Big Needs Despite Lack of Draft Picks
DE Michael Johnson (Kevin C. Cox/Getty)
DE Michael Johnson (Kevin C. Cox/Getty)
Special to BearReport.com
Posted Apr 17, 2009


Even though the Chicago Bears only have one of the first 98 picks in the upcoming NFL Draft, they still need a rookie or two to step in and contribute immediately. Receiver, offensive tackle, defensive end, and safety may be addressed. Get the Inside Slant from the NFL experts at Scout.com.

INSIDE SLANT
For the time being, the first day of the NFL Draft should be extremely uneventful for the Bears. After trading their first-rounder as part of the Jay Cutler deal, their only first-day pick is No. 49 overall.

They don't pick again until No. 99 in Round 3, a compensatory selection for losing Bernard Berrian in free agency last spring, and then again at No. 119 in Round 4.

Since they have added three offensive linemen and two safeties in free agency, the Bears' greatest remaining need is for an all-around wide receiver. But it's possible they might decide that anyone left at the 49th spot isn't going to provide much of an immediate impact, which is what they were looking for when they paid the price for Cutler.

If general manager Jerry Angelo and head coach Lovie Smith decide they need to get better at wide receiver immediately, they could address the situation in free agency after the draft. It's also possible that the Bears could address wide receiver in free agency and the draft.

The only young wideout who appears to have much potential is last year's third-round pick, Earl Bennett, and you have to question how much promise he holds considering he couldn't get on the field last year despite playing behind one of the weakest groups of receivers in the NFL. Bennett didn't catch a pass last season, although coaches say they expect much-improved play from him this season.

Ohio State wide receiver Brian Robiskie makes a great deal of sense for the Bears if he's still around at No. 49. He would be the perfect complement to burner Devin Hester. Robiskie is more polished than most rookie wideouts, and he has the size and ability to do the possession-type duties that would be wasted on Hester. The Bears have also shown interest in Georgia's Mohamed Massaquoi and Oklahoma's Juaquin Iglesias.

If the Bears decide to pass on a wide receiver, they might instead take a developmental project along the offensive line. Two of their free-agent pickups – Orlando Pace and Kevin Shaffer – are hardly youngsters, and the Bears have practically ignored the O-line in the past several drafts.

Of more immediate need could be a pass-rush threat, even one who figures to play strictly in passing situations. No Bears player had more than six sacks last season and, with the possible exception of defensive tackle Tommie Harris, they don't have anyone on the roster who can be considered a serious threat to hit double digits – unless new D-line coach Rod Marinelli is really a miracle worker.

Georgia Tech's Michael Johnson could be a nice fit, but it's doubtful he'll still be on the board. Ditto for Cincinnati's Connor Barwin, who seems to be leaping up draft boards.

Free safety is another potential consideration. Josh Bullocks was added in free agency, but he might not be much better than a stopgap solution. Their other free-agent safety, Glenn Earl, might not even have that much of a future considering he's missed the past two seasons with a Lisfranc injury.

The problem with the Bears' holdover safeties is that they're all basically strong safety types with limited coverage skills.


Massaquoi may help at wide receiver for Chicago right away. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

NEWS AND NOTES
At first glance, Bennett's rookie season looks like a bust. At second glance, too.

The third-round pick from Vanderbilt didn't catch a pass for the Bears last season and barely got on the field for a team that had a serious shortage of talent at wide receiver.

But Bennett will get plenty of opportunities this season to prove that the Bears didn't waste a draft pick on him. In just three years, the 6-foot, 203-pound Bennett established the all-time career reception record in the Southeastern Conference with 236 catches, but he admits he was slow to grasp the nuances of the Bears' playbook.

"I had a problem learning the plays at the beginning," Bennett said. "I struggled with it a bit, just like I struggled with it my first year in college. But as of now, I feel real comfortable with the playbook. I could just about play any position on the field. I feel like I've got the playbook down, and I'm ready to go."

While Bennett's improvement last year didn't manifest itself on game days, his command of the playbook and confidence in his route running were evident in practices later in the season.

"I feel like I've progressed a lot since last year when I first came in," he said. "This was a big opportunity to get in there and showcase what I can do, and hopefully I showed the coaches what I can do." …

Once again, the Bears will receive plenty of prime-time exposure. In the 2009 schedule released Tuesday evening, the Bears will play five nationally televised night games – starting with the season opener, a Sunday night showdown in Green Bay against the Packers on Sept. 13. The home opener is the following Sunday, Sept. 20, at 3:15 p.m. against the Steelers.

Last season the Bears played five prime-time games, three on Sunday night, two of which were victories; and one each on Thursday night and Monday night, both of which were overtime victories. They have an identical slate this season with a Thursday night game on the NFL Network against the 49ers at San Francisco on Nov. 12 and a home game Monday night against the Vikings on Dec. 28. The other two Sunday night games are at home against the Eagles on Nov. 22 and Oct. 18 at Atlanta against the Falcons.

At least on paper, the Bears seem to have an advantageous schedule for 2009, with eight games against teams that had double-digit defeats last season – including home and away dates with NFC North rivals Green Bay (6-10) and Detroit (0-16).

The Bears host the Rams (2-14 last year) and the Browns (4-12), and they face the Seahawks (4-12) and Bengals (4-11-1) on the road.

Five of those games are against teams with new head coaches. In Detroit, former Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz replaced Marinelli, who was hired by the Bears as their assistant head coach/defensive line coach. In Cleveland, fired Jets coach Eric Mangini replaced Romeo Crennel. In St. Louis, former Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo succeeded Jim Haslett. And in Seattle, Jim Mora was promoted from assistant head coach/secondary after Mike Holmgren retired. …

After 12 years in St. Louis with the Rams, Pace signed with the Bears to finish out his Hall of Fame career.

Aside from protecting Cutler's blind side, Pace could do the Bears another favor by recruiting long-time Rams teammate Torry Holt to Chicago. Holt, like Pace, was released by the Rams to free up salary cap space. But he still has plenty of good football left and he's exactly the type of productive, veteran wide receiver that the Bears need to increase Cutler's effectiveness.

"I spoke with Torry," Pace said on a recent visit to Halas Hall. "It's funny. He was in my house a few days before I came here. I think he's just out searching. I'm probably recruiting him here to Chicago, and hopefully it works out."

Holt will be 33 in June, but he still caught 64 passes for 796 yards last season – both of which would have been tops on the Bears. In the eight previous seasons, Holt never had fewer than 1,188 receiving yards, and he has more career TD receptions (74) than any Bears wide receiver has receptions. …

The Bears' 2009 opponents had a combined record of 105-149-2 last season. Using last year's records as a guideline, the Bears have the NFL's easiest schedule, as their 2009 opponents compiled a 41.4 winning percentage last season. By comparison, the Dolphins, who have the most difficult schedule, face teams that compiled a 59.4 winning percentage last season.

The Vikings and Packers have the second and third easiest schedules this season, facing opponents who had winning percentages of 42.0 and 42.8, respectively, last season.


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