Chicago Bears: Chicago Bears
Finally, the Bears moved from under the limitations brought on by the Jay Cutler deal, and held a first-round pick for the first time since 2008. Too bad the club didn’t choose wisely (although bad luck played somewhat of a role).
First-round pick: Gabe Carimi, OT, Wisconsin
Number of picks: 6
Pivotal pick: After three years without a first-round pick, the Bears needed to hit with Carimi, but they didn’t. The Bears needed to shore up a leaky offensive line going into this draft, and it appeared the chances for doing so with Carimi were good. Carimi had started in 49 games for Wisconsin at left tackle, won the 2010 Outland Trophy, and began his rookie season as the starting right tackle. Up until Carimi suffered the dislocated kneecap at New Orleans, he had been playing winning football. The Bears received a sixth-round pick for Carimi last June in the trade with Tampa Bay, which released him. Carimi signed with Atlanta in February, and will be reunited with former Bears offensive line coach and offensive coordinator Mike Tice.
Best pick: No doubt, Conte struggled through the 2013 season. But he’s still the best pick of this class, and he’ll likely bounce back. Going into 2013, Conte was expected to put together a breakout season after producing 68 tackles in 2012, along with two interceptions and nine pass breakups. Conte finished last season with 90 tackles and three interceptions. He is coming off shoulder surgery, which means he’ll likely miss time at training camp. But if Conte’s rehabilitation goes smoothly, he has a good chance to win a starting job and return to the ascending player the team thought he was entering last season.
Worst pick: Linebacker J.T. Thomas was a three-year starter at West Virginia, but turned in the lowest vertical at the 2011 combine (30 ½ inches), which raised questions about his explosion. Thomas caught the coaching staff’s eye early in camp after taking several first-team reps because of the rules at the time preventing veterans from practicing immediately coming out of the NFL lockout. But Thomas’ practice exploits never transferred onto the field, and he appeared to lack physicality. The Bears waived Thomas after the 2013 preseason, and he signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
A third-year veteran, Ozougwu played in nine games for the Bears from 2012-13, producing four tackles, including a sack and one stop for lost yardage, and one forced fumble. Ozougwu also contributed five tackles on special teams.
Ozougwu was originally drafted by the Houston Texans in 2011 out of Rice, but it appears a logjam at the defensive end position might have led to his release. The Bears signed defensive ends Lamarr Houston, Willie Young, Israel Idonije in Jared Allen during free agency. Those additions would have significantly impacted Ozougwu's chances of making the team for the 2014 season.
The Bears released Podlesh in March prior to the start of free agency after the seven-year NFL veteran averaged 40.6 yards per punt, with a 37.9-yard net average in 2013.
Podlesh, who signed a five-year, $10 million contract with $3.5 million guaranteed with the Bears on July 30, 2011, was scheduled to count $1.825 million against Chicago’s salary cap in 2014 before team decided to cut ties with the punter.
Podlesh’s best season in Chicago came in 2011 when he set the Bears’ single-season record in net punting average (40.4). His 42.4 yards career gross punt average ranks second in team history.
The 30-year-old Podlesh spent his first four years in the NFL with the Jacksonville Jaguars, the team that selected him in the fourth round of the 2007 NFL draft.
Podlesh and second-year kicker Brad Wing are the only two punters listed on the Steelers’ official offseason roster.
Former Pittsburgh punter Drew Butler will have an opportunity to replace Podlesh in Chicago, if he wins the Bears’ starting job in the preseason.
For the Chicago Bears, the significant weakness, according to Hornsby, is the safety position.
Horsby writes: “It would be far from unfair to say the worst position group in football last year was the Bears' collection of safeties. Both regular starters were listed in the worst five of our 86 ranked players at the position. Major Wright and Chris Conte combined to give up more than 1,000 yards in the air, and if anything, were worse as run defenders. Both missed more than 10 tackles in that phase alone, and were both in the top 10 for missed tackles overall.”
Obviously, the Bears tried to upgrade the safety position in free agency by acquiring Ryan Mundy, M.D. Jennings, and Danny McCray. But at this point, those players appear to be depth signings, capable of starting games in a pinch. The club needs to raise the talent level, especially now that Conte might end up missing some training camp coming off a shoulder surgery.
Though it’s unclear whether the Bears will address safety immediately with the No. 14 pick, it’s pretty much guaranteed that at some point in the draft the team will take one, possibly even two.
By Hornsby’s rationale, that could be the difference in the Bears earning their first trip to the playoffs since the 2010 season.
In 2010, the Bears entered the draft without a first-round pick as part of the trade to acquire Jay Cutler, and the club had also given up its second-round pick for that year in a trade that brought aboard defensive end Gaines Adams.
First-round pick: None
How they did: Not well considering the limited amount of picks the club held. This was Jerry Angelo’s second-to-last draft as Chicago’s general manager, and his selections in 2010 certainly played a role in his eventual dismissal. Of the five picks from that class, three -- safety Major Wright, defensive end Corey Wootton and offensive tackle J'Marcus Webb -- did all eventually land starting roles. Two of players from the class -- cornerback Joshua Moore and quarterback Dan LeFevour -- are no longer in the NFL.
Pivotal pick: The Bears spent the first two rounds as spectators, but going into the draft they needed help at safety. So Angelo used the team's first pick to take Wright (third round, 75th overall), and early on, he appeared to be a solid selection. Wright played in 11 games as a rookie after missing five games early on because of a hamstring injury. Wright became a starter in 2011 (78 tackles, three interceptions), and in 2012, he put together such a solid season (92 tackles, four interceptions) that it led to even higher expectations in 2013. Like the majority of players on defense, Wright struggled in 2013. He signed a one-year deal on April 8 to rejoin former Bears coach Lovie Smith in Tampa Bay.
Best pick: That’s a tough call between Wright and Wootton. Wootton probably gets the nod here because, although he’s played fairly well the past two seasons, it appears the defensive end hasn't yet reached his full potential. Wootton struggled to get onto the field his first two seasons because of injuries, but finally played a complete season in 2012 and contributed seven sacks. Wootton became a starter in 2013, and produced 34 tackles and three sacks, while flashing versatility by playing defensive tackle and defensive end due to the club’s injury situation along the defensive line. Wootton is recovering from arthroscopic hip surgery, but if the rehabilitation goes well, he should continue to develop.
Worst pick: Cutler would probably say it was Webb, considering all the punishment he subjected the quarterback to as a starter. But remember, Webb was a seventh-round pick. So expectations weren’t extremely high when the Bears drafted him, and it was actually somewhat of a bonus that Webb developed into a starter. LeFevour was the team’s worse pick of the class (although running back Harvey Unga deserves mention, too) because it was quite apparent early on that he was in over his head as an NFL quarterback -- especially trying to play in the complex scheme of former offensive coordinator Mike Martz. The Bears waived LeFevour after the 2010 preseason, and he signed with the Cincinnati Bengals the next day. LeFevour has also spent time with the Indianapolis Colts and the Jacksonville Jaguars, but has never thrown a pass in a regular-season game. LeFevour is currently playing with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League.
While the Bears do currently have second-year tailback/return man Michael Ford slotted behind two-time Pro Bowler Matt Forte on the depth chart, the team could use more depth and competition at the position.
That help could arrive next month if the Bears select a running back somewhere between the fourth and sixth rounds of the upcoming NFL draft, a reasonable target area given the priority in the early rounds will likely be safety, cornerback, defensive tackle and inside linebacker, in no particular order.
One backfield prospect to keep tabs on is former Wisconsin running back James White, who led all rushers with 11 carries for 62 yards and one touchdown at the 2014 Senior Bowl.
The Bears recently traveled to Wisconsin's campus in Madison to put White through a private pre-draft workout, according to a source with direct knowledge of the situation.
Although listed at 5-foot-9, 204 pounds, White finished his four-year career at Wisconsin as the Badgers' No. 4 all-time leading rusher with 4,015 yards and ranks No. 3 in school history with 45 rushing touchdowns.
White ran for 1,444 yards and 13 touchdowns and caught 39 passes for 300 yards and two scores for Wisconsin last season. He also returned kickoffs his first two years in Madison.
Keep in mind, the Bears require a versatile running back that is capable of not only picking up yards on the ground if called upon, but also a player that can catch the ball out of the backfield. Utilizing the tailback in the passing game is a key component of Marc Trestman's offense, and one of Forte's greatest strengths since entering the league in 2008.
In addition to White, there should be an ample supply of running backs for the Bears to choose from in the later rounds if the organization decides to fill that need via the draft.
Other names to consider are Alabama State's Isaiah Crowell, Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas (the Bears reportedly hosted Thomas on a top-30 pre-draft visit at Halas Hall), Tennessee's Rajion Neal, Stanford's Tyler Gaffney, Louisville's Senorise Perry, Arizona State's Marion Grice and Florida State's James Wilder, Jr., among others.
Grice suffered a lower leg injury last year and had to wait until last week to work out in front of scouts at his personal Pro Bowl. Representatives from 17 NFL teams were in attendance. The Bears were not present, but the 6-foot, 207 pound Grice did catch 91 passes out of the backfield for the Sun Devils over the last two seasons.
The Bears also worked out a handful of veteran free agent running backs last week at Halas Hall.
As we get closer to May, we'll start getting into Chicago's potential plans. But for right now, let's take a look at the club's past five drafts, starting with 2009 under former general manager Jerry Angelo. The Bears selected five players that started games, but interestingly not one of those players remain on the team.
Remember, this 2009 draft came after the Bears traded for quarterback Jay Cutler, a transaction that required the team giving up three picks (two first-round selections and a third-round choice).
First-round pick: None
Number of picks: 9
Pivotal pick: Gilbert certainly fits the description here because he was the team's first pick, meaning the Bears needed to acquire an impact prospect after trading away a first and a third in the Cutler deal, in addition to the second-round pick to Seattle. Gilbert gained some fame going into the draft for a YouTube video in which he was seen jumping out of a pool, but on the field with the Bears he never accomplished anything quite as impressive. Angelo definitely whiffed on this pick, as well as the next one: receiver Juaquin Iglesias.
Best pick: Knox could have easily earned this designation, but his career was cut short prematurely by a horrific back injury. So Melton gets the call here. Melton was taken in the fourth round as a defensive end and ended up sitting out his entire rookie season because of a hamstring injury. Melton contributed at defensive end and defensive tackle in 2010 in a reserve role. When Melton switched over to defensive tackle full time in 2011, he started in all 15 games he played, led all NFC players at his position sacks (7) and tied for third in sacks among all defensive tackles in the NFL. Then in 2012, Melton made the Pro Bowl after generating six sacks and 33 tackles, which landed him an $8.45 million contract as the team's franchise player. Melton then missed the majority of the 2013 season due to a torn ACL, and signed with the Dallas Cowboys in free agency.
Worst pick: Gilbert is in the running, but Iglesias (No. 99 overall) was perhaps the worst of the class. As a rookie, Iglesias was active for only one game, and in 2010 the Minnesota Vikings signed him off the Bears' practice squad. Iglesias was one of three receivers drafted by the Bears in 2009, and served as a reminder for the club's struggles at that time at that position. Chicago traded for one of the league's top quarterbacks that offseason, but never gave him any real weapons in the draft until Emery selected Alshon Jeffery in 2012. Iglesias, meanwhile, spent 2013 in the Canadian Football League and signed to play with the Helsinki Wolverines of the American Football Association of Finland.
Weems was expected to be released if he declined the salary reduction.
Weems joined the Bears on a three-year deal worth $4.25 million in 2012 that included a $1.5 million bonus.
But when the Bears proposed the salary reduction, it was believed the club wanted Weems' deal to be similar to the contract signed in March by receiver Domenik Hixon. Hixon signed a one-year deal worth $730,000 that included $100,000 in roster bonus provided the receiver is active on game days, and Weems' new base salary for 2014 is the same.
A seven-year veteran, Weems contributed 13 tackles on special teams last season and caught one pass for an 8-yard gain. Weems was named to the Pro Bowl in 2010 as a member of the Atlanta Falcons.
Weems will compete against Terrance Toliver, Josh Bellamy, Hixon and Chris Williams for a dual role as receiver and special-teams contributor.
The club also asked Earl Bennett to take his second pay cut since 2013 but the receiver declined, leading to the Bears to release him on March 18.
ESPNChicago.com's Jeff Dickerson contributed to this report.
Pryor and Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix are the consensus top two safeties in the 2014 NFL draft class.
ESPN Draft Insider Todd McShay had Pryor going to the Arizona Cardinals at No. 20 overall in the first round in his latest mock draft. ESPN NFL Draft Insider Mel Kiper rates Pryor as the No. 1 safety in the entire draft class.
Pryor is known as a violent hitter in run support with above-average instincts who finished second on the Cardinals defense last year with 75 tackles. For his career at Louisville, Pryor had nine tackles for loss, eight forced fumbles and two sacks. He started 32 games and appeared in 38 over three seasons in college.
Pryor was suspended for one game in 2013 for breaking an undisclosed team rule, but he does not have the reputation as being a problem off the field or in the locker room.
The Bears, who hold the 14th overall selection in the first round, are clearly doing their homework on the best available safeties in the draft. Washington State safety Deone Bucannon visited Halas Hall the first week teams were allowed to host draft-eligible players at their respective facilities.
Even though the Bears signed free-agent safeties Ryan Mundy, M.D. Jennings and Danny McCray, and re-signed veteran Craig Steltz, the club could be looking to draft a difference-maker capable of cracking the starting lineup as a rookie. Last year's starting free safety, Chris Conte, will be sidelined until training camp after undergoing shoulder surgery March 26.
ESPN.com's Todd McShay revealed his fourth 2014 mock draft on ESPN Insider today, with this one covering the first two rounds, and his choices for the Bears certainly make lots of sense.
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Chicago plays its next two opponents on the road: Seattle (Aug. 21-24), followed by the traditional preseason finale at Cleveland on Aug. 28 or Aug. 29.
What should be interesting is that Chicago plays preseason game No. 3 -- which is often when the starters receive their most significant action of the exhibition season -- against the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks.
While it’s only the preseason, the opener against Philadelphia is also somewhat of a compelling matchup given that the Eagles smashed the Bears 54-11 at Lincoln Financial Field on Dec. 22 last season. If the Bears had won, they would’ve advanced to the postseason.
The club's Aug. 14 matchup against the Jaguars will be nationally televised on ESPN at 7 p.m. CT.
The exact dates and times for the other three matchups will be announced at a later date.
Hester made that apparent Wednesday with a couple of posts on his Twitter account.
To all my Bears fans I never wanted to leave the Bears, the organization decided to go another route with me. The things I did in Chicago— Devin Hester (@D_Hest23) April 9, 2014
probably would never happen again and I always wanted to retire as a Bears pic.twitter.com/YbrOa1XxmE— Devin Hester (@D_Hest23) April 9, 2014
Hester is correct that there’s a good chance his exploits in Chicago won’t ever be duplicated, but he shouldn’t dismiss the possibility of eventually retiring as a Bear. From the looks of everything, the sides parted on good terms. When the Bears announced they wouldn’t re-sign Hester, general manager Phil Emery put out a complimentary statement, thanking the return man for his contributions over the years.
One team source even said that “Devin holds a very special place for me. He is loved and well-respected by everybody. This is one of the harsh realities of the business aspect of the NFL.”
“For the past eight seasons we have been honored to have Devin Hester as a part of our organization,” Emery said in a statement. “While Devin has redefined the pinnacle standard of the return position in the NFL, the memories and contributions he has given us cannot be measured by stats or numbers. Not only is Devin a special player, he is also an exceptional person. He is a great teammate, husband and father. Devin represented the organization off the field as well as he did on it. When his career is over, he will always be a welcome member of the Bears family. We thank him for his dedication and wish his family the best.”
In the 2013 season, Hester averaged 27.6 yards per kickoff return and 14.2 yards per punt return, and he is the NFL’s all-time leader in punt return touchdowns (13) and punt/kick return TDs (18). In all, Hester has produced 20 return TDs, which is an NFL record.