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Early minicamp greets Bears' new players, coaches
By Bob LeGere | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 3/16/2009 12:08 AM

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Offensive line and defensive secondary will be the two positions that provide the most interesting viewing during the Bears' early-bird minicamp this week.

This year's event comes two months earlier than usual, giving coaches - especially new additions Rod Marinelli and Jon Hoke - an opportunity to evaluate the roster and make decisions before next month's draft.

It's also a chance to put the disappointment of last season's failed playoff bid further in the rearview mirror.

Head coach Lovie Smith said at last month's NFL Scouting Combine that he isn't trying to deliver a message to his team, but he will be making an important point during the four-day practices and meetings that begin Tuesday.

"You're always trying to, not necessarily send messages, but to get certain points across," Smith said. "And the point we're trying to get across is that it wasn't good enough last year.

"This is the first time we can do something about it, and we want to take advantage of that."

Smith, who was heavily involved with the defense, now will have more input and help call plays. That decision takes some authority from defensive coordinator Bob Babich, who will have the added responsibility of coaching the linebackers, replacing Lloyd Lee.

Brick Haley has been replaced as defensive-line coach by former Detroit Lions head coach Marinelli, who also will wear the title of assistant head coach. Hoke replaces Steven Wilks as defensive-backs coach.

"They'll get a chance to see the players earlier," Smith said of his new staff, "and with the draft coming up we get another good look at the players before we get to it."

The offensive line will look a lot different from last year's unit. John Tait, a starter at left and right tackle the past five seasons, has filed his retirement papers with the league. Terrence Metcalf, an on-and-off, but mostly off, starter the past several years, has been released.

Versatile Frank Omiyale, a backup for four years with the Carolina Panthers, was added to the mix as an unrestricted free agent. John St. Clair, who started all 16 games last season at left tackle, remains in limbo as an unrestricted free agent.

Last year's first-round pick, Chris Williams, is expected to line up at left tackle with the first team Tuesday, along with center Olin Kreutz and guards Roberto Garza and Josh Beekman. For now Omiyale is the logical choice at right tackle.

The Bears, however, want St. Clair back, and if they eventually reach an agreement with him, he could take the right-tackle spot. Both St. Clair and Omiyale also can play guard, so the odd man out at right tackle could challenge Beekman and Garza for a starting job.

In the secondary, newest Bear Josh Bullocks, acquired as an unrestricted free agent from the New Orleans Saints, is the favorite to win the starting job at free safety but will have to outplay Craig Steltz, who got some experience last year as a fourth-round rookie.

At cornerback, Nate Vasher must contribute a lot more than he has in the past two injury-marred seasons to hold off Corey Graham as the starter.