Every April, I treat the days leading up to the NFL Draft as if I were cramming for a test back when I was in school. Because I’m not an avid follower of college football, I have to work extra hard to learn about all the players and put together a respectable draft board. It makes the draft more interesting when you’re not left scratching your head after a player’s name is announced.
With exactly three weeks to go before the 2009 draft, let’s take a look at the Bears’ most pressing needs, adjusted, of course, following their dramatic moves on Thursday.
As we get closer to the draft, I’ll present my draft board for each position.
The Bears addressed a major need Thursday by acquiring Jay Cutler from the Denver Broncos, securing a position that hasn’t been stabilized for decades. They also upgraded the offensive line from a season ago by signing Orlando Pace, Kevin Shaffer, and Frank Omiyale. Getting 2008 first round pick Chris Williams back healthy is a big boost to the line as well. Tight end has clearly been the strongest link on the offense the past two years and Matt Forte and Kevin Jones provide a solid 1-2 punch in the run game.
The only position that remains unsettled is wide receiver. I’m sure Devin Hester will improve by leaps and bounds with Cutler throwing the ball to him and second-year pro Earl Bennett figures to get more involved in the offense now that his former college teammate is on board. But the Bears need at least one more player to upgrade the position — preferably a veteran, but I’ll take a rookie, too.
If I were the Bears, I’d use my second-round pick (No. 49 overall) or my third-round compensatory pick (No. 99 overall) on a wide receiver. After that, I’d spend the rest of the draft upgrading the defense, unless, of course, a good value pick was made on, say, an offensive lineman.
Veteran Mike Brown departed via free agency and the Bears have a serious leadership problem at the safety position. I’m comfortable with Kevin Payne at strong safety, even though he’s far from perfect. The Bears need someone with better coverage skills at free safety and they signed two free agents to 1-year deals this off-season, Josh Bullocks and Glenn Earl. That tells me the Bears don’t believe highly in these guys and are only bringing them on board for the short-term, unless one or the other were to prove he deserved an extension.
The team also moved Zackary Bowman to free safety in mini-camp last month because Lovie Smith felt he’d have a better shot at playing time. Whether Craig Steltz competes for playing time at the strong or free position remains to be seen.
I couldn’t imagine the Bears would find a free safety in the middle rounds that could step in and start right away, so I don’t think the Bears would use one of their higher picks on one. But stabilizing the secondary should be one of their highest priorities at this point.
Who knows, maybe they already have the pieces in place to do just that.
Hunter Hillenmeyer lost his starting job to Nick Roach in the middle of last season after Hillenmeyer suffered a hand injury. I think the Bears were hoping for a situation like that to occur because Hillenmeyer’s skills are in decline. He never was the most athletically gifted linebacker, but he at least had the football intelligence to put himself in position to make plays. Last season, it seemed as though he increasingly was caught in the wrong spot, though.
Roach is not the answer the Bears are looking for at the “Sam” position, either. It was once thought that Jamar Williams was being groomed to be a starting backer with the team — especially when it was unknown if Lance Briggs would return — but he seemed to fall out of favor with the coaching staff last year and was relegated to special teams. Maybe the Bears have plans to put him back in the competition or maybe they feel comfortable with the progress Roach made last year, although I can’t see why they would. Or, perhaps, they’ll enter the season with Hillenmeyer as the starter.
To me, though, an upgrade at this position is needed.
Arguably, the Bears biggest problem last year was the lack of a pass rush. All season, opposing quarterbacks had too much time to throw the ball and you can’t win if you don’t pressure the quarterback consistently.
Adewale Ogunleye enters the final year of his contract and Alex Brown, while he may be the most consistent and reliable end the Bears have, has never recorded more than 7 sacks in a season. Nobody knows what happened to Mark Anderson, but we’re all hoping that Rod Marinelli brings out the best in him and that he can return to the form he displayed in his 12-sack rookie season.
The Bears will need an end who can push Anderson for playing time and possibly be the eventual replacement for Ogunleye, if the Bears opt not to re-sign him.
Marcus Harrison may be the answer to the question, “Who will line up opposite Tommie Harris?” Anthony Adams might be the most consistent performer when given the opportunity, but I don’t see him as a starter. I see him as one of the first guys off the bench in the tackle rotation. After putting on weight last off-season to move inside, Israel Idonije became less effective on special teams, and word is that he may be moved back outside to the end position.
Even if Harrison is the starter entering next season, Adams won’t be around forever and the Bears will have to add depth to the position. Finding a player who can get into the backfield and be disruptive should be a goal of Angelo’s, and he’s had some success doing that up to this point.
Charles Tillman is still a solid, dependable option and Corey Graham is an emerging player. Nathan Vasher will have a lot to prove in training camp and was not given a vote of confidence from Angelo and Smith.
Aside from those three, how the rest of the depth chart will play out is up in the air. As I mentioned earlier, Bowman was moved to free safetey, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t be moved back. Danieal Manning is a nickel back, at best, and he might get in on the free safety fight as well. Trumaine McBride had a pretty good rookie year filling in for Tillman and Vasher when they suffered injuries. But he doesn’t appear to be a long-term solution at the position. The Bears signed Marcus Hamilton early last season, but he’s remembered for his blown coverage that cost the Bears a victory against the Falcons.
A team can never have enough good cornerbacks, so if the Bears find an intriguing player at some point in the upcoming draft, they have to look to upgrade.