highly paid group of underachievers.