- Jeff Dickerson, ESPN Staff Writer
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With Senior Bowl practices scheduled to get underway this week in Mobile, Ala., let’s take a brief look at certain position groups the Chicago Bears might look to address in the upcoming NFL draft or free agency.
1. Offensive line: Let’s just lump the entire offensive line together since it likely requires a significant amount of work. Here is what we know -- Lance Louis has been at Halas Hall this offseason rehabbing the anterior cruciate ligament injury he suffered last November against the Minnesota Vikings. If the Bears are satisfied that Louis is on track to make a full recovery, it stands to reason the club would either re-sign the versatile offensive lineman to a new deal or tag him. It’s unknown whether or not Louis will be ready to return at the beginning of next season, but even if he is forced to miss a small amount of time, the Bears will be much better off with a healthy Louis at right guard at some point in 2013. At his end of the year press conference Bears general manager Phil Emery spoke highly of veteran Jonathan Scott (scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent), who started five of the last six games at right tackle, and former undrafted rookie James Brown, who got his feet wet in the final three games at left guard. Emery also said 33-year old center Roberto Garza was “solid,” but the Bears need to figure out a long-term solution at the position, although Garza does keep himself in excellent physical shape. It’s clear the Bears need to attempt to upgrade one, if not both, of their offensive tackles, and probably find at least one guard. Granted, that’s a ton of work to one area of the team in a single offseason, but after neglecting to address the line last year on the heels of two bad first-round picks at tackle, the Bears find themselves in a tough situation. New Bears head coach Marc Trestman mentioned several times the need to protect quarterback Jay Cutler, which seems to indicate he too views the offensive line as a weak spot that needs to be fixed.
2. Linebacker: One of the first orders of business for the Bears in free agency should be to re-sign Nick Roach, the sixth-leading tackler (84) on the defense last year despite spending much of the season as the two-down, strong side linebacker. Roach’s athleticism, speed and experience make him a viable candidate to play either middle or strong in 2013 for new defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, but with Brian Urlacher’s uncertain future, the Bears probably need to invest a relatively high draft pick or spend decent cash to pick up a proven linebacker in free agency who the club can plug right into the starting lineup, if necessary. Weak side linebacker Lance Briggs is coming off another Pro Bowl-caliber season, but he is 32 years old. The Bears need to start stockpiling some talented young players who will eventually replace the veteran core that thrived for so many years in Lovie Smith’s system. The rest of the linebackers under contract appear to be special teamers/role players at best, however Blake Costanzo did get high marks from Smith for his work at SLB one game last year.
3. Tight end: There is no need to kick a guy when he’s down. If you watched the Bears in 2012, then you know without a shadow of a doubt the offense needs to find a legitimate No. 1 tight end. Kellen Davis is a decent blocker, but he doesn’t catch the ball well enough to command the $2.4 million base salary he’s due in 2013. His on-field chemistry with Cutler is non-existent, probably because of all the drops Davis had last year in limited targets. It’s probably time for both parties to move on. Second-string tight end Matt Spaeth graded out well from a blocking perspective, and could fill a role in Trestman’s offense, although he is set to make $2.025 million. Spaeth did take a pay cut last year so that might be an option, but if not, the veteran tight end will find work in the league, perhaps even back with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the team that selected Spaeth in the third round of the 2007 NFL draft. Further down on the depth chart is Kyle Adams, who does have the ability to catch the ball down the field. But before the Bears worry about the reserves, they need a starting tight end who can work the middle of the field and gain the trust of Cutler in the passing game.
4. Quarterback: Jason Campbell and Josh McCown are free agents. Cutler is entering the final year of his contract, and despite Emery labeling him a “franchise quarterback,” Cutler has one playoff victory in seven seasons. It’s now or never. But in the meantime, the Bears should not be shy about perusing the draft or free agency for quarterbacks. At the very least, if they don’t re-sign Campbell or McCown, the team still needs a No. 2 in 2013. Matt Blanchard showed some promise last summer and is expected to be on the training camp roster, but he’s a work in progress. People were outraged when the Bears burned a fifth-round pick on Nate Enderle in 2011, one year after they used a sixth-round selection on Dan LeFevour. The Bears’ plan to develop a quarterback wasn’t the issue, it was their talent evaluation, or lack thereof. Stop drafting guys like Enderle and LeFevour, who both turned out to be wasted picks. Remember, Seattle found Russell Wilson in the third round. San Francisco got Colin Kaepernick in round number two. I realize those two are considered exceptions to the rule, but it does prove those types of quarterbacks do exist outside of the first round -- teams just have to be smart and bold enough to find them. Unless you can tell me for sure that Trestman will succeed where many have failed and have this great relationship with Cutler, the Bears better keep their eyes open when it comes to quarterback. Better safe than sorry. Imagine if it doesn’t work out. Where will the Bears be next year?
5. Wide receiver: There is talent on the Bears’ wide receiver depth chart behind Brandon Marshall, the problem is that talent tends to miss games because of injuries. If Earl Bennett and Alshon Jeffery stay healthy and are used properly in the new offense, the Bears should be in good shape at wideout. Unfortunately, Bennett and Jeffery have been bitten by the injury bug, not to mention that Marshall is dealing with a chronic hip problem that required in-season treatments and an offseason scope. Because of all these health-related issues, it makes sense for the Bears to add another reliable wide receiver in the offseason. Depth is also a concern. Eric Weems can play receiver if necessary, but he appears to be better suited for special teams, an area Joe Anderson excelled at late in the year. Anderson is intriguing, and had a solid camp last summer, so maybe he is given the opportunity to compete for actual playing time on offense. The downside of Anderson is that he doesn’t have much experience, so can you count of him to play meaningful snaps in the regular season if the front-line guys get hurt? That’s impossible to answer. Devin Hester remains under contract with the Bears through 2013, but he will never be a serious option at wideout with Cutler at quarterback. Spending another offseason working on another Hester package seems pointless. But exploring other options at wide receiver could pay big dividends for the Bears, especially if injuries continue to take a toll on this talented, but unlucky group.