It's a simple question with a complicated answer that might shed some light on how the Bears will integrate new defensive end Julius Peppers.
Brown has been a durable and productive player for eight seasons, and at 30, he should have some good years remaining. He has averaged nearly six sacks per year since 2004 -- not exactly Pro Bowl numbers, but more than any current Bears player other than Peppers. These days, NFL teams don't part easily with anyone who can mount a relatively consistent pass rush.
So what gives?
We should have known something was up last week at the NFL owners meetings, when Bears coach Lovie Smith responded carefully when asked about plans to play Peppers at left end and right end. Using Peppers at right end would displace Brown, bringing up the natural question: Could Brown play on the left side?
"Alex hasn't played both sides," Smith said, "but he can play both sides."
In the next breath, however, Smith began talking up defensive end Mark Anderson's potential in that role and noted that veteran Israel Idonije has been converted to a full-time defensive end. Let's face it: At 260 pounds, Brown is probably too light to play left end on a regular basis, even in a scheme that emphasizes lighter, quicker defensive linemen.
(The left end typically faces more running plays and thus needs some bulk to stand up to the correlative pounding.)
So if I had to make an educated guess, I would say the Bears are planning to play Peppers much more often on the right side than they are on the left. That's the only reason Brown would be expendable, at least in my eyes. I'm sure the Bears would like opponents to guess on Peppers' whereabouts, but if he were truly going to spend significant time at left end, wouldn't you keep Brown to play right end in those instances?
It's possible the Bears, who know Brown best, aren't convinced he will be a productive player as he proceeds through his early 30s. It's more likely, however, that they are loosening a logjam at the right end position to make room for Peppers.