Time to reach into the mailbag one final time for the week. We'll get right to it.
Q: John Tait is entering the final year of his contract, John St. Clair is a free agent and Chris Williams didn't play as a rookie. The Bears can't think the offensive line is in good shape moving forward, can they? Tell me they're going to address this, please.
Fred W., Las Vegas
A: The Bears were one of only six teams this past season to have all five offensive linemen start 16 games, the first time the club has accomplished that since 2001. There were some key questions surrounding the line during training camp, ones that grew more pointed when Williams was lost for the first half of the season following back surgery. Terrence Metcalf was expected to start at left guard and then he was lost for the preseason after arthroscopic knee surgery. Through it all, the line stuck together and performed fairly well with St. Clair at left tackle on a permanent basis for the first time in his career. Take away two games against Jared Allen, and he was steady. Josh Beekman stepped in at left guard, Tait made the transition back to right tackle and Olin Kreutz and Roberto Garza were fixtures.
But there's expected to be change moving forward. Williams will be moved into the left tackle slot and if the club makes a bid to re-sign St. Clair, a possibility, he could get in the mix at left guard. But keep in mind the team was relatively pleased with the efforts of Beekman. That doesn't address the need to get younger however. Before drafting Williams, general manager Jerry Angelo had gone five consecutive drafts without selecting a lineman in the first three rounds. The Bears relied on veterans, primarily free agents, and got old in a hurry. Tackle looks to be the most pressing issue. Not only is Tait entering the final year of his contract, he'll turn 34 later this month. Scouts are calling this another solid draft at that position and at this point we're going to say there is a good chance Angelo goes for a tackle in the first three or four rounds.
"We will be looking at that position again hard this year both in the draft and potentially in free agency,'' Angelo said this morning appearing with Mully & Hanley on the Score, 670-AM. "We have some age there. We feel that it's a good group. They did a very good job. I thought [line coach] Harry [Hiestand] did a great job. We still need to bring in some quality linemen to get them in the mix and develop because it is usually a two-year proposition at that position.''
Q: The Bears have been, let's say coy, about the possibility of trading Brian Urlacher. The same can be said of the Chargers and LaDainian Tomlinson. The Bears are paper thin in depth at running back and the Chargers could use help on defense, especially in the 3-4. You can see where I'm headed with this. Any thoughts?
Dave, Parts Unknown
A: I see where you're going with that but I don't see it happening. I think the public has been coy about the possibility of the Bears dealing Urlacher, I don't think the Bears have acted that way. Urlacher is coming off the most disappointing season of his career other than 2004 when he missed seven games because of injury. He didn't make the kind of impact plays you expect but like linebackers coach Lloyd Lee said after he was dismissed, the statistics didn't tell the entire story. Everyone saw Urlacher lined up in the A gap week after week, a spot that made it difficult to make plays when he was dropping off the line at the snap. I'd fully expect the deployment of the former defensive player of the year to be one of the "tweaks" the organization reviews when coach Lovie Smith talked about tweaking the scheme.
I'm not sure Tomlinson is what the Bears want now anyway. He will turn 30 in June and is coming off a season that was hampered in the beginning by a turf toe injury and at the end by a torn groin tendon. Tomlinson averaged 3.8 yards per carry. He's stated his goal is to be healthy in 2009 and the Chargers will likely pair him up with a new back if Darren Sproles departs in free agency. As much as it's been discussed, I don't see Urlacher going anywhere.
Q: Any chance the Bears will look to trade Dan Buenning for maybe a fourth-round pick? He is a well-known run blocker with great size. The Steelers, who need all the line help they can get, may trade for him and he fits what they do on their line. He does not really fit the Bears system as they are not really a running team.
Creighton, Parts Unknown
A: Um, no. The Bears dealt a sixth-round pick to Tampa Bay for Buenning just before the season started. He didn't play this season and all of a sudden he's going to command a fourth-round pick? The Steelers are not in their fourth AFC title game in 10 seasons because they make deals like that. Buenning is a valuable player to have. He can play all three interior positions and worked at center much of the season in practice. That eliminates the team from having to carry someone who is strictly a center in a backup role. It's the kind of versatility Josh Beekman and Roberto Garza also provide. Had Buenning come on board a month earlier, he could have been in position to challenge Beekman for the starting job at left guard. Chances are good Buenning sticks this coming season. Terrence Metcalf could wind up being the odd man out because he's making more money.
Q: I believe from one of your previous articles you indicated the Bears could have in the neighborhood of $27 million in cap space including the $10 million from the unearned incentives in the Marcus Hamilton contract. Being that they don't seem likely to do any big extensions this year with their current players (having done that last offseason), could you see them making a run at a top tier free agent like Albert Haynesworth, Nnamdi Asomugha or Jordan Gross if available? If Tommie Harris can get back to his old form, he and Haynesworth could be the most dominant tandem in the league and automatically make the ends much better. Asomugha would be a lockdown corner that would allow Charles Tillman or Corey Graham move to safety. Gross could allow them to add an elite tackle and focus elsewhere in the draft with John Tait perhaps a cap casualty in the last year of his deal.
Joe B., Oxford, Conn.
A: The Bears currently project to have in the neighborhood of $26 million in cap room, which is in the ballpark of a lot of clubs. Consider for a minute that whoever takes control of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be doing so with roughly $45 million in cap space available. As we wrote before, it's more about the cash available than the cap space these days. Certainly all three of the players you mentioned are going to command their own armored truck full of money. I wouldn't rule out the Bears making a major play in free agency and it is going to be interesting to see what kind of plan they hatch following their organizational meetings, which will begin after the Senior Bowl.
If the Bears believe that the addition of Rod Marinelli as line coach and the takeover of play calling by Lovie Smith, coupled with the return of Bob Babich to the linebackers room are all the defense needs for a fix, then probably not. The team could address a need or two in the draft and go with the core of players already in place. If Smith wants to ensure his move to play caller is a success, maybe he will voice his desire to see a top-flight free agent come on board.
Let's take a look at the three players:
Haynesworth ensured the Tennessee Titans will not place the franchise tag on him for a second consecutive season by meeting certain criteria in his contract. That doesn't mean the Titans are not working to re-sign him. Haynesworth played his college ball in Tennessee and some feel he'll ultimately wind up back there. He's going to command the biggest contract for a defensive tackle and that would leave the Bears with an abundance of money tied up in two positions--tackle and linebacker. Can Ron Turner's side of the ball get a little love?
Asomugha is considered one of the best, if not the best cover corner in the league. He should surpass the $57 million, six-year contract Asante Samuel received from the Philadelphia Eagles, that's if Oakland doesn't put the tag on him again. The Bears feel they have an elite cornerback of their own in Tillman, who will be working his way back from shoulder surgery for the second time in four years. Yes, the addition of Asomugha would allow for some movement in the secondary, but Angelo's history is to build along the line. That's why Haynesworth would make more sense.
If Gross manages to get out of Carolina, he's going to command a huge deal and could very well make the buyer happy. That buyer will not be the Bears. They're excited about seeing Chris Williams at left tackle. Tait will not be a cap casualty and is earning the kind of money starting tackles with 10 years service get. His addition back in 2004 has proven to be one of the club's stronger free-agent moves.
If the Bears break out the check book in free agency, I'd look for the following positions: pass rusher, safety, defensive tackle, playmaker. Unfortunately, it's pretty thin when you look at playmaking wide receivers. Let's see how things shake out in the coming weeks.
Thanks for all the questions. We'll get back to Four Down Territory Monday, maybe we'll file again from near the Franco Harris display in the Pittsburgh airport. Send in your questions before then. As always, thanks for reading.