The combination of life's curveballs and some other work we'll get to later on has delayed us once again in getting to the mailbag until the second period of this Blackhawks game we were supposed to be attending tonight. Oh well. So, without any further delay, let's get to it.
Q: With Taylor Mays deciding to return to USC, the already shallow talent pool at safety may have just emptied out. Next to a pass rusher, which I think the Bears can address in Round 1, don't you think free safety is a huge need on this defense? Do you think the Bears will look to shore it up in free agency? Players like O.J. Atogwe or Jermaine Phillips would make a lot of sense for a porous last line of defense.
Dan, Wicker Park
A: It came as somewhat of a surprise that Mays is headed back to school. After talking with some scouts and agents, both were expecting him to come out after being a three-year starter for the Trojans. But one scout I spoke to specifically about Mays said he looked like Tarzan but didn't necessarily play like Ronnie Lott. He thought Mays needed to get better at tackling in the open field. Maybe that is something Mays will work on. For a look at underclassmen who have declared early, here's a relatively up-to-date list.
I would agree with you wholeheartedly that the Bears need to address free safety. They've been operating without a free safety for some time and unless they want to move Danieal Manning there and leave him there, then they need to seek some outside help. You bring up a couple of interesting prospects. The St. Louis Rams have already stated they want Atogwe back. Of course, the Rams have yet to name a head coach, and you would have to imagine that man will have something to say about how the roster is shaped.
As far as Phillips, there are a couple of issues in play. First, Tampa Bay has an absolute abundance of salary-cap room. That doesn't mean they'll earmark a pile of it for him, but they have the resources. Second, when Phillips was lost to injured reserve in December with a broken right arm, it gave the sagging Bucs a good idea of just how much they missed him. He's said he'd like to return and so I'm not convinced it's a sure thing both of these players reach the free market.
Q: I'm curious as to how the other top rookie offensive tackles did this past year. I know Ryan Clady, Branden Albert and Jeff Otah all started most or all of the season, but how did they perform? Can that be any kind of small indicator as to what we can expect from Chris Williams?
Adam, Evansville, Ind.
A: A total of eight offensive tackles were selected in the first 26 picks last April and all but Williams made starts as rookies. Michigan's Jake Long went No. 1 overall to the Miami Dolphins and if there was going to be a re-draft, Bill Parcells and Co. might go with Clady. Denver snagged him No. 12 and he quickly stepped forward as one of the top young left tackles in the league. That's not to take anything away from Long, who had a fine rookie season, but Clady is already regarded as one of the league's elite players on the quarterback's blind side. Kansas City's Albert, Detroit's Gosder Cherilus, Carolina's Jeff Otah, Atlanta's Sam Baker and Houston's Duane Brown all showed promise. Not all of them are going to be studs, but they got significant playing time as rookies.
From that standpoint, yes, I think that bodes well for Williams. It's never a good thing when a player undergoes back surgery, but he's billed as being as good as new and is expected to step in as the starter at left tackle next season. Williams got stronger in the weight room after the surgery and I think we'll see a reshaped player come spring time when the team takes the field for OTA's and minicamp. He needs to get stronger in his upper body but by all indications he's the kind of guy who is willing to put in the work. But I believe tackle is still a priority for this team in the draft. The Bears think they have an idea of what Williams will be, but they don't know, and right tackle John Tait is entering the final year of his contract and he turns 34 the week of the Super Bowl.
Q: I have seen a couple of suggestions that Charles Tillman could be moved to free safety and that Brian Urlacher could moved to the strong-side linebacker. If those moves were viable it would appear to offer a few more interesting options in the draft like Illinois' cornerback Vontae Davis or one of the three stud middle linebackers that may still be available at the 18th pick. Are these suggestions realistic?
Gregg, Parts Unknown
A: It's interesting you bring up the Tillman situation because I worked on something today addressing that very issue. Tillman has heard the buzz too, and healthy and recovered from shoulder injuries, he could very well be a quality safety. But the problem such a move raises is why are you going to create a void at cornerback to fill a hole at safety? Cornerback is by far the more valuable of the two positions. Just look at the vast disparity in pay for the positions. Safeties are just as important as corners until it comes time to cash those checks.
Yes, a young player like Davis could potentially come in and fill a hole, but the bigger issue to me is whether or not the Bears can get veteran former Pro Bowler Nathan Vasher back on track. If so, they could have a solid pair with him and Corey Graham. If not, you're looking at Graham, who we still need to see more from, and a rookie. When coaches make big moves like these and they backfire, that's when they get in big trouble. As far as Urlacher, I think he's at his best position and will remain there. When linebackers get older and start to lose range, they move them inside, not outside.
Q: With rumors surfacing that Herm Edwards will be canned in Kansas City, do you think there is room for another Lovie Smith friend on the Chicago Bears staff?
A: A lot of people in NFL circles are surprised that Edwards has not been launched already by the Chiefs, but an interesting thing developed in Kansas City. Edwards and owner Clark Hunt were on the same page about tearing down what the Chiefs had and going the young route in efforts to rebuild the franchise. That led to some disagreements with general manager Carl Peterson, who has since departed. It could be that Edwards gets another year because of the strategy that the organization took and Hunt agreed to, but we'll see. This is all from some reliable league source. We'll see how that goes over with newly signed general manager Scott Pioli.
If Edwards gets the heave-ho, I would be surprised if he lands here. His expertise is as a defensive backs coach and Jon Hoke was just hired to coach the secondary. Smith was adamant that Bob Babich will remain the defensive coordinator, if in title only. The Bears didn't replace Lloyd Lee, the ousted linebackers coach, and that can be viewed as a cost-cutting measure. There's no way they would take on an assistant who would command high pay like Edwards.
Thanks for all of the questions, comments and critiques. Start firing in questions for Thursday's Four Down Territory. Above all else, thanks for reading.