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We're going to reach into the mailbag for some Four Down Territory before camp gets going. There aren't any major issues hanging in the balance. A year ago, you had Brian Urlacher's contract getting done just before camp and Devin Hester seeking a new contract. In the past, there was a Thomas Jones stakeout to see if he was going to show up. First-round picks have been far from signed at this point in previous years. All is quiet now. The Bears are just getting ready for football. Here we go.

Q: I read your preview for the wide receivers and you don't seem to be giving them much of a chance. Why? I see a talented group of young wide receivers and there's no reason to believe they can't flourish. Eddie Royal was a second-round pick. Brandon Marshall was a fourth-round pick. Shouldn't these guys get a chance with Jay Cutler?

Michael, Parts Unknown

A: The Bears found a talented and productive wide receiver in the third round of the 2004 draft when they selected Bernard Berrian out of Fresno State. Otherwise, the club's track record at the position under general manager Jerry Angelo is a series of misses, some bigger than others. It happens to be one of the more difficult positions to evaluate for the draft, and as Angelo has pointed out previously, the majority of the true No. 1 wideouts in the league are, guess what, first-round picks. The Bears haven't tried a wide receiver in the first round since David Terrell in 2001, and that was two months before Angelo came aboard. We're not suggesting the Bears will be unable to find help from their rookies and unproven players at the position, we're simply pointing out that after Devin Hester and Rashied Davis, that is the only thing the Bears have to lean on. If they try enough players, one of them might work. Bringing in a veteran with marginal and eroding talent would prevent a possible talent from blossoming. All of these players have a different tool box and it will be interesting to see which one(s) step forward in the three weeks of camp.


Q: Is there a veteran on the roster that will be in jeopardy of being cut? Maybe a surprise cut that could be coming?

Alex, Gurnee

A: I don't know if there are any major surprises coming. Sure, there will be some healthy competition for spots at the back end of the roster, but this team is pretty well set. There is not going to be a lot of turnover in the starting lineups and that's usually where you get your surprise cuts. There aren't any players carrying bad contracts that the team will want to unload. Linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer will be in a tough spot, particularly if he's still hampered in his recovery from offseason surgery to repair a sports hernia. If healthy, he deserves an opportunity to be on the roster. Running back Adrian Peterson could be pushed for a spot as it's expected the Bears will at least consider going with three running backs. Even though Rashied Davis is the only wide receiver other than Devin Hester with real NFL experience, he'll probably need to perform well. Defensive tackle Dusty Dvoracek has become Mike Brown without the long history of production the former safety had. He'll be pushed and he has to stay healthy. No one is guaranteeing jobs for tight end Michael Gaines or safety Josh Bullocks. None of these strike as potential surprise cuts. All could have a role on the 2009 team.


The biggest moves the Bears made on defense, or at least the ones getting the most attention, were the changes on the coaching staff. Rod Marinelli's addition as the defensive line coach will create some storylines during training camp, and I think a lot of people are interested to watch the drill work he does with his players on the side. Lovie Smith's role as play caller will come more into focus when the season begins.

But we bounced the two biggest personnel changes on defense off Bill Barnwell when we spoke to the managing editor of Football Outsiders about the upcoming season. Their mean projection gives the Bears a 49 percent chance to have 11 or more victories, and that was the highest figure for any NFC club. It can all be found in the Football Outsiders Almanac, which will be available on Amazon.com in a few weeks and can be ordered in PDF format from their Web site.

First, we asked Barnwell about the addition of linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa, who is projected to be the starter on the strong side after signing a one-year contract. St. Louis cut the veteran loose after the Rams failed in their bid to trade him. He became the first rookie in Rams' franchise history to lead the defense in tackles when he played the position for Smith and Bob Babich in 2003.

"It really depends on Tinoisamoa and how he fits into their scheme and how quickly he catches up on things,'' Barnwell said. "I understand he's had experience in the system in the past. He was playing for the Rams. The Rams didn't have a great defense last season. You look at his run numbers and they were atrocious. He made a lot of tackles but they were seven or eight yards from the line of scrimmage, they were coming well down the field. The defense wasn't good and his numbers were not very good. You have to put the scheme in context. It's not like baseball where if a guy is going to hit 40 home runs in one city he's going to hit 40 home runs in another city. He could be better this season.''

What Football Outsiders does is study each play and they look at a statistic they call the "stop rate" and average yards for running plays when the linebacker was credited with making the tackle. It's not a perfect system but they have other stats, one of which is called "defeats," defined as the total number of plays they stop the offense from gaining first down on third or fourth down, or make a play behind the line of scrimmage or create a turnover.

Tinoisamoa, who played weak side in St. Louis last season, was credited with 48 stops, 32 fewer than Lance Briggs. Tinoisamoa ranked 93rd out of 99 total linebackers vs. the run. But as Barnwell pointed out, these statistics are drawing from small sample sizes and they can change from year to year. Switch teams and defenses and it is not going to be the same. Tinoisamoa will have more talent around him this season and it's reasonable to expect he'll be a different player. Of course, the Bears thought Adam Archuleta was coming to a more talented defense when he left Washington for the Bears. That didn't work out so well for Archuleta or the Bears.

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We turn to the linebackers as we get back to our position-by-position previews and breakdowns.

Projected starters: MLB Brian Urlacher, 6-4, 258, 10th season, New Mexico; WLB Lance Briggs, 6-1, 242, 7th season, Arizona; SLB Pisa Tinoisamoa, 6-1, 230, 7th season, Hawaii.

Others

Marcus Freeman, 6-1, 239, Rookie, Ohio State
Hunter Hillenmeyer, 6-4, 238, 7th season, Vanderbilt
Joey LaRocque, 6-2, 228, 2nd season, Oregon State
Kevin Malast, 6-2, 233, Rookie, Rutgers
Mike Rivera, 6-2, 245, Rookie, Kansas
Nick Roach, 6-1, 234, 3rd season, Northwestern
Jamar Williams, 6-0, 237, 4th season, Arizona State

Projected depth chart

MLB: Urlacher, Hillenmeyer
WLB: Briggs, Williams, Freeman
SLB: Tinoisamoa, Roach

2009 salary cap numbers

Lance Briggs $6,766,666
Marcus Freeman $355,425
Hunter Hillenmeyer $1,550,000
Joey LaRocque $390,200
Kevin Malast $311,666
Mike Rivera $311,666
Nick Roach $465,200
Pisa Tinoisamoa $1,501,560
Brian Urlacher $10,185,511
Jamar Williams $643,950

Number of linebackers on the roster at the start of the 2008 season: 6

Projected number of linebackers on 2009 roster at start of the season: 6 or 7

The skinny: The Bears went into the 2008 season able to trumpet the fact that their starting linebacking corps was entering its fifth consecutive year in tact. Not many teams can talk about having that kind of stability in the middle of their defense, and the Bears can't anymore. Hillenmeyer was replaced by Roach on the strong side during the middle of last season and while nothing has been awarded at this point, all signs point to the newcomer Tinoisamoa winning that job in training camp. That puts Roach out of a starting position and perhaps in line for a major role on special teams, and Hillenmeyer in a spot where he'll have to fight and claw to make the roster. But the strong-side backer has always been the sidekick for the Bears. The strong-side linebacker was on the field 63 percent of the time for the Bears last season (down from 69.2 percent in 2007). The stars are at the other spots where Briggs was selected to the Pro Bowl for the fourth consecutive year. In franchise history only Mike Singletary (10), Dick Butkus (8) and Bill George (8) have been chosen to more consecutive all-star games from the position. Briggs led the defense in tackles for the second time in his career and had a personal best three interceptions. He plays with great range and is a big reason why the Bears ranked third in the league in pass defense vs. tight ends according to Football Outsiders.

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It's been a while since we went through the mailbag so we'll knock out more than four questions this morning in Four Down Territory as we take a little break from the position-by-position previews that have been running in our 30-day countdown to Bourbonnais. Here we go.

Q: What about a contract extension for Danieal Manning? He's slated to have an uncanny season at kick returner which means, of course, that the Bears will need the extra money to give him an extension and convert him to wide receiver.

Mike, Parts Unknown

A: Looks like we have a jokester here. Is that Manning switch right after Brian Urlacher is moved to free safety and Chris Zorich is re-signed to play middle linebacker? It's a good question when it comes to Manning. Not sure what he is going to have to do to have an "uncanny" season. Manning would have made the Pro Bowl last season if he had replaced Devin Hester as the kickoff returner about a month prior to the move that was made in Week 11. He averaged 29.7 yards per return, the club's highest total in nearly 35 years, and became only the fifth player in franchise history to top 1,000 yards for a season. Now, consider first that Manning didn't see all of the gimmicks (bloops, squibs, sky kicks, you name it) that Hester did when he was the primary kickoff returner. Opponents will likely pay more attention to Manning this coming season but special teams coordinator Dave Toub is quick to adjust and his schemes have proven the test of time. Defensively, Manning was on the field one-third of the time in 2008, getting 370 snaps out of the 1,111 total. He seemed to make progress as a nickel back, particularly in the second half of the season. Manning was in that role during the spring until a hamstring injury, one of many suffered on the roster, sidelined him and Corey Graham took his place for the last two weeks of OTA's. It looks like Manning will remain in that role entering training camp but if Nathan Vasher nails down the right cornerback job and Craig Steltz winds up being the free safety, the coaching staff might give Graham more of a look at nickel, where he played one game last season. Is there a possibility the club re-signs Manning, who is entering the final year of his contract? Sure. He probably should have been on the list of players we made. But a kickoff returner who does or does not double as a nickel corner isn't going to get a huge contract.


Q: You didn't mention Lance Louis in your preview of the fullbacks. Is there a reason why? Didn't the Bears say he could play tight end as well as fullback when they selected him?

Oscar T., Chicago

A: There is a somewhat popular notion that Lance Louis will reprise the role of William Perry and do some heavy duty work in the backfield. We don't see it happening. We don't see Louis playing any tight end, either. The Bears don't have a spot at tight end for him with Desmond Clark, Greg Olsen, Kellen Davis and Michael Gaines. They don't need a project at the position because they already have one in Davis. Louis, who was issued No. 60, which is an ineligible number, is going to have a hard time making the roster as a seventh-round pick. He'd have an even more difficult time making the 45-man gameday roster, and it's unlikely he'd be active for a possible gimmick play involving him lining up at an eligible position.


Thought it would be interesting to turn back the clock a year and look at some of the storylines surrounding the Bears at that time and how they turned out.

We ran a list of 10 issues facing the organization entering training camp in the print edition last July. We'll include a short synopsis of each one.

1. QB derby. Amid swirling rumors that the Bears may have interest in Chris Simms as a No. 3 quarterback, we still don't know who the No. 1 will be. Leave it to the Bears to do this.

ONE YEAR LATER: What a difference that one year makes. The addition of Jay Cutler via trade with the Denver Broncos makes this the most-anticipated training camp in years. While quarterback carousels dominated camp news in the past the hope is that Cutler will lock down the position for close to a decade. That doesn't mean Cutler won't be a daily storyline in camp. Prepare for QB stories written every which way.

2. Defense first. The Bears plummeted to 28th in team defense last season and it's yet to be determined if it was an injury-induced aberration, or a signal that Bob Babich could be on the hot seat.

ONE YEAR LATER: That defense didn't perform a whole lot better in 2008 and injuries were not reason to blame. Babich has effectively been demoted and Lovie Smith will now call the plays on defense. This remains a valid question moving into 2009. Can the Bears' defense return to championship form? The Bears have tried changing players, they've invested heavily in many players and they've certainly shuffled through an inordinate number of coaches on the defensive side of the ball. Next to come under real fire could be the defensive scheme if things don't change. Rod Marinelli represents the fourth line coaching for Smith entering his sixth season as head coach. Babich will be the third linebackers coach in as many seasons. Jon Hoke becomes the fourth secondary coach.

3. Face of the franchise. This could all of a sudden become the No. 1 storyline if Brian Urlacher's ongoing contract squabble blows up. Even if he isn't in camp--and who knows what the chances are for this--he'll be game ready come the regular season because he's a workout warrior. Some have been concerned about a decline in play because he didn't make the Pro Bowl, but at the end of last season Urlacher was playing as well as any defensive player in the league.

ONE YEAR LATER: Urlacher's contract demands were met with an $18 million, one-year extension but Cutler could fast become the face of the franchise. Now two years removed from the Pro Bowl, Urlacher is being paid like an elite player. Perhaps he will benefit from Smith running the defense.

4. Line dance. None of the other rebuilding phases on offense will be particularly successful if the overhauled line doesn't mesh. Rookie Chris Williams will be the key and his development in the coming weeks at left tackle is critical.

ONE YEAR LATER: The Bears managed to do fine on the line last season and Williams had nothing to do with the success. Line coach Harry Hiestand has quietly done a terrific job for several seasons and there's another rebuilding project in the works that finds Williams on the right side this time. The key this time around could be keeping left tackle Orlando Pace healthy but the emergence of Williams is essential not just for this season but for the longterm. The good thing is the Bears have plenty of depth here.

5. Born to run. There certainly won't be a distraction this summer with Cedric Benson having to answer a myriad of questions unrelated to his failed efforts to live up to his status as the fourth pick in the '05 draft. Matt Forte certainly won't be under pressure to exceed Benson's production. It's about replacing Thomas Jones, remember him? Forte is a gifted runner who the Bears believe is a first-round talent.

ONE YEAR LATER: The Bears were on the money when they said Forte was a first-round talent. Preserving him will be key this season as he wore down by season's end. Forte can be one of the top backs in the league while still sharing some of the work with a rejuvenated Kevin Jones.

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If the Bears wind up signing free-agent linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa, who will visit Halas Hall today, there is little doubt he will be installed as the starter at strong-side linebacker.

That's figured to be one of the few positions where the organization is going to have wide-open competition for a job come training camp. Nick Roach was promoted over veteran Hunter Hillenmeyer during the middle of last season and that alone probably gives him a leg up on the job right now.

But Tinoisamoa has long been someone Lovie Smith and defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Bob Babich have admired. Babich was a rookie position coach in the NFL when Tinoisamoa led the St. Louis Rams in tackles as a rookie second-round pick in 2003. After arriving from St. Louis, Smith and Babich both spoke highly of the player on a regular basis. Now there is an opportunity for a reunion, although Buffalo and Philadelphia are also pursuing the player.

Let's take a closer look at Roach and Hillenmeyer and how their competition sizes up right now because it's unknown if the Bears are prepared to offer Tinoisamoa a contract. Remember, they moved fast when tight end Michael Gaines came for a free-agent visit last week. Tinoisamoa will be in an upbeat atmosphere as the first OTA practice is scheduled to start at 11 a.m. He will be able to watch at practice like the rest of us where fifth-round pick Marcus Freeman and veteran Jamar Williams fit into the scheme. There are some questions to be answered at linebacker.

2008 playing time breakdown

Hunter Hillenmeyer--269 of 1,111 snaps, 24.2 percent

23 tackles, 10 solos, 1 sack, 2 pass defended

Nick Roach--431 of 1,111 snaps, 38.8 percent

40 tackles, 25 solos, 2 tackles for loss, 1 QB hit, 1 pass defended

The sample size is not the best to evaluate, and Hillenmeyer was dealing with injuries last season, but the numbers suggest Roach has the ability to make more plays on his own. While Roach made a tackle every 10.8 plays, Hillenmeyer had one every 11.7 plays. There's a broader difference when you look at solo tackles. Roach had 2.5 times as many with a solo every 17 plays. Hillenmeyer made one every 27 plays. Roach has better range and that could explain why. But don't forget the team called Hillenmeyer, who turns 29 this season, it's most "assignment sound" defender not long ago.

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Lovie Smith has a standard answer when it comes to the Bears checking out players on the open market--they're always considering moves to make the team better.

To that end their next move is getting reacquainted with Pisa Tinoisamoa.

While linebacker does not look like a need area, the veteran began his successful career in St. Louis playing for Smith and linebackers coach Bob Babich. The Bears are interested enough to have him in for a visit to Halas Hall Wednesday, according to an NFL source. That trip that coincides with the first OTA of the offseason.

Tinoisamoa was released by the Rams on May 8 despite leading the team in tackles for four of his six seasons, including last year when he had a team-high 135 playing on the weak side. He wasn't deemed to be a fit for new coach Steve Spagnuolo's scheme and St. Louis tried unsuccessfully to trade him.

Tinoisamoa played weak-side linebacker the last few seasons for the Rams but broke into the league as a second-round pick from Hawaii playing on the strong side for Smith. He became the only rookie in franchise history to lead the team in tackles that season. He was moved to the weak side the next season after Smith departed for the Bears, but returned to play the strong side again in 2005.

One reason cited for his departure in St. Louis was his size. Listed at 6-1, 240 pounds, reports stated he played closer to 225 pounds last season. Smith generally looks for undersized linebackers in his scheme, and the addition of Tinoisamoa would create even more competition at strong-side linebacker where Nick Roach is expected to battle Hunter Hillenmeyer for the starting job. Hillenmeyer was the starter for the first seven games before Roach replaced him. Right now, it stands to be one of the few true position battles in training camp. Adding Tinoisamoa would give Smith even more depth at the club's position of strength.

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We are one-third of the way into May and I don't know if I can recall a year when there has been this much football news hopping at this time of the year. There are some intriguing roster options out there. Let's get right to the mailbag and see if we can sort some issues out.

Q: was released Friday and I know the Bears and Lovie Smith wouldn't mind a productive veteran to round out their linebacker group. Is there any chance Chicago would go for him? Lovie is familiar with him from his days in St. Louis and he led the Rams in tackles last year. Does he play Hunter Hillenmeyer's or is it Nick Roach's spot? Or are the Bears trying to figure out if they're still a draft-driven team?

Sean Q, Arcata, Calif.

A: I don't think there is any question Tinoisamoa will be of interest to the Bears. As Smith likes to say, they're always exploring ways to make themselves a better football team. Given Tinoisamoa's track record with not just Smith but with defensive coordinator Bob Babich as well, he is someone that will surely come up in conversation at Halas Hall. It was somewhat of a surprise move that the Rams let him go last week after he led the team in tackles for four of six seasons but new coach Steve Spagnuolo is seeking bigger linebackers for his system. As Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch pointed out, Tinoisamoa is listed at 6-1, 240 pounds, but he played at closer to 220 pounds last season. That didn't stop him from leading the team with 135 tackles. Tinoisamoa, who turns 28 in July, became the first rookie in franchise history to lead the team in tackles in 2003, Smith's final season in St. Louis when Babich was with him as linebackers coach. He made 121 tackles and added three interceptions and two sacks. He did so playing strong-side linebacker.

Need No. 6--Defensive tackle

Players on roster

DT Tommie Harris (signed through 2012)
NT Anthony Adams (2010)
DT Marcus Harrison (2011)
NT Dusty Dvoracek (2009)
DT Matt Toeaina (2009)
DE/DT Israel Idonije (2009)

Need

If Jerry Angelo and Lovie Smith have a hobby, it's collecting defensive linemen and defensive backs. Harris is the key here and is as important to the success of the defense as a whole as Smith is as the new play caller. There was a buzz about Harris not finishing the minicamp last month but what's important--virtually meaningless drills in mid-March or a game in September? When Dan Hampton was still a dominating force in the middle of the Bears' defense, he'd miss practice time with knee issues. The Bears knew exactly where Harris was from a health standpoint when they signed him to a $40 million, four-year extension last summer, a deal that for practical purposes will total $34 million over four years.

Need No. 9--Inside linebacker

Players on roster

MLB Brian Urlacher (signed through 2012)
SLB/MLB Hunter Hillenmeyer (2011)

Need

The word is Urlacher has spent much of his offseason around Halas Hall working to ensure he will be in top shape when business gets going. That has never been an issue for him though. Urlacher always is in terrific shape. That's just the kind of worker he is in the gym. It will be interesting to see what level he can play at with Bob Babich returning to coach linebackers and Lovie Smith overseeing the defense.

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Here we go again with Four Down Territory. We're going to have one every day this week through Friday so get your questions in. Let's get started.

Q: Does the acquisition of Jay Cutler change the strategy for backup quarterback? Does it increase of decrease the need to sign a veteran?

Terry L. Boulder, Colo.

A: We wrote here on Sunday that nobody finds the backup quarterbacks like the Bears, listing Brian Griese, Jeff Blake and Chris Chandler as examples of solid quarterbacks who arrived at Halas Hall after they had become journeymen. There doesn't look to be a lot left on the scrap heap right now. Did you have someone specific in mind? J.P. Losman, Charlie Frye, Gus Frerotte, Trent Green, Charlie Batch and Brooks Bollinger are out there. New agent Drew Rosenhaus is shopping Rex Grossman for the minimum. Grossman will not be returning to the Bears. Looks to me like the Bears will stand pat with what they have. If they were comfortable--and Lovie Smith said as much at the combine--with Caleb Hanie and Brett Basanez competing for the No. 2 job behind Kyle Orton, why wouldn't they be comfortable with one of those two behind Cutler?

Just about three weeks in advance of free agency the Bears have made their first move of the offseason by adding quarterback Brett Basanez, who was available because he was a practice-squad player for the Carolina Panthers last season. He didn't have to wait until free agency to sign. There will be plenty of news and speculation to work through as we move closer to the opening of the NFL shopping season on Feb. 27.

Obviously, the moves by the club at the start of free agency will help shape decisions that will be made come the draft. Here's the latest mock draft by Todd McShay and Scouts Inc. at ESPN.com. He's got the Bears drafting Percy Harvin in the first round with the 18th pick. We don't see any way the Bears consider Harvin. He'd give them a second Devin Hester. He's a little like Hester in that he's not a proven commodity at wide receiver. He spent time as a running back last season at Florida. He's got an injury history. After drafting Chris Williams in the first round last season, general manager Jerry Angelo is not likely to roll the dice on a player with medical issues. They don't need a Hester clone as much as they need a gamebreaking receiver with size. I'm not sure that player will exist where they're drafting, but that's an issue for another day.

The mock goes through the second round and there they have the Bears grabbing Oregon center/guard Max Unger. It's a good bet the Bears go for an interior lineman in the first four rounds of the draft but it's a better bet they go for a tackle first. The draft will give us plenty to discuss moving forward. For right now, let's jump into the mailbag and resume Four Down Territory.

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