Jay Taft: Lockout would sting Bears, but not as much as others

Jay Taft

NFL owners and players extending their negotiation deadline to Friday is encouraging. But that doesn’t guarantee there still won’t be a lockout this offseason.

And while the Chicago Bears, along with the rest of the NFC North teams, will not be hit as hard as most other teams, they will still have to make some major adjustments to their offseason approach. The smartest teams, the ones without a lot of coaching changes or holes in their rosters, will be the ones that shine on the field next year.

One big key for the Bears, along with Detroit and defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay, is that they do not have a new head coach or coordinator that would require players to learn a new system. Those that do — including the Minnesota Vikings, though former Bears player Leslie Frazier did spend nearly half of last season as the interim head coach — will have to take crash courses once things are settled.

“I’m just glad we’re not in a position that some of those teams with new coaches and coordinators are in,” said Bears general manager Jerry Angelo, referring to Cleveland, Denver, Carolina, San Francisco, Tennessee, Oakland, Dallas and Minnesota.

That’s not to say Chicago is out of harm’s way by any means. But it is to say it could be worse. (Just look at the San Francisco 49ers, who have a new head coach, new coordinators and are in need of a lot of new players.)

Holes to be filled

The Bears have some serious needs at wide receiver and on the offensive line. The defensive backfield needs to be addressed as well, but the most obvious holes are on offense. There are normally three ways to fill needs — the draft, free agency and trades.

The draft will go on as scheduled in April, so Chicago has that route. But getting a No. 1 wideout and a lineman through the draft to help right away, as we have seen, is by no means an automatic proposition. And as long as there is a lockout, no matter who the Bears pick, they can’t sign them or start teaching them their system.

As for free agency and trades, all of that is on hold as well. But once things settle and there is a mad rush to sign players, Angelo should first target a free-agent receiver — maybe Sidney Rice, Santonio Holmes, Santana Moss or Braylon Edwards. They need someone to be Jay Cutler’s No. 1 target. Johnny Knox and Earl Bennett proved they can play in this league. I just don’t believe they can lead in this league.

But at least the Bears are set at the most important position: quarterback.

Teams that are looking for a signal caller will struggle the most next season. If there isn’t an agreement until August or September, Minnesota (again with the Vikings, I know) could be forced to settle for Joe Webb under center rather than take the time to teach a new QB the offense.

The Bears, the Packers (Aaron Rodgers) and the Lions (Matthew Stafford) have QBs that are familiar with their team’s offense, and know what they need to do to get ready in the offseason.

So yes, a prolonged lockout will do damage to many teams. But for the most part, the NFC North seems to be in as good a shape as you can expect under the circumstances.

Jay Taft covers the Chicago Bears for the Rockford Register Star. He can be reached at 815-987-1384 or jtaft@rrstar.com.

Rest of the NFC North

Packers: Green Bay was smart in the way it cut and re-signed linebacker A.J. Hawk last week, and if the Packers keep it up, they will be one of the teams least affected by a lockout. They have their core on both sides of the ball signed. They may lose wide receiver James Jones and running back Brandon Jackson, but will be fine without those two.

Vikings: Minnesota is in trouble if there is a lockout, especially if it lasts a long time. New head coach Leslie Frazier’s first offseason won’t be an easy one. The Vikings have 17 unrestricted free agents, and a lot of holes to be filled.

Lions: Detroit spent a ton of cash in free agency last year and is probably not expecting to do it again this year. It appeared to be a team on the verge, and they will have to upgrade at linebacker, on the offensive line and in the defensive backfield if they are to take the next step.