Bears Inside Slant: Priority No. 1

OT John Tait (Jonathan Daniel/Getty)

The Chicago Bears have a lot of needs heading into the 2008 draft, but rebuilding what was a miserable offensive line this past season has got to be their top priority. Fortunately for the Midway Monsters, it's a deep class of trench warriors. Get the Inside Slant from the NFL experts at Scout.com.

As many as seven offensive linemen are talented enough to be drafted in the first round. Unfortunately for the Bears, they only have one first-round pick.

"It's a good year for offensive linemen, probably one of the better years," Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said. "I think most of the personnel people will echo that. We've got a couple of juniors who came out who are very, very good players and have created a lot of quality and quantity at offensive line."

Senior tackles Jake Long of Michigan, Jeff Otah of Pittsburgh and Chris Williams of Vanderbilt are all expected to go early in the first round, along with junior Ryan Clady of Boise State. USC's Sam Baker and Boston College's Gosder Cherilus could also fit later in the first round or early in the second

The timing for a bumper crop of O-linemen couldn't be better for the Bears, who – after the offseason release of right tackle Fred Miller and left guard Ruben Brown – are looking at a major rebuilding project up front.

"Whenever you take two starters out of the picture, that's a big area of concern," head coach Lovie Smith said. "We feel like we have a plan."

The Bears may have a plan, but they don't have the personnel to implement it yet.

Ideally, they want someone who can step in and play the critical left tackle spot right away, protecting the quarterback's blind side. That would allow 33-year-old John Tait to switch from left tackle to right tackle, replacing Miller. That could upgrade both tackle positions, which would be an impressive step toward improving an offensive line that went from experienced to antiquated almost overnight.

"That's one thing we've talked about," Angelo said of moving Tait from the left side to the right. "You see a lot of players who played left tackle in college come in and move to the right side because it's a little bit easier to develop them and bring them along. Then in a year or two you move him over to the left side."

Long and Clady are both expected to be off the board by the time the Bears' 14th pick comes due, but the Bears hope either Otah or Williams is there when they're on the clock. There's no guarantee that either will be able to start on the left side as a rookie, but most scouts believe they have that potential.

Of the two, Williams is more athletic, agile and a better pass blocker. Otah is bigger, stronger and more effective as a run blocker. Williams (6-6, 315) is also more of a finished product having spent five years at Vanderbilt, while Otah (6-6, 339), who didn't play football until his senior year in high school, is a bit of a project. …

Three-year veteran safety Brandon McGowan, a restricted free agent, signed his one-year, $1.47 million tender offer from the Bears on Tuesday to remain with the team.

McGowan, who originally was signed by the Bears as an undrafted free agent from Maine in 2005, started a career-high nine contests in 2007 and played in 14 games. He was sixth on the team with 80 tackles (52 solos) and tied for third with the first two interceptions of his career. He was also sixth with 10 special-teams tackles. Had another team signed McGowan, which was highly unlikely, the Bears would have received a second-round draft pick in return.

But the 24-year-old McGowan is expected to contend for significant playing time with the Bears this season. The situation at safety is unsettled and that may be a position they address in the draft, although it is considered an "anemic" group this season according to Angelo.

McGowan started in Week 1 when the Bears opened with a three-safety alignment, filled in three games when starting safeties Mike Brown and Adam Archuleta were injured at various times, and finally took the full-time strong safety job for the final five games of the season when Archuleta was benched. In his career, McGowan has started 12 times and played in 23 games with 110 tackles (72 solos).

Brown has missed 43 of the last 64 games because of various injuries, and he might be forced to agree to a restructured deal to remain on the roster. Archuleta's status is also uncertain since his production last season hardly matched his paycheck, which is too hefty for a player used primarily on special teams as Archuleta was by the end of last season.


S Brandon McGowan
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Kevin Payne showed promise as a rookie last season but suffered a season-ending arm injury in Week 4. Like McGowan, Archuleta, and even Brown, Payne is seen as more of an in-the-box safety, who is much more valuable in run support rather than in coverage. Danieal Manning, a second-round pick in 2006, has started 29 games in his first two seasons but is yet to play up to the level expected for someone with his physical gifts.

Without Brown and Archuleta the Bears lack experience at safety, but they contend there is enough talent without adding personnel.

"There's more concern there because they're younger players," Angelo said. "But we feel good about the players that we have, and we feel good that we can win with these players even if we didn't do anything outside of what we have on the present roster."

NEWS & NOTES
Safety Leonard Peters spent the 2007 season on the Bears' practice squad, but he could be given a long look in the offseason and during training camp at a position that has a lot of unanswered questions. The 26-year-old from Hawaii via American Samoa is considered a big hitter, but he's had durability issues and is still somewhat raw.

At Hawaii, the 6-1, 199-pounder Peters played in 50 games despite spleen, kidney, knee rib and shoulder injuries that forced him to redshirt twice.

"I think it was all due to my style of play," Peters said. "I'm the kind of person that likes to leave everything on the field no matter if I get hurt or not. One day, a lot of years from now, when you see me at the beach, I want people to say, 'I want that guy to play on my team because of the way he played when he was younger.'" …

In a rematch of Super Bowl XLI, the Bears will open the 2008 regular season on the road against the Colts on Sept. 7 as the primetime game on the Week 1 slate.

The nationally-televised game will be the first regular-season contest played in Lucas Oil Stadium, the Colts' new retractable-roof facility in downtown Indianapolis.

"I think it's a great way to start the season," said Rex Grossman, an Indiana native who will compete with former Purdue star Kyle Orton for the Bears' starting quarterback position. "They're a great team, but it's going to be fun and it's going to be exciting. There's a lot to gain by going down there to Indianapolis and winning on Sunday Night Football to start the season."

In addition to home and road games against division foes Detroit, Green Bay and Minnesota, the Bears host the Jaguars, Saints, Eagles, Buccaneers and Titans. They're on the road against the Falcons, Panthers, Texans and Rams in addition to the Colts.

The Bears open the season away from home for the fourth straight year and the seventh time in the last nine seasons. Since 1980, the Bears are 1-8 when opening the season on the road. They are 10-12 all-time on Sunday Night Football. They split their two SNF contests last season, losing 34-10 to the Cowboys on Sept. 23 at Soldier Field before defeating the Packers 27-20 on Oct. 7 at Lambeau Field …

Bears offensive coordinator Ron Turner said there will be a simple system for determining playing time at wide receiver, an unsettled position since the Bears lost their top two receivers from 2007 – Bernard Berrian signed with the Vikings, and Muhsin Muhammad was released before signing with the Panthers.

Veteran free agents Marty Booker and Brandon Lloyd have been added to the mix along with inexperienced-but talented-holdovers Devin Hester and Mark Bradley. Restricted free agent Rashied Davis should also be a factor, although he has yet to sign his tender offer.

"We'll lean towards the guys that are making plays, the guys who are consistently doing what we ask them to do and making plays in the system," said Turner. …

The Bears were awarded three compensatory choices in the seventh round of this year's draft, giving them a total of 11: two in the third round, four in the seventh, and one in each of the other five rounds. The Bears' compensatory picks will be Nos. 243, 247 and 248 overall, but they have had success with late picks in the past.

Cornerback Trumaine McBride, a seventh-round pick last season (221st overall), started nine games as a rookie. Linebacker Rod Wilson, a seventh-round pick in 2005 (220th overall) was third on the Bears last season with 16 special-teams tackles. Safety Mike Green, the last player drafted in 2000, spent six seasons with the Bears including two as a starter.

QUOTE TO NOTE
"Devin's been here. He's been studying, been working, and he is committed to making that leap and making that step to be an every-down receiver. So he's doing so far everything this offseason that you'd expect a guy to do. He's got a lot of pride and he's got a lot of ability obviously, and I think he's ready to make that move. I'm excited about watching him progress." – Offensive coordinator Ron Turner of Devin Hester, who has already been working on becoming a bigger factor as a wide receiver.

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