Believe it or not, Lovie Smith is the dean of coaches in the NFC North. The NFL is a copycat league and the Bears are already finding out that their success has produced clones in the division.
There are many connections between and NFC North division opponents. Rod Marinelli, the new Head Coach in Detroit worked with Smith in Tampa for years and is one of his best friends. Detroit Offensive Coordinator, Mike Martz, hired Smith in St. Louis to run the defense. Vikings Head Coach, Brad Childress and Ron Rivera were on the Eagles coaching staff during there run of NFC Championship games. Minnesota Defensive Line Coach, Karl Dunbar, worked with the Bears 2 years ago in the same capacity and was instrumental in the early development of Tommie Harris and Tank Johnson. Packers Secondary Coach, Kurt Schottenheimer worked with Martz in St. Louis in the defense Smith created.
These connections mean some shared philosophy. Fans will see the Cover-2 defense played by all of the teams in the division. Which means that in the draft all the teams are going to be looking for the same type of player. Linebackers that look like Safeties, Safeties that look like Corners, etc . . . Lovie Smith joked last weekend that he keeps bumping into NFC North coaches at the same workouts. Scouting and drafting become imperative. This is where the Bears have the advantage. Three years into his tenure at Bears coach, Smith has already worked out the kinks and eliminated or benched players that don’t fit: Whether it’s RW McQuarters attitude or Mike Green’s inability to play consistently in the defense or Michael Haynes being too slow to play Defensive End. For the most part, the other coaches will be playing catch up.
Detroit could prove dangerous. One of the things they were missing last year was discipline. Marinelli is a strict disciplinarian. He’s a man that Smith knows very well and respects. And Martz knows how Smith calls defenses and may have a window on his tendencies in tough game situations. He would put his offense against the Cover-2 every day in practice when the two were together in St. Louis. Martz has proved that he can coach talent and the Lions Offense is filled with guys that have untapped potential. In addition, the Lions actually have two Quarterbacks now that can play: Jon Kitna and Josh McCown.
Because of the similarity in style, Jerry Angelo will try to strengthen the Bears and weaken the other teams. This could be another reason why he’ll be looking for extra picks this weekend. Compare and contrast the picks. Make no mistake . . . this will be the first battleground.
If Jerry Angelo traded out of the 1st Round of the Draft, would Bears fans be mad? I would guess initially, but there actually is some benefit to it.
Angelo likes the idea of the diamond in the rough and has done well with late round picks: Alex Brown, Nate Vasher, Chris Harris and Kyle Orton were all Day 2 picks. In his heart, he’s a scout. He’s into the science of the draft.
There are needs of depth and competition, but the biggest question the Bears need to answer can’t be figured out in the draft; as much as we’d like it to be. That’s right, it’s the Quarterback spot. I believe Rex Grossman will be a good pro, but his health is an issue until it’s not an issue. With all 22 starters coming back and a weak division that has 3 new coaches, the Bears are as close as any team in the NFL to being a lock for the playoffs. If Grossman plays well, the Bears could be a favorite to win the NFC.
As draft day approaches, Angelo can build for the future and may be able to get an extra pick by giving up the 26th overall. A good Tight End should still be available all the way through the 2nd round. The same goes for a Linebacker.
So don’t be surprised if a deal is made. The Jets have the #29 pick, but they also have the #4. Perhaps they would want to move up the three spots to get someone else in exchange for #29 and their 2nd round #35. Denver has two 2nd round picks.
I’m often accused of being a conspiracy theorist by Bears brass, but I thought that I would share this with you guys and let you decide.
Last week, Lovie Smith vehemently denied that Charles Tillman was moving to Safety. Then the team signs Ricky Manning and trades Mike Green. Brandon McGowan is still nursing a knee injury, so that leaves them a little short in the Safety department. When Tillman was selected, Jerry Angelo thought that he would be a Pro-Bowl Safety if he didn’t work out at Cornerback. I think it might be too soon to say he doesn’t work at CB, but it’s a little weird that their light at the spot and Tillman’s measurables might be better utilized playing alongside Mike Brown.
Go to CBS.SPORTSLINE.COM and check out the Bears page and click on "players" and see what Tillman’s fantasy notes say and tell me if you’re not skeptical about what Lovie and the boys are doing at Halas Hall . . .
As much as the Bears protest, the on-going negotiations or lack thereof, with Lance Briggs will have an effect on this years draft. Briggs made his first Pro-Bowl this season and joked at the press conference that perhaps now he was going to get a raise from his rookie contract. He was right. Briggs is represented by Drew Rosenhaus who now has a lot of leverage at Halas Hall. Along with Briggs he also fronts for: Adewale Ogunleye, Tommie Harris and Thomas Jones.
Throughout his tenure as General Manager, Jerry Angelo, has made it his mission to reward players with contract extensions early. Sometimes it works: Brian Urlacher is now a bargain and so is Mike Brown. He gave Roberto Garza and Terrence Metcalf deals to stick around and bolster the line. Sometimes it doesn't: Angelo did give Mike Green a 5 yr deal worth 10 million dollars. He was traded Monday for a 6th round pick to Seattle after falling out of favor with Lovie Smith last season.
Back in November, Angelo was trying to get a deal done with Briggs, but he's made it clear he's not going to "overpay". I'm not sure what that means, but I do know the Bears will be farther away from a championship if Briggs is not a member of this defense. And Rosenhaus does have a history of holding out players who are under contract...ask T.O.
I made the statement on the show that I think that Lance Briggs might be a better "natural" Linebacker than Brian Urlacher and that has caused some consternation, so let me clarify:
Brian Urlacher was voted Defensive Player of the Year and for good reason. He's unbelievably fast, agile and physical. His effect on his teammates is infectious and everyone in that locker room believes in him. He's put in the work to become a dominant force. Urlacher didn't play LB in college very often although his size and skill set projected to the spot in the pros. Many fans and some observers (myself included) felt that his athleticism would be better suited at the "Will" LB, but he's proven all of us wrong. He's often found in the film room and is responsible for making the defensive calls and the pre-snap adjustments. He's an athlete who has evolved into a great football player.
Lance Briggs could easily play all three Linebacking spots and when Urlacher got injured last year, there was some talk of Briggs being in the middle. Some scouts projected him as a "Mike" Linebacker because of his football IQ. He's a smart player and isn't physically as gifted as Urlacher, but he's not a slouch either. Playing alongside Urlacher has definitely allowed Briggs to accelerate his maturation into a great player, but the parts were always there. And yes, Briggs can take more risks because Urlacher's recovery speed is ridiculous. One Bear once told me that,"...playing with Urlacher is playing without fear. You know that he can cover most mistakes."
Briggs finished 1 tackle behind Urlcaher for the Bears lead, according to team statistics. When Lovie Smith got to the Bears he said that Briggs could be his, "Derrick Brooks". That's why Briggs wears #55. He's disruptive, heady and physical.
Urlacher is the better player. Briggs is the better LB. Hopefully that makes sense to everyone now.
Back to how this effects the draft. The Bears have to be careful. They have to make sure that they pick a LB who adds to their depth, but they also have to cover themselves. If Briggs holds out (and right now there's no indication of that)...they have to be ready. I like a couple of guys: Alabama's Demeco Ryans, Miami's Rocky McIntosh and Florida State's Ernie Sims.
Some people want Bobby Carpenter from Ohio State, but my peeps are telling me that Carpenter is a little bit of a head case.
If the 1st Bears pick isn't a Tight End I expect it to be a LB. It's a pretty good draft to get an OLB and the Bears might need to plug that guy in right away if there are problems with Briggs. Hopefully there won't be. Jerry Angelo is committed to bringing him back and Lovie Smith would be the football equivalent of heartbroken if he couldn't continue to develop this Pro-Bowl Linebacker.
Legal issues aside, the Bears made a good move in signing Ricky Manning. Manning is a veteran that has spent a ton of time playing the third Cornerback spot or "Nickel." With Jerry Azumah retiring the Bears had a need to fill and Manning is the right guy.
Over his career he’s got 13 interceptions. You may remember the NFC Title Game in 2004, where Manning haunted Donovan McNabb and the Eagles with three picks in that game.
He also has experience playing the Left Corner Back spot and said (and I’m paraphrasing here): "...I don’t plan on being a nickel back for the rest of my career." Charles Tillman is the Bears starter at LCB, but he struggled staying with smaller, shiftier receivers. I can only imagine the type of fierce competition that will be going on in Bourbonnais. It’s getting to be put up or shut up time for Peanut.
What’s troubling about Manning’s arrest (beyond the obvious) is the timing. He was getting ready to sign the biggest deal of his life and he was out looking for trouble?
I still believe that the Bears will look for a DB in the draft, but maybe not in the 1st round, which brings me to my next point . . .
Jerry Angelo likes depth and he likes multiple picks. In getting Manning, the Bears lose a 3rd round pick. That leaves them with five picks total. I would not be surprised if Angelo traded out of the 1st round completely because the pick is so low (26) and they can get what they want: Tight End, Linebacker or Corner in the 2nd. It’s a deep draft at all positions.
To extend that thinking further, there’s the issue of teams, namely Indianapolis, taking a long-hard look at trading for Thomas Jones. Like I said, Angelo loves picks. Cedric Benson is his guy and he wants him to play now. It’s my belief that there will be a negative effect in the locker room if Jones is traded. While Benson isn’t hated by his teammates, I’m not sure he’s understood. NFL locker rooms are still very "macho" places and Jones played through bruised ribs and a twisted knee and never complained. Can Benson be that type of guy?