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Bears could maintain blockbuster mentality

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Dan Arkush

darkush@pfwmedia.com
Executive editor

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Posted March 03, 2010 @ 11:28 a.m. ET
By Dan Arkush

As the Bears look forward to another March, there is definitely something brewing in the Windy City air.

It was right around this time a year ago at Halas Hall that the seeds were planted for the blockbuster Jay Cutler trade that would create such an overwhelmingly positive buzz — both in Chicago and leaguewide — exactly one month later.

Bears director of pro personnel Bobby DePaul, the primary string-puller in the bold trade with Denver that nobody saw coming, has left the building after a solid nine-year run, soon to be replaced, our sources continue to insist, by Tim Ruskell, a longtime buddy of Bears GM Jerry Angelo who most recently crashed and burned as the Seahawks' GM after a decent start.

But it still seems quite possible that the Bears are on the cusp of creating another blockbuster buzz.

The recent comment by team president Ted Phillips that the Bears would not go "hog wild" in free agency would seem to indicate otherwise.

Can you say "smokescreen"?

I could be wrong, but I'm here to tell you that the Bears will be among the league's bigger movers and shakers this offseason.

It bears repeating that the Bears' brain trust — Phillips, Angelo and head coach Lovie Smith — almost certainly must at least make the playoffs next season or else begin cleaning up their résumés. Never before, it seems, has there been such a "now or never" vibe emanating throughout Bears Nation.

With no draft picks in the first or second round for a second straight season, it behooves the Bears to aggressively attempt to improve themselves via free agency and/or the trade mart. With fewer unrestricted free agents available in an uncapped landscape rife with uncertainty, it will not be easy.

That said, there's a sneaking suspicion in this corner that the powers that be will do everything in their power to add at least two, and possibly more, difference-making veteran pieces to the 2010 puzzle.

Indications are that the team has set aside at least $30 million in pursuit of those pieces. After showing Orlando Pace the door late Monday afternoon, the team is no longer on the hook for the $3.75 million the one-time elite left tackle was scheduled to receive, in addition to a $250,000 workout bonus.

If, as expected, the Bears allow unrestricted free-agent DE Adewale Ogunleye to book passage for greener pastures, another nice chunk of change will be saved, taking into account the $6 million or so he would have pocketed.

As the money tree keeps growing, so does the likelihood that the Bears will consummate at least one deal, for sure, that will make the league stand up and take notice and rejuvenate their deservedly skeptical fan base following a 2009 season from which a great deal more success was expected.

Any one of the following five high-profile additions would reduce that skepticism more than a little:



Julius Peppers

As long as the Bears remain committed to the cover-2, consistent pressure from the front four is a must. The Bears ranked 13th in QB sack percentage in '09. But after having been on pace for what would have been a league-high 56 sacks with 14 in the first four games, they managed only two sacks in the next four games and finished up the season with 35 sacks, 10 of which were registered by linebackers or defensive backs.

Enter the need for a top-flight pass rusher the caliber of Peppers, a slam-dunk lock to receive over $1 million per game from whichever team signs him, in addition to roughly $40 million in guaranteed money, using as a barometer the $41 million that DT Albert Haynesworth received from the Redskins as last offseason's heaviest free-agent hitter. Both the Redskins and the Eagles are rumored to be the front-runners for Peppers. Competing with the deep pockets of Daniel Snyder and Jeff Lurie might be too much to ask for from the Bears, especially for a player with a reputation for taking more than a few plays off during his career in Carolina. Then again, you never know.



Aaron Kampman

While he's no Peppers, Kampman, who would probably cost about $10 million per year, is a very interesting alternative — if he's healthy. Coming off a knee injury that put an abrupt halt to his first season as a left outside linebacker in the Packers' new 3-4 defense under Dom Capers, Kampman  had previously been one of the league's more accomplished pass rushers as a 4-3 end and likely could regain that status in Chicago without missing a beat.

The fact Kampman excelled for the archrival Packers would make him that much more attractive in the eyes of Bears fans. So would the fact that, unlike Peppers, Kampman has never taken a play off in his career at any level.



Antrel Rolle

Aside from a consistent pass rusher, the Bears have made it clear that their greatest need is for a playmaking free safety.

"We need to improve our safety position, period," Smith said at the NFL Scouting Combine late last week. "I think we had one interception from the safety position. That was one of the reasons why I feel like our takeaways were down this year."

Rolle, a former first-round draft pick of the Cardinals, is expected to be released — unless Arizona cuts a new deal with him at the last minute, which remains a possibility. Known for having a nose for the endzone, he would be a nice fit in a Bears secondary that has had 21 different starters at free safety in Smith's six years as head coach.

Should Rolle remain in Arizona or sign elsewhere, the Saints' Darren Sharper, an unrestricted free agent who tied for the league lead with nine interceptions last season, might fill the bill just as well, even though he's getting a bit long in the tooth. Sharper sung the praises of Smith on a Chicago sports-talk radio show Monday. Wonder if Lovie was listening?



Brian Westbrook

The Bears need somebody to share the load with RB Matt Forté, who noticeably regressed in '09 after an excellent rookie campaign. Backs with name value who have been mentioned lately — such as LaDainian Tomlinson, whose idol is Walter Payton, and Vikings unrestricted free agent Chester Taylor — would register loudly on the buzz meter.

For my money, though, Westbrook, who was recently released by the Eagles, would be far and away the best option, provided he can keep his concussion issues under control. Granted, Taylor has missed only five games in eight years. But a healthy Westbrook in the offense that new coordinator Mike Martz has in mind (think dual-threat extraordinaire Marshall Faulk) would fill the bill the best.



Anquan Boldin

Martz is on record already as saying he likes the WR corps he is going to be working with in Chicago this offseason. But he has always thrived on having as many pass-catching options available as possible. It's also worth noting that Bears WR Earl Bennett recently had minor knee surgery and could miss precious time learning Martz's system in offseason workouts.

Enter Boldin, on whom the Bears put out a flier last season, reportedly offering Arizona a third-round pick. This season, there are some in the desert loop who are speculating that the Cardinals might be satisfied with a third-round pick for Boldin, who, as good as he is, has become more expendable with the emergence of Steve Breaston and Early Doucet.

While a third-rounder for Boldin might seem like a stretch, how about a straight-up trade that would send Bears TE Greg Olsen to the desert? Martz is on record as saying the primary function of tight ends in his system is to be a blocker first and a receiver second, and Olsen is said to be wondering just how big a weapon he will be in the new scheme.

Cutler might not be too crazy about losing his best buddy off the field in Olsen. But throwing to a healthy Boldin would make him feel better very quickly.

 

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