NFL Nation: Brandon Manumaleuna

A week or two ago, I was discussing the future of the Chicago Bears with a friend. We started with the obvious -- whether offensive coordinator Mike Martz return -- and then moved up the ladder a bit. Was there any chance of a bigger shakeup after the Bears missed the playoffs in four of the five seasons since appearing in Super Bowl XLI?

[+] EnlargeJerry Angelo
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhJerry Angelo had run the Bears' football operations since 2001.
Under the McCaskey family, we agreed, the Bears have been a methodical and slow-moving organization that wasn't prone to emotional reactions. But in a development that didn't register with enough people this year, a new McCaskey assumed leadership last summer. George McCaskey, the younger and more involved brother of former chairman Michael McCaskey, is now ultimately responsible for the team.

We'll find out soon if it was George McCaskey who fired Jerry Angelo on Tuesday or whether the parting was mutual. But make no mistake: One of the NFL's most stable franchises has jumped into uncertain waters for the first time in a decade. The move is a surprise mostly because it came from the Bears. Angelo's 11 seasons are more than most NFL franchises give their general managers.

Angelo has run the Bears' football operations since 2001. He hired coach Lovie Smith in 2004, and together they have one of the longest tenures of any football leadership structure in the NFL. Angelo's departure leaves every aspect of the Bears' program under review, including Smith, and there is no telling where that might lead. Smith signed a contract extension last winter through the 2013 season, but after today he won't be working for the person who hired him. That situation rarely bodes well for a head coach, at least in the long term.

We'll get more into Angelo's time with the Bears as the day progresses. Suffice it to say, it will go down as a mix of on-field success and front office missteps, including a series over the past calendar year that suggested Angelo's regime was lively but disorganized. A botched draft-day trade with the Baltimore Ravens, the failure of free agent signings Chester Taylor and Brandon Manumaleuna, (which cost the McCaskey family about $12 million for nearly no production) and the arrest of receiver Sam Hurd on federal drug distribution suspicion were the latest examples. Eventually, those things pile up.

More to come.

I'm not sure what else to add to our discussion about Thursday's wild events for the Chicago Bears' tight ends. Here is what had happened by the time the music stopped (or at least paused) Thursday evening:
  1. Greg Olsen had been traded to the Carolina Panthers for a draft pick and a player to be named, according to a Chicago Tribune report. *Update: The Bears announced they received only a draft pick, not a player, in the trade. The Tribune reports it is a third-rounder in 2012.
  2. Brandon Manumaleuna had been released.
  3. Veteran free agent Matt Spaeth has agreed to the terms of a deal.

Many of you would consider the Bears' true offensive problem to be at offensive line, not at tight end. Many of you would be right. But the tight end action was more about timing than priorities. I have to believe the Bears are hard at work on their offensive line and will have some results in the next day or so.

I'm not going to get too worked up about the Manumaleuna-Spaeth swap. The Bears wasted $6.1 million to sign Manumaleuna last year, but it came in an uncapped environment and didn't impact them in any way beyond the McCaskey family's bottom line.

On the other hand, the quick divorce with Olsen is a pretty obvious example of a team valuing scheme over skills.

It's fair to say that Olsen hasn't lived up to the expectations that go with being drafted in the first round. Did he ever get that chance? I'm not sure about that.

Two years ago, I suggested Olsen was the NFC North's next emerging star. He had developed an obvious chemistry with quarterback Jay Cutler and seemed on the verge of breaking through as an annual Pro Bowl player.

He fell short in the 2009 season but still caught 60 passes and a career-high eight touchdowns in a season that ultimately led to the firing of offensive coordinator Ron Turner. His replacement, Mike Martz, either wasn't capable or willing to adjust his scheme to fit in the unique skills of a 6-foot-5, 255-pound tight end who can outrun linebackers downfield.

I can only assume the Bears are committed to Martz for the long term. If that's the case, I guess it made sense to get some value for Olsen before he departed in a huff next season as a free agent. But in any other system, Olsen would have been valuable enough to offer a contract extension. A day ago, Olsen seemed to be a foundation player for the Bears. I assumed Martz spent the offseason finding more ways to get Olsen involved, not less.

Today, he is a member of what safety Chris Harris tweeted is a team known as the "Carolina Bears." The Panthers are now coached by former Bears defensive coordinator Ron Rivera.

Usually, you like to see NFL teams build their scheme around their players -- not the other way around. The Bears went against the grain. We'll see how it works for them.

Recent Bears posts: Today has been a soap opera for Bears tight ends. Why would the Bears part ways with Olsen? Adam Podlesh is the Bears' new punter. The team is working offensive line targets. Former punter Brad Maynard voiced surprising animosity toward well-respected special-teams coordinator Dave Toub. The Bears have a tough decision on a contract extension for tailback Matt Forte.
Thursday afternoon marked the opening of the NFL's official waiver season, when teams can formally release players and begin adjusting their salary cap structure. We've already discussed the Chicago Bears' now-official decision to release tight end Brandon Manumaleuna, and now we'll hit some other NFC North-related personnel moves in quick-hitting fashion.

Item: The Green Bay Packers have informed linebacker Brady Poppinga and defensive tackle Justin Harrell they will be released, according to Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com.
Comment: Poppinga was coming off a serious knee injury. Harrell now qualifies as the biggest bust of general manager Ted Thompson's tenure. Drafted with a history of injuries, Harrell couldn't stay on the field for the Packers.

Item: The Minnesota Vikings released safety Madieu Williams.
Comment: Williams was due $5.4 million in 2011, a high price for a player who might not have made the team. He was originally signed on the advice of now-coach Leslie Frazier, but a 2008 neck injury seemed to rob him of some aggressiveness as a tackler. I'm not sure if his replacement is on the roster yet, but Tyrell Johnson might get a chance.

Item: The Detroit Lions will release linebacker Jordon Dizon.
Comment: Dizon was a vestige of Rod Marinelli's Tampa-2 defense and too small to fit into the Lions' current scheme.

Item: The Bears lost out on two free agents they have been reported to have interest in, receiver Brad Smith and offensive lineman Jermon Bushrod.
Comment:
They're too busy getting straight at tight end to worry about all that.
Who would have pegged the Chicago Bears' tight end position as a preseason source of drama? That's pretty much what has developed Thursday in a matter of hours.

The latest: According to the Chicago Tribune, the Bears plan to release tight end Brandon Manumaleuna by the end of the day. That news comes on top of reports the Bears are shopping incumbent Greg Olsen for a trade and have agreed to terms with free agent Matt Spaeth.

I don't know if anyone outside of Halas Hall truly knows what is going on here. We've discussed the likely motivation behind trading Olsen, namely that Mike Martz's offense doesn't place a high value on pass-catching tight ends. But the Bears signed Manumaleuna specifically for this scheme and in large part because of his history with Martz, paying him a contract that guaranteed him $6.1 million.

Manumaleuna is due a roster bonus of $1 million before the start of the regular season. He has struggled with knee injuries and was also fined $22,000 last season for missing team meetings.

Spaeth is mostly known as a blocking tight end and would presumably replace Manumaleuna in that role. Does that mean Olsen will remain with the Bears this season? I don't think Spaeth's arrival changes that question one way or the other. The issue is whether the Bears want to pay market value for a tight end whose skills don't totally fit their system. If they were shopping Olsen this week, chances are they have made up their mind on that question. Stay tuned.

Recent Bears posts: Why would the Bears part ways with Olsen? Adam Podlesh is the Bears' new punter. The team is working offensive line targets. Former punter Brad Maynard voiced surprising animosity toward well-respected special-teams coordinator Dave Toub. The Bears have a tough decision on a contract extension for tailback Matt Forte.
CutlerAP Photo/Paul SancyaBears quarterback Jay Cutler was all smiles in Detroit after leading Chicago to its fifth straight victory.
DETROIT -- Jay Cutler was straightening his tie Sunday afternoon in the Chicago Bears' locker room when a voice bellowed from behind.

(No, it wasn't Ndamukong Suh.)

"Hayyyyy, Jayyyyyyy."

[+] EnlargeJesse Jackson
AP Photo/John EhlkeRev. Jesse Jackson, shown before a speech in August, visited QB Jay Cutler after the Bears beat Detroit.
Cutler whirled and was suddenly face-to-face with Chicago's own Jesse Jackson.

The two exchanged awkward pleasantries, a 69-year-old activist and 27-year-old quarterback united by three words.

Keep hope alive.

(Sorry. Couldn't resist. I'll be available for flogging Monday morning.)

Tortured connections aside, I really do think Jackson's signature phrase appropriately describes what Cutler did in the Bears' 24-20 victory Sunday against the Detroit Lions. It demonstrated Cutler's tremendous progress this season and helps explain why he is on a winning team for the first time since his senior year in high school.

That's right. After leading Heritage Hill (Ind.) High School to a 15-0 record in 2001, Cutler has played on eight consecutive teams that have finished .500 or worse: four at Vanderbilt, three with the Denver Broncos and one with the Bears.

A reasonable football fan could have watched the entire game Sunday and not noticed a single thing Cutler did. But he was a winner in every sense of the word, most notably when it came time to awaken his team from a three-quarter slumber and elevate it above the self-destructing Lions.

"You need your special players to be special," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "I really thought today he stepped up."

More than anything, winners make sure their team wins. No player has more control over the outcome than a quarterback, and it's precisely what Cutler did after the Bears took over with 11 minutes, 55 seconds remaining. The Lions, hoping to seal their first NFC North victory in four years, had just failed to convert a fourth-down play and thus given up the ball at the Bears' 40-yard line.

It was that key fulcrum point that presents itself in most games. In this case, you sensed the Bears would either grab control or doom themselves to a damaging December upset. Cutler kept hope alive. Here's what he did on a six-play, 60-yard drive that won the game:

Play 1: A quick-hitting 20-yard pass to tailback Matt Forte.
Play 2: (A rushing play by tailback Chester Taylor that gained no yards.)
Play 3: A 6-yard pass to Taylor
Play 4: A 12-yard pass to receiver Earl Bennett, converting a third-and-4
Play 5: An 8-yard scramble, followed by a unnecessary roughness penalty on the Lions
Play 6: A 7-yard touchdown pass to tight end Brandon Manumaleuna

Cutler completed all four of his passes for 45 yards on the drive and accounted for 88.3 percent of the Bears' yardage. Then, after the Lions punted with 5:31 remaining, Cutler completed his next four passes -- incuding a 16-yarder to Manumaleuna on second-and-11 to seal the game. In total, Culter completed eight of eight passes in the fourth quarter in bringing the Bears from a 20-17 deficit to a 24-20 victory.

You might not view that performance as anything to write home (or an entire blog post) about. But clearly, it's the kind of thing -- making the plays in important situations -- that Cutler hasn't done enough of over the past decade. No matter what mitigating factors were involved, it's hard to go nine years without a winning season simply by chance.


Getting the Bears to nine victories marked a seminal point in Cutler's career, and afterward I asked him how big it was to him.

"It's huge," Cutler said. "With all of the turmoil we went through this summer, learning a new offense. Everyone was discouraged with it early on and we stuck it through. And we're starting to get some dividends now. We've just got to keep getting better. We can't be satisfied with where we are at now."

Cutler is smart but not particularly introspective in public settings, so I didn't think he would have an emotional breakdown while addressing the issue. But for some reason he made me think of a story about former NBA player Christian Laettner, whose boorish personality could be compared to Cutler's in his worst moments.

Laettner was particularly frustrated with a stretch of games while playing for the Minnesota Timberwolves. During a postgame interview session, he began pointing to the lockers of each teammate.

"Loser," he said about the first one.

"Loser," he said about the second, and so on, until he reached his own locker.

"Winner," Laettner said, espousing his career as a college player at Duke.

It was the kind of outburst I could imagine once coming from Cutler, based on what I observed of him as recently as last season. But at the risk of being too dramatic, it sure seems that something has clicked for him in 2010.

Cutler has finished each of the Bears' past two games with a passer rating of over 100. On Sunday, not a single of his 26 throws appeared forced or otherwise directed toward a player who wasn't open. His only mistake came when two Lions defensive linemen converged on him early in the third quarter, forcing a fumble that the Lions converted into a field goal.

I'm not sure if Cutler has found maturity or a new comfort zone in Mike Martz's offense or whether he has simply had a long stretch of really good games. But since his disastrous four-interception game against the Washington Redskins on Oct. 24, Cutler has thrown 10 touchdown passes and only three interceptions. Most importantly, the Bears have won five consecutive contests with him at quarterback.

He hasn't so much as broken the 250-yard barrier in any of those games, and Sunday his longest pass was Bennett's 33-yard catch-and-run. The Bears haven't asked him to be the 4,000-yard passer they once hoped he would be. All they've asked him to do is keep hope alive. This year, at least, Jay Cutler is a winner.

Lovie Smith is 3-0 doing it his way

September, 30, 2010
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Lovie Smith Jerry Lai/US PresswireCoach Lovie Smith has led the Bears to a 3-0 start, and he's done it by staying true to his core philosophies, not changing them.
In the first three weeks of a win-or-else season, Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith has benched two opening-day starters. He has fined a prominent player $22,000 for missing meetings. We've seen him remove his No. 1 cornerback midway through a game. He has tried to replace one of his starting safeties, and he has overseen significant changes in his offensive and defensive schemes.

Those developments lead to a convenient explanation: With his job/career/reputation on the line, Smith has dropped all loyalties and will stop at nothing to produce a season good enough to ensure self-preservation. That was my thought Monday night after Smith made underperforming defensive tackle Tommie Harris a healthy scratch and brushed aside questions about doing the same for receiver Devin Aromashodu. During a 20-17 victory over the Green Bay Packers, Smith also replaced cornerback Zack Bowman with dime back Tim Jennings.

But how much of that answer is true? Has Smith really overhauled his approach on the way to a 3-0 start?

The reality is that, if anything, Smith has amplified his traditional and core beliefs this season. The biggest change is that Smith appears to be more forcefully demanding adherence.

Let's take a look at this issue from three perspectives -- personnel, offense and defense -- to see what we come up with.

Accountability with personnel

The Bears reacquired safety Chris Harris this spring to settle a position that has been troubled since Harris originally departed in 2007. But his injury-plagued training camp led to an admittedly horrible preseason, and by early September, rumors were already circulating that Smith was angling to push rookie Major Wright into Harris' spot. They rotated in the Sept. 12 game against the Detroit Lions, and Wright's likely ascension was halted only by a hamstring injury the following week.

[+] EnlargeTommie Harris
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhAfter Tommie Harris collected just one tackle in the first two games, he was deactivated in Week 3.
But that dynamic hardly contradicted Smith's history. As Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune points out, Smith has changed his starting safeties 43 times since taking the job in 2004. That averages out to about one change every two games. If anything, the pending Harris-Wright flip was notable for how quickly it was on track to occur.

The same goes for Tommie Harris, whose underperformance the Bears have been trying to address for three years. He has been deactivated for one game in each of the past two seasons, and this year, Smith forced him to abandon a partial practice plan aimed at preserving his knees. But after Harris managed one tackle in the first two games, Smith moved quickly to give two other players -- Matt Toeaina and Marcus Harrison -- an opportunity. The move came on the dramatic stage of "Monday Night Football," but it wasn't out of line with previous approaches. It was just a bit more aggressive.

Meanwhile, angst over Aromashodu's plight seems a bit inflated to me. It's true that he caught a team-high five passes in a Week 1 victory over the Lions, but he also dropped a touchdown pass and is hardly one of the Bears' most indispensable players. And the reality is Bowman's mediocre tackling skills weren't a good matchup for a Packers offense that shifted to a short passing game in the second quarter.

Aromashodu told reporters this week that players "walking on egg shells" won't be productive and added that coaches need to realize "you're not going to be perfect on every play." He has a point, but it's one Smith probably doesn't see much upside to. Smith has long been described as a player's coach, and while quick hooks don't go over well with the player involved, they can actually build credibility with the rest of the locker room because appropriate consequences are being applied.

That's how I would classify the decision to fine tight end Brandon Manumaleuna $22,000 over what appeared to be a misunderstanding of the Bears' regular-season meeting schedule. Similar fines occur more often than you might think, but they are usually kept private. Only an excellent job of reporting from ESPNChicago.com's Jeff Dickerson brought this one to light.

For his part, Smith told reporters this week that his philosophy has never wavered.

"We hold the players accountable on the football field," he said. "We look at what they do on the field, and we play the guys that give us the best opportunity to win. Go back over the video. That's what I've said from the start, that's what we're saying right now. Players realize that, too."

Offensive staying power

At first blush, you look at an offense coordinated by Mike Martz and quarterbacked by Jay Cutler -- the NFL's third highest-rated passer -- and marvel at the shift from Smith's affinity for the running game. Except, when you look at the numbers, you see it is actually Martz who has made a shift.

While their passing game has far outperformed their running game, it hasn't been for lack of trying. As the first chart shows, the Bears are throwing on 56.6 percent of their plays this season. That's actually a significant drop-off from last season under coordinator Ron Turner and not that much different than the two years prior to that.

It's true that the Bears were closer to a 50-50 split during their Super Bowl season of 2006, but I wonder if that ratio would have been different if they had a 2010 version of Cutler behind center.

(For the purposes of that chart, I put half of quarterback runs into the passing category in an unscientific attempt to include scrambles as passing plays.)

What's more, Martz has found a way to get the tight end involved in the passing game, another mainstay of Smith's previous teams. In fact, Greg Olsen has 10 receptions and two touchdowns already. At that pace, he'll finish with a respectable 50-catch, 10-touchdown season.

Back to the future on defense

Take a look at the second chart. After signing free-agent defensive end Julius Peppers and putting longtime Tampa-2 disciple Rod Marinelli in charge of game-day calls, the Bears have returned to the core tenet of that scheme. For the most part, they are depending on their defensive line to provide pass rush and using their other seven players in coverage.

According to ESPN's Stats & Information, the Bears are using an extra rusher on 24 percent of their defensive snaps, cutting their blitzes by about half of their frequency over the past two seasons. And while they have managed only one sack with their four-man rush, you can't argue with the results from a big-picture perspective. Quarterbacks have a 73.6 passer rating when the Bears don't blitz, the ninth lowest in the league, and have scored only one touchdown in those situations.

The Bears are 3-0 for many reasons. One of them, I think, has been Smith's adherence to his core values -- and not the discovery of a new approach.

Poor start for Brandon Manumaleuna

September, 17, 2010
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We spent much of the offseason discussing which of the Chicago Bears' incumbent tight ends -- Greg Olsen or Desmond Clark -- would be pushed by the free agent acquisition of tight end Brandon Manumaleuna. As it turned out, all three players are part of the 53-man roster, but it is Manumaleuna who first reached the proverbial dog house.

Manumaleuna
Manumaleuna

The Bears fined Manumaleuna $22,000 last Saturday for missing mandatory team meetings the day before a season-opening 19-14 victory against the Detroit Lions, reports Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com. Manumaleuna did not start but did play in the game.

According to Dickerson, Manumaleuna was confused about the Bears' pre-game meeting schedule. Clearly, the Bears didn't buy that excuse. Every team has slightly different fine schedules, but generally speaking, $22,000 is a high number for missing one day's worth of meetings.

Manumaleuna is a longtime favorite of offensive coordinator Mike Martz and will earn $6.1 million this season, so he's not going anywhere. But clearly, favoritism has its limits.

Camp Confidential: Bears

August, 1, 2010
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ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 21

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- The Chicago Bears have returned to the pastoral campus of Olivet Nazarene University, a sleepy college setting for the methodical and slow pace of an NFL training camp. But make no mistake. Despite outside appearances, the Bears are in a desperate race against the clock to straighten themselves out on both sides of the ball this summer.

Operating under a win-or-else mandate from team president Ted Phillips, the Bears urgently are installing a new offensive scheme while blending in as many as six players into different positions on defense. The team with the most unknowns in the NFC North is the one that can least afford them.

Yet coach Lovie Smith opened camp with an optimism that bordered on fantasy, suggesting that not only will the Bears smooth out all of the edges this summer but that they are legitimate Super Bowl candidates.

"We've had success before," Smith said. "We know what a Super Bowl football team looks like. So this part of the season, all teams can do is talk about the potential they have for their football team and see if there are any glaring weaknesses. We just don't see that. We see guys in positions with an opportunity to really excel and take a big step forward. Before now it was about getting personnel, getting a lot of outside things set. Now, it's down to just the coaches and the players with football and we feel good about that."

Smith has instituted a "Monsters of the Midway" theme even as national attention has focused on the installation of Mike Martz's pass-focused offense. Smith is looking for something -- anything -- to hook on to after missing the playoffs for three consecutive seasons. "We just want to be an aggressive, tough football team," he said.

Competing in a division with two other Super Bowl contenders, they have no choice.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeMartz/Cutler
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhJay Cutler called the scheme of new offensive coordinator Mike Martz "very complicated."
1. Can the Chicago offense hit the ground running in Week 1? The Bears hired Martz to inject life into the offense, but there can be no growing pains. It's going to have to happen immediately.

Why? The Bears' first five games include a pair of divisional games at home, against Detroit and Green Bay, and three tough road games at Dallas, the New York Giants and Carolina. That schedule is tough enough as it is. If a still-developing offense contributes to, say, a 1-4 or 2-3 start, it won't matter how good the offense eventually becomes. The die will be cast.

It's almost unfair to grade an offense on that kind of curve, but every high throw and missed hole -- and there were a fair share of both during the practices I watched -- must be noted. It was interesting to hear quarterback Jay Cutler's description of the scheme in an interview with ESPN's Adam Schefter.

"Very complicated," Cutler said. "You see some of the stuff on film and you hear stories from different quarterbacks, how hard it is to learn, how difficult it is. But once you grasp it, it is very dynamic and you can be very successful in it. But I've heard that there is a lot of speed bumps in it."

Unfortunately for Cutler and the Bears, this situation is too urgent to be slowed by speed bumps.

2. Are the Bears going to be better at safety? Smith identified the position as a critical area of need this offseason, and general manager Jerry Angelo complied by re-acquiring veteran Chris Harris and making Major Wright his top draft choice. Smith believed it was critical to have Harris because "you need some veterans around that have been through it that know how to play."

But Harris, who sat out some spring drills to freshen up his legs, didn't make it past the second practice of camp before being sidelined by a strained back. The Bears have high hopes for Wright, but don't think he's ready to step in to the starting lineup so early in camp. So when the Bears lined up for their first full-pads practice of the summer, their first-team safeties were holdovers Danieal Manning and Craig Steltz.

Nothing against either player, but they represent the status quo. By definition, that's no upgrade. During 11-on-11 drills in Saturday night's full-pads practice, Bears receivers had their way with the secondary. Their first-team secondary did not manage an interception, and cornerback Zack Bowman dropped the only real opportunity.

[+] EnlargeForte
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhMatt Forte rushed for 929 yards while taking the bulk of the Bears' carries last season. He'll have to share with Chester Taylor in 2010.
3. What are the Bears' intentions for running backs Matt Forte and Chester Taylor? The Bears paid Taylor too much money (four years, $12.5 million) to be a third-down back, so speculation has centered on how many carries Taylor might take away from Forte, the starter and workhorse over the past two seasons.

During early practices this summer, Forte and Taylor both got extensive work with the first team at roughly a 50-50 split. That won't necessarily continue into regular-season games, but it would represent the best way to utilize both players' skills while keeping them fresh for a 16-game season.

Both are solid inside runners and above-average receivers, making them good fits for Martz's attack.

"You look at all the success that Marshall Faulk had in this offense and know it can happen," Forte said. "As for carries and all that, it'll be up to the offensive coordinator. He'll make that call game-to-game."

BIGGEST SURPRISE

We've noted that Cutler favored receiver Johnny Knox during early practices, while Devin Hester, Earl Bennett and Devin Aromashodu played secondary roles. But the bigger surprise was how frequently -- and, probably, deliberately -- the Bears threw to their tight ends in the first practice of the summer. Backup tight end Desmond Clark caught at least eight passes during team drills, and of the first 29 passes Cutler threw in those drills, eight went toward tight ends. That might not sound like a high number, but keep in mind that no tight end has caught more than 38 passes over the course of a season in Martz's offense. "I have heard an awful lot about the tight end not being involved in our offense," Smith said. "... Well, you saw that the tight ends will be a big part of our offense."

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Pass defense is equal parts rush and coverage, and while the Bears took steps to improve both this offseason, the fruits weren't immediately clear in training camp. That was particularly true in coverage, where Harris was immediately sidelined by the injury and Bowman and Charles Tillman were laboring to smooth out their new positions on opposite sides of the field. It's really too early to call the Bears' pass defense a disappointment, but it was an element I wasn't able to get a good feel for during the opening days of camp.

OBSERVATION DECK
    [+] EnlargeJulius Peppers
    AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhJulius Peppers, who had 81 sacks in eight seasons with Carolina, is prepared for the Chicago spotlight.

  • As promised, defensive end Julius Peppers was working on both sides of the line during early practices. His matchups against right tackle Frank Omiyale were particularly entertaining. The excitement over Martz's offense took some of the spotlight off Peppers' arrival, but he knows how much the Bears are counting on him when the season begins. "I've been in that position my entire career," he said. "I know what that's like and I'm fine with it."
  • Clark's future has been in question since the Bears signed free-agent tight end Brandon Manumaleuna, presumably to pair with Greg Olsen on the first team. But it's hard to imagine the Bears parting ways with Clark, who at 33 is determined to prove he can make it in a pass-oriented offense. "I'm trying to establish a role right now," Clark said. "That's all I can do right now is try to show and prove that I can play in the offense, and leave it up to the coaches to create a role for me."
  • Smith created a mini-stir on the opening day of camp by declaring that Peppers' presence could lead to more blitzing than last season. Two quick points here. Peppers' individual pass-rushing skills should lessen the need to blitz, lifting pressure on the back end of the defense. Second, the Bears blitzed more than all but four teams last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. They can't blitz much more than that. What I think Smith was trying to say: His secondary will do a better job in man-to-man defense, allowing more flexibility from a play-calling standpoint.
  • It's pretty clear that Tillman isn't thrilled with the move from left cornerback to right cornerback, which symbolically equates to a demotion from the No. 1 cornerback role to No. 2. Tillman said he had "no idea" why the change was made and said the adjustment to playing on the opposite side is not insignificant. But it was the right decision for the Bears. Bowman, the new "No. 1," is a ball hawk of the first degree.
  • Martz hired Shane Day as his quarterbacks coach this offseason, but during the first few days of camp, Martz worked almost exclusively with the quarterbacks himself and was rarely more than a few feet away from Cutler. Both men know how important the other is to their collective success this season. As a result, Martz's early practice plan has featured Cutler and backup Caleb Hanie getting all of the snaps in team drills. Teams usually find some snaps for the No. 3 and/or No. 4 quarterbacks, but the Bears' situation is too urgent this summer.
  • Defensive tackle Tommie Harris routinely sat out selected practices in recent years to rest his aching knee. So it was worth noting that he participated fully in two practices Saturday, including the evening session in full pads, while several other veterans -- center Olin Kreutz and linebacker Brian Urlacher among them -- did not.
  • Kreutz, who had Achilles surgery last winter and sat out most of the offseason program, seems to have fully recovered. He had a jump in his step during practice and said: "I'm ready to go."
  • For what it's worth, the Bears' roster includes the biggest safety I've ever seen. Rookie Quentin Scott, an undrafted free agent out of Northern Iowa, is listed at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds. Both figures might be understatements. I have no idea if he can play, but, I mean, wow.
Our friends at ESPNChicago.com were all over Olivet Nazarene University on Thursday as Chicago Bears players reported for training camp. Let's pick up the highlights of their coverage:

From Jeff Dickerson: Bears quarterback Jay Cutler admitted Thursday that the job status of head coach Lovie Smith is part of the motivation for the players this season. "Lovie is one of the best coaches I've been around," Cutler said, "and I know that everyone on this team has a great amount of respect for him, as he does for us. He treats us well. I know some of the guys that have been here longer than me definitely have a lot of ties to him, and we want to go out there for him and play well, because you never know what's going to happen this year if we don't go out and perform -- if Lovie gets to stay or not. That's definitely a question that I'm sure is in the back of everyone else's mind."

Seifert comment: I can't imagine Cutler saying anything different with a straight face. Of course he is going to profess loyalty to the head coach. But I do think it's notable that on the very first day of training camp, the starting quarterback was already admitting that the head coach could be fired after the season. All NFL coaches face win-now pressure, but you don't often see such a significant storyline playing out in July.

Also from Dickerson: Bears center Olin Kreutz, who's coming off Achilles surgery, expects to be on the field when the Bears open practice Friday afternoon. "Yeah, I'm ready to go," he said. "I should be out there for Day 1, if everything goes as planned. I'm ready to go, and hopefully the foot feels better."

Seifert comment: Kreutz's status fell below the radar on this blog for most of the offseason, but the surgery forced him to miss almost the entire slate of offseason workouts. He's been the Bears' best offensive linemen over the past decade, and you wince a bit when you read him saying that "hopefully the foot feels better." I'm guessing that Kreutz will just push through whatever pain he encounters.

By the way, Smith said that all players should be ready to participate in Friday's opening practice. That list includes new tight end Brandon Manumaleuna, who was sidelined for most of the offseason after having surgery to drain his knee.

Remember, you can read follow Dickerson and Michael Wright on Twitter (@ESPNChiBears) or read their blog for minute-by-minute Bears updates.

Is Hoomanawanui the next Manumaleuna?

April, 24, 2010
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The St. Louis Rams' newest tight end, Michael Hoomanawanui, does share a few traits -- besides long last names -- with former Rams tight end Brandon Manumaleuna.

Both have good size.

Hoomanawanui, a 264-pounder from Illinois, impressed scouts with his receiving ability. He's not a burner, but could give rookie quarterback Sam Bradford a big, reliable target.

The Rams certainly needed a tight end. Hoomanawanui fills a need.

Can he play?

The Rams should find out rather quickly. Their lack of quality depth at the position should clear the way for Hoomanawanui to get significant reps through the summer.
Vincent JacksonAP Photo/Michael ThomasReceiver Vincent Jackson is one of five players key to San Diego's future success.
There is no question San Diego has lost more personnel than it has gained as it attempts to rebound from a shocking playoff loss and stay among the elite teams in the AFC. Many Chargers fans worry the team has taken a step backward and could lose its grip as the four-time defending AFC West champion.

Among the departed: Running back LaDainian Tomlinson (cut and signed with the Jets), cornerback Antonio Cromartie (traded to the Jets), special-teams ace Kassim Osgood (free agent/Jacksonville), defensive tackle Jamal Williams (cut, signed with Denver) and tight end Brandon Manumaleuna (free agent/Chicago).

I don’t think the losses are as devastating as they appear on paper and San Diego will not take a dramatic step backward. With the right moves in the rest of the offseason, I think the Chargers will reaffirm themselves as the top team in the AFC West. Here’s why:

All of the players who left are replaceable: None of the players who left were top-level performers on last year’s 13-3 team.

  • Tomlinson is a legend and will be missed, but his performance last year was not memorable. He had a career-low 730 yards, he didn’t have a 100-yard rushing game and the Chargers were ranked 31st in the NFL in rushing. An upgrade was needed.
  • Cromartie was a Pro Bowl player earlier in his career because he was an interception magnet. However, his interceptions have declined dramatically, he had issues in coverage and he was a major liability in the run game.
  • Third-year pro Antoine Cason will not be a big downgrade from Cromartie in coverage and he should help in ways Cromartie didn’t. Cason, the Chargers’ top pick in 2008, is a smart player who is trusted by his teammates. He is a ball hawk and doesn’t shy from run support. He has some work to do, but he won’t be a liability.
  • Williams missed all but one game last season with a triceps injury. The Chargers were moving on anyway.
  • Osgood will be missed on special teams, but his departure isn’t a devastating blow. He was a very good role player, but became too expensive for the Chargers to keep. It's time for another player to step up and become a difference-maker on special teams. The Chargers will survive this loss.
  • Manumaleuna is a fine blocking tight end, but he is not a player San Diego will be lost without. He was a role player.
The team is keeping its best players: Many San Diego fans complained the Chargers haven’t been active in free agency. That is not accurate. The team has been very aggressive -- in keeping its own players. No team had as many key decisions to make in restricted free agency.

In the end, San Diego put the high tender of first- and third-round picks on receivers Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd, linebacker Shawne Merriman, left tackle Marcus McNeill and running back/return man Darren Sproles.

Unlike the group of players who left, these five players are essential to the team’s future success. San Diego made the right decision to make it virtually impossible for another team to sign any of these players.

The team is prepared to improve in the draft: The Chargers will be adding new talent this year.

San Diego’s top two pressing needs are nose tackle and running back. San Diego is in position to find quality new starters in the draft at both positions.

In one of the shrewdest offseason moves, San Diego acquired the No. 40 pick in the draft when it traded No. 3 quarterback Charlie Whitehurst to Seattle. San Diego gave up the No. 60 pick. It also got Seattle’s third-round pick next year.

San Diego now has the No. 28 and No. 40 picks in this month’s draft, giving it great drafting power. Both the nose tackle and running back classes are deep, so San Diego should get two good players. The additional picks also give the Chargers greater flexibility. They could decide to package the picks and move up in the first round to get a top nose tackle or running back.

No matter what happens, the Chargers will get better through the draft. By the time the 2010 season starts, San Diego will be just as good as it was at the end of 2009.

Draft Watch: AFC West

March, 26, 2010
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NFC Under-The-Radar: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Draft Watch: Biggest needs (2/17) | Busts/gems (2/24) | Schemes, themes (3/3) | Recent history (3/10) | Needs revisited (3/17) | Under-the-radar needs (3/26) | History in that spot (3/31) | Draft approach (4/7) | Decision-makers (4/14) | Dream scenario/Plan B (4/21)

Each week leading up to the NFL draft (April 22-24), the ESPN.com blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today’s topic: Under the radar needs.

Denver

I could see Denver drafting a safety in the fourth round. Starters Brian Dawkins (36) and Renaldo Hill (31) will not be around forever. Denver did take Darcel McBath in the second round last year and he made some decent strides before getting hurt. It would hurt Denver to try to find another young safety to develop. I could also see Denver looking for a big running back late in the draft. The team needs a pounder. The Broncos struggled in short-yardage situations. The Broncos also need a punter.

Kansas City

The Chiefs have done a nice job in free agency, but they still have plenty of needs heading into the draft. Many of Kansas City’s needs are on the defensive side of the ball. I wouldn’t be surprised if Kansas City added multiple linebackers, perhaps starting in the second round. Since the Chiefs use a 3-4 defense, they need several linebackers on an aging crew. Linebacker might be the top need after safety, offensive line and receiver. The Chiefs are young on the defensive front, but it wouldn’t hurt to get more talent in the later rounds at nose tackle. Even though tight end is not a glamour position in Todd Haley’s offense, the Chiefs do need some talent there.

Oakland

After the offensive line, linebacker and quarterback, the Raiders need some defensive line help, especially at tackle. Watch for Oakland to use a mid-round pick on this position. I could also see Oakland trying to find a running back in the third-to-fifth rounds. It cut Justin Fargas and needs some help behind Darren McFadden and Michael Bush. Oakland was set to visit with former Kansas City star Larry Johnson before he signed with Washington. Cornerback and safety are other areas Oakland might address add late in the draft. Oakland also needs some help at receiver. Ideally, it would be in the form of a veteran (Terrell Owens, anyone?) because Oakland is so green at the position.

San Diego

This is an important draft for the Chargers. The team has has lost several players this offseason. San Diego is still the class of the AFC West and it has pretty nice depth. But reinforcements are needed at several positions. The Chargers’ biggest needs are running back and nose tackle. But San Diego will be busy after filling those two early needs. San Diego could use some youth at defensive end and inside linebacker. Also, watch for the team to look for a cornerback in the post-Antonio Cromartie era. Offensively, San Diego needs a blocking tight end to replace Brandon Manumaleuna, who signed with Chicago. That position could be addressed in the middle rounds. San Diego also could use a young right tackle to groom. I could also see a young receiver taken in the late rounds.
ORLANDO, Fla. -- I'm on record suggesting that trading and/or minimizing the role of tight end Greg Olsen would make absolutely no sense in Chicago. At the same time, you can't dispute the history of new coordinator Mike Martz's offense: No tight end has ever caught more than 38 passes over the course of a season.

That dichotomy has spawned all kinds of rumors about Olsen's future, but on Wednesday, coach Lovie Smith was unequivocal about it: "His role has increased as far as us going to him every year, and I don't see that changing."

[+] EnlargeGreg Olsen
Jerry Lai/US PresswireLovie Smith expects Greg Olsen to remain a big part of the Bears' offense.
How will that happen? Most importantly, Martz will have to make some adjustments to his approach. After all, no scheme should be so rigid that a Pro Bowl-caliber player can't play a major role. During the NFC coaches breakfast, Smith offered a few details about the Bears' plan to incorporate Olsen into Martz's offense.

First, Smith said he has maintained a regular dialogue with Olsen during the offseason, starting with the interview process that led to Martz's hiring and continuing through the decision to sign free agent Brandon Manumaleuna. "I let him know what we were doing," Smith said. "I said, 'We're improving our ball club.'" In other words, Olsen should be fully informed at this point.

Second, the Bears have identified the H-back role as what Olsen is "best suited for up to this point." Ultimately, though, Smith said Olsen will need to demonstrate proficiency as a traditional "in-line" tight end to maximize his productivity.

"We've always talked about the other things he can do," Smith said. "We can spread him out and all the things that we can do. But we've never talked about him being an in-line tight end. That's the next step with Greg, is getting him more comfortable playing that."

Reading between the lines, a cynic might suggest Smith wants Olsen to become a better blocker, the primary role Martz has traditionally assigned to his tight ends and the ostensible reason Manumaleuna was signed. But when I asked why he wouldn't focus on positioning Olsen in the slot or outside receiver to promote mismatches, Smith offered a different explanation.

"You would like to do that," Smith said. "But in order for that to work, guys have to really respect Greg as an in-line tight end. A lot of times last year, guys kept their nickel group out there with Greg. You don't want that. You would like to see him matched up on a safety or linebacker."

I guess there are different ways to interpret that sentiment, but look at it this way: If teams believe the Bears can run consistently behind Olsen or when he is lined up as a tight end, they are more likely to keep their base defense in the game. Theoretically, Olsen would have a more favorable matchup against a team's base defense than he would against a more skilled cover cornerback in the nickel.

"Greg is going to be a highly productive guy in any offense," Smith said. "[And] yeah, he can be successful in this offense. He will. Not can. He will. He is a competitor and he is going to find a way."

In a Bears uniform, it appears.
Ryan Pickett, Chester Taylor and Brett Favre AP ImagesWhile the Packers locked up Ryan Pickett, left, and the Bears gave Jay Cutler another weapon in Chester Taylor, middle, the Vikings are still waiting to see if Brett Favre returns for another season.
Sometimes the NFL offseason moves so quickly that we don't have a chance to consider the causes, meaning, repercussions and lingering questions created by each move. So while we have a chance, let's consider four NFC North-related topics on Day 11 of Free Agency 2010.

Why was Green Bay so committed to retaining 30-year-old nose tackle Ryan Pickett a year after drafting defensive lineman B.J. Raji, who ostensibly plays the same position?

Raji finished his rookie season splitting time between nose tackle and defensive end in the Packers' 3-4 scheme, an assignment that seemed designed to groom him for a full-time role in 2010. That progression would have been logical for a highly drafted player. I presumed Raji's destination would be nose tackle, but the Packers first placed their franchise tag on Pickett and then signed the veteran to a four-year extension worth $28 million.

Pickett's new deal will pay him $10 million in 2010, a clear sign they intend for him to start. I suppose it's possible he could move to end, but it's more likely he'll be anchored on the nose.

Where does that leave Raji? Either as a starter at end, which might not be his best position, or in another year as a swing player who spells Pickett and also plays defensive tackle in the nickel formation.

Given how infrequently the Packers play their 3-4 defense, I suppose the "starting" designation isn't as important as it might be on other teams. But when you draft a player as highly as the Packers took Raji, you expect him to quickly find a consistent and full-time role -- somewhere.

Speaking last month at the NFL scouting combine, general manager Ted Thompson said: "We feel like Ryan's a good player. We feel like he's a good teammate, a good leader of that group. I personally like him quite a bit."

In an uncapped environment, there's no penalty for paying a player $10 million for those attributes. But the decision leaves Raji's short-term status less predictable.

(Read full post)

LaDainian Tomlinson, Thomas Jones and Brandon MarshallUS Presswire/Icon SMI/US PresswireLaDainian Tomlinson is out in San Diego, Thomas Jones has a new home in Kansas City and Brandon Marshall's future in Denver remains uncertain.
We’re a week into free agency. Here is a look at the key aspects of the offseason for each team in the division so far and what’s ahead:

Denver

Big news: Brandon Marshall. The Broncos set the stage for Marshall’s departure by putting the first-round tender on him. It didn’t take long for Marshall to attract interest. Seattle set up a visit to bring in Marshall on the first day of free agency. The Marshall situation could drag on, especially if other teams show interest. But the fact that Marshall was in another team’s building over the weekend is big news.

Surprise: The new-look defensive line. Last year, in his first as Denver’s coach, Josh McDaniels remade the Broncos’ defensive line. He is doing it again in his second year. The Broncos have signed defensive linemen Justin Bannan, Jarvis Green and Jamal Williams. All three of these players are expected to play major roles.

Best decision: Giving Elvis Dumervil the high tender. Dumervil, 26, represents the future for Denver. He led the NFL with 17 sacks last season. Had Denver not put the high tender of a first- and third-round pick on Dumervil, he would be popular in free agency. With the high tender, Dumervil probably is staying put.

Worst decision: Not being flexible on Marshall’s compensation. It has been reported that the Broncos will keep Marshall if they don’t get a first-round pick in return for him. Perhaps this is posturing. But unless other teams start pursuing him, I don’t see Seattle giving up a first-round pick. Yet, the Seahawks could offer other creative compensation. Ultimately, the Broncos want to part ways with Marshall, but this high price tag could prevent that from happening.

What’s needed: Continue to get bigger. The Broncos added size to the defensive front. Now, they have to do so on the offensive line. Denver is moving away from the zone-blocking scheme to a more traditional power-blocking attack. The Broncos need a left guard and a center.

Kansas City

Big news: Thomas Jones signing. Next to the trade for quarterback Matt Cassel last year, this is the biggest move of the Scot Pioli era to date. The addition of Jones shows Kansas City is willing to spend and it wants to get better. The veteran running back will help this offense.

Surprise: How aggressive the Chiefs planned to be. Last year, the Chiefs were criticized for not being active. This year has been a different story. They were planning to pursue San Diego’s Darren Sproles had he hit the open market, and they tried to trade for receiver Anquan Boldin. Before signing Jones, Kansas City also was considering fellow running backs Justin Fargas and Willie Parker. It is clear the Chiefs are determined to get better.

Best decision: Re-signing Chris Chambers. Adding Jones and keeping Chambers will help Kansas City’s offense evolve in the first year under new offensive coordinator Charlie Weis. Chambers was Cassel’s favorite target when he was claimed off waivers by San Diego in November. A full season of playing with Chambers should help Cassel.

Worst decision: Not trading for Boldin. A receiving crew of Chambers, Boldin and Dwayne Bowe would have been formidable. The Chiefs have two second-round picks next month. It might have been worth it to trade one to get Boldin and really open up the offense.

What’s needed: Keep spending. The Chiefs are on the right track. But they need more talent throughout the team. They need to add more pieces, perhaps on the offensive line and in the defensive back eight.

Oakland

Big news: No big spending. For the second year in a row, the Raiders are watching free agency as bystanders. Two years ago, the Raiders spent wildly. It didn’t work, and most of their 2008 free-agency class has been cut. The Raiders are sitting on the sideline in this uncapped year. You would think Al Davis would make a splash or two, but he has been very quiet.

Surprise: The release of Greg Ellis. The defensive end was cut after one season with the team. Ellis had seven sacks last year, but he dealt with injuries. Still, he may have a year or two left. Yet, the Raiders decided to go with youth at the position. Perhaps that is a good sign of things to come. Of course, they gave another 30-year-old defensive end, Richard Seymour, the franchise tag after giving up a 2011 first-round pick for him. You never know the thought process in Oakland.

Best decision: The release of Javon Walker. This move was a long time coming. Walker was one of the worst free-agent decisions in NFL history. Oakland gave him a six-year, $55 million deal with $16 million in guaranteed money in 2008. He had 15 catches in two seasons in Oakland. He never helped.

Worst decision: Giving Stanford Routt the high tender. The backup cornerback was given the high tender of a first- and third-round pick. Routt is not a starter and is a marginal backup. Even if Oakland put the first-round tender on Routt, he wouldn’t have attracted interested. The move simply cost the Raiders money and served no purpose.

What’s needed: The Raiders have to spend some. It’s admirable that Oakland has learned its lesson from its horrible spending spree of two years ago. But the Raiders need help. This isn’t a playoff- quality roster. The team needs help in several areas. The Raiders don’t have to spend huge, but they do need some new players.

San Diego

Big news: The team is losing numbers. The Chargers cut former stars LaDainian Tomlinson and Jamal Williams. Then they traded cornerback Antonio Cromartie and lost free agents Kassim Osgood and Brandon Manumaleuna. The Chargers have not added any players of note. San Diego prides itself on its depth and none of these players are irreplaceable, but the Chargers could miss some of them.

Surprise: The Chargers gave the high tender to running back Darren Sproles. San Diego was expected to let the change-of-pace running back/return star test the market, but Sproles was tendered at the deadline. Good thing for San Diego, because Sproles probably would have been signed within 48 hours on the open market.

Best decision: Trading Antonio Cromartie. The team grew tired of the cornerback, who struggled at times on the field and had some off-field issues. Cromartie was sent to the Jets for a 2011 third-round pick that could turn into a second-round pick, depending on playing time. It was a good value for a player San Diego couldn’t wait to part ways with.

Worst decision: Not re-signing Jamal Williams. Only because it allowed Denver to sign him. Williams probably doesn’t have much left. But if he does, the Chargers will regret seeing Williams play well for a rival.

What’s needed: A running back. The Chargers are taking a calculated risk. They are not impressed with the free-agent class, so they are waiting for the draft. It is a deep draft. The Chargers clearly feel they can get a primary back then. Still, it is a tad scary waiting for an unknown rookie to be the primary back.

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