NEW ORLEANS -- We caught up with Bears general manager Jerry Angelo on Monday at the NFL owners meetings. In this wide-ranging interview, Angelo spoke about quarterback Jay Cutler, the lockout, the NFL draft, the team’s plans for free agency and some of the potential options for replacing recently-departed defensive tackle Tommie Harris:
Now that the NFL has officially locked out the players, and teams can’t be in contact with them, how are the Bears proceeding?
Jerry Angelo: They educated us long before the lockout happened. We were all hoping we wouldn’t get to this point, but we’re going on. Like I said at one time, ‘Business as usual’. We’re confident that we’re gonna be back and going. Hopefully, it’s gonna be sooner than later. No more than that. We have plenty enough to do to keep us busy; the draft if nothing else. You know, we still have to look at free agency. So there’s a lot on our plate. There are a lot of players in free agency. So that’s a lot of players to get through. So in some ways the additional time helps to some degree.
This team considers the under tackle position very important. How does Henry Melton fit in as a potential player to fill the role vacated by Tommie Harris?
JA: Well, he made improvement. He played a goodly amount. Obviously, the plan is for him to play more, and hopefully be the starter. He’s still a work in progress. But everything we saw this past year, in particular during the season, we liked. He just kept getting a little better, a little better. The arrow’s going up. We feel, physically speaking, he’s got everything you want in terms of size, speed, toughness. That’s not any question. Now it’s just a matter of learning the position and that will come with the repetition of more play. We feel real good. No guarantees, but everything we look for he has. That’s the good thing. He has shown that at some point or another.
Looking at the draft, are there areas that you’ve maybe moved beyond, maybe eliminated. Or are you still open to every position?
JA: You like to say you want to take the best player available. You still have to fill your needs. In the event the draft comes before free agency, that might alter our thinking somewhat. I’m sure it will. But we feel this year -- from our perspective -- is a very good year for offensive linemen. You have to play the course based on what it gives you. Right now, the linemen are good, particularly the defensive linemen. It was good last year. It’s good again this year. There are a number of offensive linemen -- I don’t think they’re necessarily bell cows like there are on the defense -- but it’s still a good number of quality players.
The thing that creates the biggest challenge in this draft [is] there’s probably about four positions that we would look at and say it’s not up to par as what normal drafts would give you. That will be the biggest challenge: how does that affect the draft as a whole with teams and how they assess it? Maybe some teams won’t see it that way. But as we’re going through our evaluation process we’re seeing probably more positions where it wasn’t to the level that you’d like it to be or maybe that you’d see year in and year out.
You landed the most coveted free agent last year in Julius Peppers. Once free agency starts, could you see this team doing something like that again?
JA: Last year was a different situation. Usually you don’t see players of that caliber come on the marketplace. So we have a plan. I think our plan is sound. But we also, when something presents itself, we want to have the ability to make a move. So we’re not so much in cement with anything. I always say this: ‘the cement has already been laid, but it’s not dry.’ So until we know what the prospects are out there…am I saying that we’ll come out and have a big splash in free agency? No, I’m not saying that. In this type of situation, there are so many players. There’s maybe two or three that people would say are special, and there are probably a dozen paid like they’re special. But they’re not special based on the value of their position.
Last year, we saw a special player [in Peppers] who played a special position that fit our scheme. So in our minds, that was the right thing to do. Do I see that happening in this free agency market? I don’t really see that at this point. But again, until we know what’s out there for sure… And we have a lot of coaching changes. How does that play into free agency, players being released after teams access [their needs], in particular if it comes after the draft? [There are] just too many moving parts right now. Everybody is just kind of doing their guesswork. But you have to prepare for as many scenarios that might be presented. That’s the art of this. That’s what you have to be able to do: be prepared to act, and not react. It’s much more challenging this year.
Having such a veteran roster, is this team better equipped to weather a work stoppage or major delay?
JA: I would say yes, given that our staff is intact, given that we have a veteran team as compared to some, absolutely, particularly those [teams] that have new staffs. As I said in my [season ending] interview, if we had to play [today] we could line up with 21 starters in our minds, and feel comfortable with those players at their positions. So that’s a pretty good starting point given the dynamic that some teams will have to deal with.
You haven’t had a first-round pick in a couple of years, and that’s one of the criticisms you’ve endured -- that you don’t hit on those first-round picks. Having all your picks this year, do you feel any different or extra pressure to draft well?
JA: No. They can’t beat up on the first-round picks from the last couple of years (laughing) because of the obvious reasons. But we feel real good. Our formula to draft well is very, very sound. I’m very comfortable with our philosophy and how we look at the draft. I wish you could be educated more about the things that we see that you aren’t privileged to see, and how that impacts our evaluation. There are a lot of things that come into affect with the draft, at least from our standpoint. Picking at 29th, obviously it’s hard to think that we’re gonna hit a home run at 29; very hard to do. If you try to do it, you may. But if you don’t, what are you left with? I think that’s important because when we look at any draft, we want to come out with four starters. Naturally, you would want to use those first four picks to say that. You want to keep your eye focused on [whether you can] win with a player. We’re very focused on that. Naturally, when you’re at the top you’re gonna get a player who has more glitter to him. He probably has a pretty good floor, too. We really want to get the player with the most talent, with the best floor.
Do you need that player to contribute right away?
JA: From my perspective, we’d like to think they can contribute. They’re going to get play time, they’re going to dress on Sunday. That will then be determined based on when we get into camp, hopefully we’re going to have a good offseason, too, and then we’ll see where it goes. I think [the expectation for the picks to contribute right away is] realistic. These kids are coming out well prepared. I don’t think that’s unrealistic at all.
This isn’t an interview without a Jay Cutler question (Angelo laughs). With you guys being prohibited to speak to Cutler, are you worried about whether he’ll get to spend sufficient time working to clean up some of his mechanics, for which he’s been widely criticized?
JA: Anything he needs to get better at is coachable. It’s very coachable. I don’t see anything [that can’t be fixed]. I’d rather have a guy with a lot of talent, [who] needs some cleaning up so to speak, than have a guy that’s picture book with mechanics, but he doesn’t have the talent necessarily to do the job. Jay has done, will continue to do everything in his power to be the best that he can be. It’s important to him. He’s got excellent coaching. There’s some things that all players have to work on to get better at, him included. I don’t come away feeling apprehensive or skeptical in terms of where he’s going. He was in a new system last year with a lot of new faces, particularly on the offensive line. And we wouldn’t have done what we did last year without him.
There’s usually a big jump between Year 1 and Year 2 in a new offensive system, right?
JA: I’m hoping we see that big jump, and there’s no reason to believe that we won’t. We’re all expecting to see that, and for the reasons you’re saying. We had new coaches, a new system. [On the] offensive line, we were playing musical chairs with the last position you want to play musical chairs with, [and he was] still getting familiar with the wide receivers. So we added some pieces. We went through some growing pains. But I really thought we handled a lot of things well given the rollercoaster we were on, particularly early in the season. I really think that we did build a good base, and we’re gonna build from that base going into next year.
Where does tight end Greg Olsen fit in this offense after having seen how he’d perform under Mike Martz’s system in 2010?
JA: I think he’ll be more prominent this year, not that he didn’t have a role last year. But I think you’ll see a lot more things more consistently because of the familiarity that our coaches have with him. I know how much talk there was about, ‘Does he have a fit at all?’ We felt good because of the fact that we know the person, how important football is [to him]. He’s got talent. Any good coach, or any good system I’ve ever been around always finds a way to accentuate the best players. I felt we did that. I expect him to take a big jump next year. There’s no reason to believe he won’t. I really thought he improved his overall game, in particular his blocking, too.
Can you give us an update on some of your free agents such as Olin Kreutz and Anthony Adams?
JA: I can’t really get into that right now. So it’s a moot point. When everything gets resolved, we’ll have our game plan. We certainly like our players.
How confident are you in this lockout being resolved quickly?
JA: I can’t speak. I’m not in the negotiations. I’m confident that both parties see the big picture. We’ve got a great game, and our players want to play as much as we want them to play. So we’re moving forward, and at some point we’ll be playing football again. I do know that. We’re all hoping it’s sooner than later.
Can Matt Toeaina play that under tackle role?
JA: He has played it. It’s free agency. There will be other players to look at. [Toeina] can [play that role]. Marcus Harrison can play that role. We signed a player in the offseason -- Tank Tyler -- who has played that role. So we have some people that we feel can do that. When a guy’s a free agent, obviously, you don’t know for sure. So we have to plan with the players that we have presently. We’re OK. Like I said, we’ll just see.