- Jeff Dickerson, ESPN Staff Writer
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Coming off an 11-5 regular-season record and a berth in the NFC Championship Game, the Chicago Bears still enter 2011 with a variety of needs to fill, especially up front on both the offensive and defensive lines. Because the NFL offseason is currently being interrupted by a lockout, it's unclear when the Bears will be able to sign free agents, which makes this upcoming draft even more vital for Bears general manager Jerry Angelo and the coaching staff. Here is a quick look at the Bears’ top five needs in order of importance.
1. Offensive line: While the offensive line was successful opening holes for Matt Forte on the ground, the pass protection was subpar for much of the year. Starting quarterback Jay Cutler was sacked 52 times during the regular season, nine of those hits coming in the Bears’ Week 4 defeat at the hands of the New York Giants that resulted in Cutler leaving the game with a concussion. The Bears are high on second-year tackle J'Marcus Webb, who may be moved over to the left side, but it remains to be seen whether or not 2010 left tackle Frank Omiyale sticks in the starting lineup, or if the Bears decide to move Chris Williams back outside. If Williams lines up at tackle in 2011, the Bears must find a new starting left guard, and if Olin Kreutz does not re-sign, Angelo must find a new starting center. Even if Kreutz returns, as most expect, the Bears might still need to add two new starters on the offensive line in the offseason.
2. Defensive line: The search is on to find a three-technique defensive tackle to replace Tommie Harris, who was released earlier in the offseason after yet another disappointing season. Former fourth-round pick Henry Melton, who turned in a solid sophomore campaign, figures to see increased playing time next year, but the Bears still need to find a game-changing under tackle with an explosive first step like Harris used to have before injuries derailed the former Pro Bowler’s career. The Bears could also use depth at nose tackle, even though Matt Toeaina signed an extension during the regular season and the organization may opt to bring back dependable veteran Anthony Adams. Marcus Harrison is a major question mark considering he was inactive 13 times in 2010. Since the draft is stocked with quality rush ends, it would not be a shock to see Angelo select another defensive end, despite taking Corey Wootton in the fourth round last spring.
3. Cornerback: The plan was never for Tim Jennings to start at cornerback in 2010. Keeping that in mind, it's clear the Bears would prefer an upgrade at the cornerback position, and in a perfect world, that might come via the draft. But even if an in-house candidate (Jennings, Zack Bowman, Joshua Moore) ends up winning a starting job, there is no guarantee veteran Charles Tillman can stay healthy again for all 16 regular season games. Eventually, the Bears will have to replace Tillman, so adding another big, fast, physical cornerback to the mix in 2011 would be a wise move. D.J. Moore had an excellent year at nickelback, but like Jennings, he probably doesn't possesses the necessary size to be a consistent, every-down cornerback in the Bears system. If Corey Graham is forced to return to Chicago as a restricted free agent, he is expected to only be used on special teams.
4. Linebacker: Angelo called the 2011 linebacker draft class weak, but because of expiring contracts and the uncertainty of the free agency, the Bears need to add a body or two at the position. Pisa Tinoisamoa, Rod Wilson and Brian Iwuh are all unrestricted free agent, while Nick Roach is stuck in limbo between being an unrestricted free agent or a restricted free agent with four years of NFL service. With only Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher guaranteed to be under contract with the Bears in 2011, Angelo might have to use a pick on a linebacker, despite his claims the rookie crop is below average. If nothing else, the Bears probably need at least one new linebacker to help out on special teams in the fall.
5. Wide receiver: It's true the Bears remain high on receivers Johnny Knox, Devin Hester and Earl Bennett, but with the departure of Devin Aromashodu, Angelo could use a bigger target in the passing game to help out Cutler. Maybe the answer is former CFL star Andy Fantuz, who is expected to compete for a roster spot when (or if) the Bears are permitted to conduct a training camp. However, to assume Fantuz's transition from the CFL to the NFL will be seamless is a bit of a stretch. Angelo believes in waiting until at least the third round to select receivers -- the lone exception came in 2005 when the Bears took Oklahoma WR Mark Bradley in the second round -- so while fans might be screaming for the Bears to chosse a wideout early, it probably won't happen. A mid-to-late round selection would seem appropriate considering the loss of Aromashodu and the impending free agency of veteran Rashied Davis, who because of special teams value, the Bears should strongly consider re-signing.