Revised 2009 off-season wish list

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There are six days remaining until the 2009 NFL Draft and it’s time to revisit my off-season wish list. Due to a couple big moves by the Bears, I’m not at all displeased with having to re-do the list. First, let’s examine the items the Bears did address. Then, we’ll review why certain parts of the list need to be revised. Finally, I’ll present my updated wish list.

Wishes granted

Draft or sign a backup running back
The Bears were able to come to terms with free agent Kevin Jones, who spent most of last year inactive until he began contributing on special teams late in the year. I think the reason he did not get as many carries as he — or I, or a lot of analysts — would have liked him to was because the Bears were unsure how his reconstructed knee would hold up. Plus, they were mesmerized by rookie Matt Forte’s ability to pick up things so quickly and open the playbook for offensive coordinator Ron Turner. However, the Bears recognize that they must utilize the two-back approach that so many teams employ these days in order to slow down the aging process of Forte — because he’s already getting wear and tear on his body at a rapid rate — and to show defenses different looks. Hence, I expect Jones to get a lot more touches this coming season and the Bears will demonstrate the type of 1-2 punch that Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson excelled at in 2006.

Sign a veteran left guard
The Bears had signed four-year veteran Frank Omiyale on the first day of free agency because they liked his ability when he was coming out of college. They needed another body on the deteriorating offensive line and were hoping to have him compete for a starting guard spot. Omiyale had to line up at right tackle in the team’s mini-camp because John St. Clair departed to the Browns and John Tait retired. But after the Bears signed two tackles — Kevin Shaffer and Orlando Pace — it is now safe to say that Omiyale is the guard who fills this part of the wish list. There are rumblings that Omiyale may actually take the place of Roberto Garza and line up at right guard, but it’s my hope that he’ll take the place of Josh Beekman on the left side so Beekman can go back to being Olin Kreutz’ understudy. Either way, having Omiyale as part of the team is an upgrade no matter what side of the line he plays on.

Sign a veteran safety that can start now
Okay, Josh Bullocks isn’t exactly a savior and he’s got certain flaws that led the Bears to inking him to just a one-year deal. But if given the choice between him and Craig Steltz, I’d take Bullocks any time. Hence, even though he’s not the player Bears fans wanted — Roy Williams and Darren Sharper were a couple big-named players on the rumor mill — Bullocks will still be a better option than Steltz at this point in their careers. Veteran Glenn Earl was also inked to a one-year deal, but he seems to be a longshot for a starting job and will have to fight just to secure a roster spot.

Get new defensive position coaches
The Bears wasted little time in revamping the defensive coaching staff. Lovie Smith elected to call the plays himself, something he did in St. Louis which earned him a head coaching spot in the first place. Smith demoted, even though that word wasn’t actually used, defensive coordinator Bob Babich and placed him in charge of linebackers, something that Babich was pretty good at before taking the coordinator role two years ago. Smith also added Jon Hoke to coach the secondary, and in what was the most important change on the defense — and perhaps the biggest move of the off-season until a few weeks ago — Smith added one of the best defensive line coaches in the league, Rod Marinelli. In all, the changes to the defensive coaching staff ought to dramatically improve a defense that excelled against the run this past season but was one of the worst in the league against the pass.

Hire Rod Marinelli in some capacity
There were rumblings that Babich might get fired as defensive coordinator in favor of Marinelli, but the bigger possibility was adding Marinelli as defensive line coach and giving him the “assistant head coach” title. The latter option actually happened and I think it is the better of the two. Cynics will point to Marinelli’s NFL-record 0-16 season last year and ask why the Bears would add a coach like that. Realists understand that it’s okay to be bad at one thing and be excellent at another. Marinelli is a bad head coach. That doesn’t mean he can’t be a good position coach — because he can. And a damn good one, too. I expect to see a dramatic increase in quarterback pressure than what we saw a year ago.

Wishes not granted, but with good reason

Sign a veteran quarterback to compete with Kyle Orton
The theory behind this wish was that last year’s training camp battle between Orton and Rex Grossman clearly brought out the best in Orton. I think if the battle hadn’t taken place, we would have never seen Orton have the kind of first half he exhibited last year. And one half-season of success did not warrant a contract extension or for the starting job to be handed to him on a silver platter. Rather than sign a veteran to compete with Orton, Jerry Angelo did one better. He showed the courage to take a risk and acquire one of the top young quarterbacks in the league in Jay Cutler. There are few quarterbacks in the league who don’t need — and wouldn’t benefit from — a quarterback competition, and Cutler is one of them.

Draft a rookie quarterback to develop
Continuing the previous item, Cutler is only 25 years old and he was a Pro Bowler last year. Add to the fact that the Bears signed Brett Basanez and liked what they saw of young Caleb Hanie in last year’s pre-season and there is no reason to draft a rookie quarterback in the foreseeable future.

Re-sign John St. Clair
St. Clair was a versatile player who stepped in for the injured Chris Williams last year and played above and beyond what almost anybody would have expected. His professionalism and ability to play four positions on the offensive line were invaluable traits, which is why I would have liked the Bears to re-sign him. Once again, Angelo went above and beyond the call of duty and signed two solid replacements in Kevin Shaffer and Orlando Pace. The acquisitions of these two players, as was the case with the Cutler trade, made fulfilling this wish unnecessary, so I commend Angelo on these moves.

Explore options for offensive position coaches
This was a hard wish to monitor in the first place because nobody knows what goes on behind closed doors at Halas Hall. But it’s understandable that the Bears left their offensive coaching staff intact. The Bears didn’t have any Pro Bowl caliber players on offense last year, hence, the coaches had little to work with. The defense was another story, though. I think with the improvements made on the offensive line, as well as the addition of Cutler and the already solid running back and tight end positions, the Bears have given their offensive coaches the tools to succeed in 2009. All that remains is the wide receiver position.

Revised 2009 off-season wish list

Draft or sign a backup running back.

See explanation above.

Sign a veteran left guard.

See explanation above.

Draft an offensive lineman.

This is a very low priority considering the Bears signed three veterans in free agency. But the team still wants to get younger on the offensive line, so the Bears should keep all options open on draft day. I don’t see why they’d need to draft one early unless there was a great value pick, but adding one in the later rounds would make sense.

Sign a veteran wide receiver.

Call me crazy, but I think the Bears have something up their sleeves. Not even Angelo or Smith could be that clueless about the state of the wide receiver position. Here’s my belief: the Bears have a wide receiver that they’re targeting in the draft, possibly in the second or third round. They also have their choice between several veteran receivers that are still available in free agency. Currently, there is not a lot of action on the free agent market because all teams are preparing for the draft and will scour the free agent market afterward. I feel that if the Bears don’t get a certain player they covet in the draft, they’re going to add one shortly after. It’s also possible that they could add both a rookie and a veteran.

Draft a rookie wide receiver.

See the above item for further explanation, but if it were up to me, I’d add both a veteran and a rookie wide receiver to the thin crop the Bears currently have under contract.

Draft a pass-rushing defensive end.

You can never have enough good defensive ends because the pass rush is one of the most important aspects of the game of football, and it’s something the Bears did not do well last year. The Bears need to draft one if they can find a good value for two reasons. First, Adewale Ogunleye is entering the final year of his contract and he’ll be 32 when the season starts. The Bears like to reward their own players, but unless he puts up monster numbers this season — something he hasn’t done at all with the Bears — I don’t expect them to shell out big bucks for him. Second, Mark Anderson lost a lot after his promising rookie season when he recorded 12 sacks. We’ll see if Rod Marinelli can get him going again, but if not, the Bears will need a replacement end to pair with Alex Brown, who is an all-around solid end, but not much of a pass-rusher.

Fix the nose tackle position.

Here’s another item that will be difficult to monitor and might not be answered until the season actually gets under way. Is last year’s rookie, Marcus Harrison, the answer to their problems? Tommie Harris is at his best when he has an effective nose tackle lining up next to him. He did well when he was paired with Tank Johnson. The other tackles on the team are Dusty Dvoracek, who can’t stay healthy, Anthony Adams, who is serviceable but should probably be one of the first backups in the rotation, and Matt Toeaina, who won’t see any time. Israel Idonije is still listed as a tackle after making the switch from defensive end last year, but I’ve been hearing that he may drop some weight and move back outside, but still be used sparingly inside in pass-rushing situations. Whatever the case is, I hope they figure out this position for Harris’ and the entire defense’s sake.

Draft or sign a strong side linebacker.

Hunter Hillenmeyer has been a serviceable player the past few years because he has good football intelligence. The problem is that he doesn’t have a lot of athletic ability to go with it, which is the primary reason he was replaced by Nick Roach in the middle of last year. While we’re on the subject of Roach, he’s not the ideal player, either, to line up next to All-Pros Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher. Jamar Williams was relegated to special teams duties and it’s unclear what the Bears’ intentions are for him. It seems unlikely the Bears will sign a veteran at this point, although anything is possible. So, it’s my wish that they find a player in the draft who will compete for playing time.

Sign a veteran safety that can start immediately.

See explanation above.

Draft a rookie safety that can start by Year 3, if not sooner.

Josh Bullocks and Glenn Earl were signed to one-year deals, and unless they surprise us with their play, they’ll probably be long gone three years from now. That leaves Kevin Payne and Craig Steltz to round out the important safety position. The wild card is Zackary Bowman, a rookie cornerback last year that was moved to free safety in mini-camp this off-season. He needs to prove he can stay healthy though. There’s a reason they liken the safety position to center field in baseball. Safeties are back in the middle and can see the whole field. The smart ones — like Mike Brown — are able to line up players properly according to what the offense is showing. I don’t see that type of leadership and intellect from any of these five players. Hence, I think it’s a real priority for the Bears to draft a safety that combines the intelligence and talent necessary to be a starter by his third year, if not much sooner.

Throw in the towel on Danieal Manning as a defender.

This wish can only be checked or crossed off when the season starts, or at least not until after training camp gets under way, because we currently don’t know what the Bears’ intentions are for Manning. But there’s a reason why he’s been moved all over the field and that’s because he’s a man without a position. He’s one of the fastest and most gifted talents on the team, but he just can’t put it all together. His one true position is as a kick returner, where, after replacing Devin Hester midway through last season, he became the best in the league at it.

Draft a rookie cornerback.

Charles Tillman is still solid. Nathan Vasher has a lot to prove after two miserable seasons where he has been unable to stay healthy. If he’s not careful, he could wind up limping down the same path as Mike Brown. Corey Graham has shown promise, but can’t be relied upon just yet. Trumaine McBride showed promise in his rookie season but has since regressed. His lack of size limits him from ever becoming a solid player in the NFL, anyway. The other players currently on their roster are Rudy Burgess and Marcus Hamilton. Enough said. And as mentioned previously, Zackary Bowman was moved to free safety in mini-camp, but we don’t know if he’ll play there or at cornerback, or if he’ll wind up hopping all over the field like Danieal Manning. If the Bears can find one in the draft, they should look at taking another cornerback.

Get new defensive position coaches.

See explanation above.

Hire Rod Marinelli in some capacity.

See explanation above.

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