Offensive line, receiver and secondary among positions of need for Bears

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In the midst of Bulls and Blackhawks playoff runs as well as a prolonged NFL lockout, it’s easy to overlook a trivialized event such as the NFL Draft. But the procedure will go on and the Bears have plenty of areas in which they can improve in this weekend’s three-day extravaganza.

There has been much speculation that Bears general manager Jerry Angelo may look to trade out of the first round Thursday night in hopes of securing more draft picks to address a plethora of needs. Whether there is any truth to the rumor or the speculation is based purely on Angelo’s history of trading down is irrelevant in my opinion. Acquiring more assets to improve is a smarter decision than taking a swing at a curveball Angelo so rarely has hit throughout his career in the Bears’ organization.

What exactly are the Bears’ biggest needs? There’s always a debate about that but rarely is there unanimous agreement on priorities. Below I’ve outlined my assessment of the state of the team and have ranked what I consider are the Bears needs.

Areas in which the Bears must improve to take the next step

Offensive Line
Sadly, many of us could see the disaster of the past two years coming except the man in charge of assembling the talent on the roster. Why Angelo didn’t infuse the roster with young offensive linemen while the veterans on the team rapidly aged is beyond me. Veteran Olin Kreutz will probably stick around with the team for another year or two but his skills are declining. The Chris Williams experiment at guard has had more ups and downs than a electrocardiograph. He’s had his moments of stability and has shown promise and yet has resembled a turnstile at other times. Roberto Garza is aging quickly and Frank Omiyale and J’Marcus Webb are hardly bookend tackles to a Super Bowl team. Nobody — not fans of Jay Cutler nor those who literally or metaphorically burn his jersey — knows how good he could be if he wasn’t the most sacked quarterback in the league. We know he has potential, as evidenced by his Pro Bowl season in Denver the year before he came to the Bears, but that was with a good offensive line.

Wide Receivers
This is definitely a need for the Bears no matter how stubbornly they refuse to admit it. I feel that part of the reason why they are steadfast about their current crop of receivers is that Devin Hester is making huge money and they don’t want to admit an error in the extension they gave him. Another reason is that Angelo has missed on so many offensive prospects in the draft that he’d love to finally have one player to brag about — Johnny Knox in the fifth round. The Bears drafted Earl Bennett in the third round and want to see him develop and reach his full potential. I like Bennett, but he’s a third-string receiver on a good team. If the Bears land a receiver with a good combination of size, speed, and hands, their offense will be much-improved and Cutler will finally have a go-to guy — more than what Bennett has come to provide on third downs, that is. Frankly, though, I don’t see them spending any resources — high draft picks or big money — on this position.

I almost considered putting this position in the next tier, but if the Bears ever want to become an elite team in the league, they have to get this solidified. For as long as Lovie Smith has coached this team, the secondary has been treated as a “system” unit. That is, they feel they can plug in young, athletic players who can play the Cover 2 and make plays on the ball. That explains why during the Smith era, they’ve had more different combinations of starting safeties than they did starting quarterbacks in recent memory. Until last year, anyway. Chris Harris and Danieal Manning both started all 16 games to stabilize the position. But despite Harris’ knowledge of the game, he’s a step too slow for free safety. And although Manning is one of the most athletic players on the team, he frequently finds himself in the wrong position. The Bears drafted Major Wright in the third round last year but he’s starting to develop a Mike Brown complex with how often he gets hurt. The Bears will likely give him a chance to get into the lineup this year, especially if they choose not to re-sign Manning to a long-term deal. Manning is asking for ridiculously high money for a player that’s played four different positions in five years and whose primary strength is returning kickoffs. Then again, the Bears overpaid their other kick returner, Hester. We haven’t even talked about the cornerbacks yet. Charles Tillman had an excellent season last year but his durability has got to be a concern for somebody who has suffered injuries the past few years. Tim Jennings filled in adequately during the Bears’ run to the NFC title game, but he’s diminutive and made plenty of mistakes. Zack Bowman lost his job after being anointed the No. 1 cornerback in the preseason and one has to wonder if he’ll ever live up to his athletic potential. It’s time the Bears stop inserting late-round, “system” players into the defensive backfield and find some guys who can play.

Positions of stability that could use upgrades

Defensive Line
Paid handsomely last offseason to come to Chicago and improve the pass rush, Julius Peppers delivered on promise. He even helped the rest of the defensive line apply pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Opposite him, Israel Idonije made fans forget about Alex Brown, just as I expected him to do. Anthony Adams, a free agent this offseason, provided a solid, yet unspectacular veteran presence in the middle and he was spelled by the consistent effort of Matt Toeaina and Henry Melton. The only thing holding the Bears back from having a great defensive line was a disruptive three-technique tackle. Tommie Harris was not able to benefit from the presence of Peppers and the Bears released him after the season. Finding his replacement is a major priority to help this defense operate as it is intended to do. Without a disruptive pass rusher up the middle, the secondary will continue to struggle against good passing offenses.

The Bears have been fortunate to have a good linebacking corps for quite some time now. Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs have been anchoring that unit since 2003 and the Bears have had great depth at the position, too. Now, that depth will have to be replenished as Nick Roach and Pisa Tinoisamoa — who platooned at strong-side linebacker — are both free agents as well as backup Brian Iwuh. Not only is depth of concern for the Bears, but Urlacher and Briggs are both on the wrong side of 30 and durability could soon become an issue. I’d hate for Angelo and the Bears’ front office to make the same mistake with the linebackers that they did with the offensive line: neglect to reload until after the talent is depleted.

Strengths of the team that don’t necessarily need additions

Let’s face it, Cutler is as popular as a politician. He has his staunch loyalists and his fierce antagonists. Then there’s a third group of independents who sway like pollen in the wind and will flow with the majority opinion. Cutler was unfairly criticized for not being able to play with a torn knee in the NFC Championship in January. People questioned his toughness as if planting his leg had no bearing on how he delivered the ball. I’m about as anti-Packers as a Bears fan can be, but I didn’t let my inner meatball cloud my better judgment like so many Chicagoans did. The truth is, Cutler just couldn’t play effectively on that knee and it made no sense for him to be in there. He would have done more harm than good. If anything from that NFC Championship game taught us something, it had nothing to do with Cutler but instead it was what happens without a veteran backup on the roster. Caleb Hanie provided some thrills for those fans who hadn’t already thrown in the towel on the game, but the contest was never as close as it may have seemed late in the game. I like Hanie’s confidence and his moxie, but his skill set is a different story. He doesn’t quite have the poise the Bears need in the event that Cutler gets knocked out of future games, and acquiring a veteran backup isn’t absolutely necessary but would certainly help.

Running Backs
The Bears paid big money last offseason to land backup running back Chester Taylor and many speculate that the plan was for him to push Matt Forte for the starting position. There were rumors that the Bears were concerned that Forte might not be able to recover from his injuries the previous year and regain the form he displayed as a rookie. As it turned out, that’s exactly what Forte was able to do, and he played such a huge role in the offense — both in the passing and running games to the tune of 1,500 total yards — that Taylor morphed into an overpaid, underused backup. Nevertheless, the Bears are set at running back and really only need to add a third back who can play special teams and fill in capably in case of injury.

Tight Ends
It’s ironic that arguably the strongest position on the team was one in which offensive coordinator Mike Martz rarely used in previous stops in St. Louis, Detroit, and San Francisco. With four capable tight ends, each possessing a unique skill, it was veteran Desmond Clark who found himself as the odd man out behind Greg Olsen, Brandon Manumaleuna and Kellen Davis, and Clark was inactive on game days for most of the season. The Bears allegedly tried to trade Olsen when Martz signed on to be the coordinator last year and instead found ways to incorporate him into the offense. If the Bears don’t make any moves at tight end, they’ll still have a fairly strong position, but acquiring a tight end who can block — the job that Manumaleuna was brought in to do but at which he failed spectacularly — could certainly help.

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