Keeping in mind that the Bears aren’t going to break the bank for any unrestricted free agents and that they are unlikely to bring in any “big names,” there are still some players on the market who could help them.
The Bears do not have anything close to a proven NFL quarterback behind Kyle Orton, and some of his critics argue that Orton isn’t a proven NFL quarterback.
But in Jeff Garcia the Bears could have one of the best backups in the NFL if Orton plays well, and a more-than-adequate starter if Orton falters. Garcia is an experienced, productive veteran who still has very good mobility at 39. Because there are some durability concerns with Garcia, he may not get many opportunities to compete for a starting job, but he’s a great insurance policy and would provide competition for Orton.
Garcia’s passer rating has been over 90 in each of the past three seasons, during which he’s thrown 35 TD passes and just 12 interceptions.
General manager Jerry Angelo has left open the possibility of adding a veteran quarterback after the draft, but Garcia may be gone by then.
Wide receiver D.J. Hackett was released by the Panthers after a second straight injury-plagued season. But the 6-foot-2, 208-pound veteran has great hands, good size and above-average speed, and he doesn’t turn 28 until July 3. If he can stay healthy, he would be an excellent complement to Devin Hester.
Last week on the team’s web site, Angelo said: “We’re not looking for backup wide receivers. What we want are potentially starting wide receivers.”
If the Rams give wide receiver Torry Holt his release, he’s an even better option than Hackett. Holt will be 33 before training camp starts, but he would also be an ideal complement and mentor to Hester. And he’s still got something left in the tank, considering he had 64 catches for 796 yards on an awful team.
No one knows this better than Lovie Smith. In Smith’s three years as the Rams’ defensive coordinator (2001-03), Holt caught 289 passes for 4,361 yards and 23 touchdowns.
Last month at the NFL’s annual scouting combine, general manager Jerry Angelo seemed willing to bet on Craig Steltz as the team’s de facto starter at free safety, but on Wednesday the Bears hedged that bet by signing unrestricted free agent Josh Bullocks to a one-year deal that includes a guaranteed $525,000 signing bonus.
“We have Steltz, so to say (free safety is) a need is premature,” Angelo said. “We do have somebody. We like Craig. I thought he did a nice job when he did play last year. He did a very good job on special teams. Players that show (well) on special teams, when their number’s called usually play well (on defense), too.”
Bullocks, a second-round pick of the Saints (40th overall) in 2005 out of Nebraska, started 43 games in his first three seasons in New Orleans but got just six starts last season, when he had a career-low 41 tackles after averaging 72 in his first three years. The 6-foot-1, 207-pounder has above-average speed, but is not considered a ball hawk, as evidenced by his six career interceptions.
Bullock, who just turned 26 last month, is regarded as an adequate starter by NFL personnel types, and he has also played special teams in the past.
Steltz, a fourth-round pick out of LSU Last year, was inactive for the first five games but played in the last 11. He intercepted a pass at the goal line in the fourth quarter against the Lions on Nov. 2 and returned it 44 yards to help the Bears overcome a 23-13 halftime deficit in a 27-23 victory at Soldier Field. Steltz had replaced Mike Brown as the starter after he suffered a calf injury late in the first half. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound Steltz also blocked a punt against the Vikings on Oct. 19 that was returned 17 yards for a touchdown by Garrett Wolfe. Steltz was sixth on the Bears with 13 special-teams tackles.
Last week on the Bears’ website, general manager Jerry Angelo was asked about upgrading the wide receiver position and indicated he would be relying on the draft.
“Naturally, we’re going to look at that real hard, in all likelihood in the draft,” Angelo said of the wide receiver position. “We’re not looking for backup wide receivers. What we want are potentially starting wide receivers. What we’re looking at is the top of the wide receiver position. Where does that come from? It comes with a premium receiver in free agency, if there’s one out there, and/or in the draft.”
Other than 15-year veteran Marvin Harrison and maybe D.J. Hackett, there aren’t any standout unrestricted free agent wide receivers, and the Bears have shown no interest in either of them.
That leaves the draft, which, when it comes to wide receivers, has been a crapshoot in recent years, especially in the early rounds. It’s a bad gamble to count on even the best wide receivers to produce decent numbers in Year 1.
Of the top 10 wide receivers taken in each of the past four years, only seven of the 40 put up starter-type numbers as rookies: Eddie Royal, DeSean Jackson and Donnie Avery last year, Calvin Johnson and Dwayne Bowe in 2007, Santonio Holmes and Greg Jennings in ‘06. In ‘05, Reggie Brown was close with 43 catches for 571 yards.
QUOTE TO NOTE: “He’ll line up at the left tackle position for us and we’re expecting big things out of him now. Looking at it in hindsight, to have a chance to come in and learn your rookie year without playing, I think has turned out well for him.” — Bears coach Lovie Smith on 2008 first-round draft pick OT Chris Williams, who suffered a back injury on the second day of training camp that required surgery and kept him out until the middle of the season, after which he played just a handful of snaps on special teams.
The Lions need a quarterback - maybe two. Now that Jon Kitna has been traded and Dan Orlovsky has left in free agency, the Lions are down to Daunte Culpepper, Drew Stanton and Drew Henson.
But before the Lions decide to sign a free agent, draft a rookie or both, they have a lot of evaluating to do. The new coaching staff wants to see the quarterbacks on the roster as well as draft prospects before settling on anything.
Some veterans are still available in free agency, including Byron Leftwich, J.P. Losman, Rex Grossman and Trent Green.
Asked if the Lions wanted to add a veteran behind Culpepper regardless of their draft plans, coach Jim Schwartz said he didn’t know. He said he wanted to watch off-season conditioning, the first minicamp and early organized team activities.
“I think I’ll let that sort of maybe determine some of that, because we need to see where Drew Stanton is,” Schwartz said. “We need to see Drew Henson. We need to see Daunte.
“We need those guys to throw, and the early part of the off-season program, the first minicamp, the first OTA days may have something to do with that and our comfort level with those guys.”
The Lions also have the No. 1 pick in the draft, of course, and Georgia’s Matthew Stafford is a prime candidate along with Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry, Baylor left tackle Jason Smith and Virginia left tackle Eugene Monroe.
Southern Cal quarterback Mark Sanchez and Kansas State QB Josh Freeman, candidates to be taken at No. 20, threw at the NFL scouting combine. But Stafford did not. He will throw at his pro day March 19 and in a private workout for the Lions.
“First thing, we need to see him throw, and throw drills,” Schwartz said. “We’ve looked at every throw for the last two years that he’s made, every play that he’s played the last two years. We’ll do the same with just about every quarterback, particularly someone that will need to be drafted early.
“But there’s one thing when you’re watching it on tape. It’s another thing when you’re there standing next to him the way you do on a practice field, and you can direct him — ‘Hey, this is the throw, this is where we want to see the ball thrown’ — and you can see if he can respond to that. You can tell a lot there when you’re up close and personal so to speak that you can’t really see on tape.”
Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry is considered the safest pick in the draft. The main question is whether he is worth the pick as a strong-side linebacker, but Schwartz gave the strongest indication yet that Curry might be. Schwartz talked again about basing his defensive scheme on multidimensional players and not pigeon holing players by position, and he raved about Curry’s versatility. “You don’t draft a linebacker early unless he’s a three-down player,” Schwartz said. “I mean, a player that can’t be on the field on third down, that’s not an early draft pick. Aaron has size. He has speed. He has athletic ability. He could fill a lot of different roles.”
Then again, the Lions could take a left tackle. The Lions already have a left tackle in Jeff Backus, but he is not a Pro Bowler and they have an opening at left guard. Asked if Backus could move to guard, Schwartz left open the possibility - and indicated a rookie could play at guard and later move to tackle. “I think (Backus) has the physical tools that he could do it,” said Schwartz, who was a defensive assistant in Baltimore from 1996-98. “He’s obviously a proficient left tackle in the NFL. I’ve seen a lot of other tackles play guard. When I was with the Baltimore Ravens, Jonathan Ogden was a rookie, and he played left guard as a rookie because we had a left tackle that was an experienced player that he wasn’t going to beat out that year. But he played left guard, did a good job at it, ended up moving to left tackle. I don’t know that there’s as much exclusivity in those positions as maybe some people think.”
Schwartz used to be the defensive coordinator in Tennessee, and his old star defensive tackle, Albert Haynesworth, signed a huge free-agent contract with Washington. Did the Lions explore signing him?
“We looked real hard at it obviously,” Schwartz said. “Every chance you get to improve your team, you’re going to have to look at. But it was obviously pretty early on in that process that his money was going to be significant. Probably where we are as a team, it was more important for us to get more players rather than just one.”
Anthony Henry was a starting cornerback in Dallas before the Cowboys traded him to Detroit. But he’s 32, and there was talk about moving him to safety there. What is the Lions’ plan for him? “We’re planning on starting him off at corner,” Schwartz said. “The way I left it with him is, the ball’s in his court. Whether he stays at corner or not won’t be up to me at all. It will be up to him. He’s a guy that’s I think close to 33 years old, has a lot of experience in the NFL. The thing I like about him is, if we do choose to end up moving him to safety, he has that skill set that he can make that move, and there have been people that have done it - Troy Vincent, Rod Woodson. There’s been a bunch. It’s going to be performance.”
The Lions have a desperate need at linebacker. Why haven’t they addressed that more in free agency? How does he see the Lions’ current linebackers? “Sometimes it’s a little bit of supply and demand,” Schwartz said. “If you looked at the free agent linebackers, it wasn’t as deep as maybe some corner or wide receiver or other positions that you could get help quickly. I think when you talk about our linebackers you have to start with Ernie Sims. He was a highly drafted player here that started pretty well and maybe had a little bump in the road last year. We need him to produce better. I think there’s ways we can help him do that. And then next, I guess, you have to go to Jordon Dizon, a guy that was a second-round pick last year, and we need to find ways for him to be productive, and we need to find ways to fit him into our scheme.”
QUOTE TO NOTE: “There’s a saying, the NFL stands for ‘Not For Long,’ and it doesn’t matter if you’re 16-0 or 0-16. I think the players recognize that. The players know that the league provides us with the tools to be able to turn things around.” — Coach Jim Schwartz, on convincing free agents to join a team that went 0-16 last season.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Shortly after Darren Perry was hired as safeties coach, he didn’t mince words on how the defensive backs would be in for an adjustment period as the Packers moved forward with their new 3-4 defense.
“The big thing going in our favor - me and (cornerbacks coach) Joe (Whitt Jr.) - is they’re going to have to listen because we’re going to have to teach it to them,” Perry said. “We’ll grab their attention with that alone.”
Fortunately for safety Anthony Smith, he’s been there and done that.
Smith’s playing background in a 3-4 system - and a familiarity of playing for Perry - worked to his advantage as he landed a two-year contract valued at nearly $1.5 million as the Packers’ first acquisition in free agency. The signing was finalized March 9.
The 6-foot, 200-pound Smith had been on the outs with the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers, who rarely used him on defense in 2008 after he started 10 games as an injury replacement in ‘07. They didn’t bother extending a qualifying offer to Smith, a restricted free agent who was a third-round draft pick in 2006, and thus made him available to sign with any team.
Picking up a safety wasn’t a need for the Packers, who have Nick Collins and Atari Bigby entrenched as starters, but Smith brings value with his 3-4 knowledge and having the starting experience.
While Collins is coming off a highly productive season that ended with his first trip to the Pro Bowl, Bigby was ineffective for most of 2008 because of ankle injury that required late-season surgery. So, Bigby isn’t a sure thing to come back and be as effective as he was in 2007.
Smith also is further seen as an insurance policy after next season because Collins is entering the final year of his contract and Bigby, who has yet to sign as a restricted free agent, also could be an unrestricted free agent a year from now.
Smith brings a physical prowess to the safety position and has been a playmaker. He had four interceptions with the Steelers after picking off 14 passes as a three-year starter in college at Syracuse.
Knocks against Smith, however, are his foot speed and how he moves in space.
His signing with Green Bay reunites him with Perry, who was Smith’s position coach his rookie season with the Steelers.
The pickup of Smith came after the Packers brought in safety Mike Adams, an unrestricted free agent, for a visit. Adams re-signed with the Cleveland Browns before the Packers settled on Smith.
The only other free agent the Packers were known to have taken at least a mild interest in was former Dallas Cowboys linebacker Kevin Burnett. Green Bay was ready to bring Burnett in for a visit, but negotiations between Burnett and the San Diego Chargers picked up and he signed a two-year, $5.5 million deal with them March 10.
Defensive end Michael Montgomery has attracted feelers from other teams, but the unrestricted free agent apparently is most interested in staying put with the Packers.
The fifth-year backup told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he was considering a one-year contract offer from Green Bay.
“I’d love to come back. I’m still talking to them,” Montgomery said in the published report March 11.
Montgomery had initial interest in free agency from the Atlanta Falcons, who wound up canceling his visit after they re-signed defensive end Chauncey Davis. Montgomery visited the Houston Texans on March 9, but they had yet to make an offer.
The 6-foot-5 Montgomery wasn’t believed to be enticing for the Packers to retain since his 2008 playing weight of about 275 pounds would make him undersized to be an end in the team’s new 3-4 scheme.
Montgomery, though, said he has begun to put on weight to get to at least 285.
“I believe I can play it (end in the 3-4),” Montgomery said in the report. “All you’ll be is head-up on a tackle. It’s all about attitude and determination.”
QUOTE TO NOTE: “I don’t see major change. I think you may see some players maybe adjust their training, but the scheme needs to fit the players. We’re not only going to have certain players play in Green Bay. That’s not the path that we are going with this new defense.” — Coach Mike McCarthy on whether changes will have to be made to the body type of some players in the new 3-4 defense as the Packers begin their offseason program March 16.