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Bears have needs, but will they be able to get the right talent?
INDIANAPOLIS -- During a pleasant, 24-minute chat with reporters in his sumptuous hotel suite, Bears general manager Jerry Angelo offered what might be my favorite out-of-context quote of the year, maybe the decade.
"We just don't collect talent," he said. "That isn't what this is about."
I mean, is that perfect or what? The Chicago Bears: We don't collect talent. We just collect season-ticket deposits.
And I thought team president Ted Phillips' decree that the Bears aren't going "to go hog wild in free agency" was deflating. Now the Bears don't even want talent!
OK, I'm kidding a bit here. In context, it had a different, less hilarious meaning, but what fun is that? Angelo was answering a question about bringing in fresh faces with uncertain futures. I think.
"We have to have a plan for him to play and to develop," Angelo said, using Devin Aromashodu as an example. "We just don't collect talent. That isn't what this is about. You have to put a plan in place and adhere to it. We've been pretty good about that."
I guess the plan for Aromashodu was to hide him on the bench until the season was in the toilet, but no one asked that follow-up question.
Angelo and his coach Lovie Smith, the two embattled leaders of the Bears, met with media on Friday at the NFL combine to discuss what the team needs to do to improve on last year's 7-9 record, and presumably save their own jobs. While Smith was happy to say the Bears will evaluate every player that's available, Angelo was more guarded, setting expectations lower.
While the Bears aren't in the talent over-procurement business, both Smith and Angelo, not to mention anyone who watched a game last year, identified safety and defensive line as places they need to improve and at the very least, have some competition. Both positions are important to every team, but they're especially important to the Bears' defense, which is aging like a three-day-old banana.
Here's the good news: The 2010 draft is especially deep at those positions. You know the bad news. The Bears don't have a first- or second-round pick.
Angelo said he thinks "eight or nine" defensive linemen will go in the first round, which isn't much of a stretch. Defensive back is also deep, he said, but again, who will be there when the Bears finally pick in the third round?
"We feel this is a pretty good draft for secondary players, both safety and corner, which usually isn't the case," Angelo said.
Both Smith and Angelo pointed to safety as the more obvious need. Smith said he's comfortable with a rookie in the backfield for the second straight year, because of the veteran makeup of the defense. Al Afalava started out of Oregon State, but was part of a rotation that managed just one interception all season. Antrel Rolle and Darren Sharper could be available for a quick fix.
"We need to invest a little bit more at the safety position," Smith said. "We've hit well on some lower picks, but sometimes you need to invest a little more in free agency or higher draft picks."
While Afalava is more of an in-the-box type of linebacker/safety hybrid, Angelo said personnel directors are focused on acquiring more athletic, roaming safeties to combat the rise of spread-style offenses. The Bears are no different.
"Everybody looks for more athletic safeties, so you could probably categorically say it's the free safety position," he said. "The demands of what the secondary is asked to do in coverage and what the offenses are doing, spreading teams out, people looking for more athletic safeties. Probably in the last few years, those players have gone higher in the draft."
There are some big, albeit past-their-prime names out there on the free-agent market for the Bears to overpay, but the market will be crippled by the players who become restricted free agents if the league is uncapped this year. Angelo said some of the names he's already heard rumored are bad fits. And he doesn't sound so optimistic about the market in general.
"It's going to be more restrictive than in past years," Angelo said. "It's a little harder to predict."
Because he can't talk about specific players -- not that he would anyway -- Smith said, ad nauseam, that the Bears would look at every available player, as if they have their pick. Does that include Julius Peppers, the crown jewel of this year's prospective free-agent class?
"Is he available?" Smith said, I hope facetiously. "If there's a player available, we'll look at all them."
But when it comes to shopping, will Angelo have the same attitude of the parents at my local bodega: Look but don't touch?
"It depends on the player," he said. "We determine what positions we're going to create competition at, so we'll go from there. We'll determine who the players are and how aggressive we're going to be. I think we've done that every year we've been here."
"You always like to bring in a veteran player," Angelo said. "Torry Holt was released and his name has been bantered around. But when you bring in a veteran receiver, like we did with Lloyd and Booker, he's going to take someone's reps. Whose reps is he going to take? A younger guy's reps. In that case, it was at the expense of, in particular, Earl Bennett."
Holt, though, would obviously be a fit in Mike Martz's offense, and Angelo said Martz has significant pull in offensive personnel evaluations. So this could be an interesting subplot, especially considering how Aromashodu was all but ignored until it was too late.
"We're still going through some things with Coach Martz, given our offense, and he's still educating us on things he likes," Angelo said. "So that's part of the process because what we want to do when we make a decision to go after a player is make sure it's a square peg in a square hole."
Angelo has always been the first and last word during the draft and he's had some hits in the later rounds while whiffing early. He even said he thinks the front office needs to be more disciplined in evaluating talent, not just focusing on potential or on the flip side, only a player's limitations. In related news, Angelo hasn't yet hired his old "professional friend" from Tampa Bay, former Seahawks president Tim Ruskell, as has been rumored, to join the front office after firing senior director of pro personnel Bobby DePaul. But he said he will make an announcement in this regard soon enough.
"There's been a lot of speculation, wrongful speculation, about a lot of things, particularly these last few weeks," Angelo said. "No decision has been made, because I don't have a definitive direction yet where I want us to be. I know we're going to do some restructuring. When you make that decision, obviously changes are in order."
It's kind of dizzying, isn't it? So many questions and so much time until the season. So much room for interpretation and contemplation with so many loose ends.
For a GM and a coach that could be on respective hot seats after three straight playoff-free seasons, less clarity isn't helpful to their cause of staying employed past 2010.
Smith said his glass is "half full."
"Every day I've been here on the job, I felt like I needed to get the job done then," Smith said. "Nothing has changed. The Bears have been great to me. We haven't made the playoffs in three years; normally if you haven't done that, there's going to be some rumblings going on."
If the Bears don't figure out the right talent to bring in, the right places to have an open competition, forget seniority or promise, there won't be just rumblings. There will be a complete change at the top, and Smith and Angelo might find themselves back at the combine as talent themselves next year.
Working for the NFL Network.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com
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