- Michael C. Wright, ESPN Staff Writer
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First off, thanks for giving some semblance of normalcy in the life of this locked out NFL beat reporter with your thorough and insightful questions about the Bears.
We kick off our first mailbag in what seems like forever with no signs of football in the immediate future. But hey, at least we can discuss the sport we love, right?
As I perused several of your questions, I noticed two prevailing themes: New England Patriots guard Logan Mankins, and whether the Bears will be in the market -- when and if free agency ever begins -- for a veteran receiver.
Let’s take care of Mankins first.
One of the 10 named plantiffs in the former union’s lawsuit against the NFL, Mankins was assigned the franchise tag in February, which means the all-Pro guard likely won’t be signing with another team. In tagging Mankins, the Patriots protect one of their best assets by securing his rights for the short term while essentially buying more time to discuss a long-term deal with him. Had the Patriots not tagged him, Mankins could test free agency with no restrictions.
But now that he’s tagged, Mankins can sign an offer sheet with a new team, but if the Patriots decline to match, they’ll receive two first-round picks from the new club as compensation for losing him. Let’s remember that Bears general manager Jerry Angelo has said he’s no longer interested in mortgaging the team’s future by giving up draft picks.
Where this gets hairy is the uncertainty associated with the current labor situation. As it stands, the league’s owners and the former union disagree about the validity of the franchise tag. Players believe franchise tags are worthless because there’s no collective bargaining agreement in place for 2011. The former union’s stance is that players restricted by franchise tags have a strong case for unrestricted free agency because they can’t be restricted by such tags at the same time they’re locked out by the owners.
It’s believed that Mankins doesn’t plan to sign his tender once the league year begins. But would it even be valid? Until the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis makes a decision about whether to grant a permanent stay of the lockout injunction, it’s up in the air as to when free agency will actually kick off, and what the rules will be.
So based on the limited information available, the prospects for seeing Mankins in a Bears uniform in 2011 appear to be a long shot.
Now, let’s get to your questions.
Q: If there is no season next year, how would the draft order for the 2012 draft look: completely random or would we have the 29th pick? -- Andrew (Champaign)
A: Good question, Andrew. But I’ve got bad news. Since 1936, teams have selected players in reverse order of their records from the previous season. But under the scenario you described in your question that would mean there’s no collective bargaining agreement in place, and thus no 2012 NFL draft. What does that mean? Well, if there’s no draft, that means there’s probably no salary cap, and no floor, either, making it possible for teams to pay as much or as little as they wanted to acquire talent
General managers and personnel men around the league have described such a scenario as total chaos. Some have said that the without a draft, the period in which teams would be allowed to sign college players would be very much like unrestricted free agency with players receiving blockbuster deals once the signing period began.
Some believe it would turn the NFL in to a league of haves and have nots (for the teams and the players) because teams would simply have to outbid one another to get the top players. Others have said such a scenario would greatly benefit the teams with top-notch scouts and personnel departments.
The draft exists because the union and owners agreed to its terms in the CBA, but that agreement came to an end with the 2011 draft.
Q: Maybe it’s time to get over the fact that Matt Forte isn't the elite back we all thought he could be. With the Saints looking to drop Reggie Bush, should the Bears look to acquire him? He'd be perfect for Martz system. Marshall Faulk all over again! -- Martin (Chicago)
A: I won’t call Forte “elite,” Martin. But the numbers don’t lie when it comes to placing a value on Forte’s contributions, and I’d say he’s close to being on the cusp of that status. Forte is the first player in franchise history to gain at least 1,400 yards from scrimmage in each of his first three NFL seasons. Since entering the NFL in 2008, Forte ranks fifth in the NFL in yards from scrimmage (4,731) behind Tennessee’s Chris Johnson, Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson, Jacksonville’s Maurice Jones-Drew and St. Louis’ Steven Jackson. And no, you didn’t see Bush’s name among those players.
It’s important to remember the Bears already invested $7 million guaranteed in backup running back Chester Taylor, and before the lockout they were in talks with Forte about an extension. I understand your excitement about potentially adding Bush. He’s an exciting player. But Bush has proven to be inconsistent and injury prone over his first five seasons. Did I mention that statistically, Forte has done more over his three-year career than Bush (19 fumbles) has done in five years? As I said, the numbers don’t lie.
Q: Where does Herman Johnson fit into the offensive line plans? The Bears have said they need to get big inside because of the division's nose tackles (Raji, Suh, Williams, etc.). He has massive size. Does he get a chance at guard? -- Mike (Valparaiso, Ind.)
A: Mike, Johnson is one of the players who will be hurt most by this lockout because he’s basically been robbed of the opportunity to impress the coaching staff by the strides he could make in an offseason program. At 6 foot 7, 360 pounds, Johnson definitely fits the mold of the humungous players coveted by offensive line coach Mike Tice. But whether he gets an opportunity -- a legitimate one, anyway -- remains uncertain because under the current circumstances with the labor strife, the team simply might not have enough time to cultivate him and/or thoroughly evaluate him. Johnson’s best shot at competing for a chance to contribute in 2011 is to report to the team (whenever they’re allowed to) in tip-top shape. The Bears have told me they’re not concerned about players reporting out of shape. But with a guy as big as Johnson, you’ve got to be at least a little worried.
Q: Why doesn't the Bears front office just fork up some more cash for a couple of years and snag a veteran WR with talent and quickness? We seem to have soldiers who have played in the trenches plenty of times and vets playing at virtually every position other than WR. With Chad Ochocinco, Steve Smith and Sidney Rice expressing a desire to search other options, I say why not? -- Chris (West Des Moines, Iowa)
A: Chris, I don’t think cash is the issue as much as finding the right fit for Martz’s offense. With this lockout going on, I’ve had a chance to spend a little time studying Martz’s playbook from his time with the Rams. And from what I’ve seen of it, I can understand Chicago’s reluctance to just go out and sign the tall receiver that everyone is clamoring for. Ochocinco and Smith possess the skill set (great route running, spatial awareness, and change-of-direction skills) necessary to flourish in Martz’s offense. I’m not sure the Bears would want to deal with Ochocinco’s personality (Lovie Smith doesn’t do drama, trust me) and Rice simply doesn’t fit. Smith, meanwhile, might be an option. He’s on the downside of his career, and could mentor the younger receivers, and I’d be willing to bet that if they haven’t already, they’ll get a report on Smith from Julius Peppers, his former teammate at Carolina.
Q: Last offseason we heard from Martz that the Bear's wide receiver group was one of the strengths of this team, and then their limitations appeared to come out on the field. Are the Bears planning to go after a free agent or two at the position, or are they still hoping for real development from their young group? -- Ben (Chicago)
A: Ben, as I told Chris, it’s more about finding the right fit than anything else right now. Do the Bears want to find a veteran free agent to bolster the receiving corps? Sure they do. But they’ve got to find guys who fit the system. Say your team had trouble getting to the quarterback last season. Well, that problem doesn’t automatically get solved by adding a defensive end. You have to add the right defensive end. It’s the same thing with this team’s receivers. The Bears are optimistic that guys like Johnny Knox, Earl Bennett and Devin Hester will make huge strides between Year 1 and Year 2 of Martz’s system. But that jump is in jeopardy with this lockout. I think the Bears have a couple of potential free agent targets in mind, but I don’t see them going after one of the big-name guy like Ochocinco.
Q: Why do so many articles bash Chris Williams’ ability to play at least a guard position? My big knock on Williams is that he is repeatedly injured. But, from what I have seen, he can protect the blind side against the inside rush men. Am I wrong and he played poorly, or is it just frustration that is not lived up to a 14th overall pick? -- Randall (Kalamazoo, Mich.)
A: Randall, I don’t want to say you’re wrong. I’d say it’s a little bit of both -- inconsistent play and disappointment he hasn’t lived up to first-round billing -- from the team’s standpoint. Even Lovie Smith mentioned that Williams didn’t quite live up to expectations at guard or tackle last season. Smith said the team’s offseason project is to put Williams at one position and leave him there for the duration to give him a chance to flourish. So don’t expect Tice to play musical chairs with Williams once the team gets back to business. This is sort of a put up or shut up year for Williams, based on everything the coaches have told me.
Q: Hey fellas, Chris Conte: was he a reach in the third round or an under the radar, potential starter? They're obviously high on him, given coach John Hoke's ties to Cal, but I think the pick could have been used to address depth at cornerback, center, or receiver. Can we agree that Conte probably would have been available in the fifth or sixth round, thus making him a wasted pick? Please tell me I'm wrong. -- Michael (Philadelphia, Pa.)
A: Like you, my first inclination was Conte was a major reach. But then I heard Jerry Angelo talk about the high marks given to Conte by Clancy Pendergast, the defensive coordinator at Cal, and I gave it a little more thought. Sure it’s one thing to give a good recommendation to your guy, but Pendergast is a guy who spent 14 years coaching in the NFL and has a reputation to maintain/protect. I spent a little time covering the Cowboys while Pendergast was coaching defensive backs there, and I can tell you he knew his stuff when it came to developing younger players in the secondary. Angelo mentioned that Pendergast said that it was a “no brainer” for the Bears to draft Conte.
I agree with you that Conte probably would have been available later in the draft, but I will say that I’ve heard different things about him from the scouts that I know. The biggest knock I’ve heard on Conte is the fact he’s got only one year of experience at the position. But some of the scouts I spoke to saw that as a plus because they believe he’s got upside. The scouts also liked his size (6-2, 197 pounds). Let’s remember that the Bears didn’t draft Conte to start in 2011. He’s kind of more of a jar-in-the-cupboard type of player the Bears hope to develop for the future.
Q: Hey guys, I'm curious about the Bears’ plans for J'Marcus Webb. It seems like the starting tackles for 2011 are Webb and Gabe Carimi, and now the Bears are just trying to figure out who plays on the left and right side. Is J'Marcus really good enough to play on the blind side? Is Carimi? Add Chris Williams and Frank Omiyale, and it seems like the Bears have four right tackles and zero left tackles. Who will play on the left side in 2011? -- Matt (San Carlos, Calif.)
A: Matt that was the first question we asked once the Bears drafted Carimi, and Lovie and Tice have said that the plan is to try the rookie on the left side first. Carimi held his own last season against three players (Adrian Clayborn, Ryan Kerrigan, Cam Heyward) drafted in the first round, not to mention his day-to-day practice battles with former Wisconsin teammate J.J. Watt, also a first-rounder.
Based on Carimi’s college production as a four-year starter at left tackle, his reputation for being a hard worker, and surprisingly polished technique, the Bears expect him to be able to step in and protect Jay Cutler’s blind side as a rookie. The team also expects offensive line guru Tice to quickly help Carimi refine some of the technical deficiencies in his game to have him ready by opening day.
Q: Great work guys. What are the chances that we see a contribution from Joshua Moore this year? Unless we are planning to sign some cornerback help in free agency, we didn't do anything in the draft to fortify the position. Are they hoping for Zack Bowman to learn from spending a lot of the year on the bench? With the Packers and Lions receiving corps, I am worried about the position. -- Vik (Tampa, Fla.)
A: Thanks for the compliment. I would say there’s a decent chance you could see some contributions from Moore in 2011. Lovie Smith is extremely high on him, and told me he almost considers Moore a 2011 draft pick who got somewhat of a redshirt season in the NFL in 2010. As for Bowman, it’s the same thing. Smith told me that he thinks Bowman can “be a star” in the NFL, but will have to regain his confidence after a shaky 2010 campaign. I can pretty much guarantee you that Bowman will be given ample opportunity to regain the starting job he lost to Tim Jennings. But Moore will also be in the mix as a potential starter.
Q: Does Andy Fantuz from the CFL have a chance at making the team? He has the height that the WR corps sorely lacks. -- Ben (Great Falls, Mont.)
A: Ben, I’m just giving you my honest opinion here (I’ve been wrong before), but I don’t think so. Fantuz received a $10,000 signing bonus when he signed in February, but in my opinion, if he were as much of a sought after a commodity as advertised, the Bears probably would have had to outbid other teams to sign him. I mentioned earlier that the statistics don’t lie. Well, in five CFL seasons, Fantuz had only one 1,000-yard season, and never scored more than seven touchdowns. Because of his size (6-4, 221 pounds), I disregarded those numbers at first.
Then, I got on YouTube to watch some footage of Fantuz. It could be just me, but Fantuz looked really slow against CFL defenders. I acknowledge that speed isn’t everything. But watch his footage and judge for yourself. That lack of speed just seems a bit unsettling to me.