Job One for Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery, when Bears president and CEO Ted Phillips hired him in late January, was to close the existing talent gap with the NFC North champion Packers.
Seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker Brian Urlacher believes Emery is well on his way to completing that mission.
"On paper we're a better football team than we were last year at the end of the season," Urlacher said. "Now we just have to go out there and do it. I'm excited about that. Phil Emery knows what he's doing, obviously, (getting wide receiver) Brandon Marshall and (running back) Michael Bush. Matt (Forte) is coming back. That was a big deal, obviously, to get him back, and we got him back."
Urlacher provided his critique just before he was honored as this year's Bears recipient of the Ed Block Courage Award. He also said he continues to rehab the torn knee ligaments he suffered in last season's final game, and that he will be completely recovered in time for necessary offseason activities.
LB Brian Urlacher
Kyle Terada/US Presswire
The Ed Block Courage Award Foundation is dedicated to improving the lives of abused, neglected and at-risk children and ending the cycle of abuse. Its purpose is to raise awareness and prevention of child abuse. Each year, the award honors one player from each NFL team who exemplifies the principles of sportsmanship and courage. It is unique in that recipients are selected solely by a vote of their teammates.
One of Urlacher's newest teammates, Marshall, may be the most talented receiver in team history. But he arrives with a rap sheet that includes violence against women and other alcohol-related incidents. As a team captain and a leader on and off the field for more than a decade, the hope is that Urlacher's influence, and that of other trustworthy veterans, rubs off on Marshall.
"Most of the time, when something comes, up I'll get a call," coach Lovie Smith said, regarding off-the-field problems. "And a lot of times Brian will get a call so the guys can run things by him. He's just not a team captain that goes out there for the coin toss. He's a captain (who) is there. He'll always bring concerns (of his teammates) to me."
Urlacher doesn't anticipate any problems with Marshall, who caught 206 passes for 2,590 yards with Cutler as his quarterback in 2007-08, when both were with the Broncos.
"Brandon's a good guy," Urlacher said. "I know he's had some issues. Jay's going to handle that situation, so I'm not worried about it. Jay is a straightforward guy, and he's been around Brandon. I don't think it'll be an issue. He's coming into a good situation. He's got a great quarterback, good offensive line, good running game, decent defense, great coaching staff. He's going to get a lot of balls thrown at him, so that should keep him happy."
In addition to Marshall and Bush, the Bears have added quarterback Jason Campbell, wide receivers Devin Thomas and Eric Weems, cornerbacks Kelvin Hayden and Jonathan Wilhite and linebacker Blake Costanzo. They have also re-signed defensive end Israel Idonije, tight end Kellen Davis, safety Craig Steltz, quarterback Josh McCown, and cornerback Tim Jennings.
"In the offseason you're trying to improve your ball club, and we've done that, starting off with signing some of your own players," Smith said. "We feel like we have a special group. I know we've improved our talent since we played last."
--A potential season-long headache was averted on Wednesday (April 11) when the Bears rewarded seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs with a one-year contract extension that will keep him through the 2014 season.
"I'm grateful," Briggs said. "I'm just very appreciative right now that the work has been recognized and that it got handled as fast as it did."
Briggs, who signed a six-year, $36 million contract before the 2008 season that has two years remaining, stands to realize $7 million in new money.
LB Lance Briggs
Dennis Wierzbicki/US Presswire
He led the Bears in tackles last season for the third time in four years with 147 and was voted to his seventh straight Pro Bowl. He had been angling for a new deal since before last season. It took just a few weeks to get it finalized after his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, initially spoke with Bears general manager Phil Emery at the Scouting Combine in late February.
"We're very excited for Lance and for the Bears," Emery said. "This is a very positive step for our team in our efforts to win championships."
Briggs, 31 has been a model of consistency since he was drafted in the third round out of Arizona in 2003. He has missed just four games and seven starts in nine seasons and has had at least 120 tackles every year since his rookie season, when he had 81.
Briggs has led the Bears in tackles in 2004, '08, '09 and '11, and he finished second in '05, '06, '07 and '10. According to STATS, Inc., Briggs leads the NFL with 65 1/2 stuffs (a tackle of a rusher for negative yards) over the past nine seasons. During that time he also leads NFL linebackers with three interception returns for touchdowns.
--With linebacker Lance Briggs happy now with his one-year contract extension, the Bears' only pressing concern is running back Matt Forte.
He has yet to sign his guaranteed $7.742 million contract tender as the team's franchise player because he wants a long-term deal with $16 million or so guaranteed up front.
Forte is expected to boycott the Bears' offseason program and perhaps training camp and the preseason if he doesn't have his deal done by the July 16 deadline.
"He's a grown man, and I'd tell him to do what he feels is right," said Briggs, who played a season as the Bears' franchise player before he got his six-year contract. "You do what you feel is right because I can't come in his house and say that I'm going to feed his family, and neither can you, and neither can anybody else. It's up to him to feed his family, and it's his life and his career. He knows what his value is, and I think all of us know what his value is. So he knows what he's doing. I will continue to support him and hope that he gets the deal that he knows he deserves, and we all do."
--Forte cannot participate in the Bears' voluntary offseason weight-lifting program, which commences Monday, or any other team activity, including OTAs, minicamp or training camp.
Neither middle linebacker Brian Urlacher nor coach Lovie Smith foresees a problem.
"In the offseason I tell the guys, 'If you have an issue with your contract, out of season is the time to work on those things,'" Smith said. "That's what Matt is going through right now."
Because of the labor dispute last year, there was no offseason program, and Forte came to camp in the best shape of his life.
"Matt takes care of himself," Urlacher said. "He knows the offense, he's a smart guy, and he's always in shape. He's the least of my concerns."
--Linebacker Lance Briggs believes the Bears, whose 8-8 record last season pales compared to the Packers' NFL-best 15-1 mark, are capable of competing with any team in the NFL after several offseason moves.
"It feels like a miracle with what they've done," Briggs said. "This offseason has been extremely aggressive. (We) went out and got a bunch of guys who are going to help us win a championship. I know that other teams looking in on the moves (believe) that we are a contender. And even guys that have signed know that they signed here instead of other places because we're a contender and continue to put more and more pieces to the puzzle to help make this championship run.
LB Lance Briggs
"Would I call us the Dream Team? No, I would not. But I would say we're a championship-caliber team -- potentially. We have to go out and transition it to the field."
--Even though cornerback Charles Tillman was voted to his first Pro Bowl last season, and the team's other starting corner, Tim Jennings, was re-signed last month as an unrestricted free agent, that was a position the Bears wanted to upgrade.
While Tillman has been a nine-year starter, he recently turned 31. The 5-8, 185-pound Jennings has started 28 games for the Bears over the past two seasons, but he was benched late last season, although he regained his starting spot after one game.
Although they may not have upgraded their starting cornerback tandem, they have fortified their secondary by agreeing to one-year contracts with veterans Kelvin Hayden and Jonathan Wilhite. If nothing else, the team has added depth and maybe created an interesting training camp battle between Jennings and Hayden, who were teammates for four years (2006-09) in Indianapolis.
Hayden, 28, is a Chicago native with 47 NFL starts. He spent his first six seasons with the Colts after being selected in the second round of the 2005 draft out of the University of Illinois. He spent last season with the Falcons, where he had two interceptions, giving him a career total of 11, to go with 41 pass breakups, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. He also has 25 special teams tackles.
The 6-0, 195-pound Hayden, who attended Chicago's Hubbard High School and south suburban Joliet Junior College, also has three postseason interceptions, including one against the Bears in Super Bowl XLI, which he returned 56 yards for a touchdown.
The 5-11, 185-pound Wilhite spent his first three seasons with the Patriots (2008-10) after they drafted him in the fourth round out of Auburn. Last year the 28 year old was with the Broncos and played in 15 games with two starts, making 26 tackles with one interception, two pass breakups, two sacks and three special teams tackles. He has 15 career starts and has played in 54 games with 134 tackles, four interceptions and 11 pass breakups.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think we've improved our talent as much as anything. As far as closing the gap (with the Packers and Lions), I mean, we didn't win the championship this year, so we have to get back. I know we've improved our talent since we played last, and that's all you're trying to do in the offseason." -- Bears coach Lovie Smith.
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