Four Down Territory, March 2: Cassel and the case of an elite player at No. 18

SHARE Four Down Territory, March 2: Cassel and the case of an elite player at No. 18

The opening weekend of free agency has come and gone and the Bears added one player in offensive lineman Frank Omiyale, with offers currently out to two others in Kevin Jones and John St. Clair. There are a couple big names still floating out there–wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh is reportedly going to pick his new team some time today–but the fireworks appear to be just about over. Let’s get back into the action:

Q: I have a question regarding Matt Cassel. Jerry Angelo has mentioned several times that sitting at the No. 18 pick there won’t be an “elite” player available because if that player was “elite” than he would be taken already before the pick. My question is this then–Cassel, regardless if some people think he was just a “system” player with good weapons (Randy Moss and Wes Welker good, that running game…not so much), was an ELITE player in the NFL last year. For the past 20 years the Bears haven’t had anything close to an elite quarterback. Why then wouldn’t Angelo offer up his first-round pick when he conceded there will be no “elite” players left at pick 18 and grab a guy who was a top five quarterback last year?

Steve K., New York

A: Fair question. I spoke to a handful of people around the league at a variety of different positions and the consensus was they believe Cassel was a product of the Patriots’ system which not only had top talent, as you pointed out, but top coaching as well. The lack of a running game may have contributed to his success, at least his numbers, as Cassel ranked ninth in the league with 516 pass attempts. When you break down the numbers, I’m not sure Cassel was a top five quarterback from last year either. If you’re just going by the numbers, I’ll take Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning, Kurt Warner, Donovan McNabb, Jay Cutler, Chad Pennington, Aaron Rodgers (yes, Aaron Rodgers) and maybe even Matt Ryan ahead of him. So, maybe he was a top 10 passer last season.

But, if as you say Cassel was an “elite” player last season, what’s going to make him “elite” plugging him into the Bears’ offense? Angelo wasn’t the only general manager who was unwilling to pony up a first-round pick for him. Peter King does a real nice job of breaking down the situation this morning. I’m not saying Cassel will be a flop in Kansas City with an offensive-minded coach in Todd Haley. But I think it’s hard to label Cassel an elite player right now. There are more people out there than not who believe he was a product of a very potent, well oiled and veteran offensive scheme. If that’s the case, do you deal your first-round pick for him? Apparently Detroit, which arguably needs a quarterback more than the Bears, wasn’t willing to part with No. 20 in the draft.

Q: I read your blog on Jay Cutler and why he would not become a Chicago Bear even if he was available. I agree with your reasoning but how can Jerry Angelo talk about how fixated this team is on finally getting this position right and not investigate pursuing Cutler? The Bears can hope Kyle Orton plays the entire season the way he did for the first half of 2008 but the bottom line is he does not have Cutler’s talent. The Bears could become Vanderbilt Midwest with the quarterback, left tackle and wide receiver.

Joseph B., Parts Unknown

A: For starters, I don’t know anyone at this point who believes the Broncos are going to even entertain the idea of dealing Cutler. They don’t have a true backup on their roster right now, let alone someone else capable of stepping in and competing for a starting job. It was suggested earlier on the blog that the Bears could make a serious offer–their first-round pick, 18th overall, and their third-round pick, No. 84 overall, for Cutler. Sounds great from the Bears’ perspective, right? Why would Denver entertain this deal? They’re not even assured of being able to get Matthew Stafford or Mark Sanchez with their first-round pick at No. 12. The guy has been to the Pro Bowl. The price would be steeper than that, considerably higher in our opinion.

When the Broncos’ job became available following the surprise firing of Mike Shanahan it was instantly considered the best opening for head-coaching candidates. Why? Not only is owner Pat Bowlen considered one of the better men to work for in the league, the Broncos were one of the few teams out there that had a young quarterback in place to build around. Maybe new coach Josh McDaniels was willing to deal that young quarterback for another young quarterback in the aforementioned Cassel. As we wrote Sunday, we don’t know of a scenario where the Bears could deal the Broncos a young quarterback that every franchise wants to be able to build around. So does it matter if Angelo investigates or pursues?

And don’t forget about Vanderbilt linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer. I’m not sure if the Bears want to become the Commodores of the NFL however.

Q: I just finished watching the NFL Network’s replay of the 89-point 2008 Bears home game versus the Vikings, as well as the NFL combine and have a few questions: What exactly was it that made Mike Brown expendable, as he was all over the field, a lockerroom leader, quarterback of the secondary, had his first healthy season in years, could be had at a decent price and is a better option than any player in free agency, the draft or currently on the roster? If speed was an issue, why would the Bears make Craig Steltz (a slower less experienced option) the starter? Also, what happened to Brandon McGowan, and why has he not been considered for the free safety vacancy over say Craig Steltz?

Tim W., Atlanta, Ga.

A: We’ve got a lot to tackle here but let’s start out with the obvious–what specifically stood out about Brown’s play in the 48-41 win over the Vikings, the most points the Bears have ever allowed in victory? Minnesota rolled up and down the field as Gus Frerotte passed for 298 yards and the Vikings piled up 439 yards offense, the third-most allowed on the season. I’d defy any defensive player to suggest they played well in this game. I don’t think the Bears felt Brown was expendable as that would imply they have an excess of players at the position. I think the belief, and it almost happened a year earlier, was that it was time to move on. Brown was an unquestioned leader and a quarterback for the defense when he was on the field. Remember, he wound up on injured reserve for the final game with a calf muscle injury that prevented him from finishing three previous games. A bad calf muscle pull is what kept him out of four games at the end of 2005 and then knocked him out of the playoff loss to Carolina after a bye week in the postseason. If other clubs saw Brown’s value as you do, he wouldn’t still be on the market. The Bears didn’t offer a contract to the guy. It’s not like teams were beating down his front door when free agency opened. Most I’ve spoken to suspect he may get some action after the draft when teams have a better idea of how their roster looks and where their needs lie. Brown was a stand-up guy, a pro when it came to handling the media, but he wasn’t the same player last season that many recall from 2003 and before, prior to the injuries piling up.

As far as McGowan, you’re talking about a player with far less accomplished than Brown and every bit as much of an injury history. But first, let’s remember that McGowan lost his job as a starting safety in preseason and was relegated to a role as the nickel back before the season began. The Bears liked him enough to put a high tender on him as a restricted free agent a year ago and some time between that transaction and the third week of preseason, McGowan had fallen out of favor. He wound up going on injured reserve after Week 2 as he required ankle surgery. McGowan played 14 games in 2007, was limited to one in 2006 (ruptured Achilles tendon) and played in eight games in 2005 when he tore an ACL in the season finale. That’s four seasons and three injuries requiring surgery.

It’s been floated that Steltz could be the starter at free safety. I’d imagine the Bears work to find an alternative to that but we’ll see. At the minimum, they’re certain to add some competition, maybe in the draft.

Q: With the inability to consistently identify talent in the draft recently in the Angelo era (Dan Bazuin, Mike Okwo, etc.) why should fans trust Jerry and Lovie Smith to pay $14 million to a career backup tackle? Certainly Angelo isn’t going to fork over that type of money to a swing tackle with the way player salaries often dictate who starts on the Bears. Why should we have any confidence that Frank Omiyale can step in and contribute?

Ryan Y., Columbus, Ohio

A: That’s a good question and I think the hope you have to have is that you’re comparing apples to oranges. First, I don’t know if it’s completely fair to characterize Omiyale as a “career backup.” At least when I hear that it makes me think of a guy who has been in the league a long time. Omiyale has been in the league four seasons and just reached unrestricted free agency for the first time. That would be a considerable amount of money to pay a swing tackle but Angelo said the Bears will look at Omiyale first at guard, most likely left guard.

Considering how the line has been built during the Angelo era, you can have a measure of confidence that Omiyale will work out. The players you referenced were failed draft picks. Roberto Garza was a bargain pickup in free agency and has started 48 consecutive regular-season games. Ruben Brown came at a discount in free agency and made a Pro Bowl. Fred Miller played well for two of his first three seasons with the team and came at the market rate for starting tackles in free agency. John Tait was a free-agent pickup. So, the point is the Bears have done better with offensive linemen through free agency than they have the draft. If that trend holds, Omiyale should be fine. Most would agree the team still needs to buttress the line with some young help, and that could come through the draft.

Thanks for participating and thanks as always for reading. We’ll get to more questions Tuesday.

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