Lovie Smith Press Conference from the Combine

The transcript from the Chicago Bears website of Lovie Smith’s address to the media essentially giving a where are they now assessment of the team. I’ll have a blog with my comments on it later.

Opening statement
“It seems like once you get to the Combine, you can really start getting ready for the upcoming season. After having a chance to watch Pittsburgh celebrate winning the Super Bowl, everyone else is excited about getting back on the football field. It seems ours is coming a little bit closer. As a matter of fact, we want to get out there so bad we’re going to move up our minicamp to March 16. It’s the first time we could really get out there, and we’re excited about that.

“This past season of course was disappointing. Anytime you don’t make the playoffs and you’re not holding up the trophy I see it as a bit of a disappointment. But we feel like we’re real close. We like the nucleus that we have coming back in all three phases; I’m talking about offense, defense and special teams. But we need to add a little bit; that’s why this Combine is good. There are a lot of good players here, and we have a big group down here evaluating the players and hopefully we can add a couple pieces to the puzzle.

“Offensively, just talking about a couple of our guys … I’m a big Kyle Orton fan. I like him leading our football team. He’ll do that this coming season. Of course you’re always trying to add different pieces to the mix, but Kyle Orton will be leading our football team this coming season. I like what Matt Forte was able to do this past season. It seems like it was a few weeks ago we were watching him perform out here at the Combine. We like what he was able to do, [but we] need to get a little bit more around him. We can add a few more pieces to the puzzle on the offensive line. With John Tait retiring, that’ll open up a spot for someone. Greg Olsen coming back of course will be big. We know we need to add a little bit at the receiver position and we’ll do that also.

“Defensively, we’re anxious to get back. We haven’t played defense the way we should play defense in a few years, but I still like what we have. After having a chance to evaluate our players quite a bit, Lance Briggs really did have a Pro Bowl year. I know he went there, but after evaluating it he really did play well throughout. Tommie Harris played better than he was given credit for. We’ll add some more pieces to the mix and then make a run from there.”

How surprised were you by John Tait’s retirement and was it injury related or did he just say he was ready to retire?
“I think after you’ve played as many years as John has you just get to the point where you’ve had enough. I think he can still play. He has more years left in him, but I guess as a football player you know when. I tried to talk him out of it, but for the guys that know John, you know that he doesn’t come to decisions overnight. He put a little bit of thought into it, so we wish him the best and we’ll go from there.”

Offensive tackle John Tait is expected to retire after 10 NFL seasons, including five with the Bears.
With John Tait retiring, does that make re-signing John St. Clair a necessity?
“John St. Clair was big for us even before John Tait retired. John played well for us throughout the year. He was consistent each week; we knew what we were going to get from him. We’d like for him to remain a member of our team.”

How would you evaluate Devin Hester’s move to wide receiver?
“He made a lot of progress during the course of the year. The last month of the season he was playing very good football. I think he’ll make another step. He’s excited about having a chance to throw with Kyle throughout the offseason. Last year we had different things going on with the quarterback position and Devin was working his way into it, but he’s a lot further along now. I think he’ll be able to handle being a full-time receiver and being the best punt returner in the league next year also.”

Is the quarterback position set or will you look to acquire someone in free agency or the draft?
“We always like to keep our options open. We like what we have at the quarterback position, adding Brett Basanez. Caleb Hanie played very well when he got a chance in the preseason last year, but it all starts with the guy you have leading your team and we feel comfortable with him.”

How much of a priority is bolstering the secondary?
“As you look at it on paper, you can say that we have some holes there losing Mike [Brown] and then just not playing as well as we need to last year in our secondary. But this starts the process. In free agency there are some options that you could possibly have, but the draft, I’m anxious to see the DBs work out. We have time to get the secondary the way we would like it to be and we’ll just kind of go from there.”

Is Corey Graham a starting cornerback right now?
“As far as starters, the good thing about having the minicamp [earlier than usual] is you get a chance to get the guys in the position that they need to be in. Nathan Vasher is healthy now coming back, too. Corey Graham played well for us, Charles Tillman, we have a lot of different options there. We’re not naming a lot of starters there.”

There’s been talking about Charles Tillman moving to safety. Is that a possibility?
“I’m still trying to figure out where that talk started. He’s our No. 1 corner and we’re going to move him to free safety? Who came up with that anyway? Who in the Chicago media started that? Again, I don’t know where that came from. Charles Tillman is a cornerback for us. I can’t wait to get him back out on the football field. As we talk about free agents and what we’re going to do in free agency, I feel like we’ve already signed the best free agent on the market right now in Rod Marinelli with our coaching staff and also adding Jon Hoke to that mix. I feel real good about them. Jon Hoke is excited about getting a chance to work with Charles.”

Are you trying to send a message or set a tone by moving minicamp up to March?
“You’re always trying to not necessarily send messages, but get certain points across, 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. We do have new coaches on our staff. They get a chance to see the players earlier, and with the draft coming up, we get another good look at the players before we get to it. But as much as anything, it’s the first time we can do something as a group, and that’s what we’re going to use it for.”

With Marty Booker and Brandon Lloyd gone, do you need a veteran presence at wide receiver or can you just draft someone at that position?
“I think we need a good solid No. 2 to step up with Devin as much as anything. I’ve never looked to just add veterans to add veterans. You’re just trying to add good football players. We weren’t satisfied with all the production we got at the receiver position last year, so we’re trying to do something about it.”

Hunter Hillenmeyer has been a favorite of yours for a long time. Will he have a chance to regain his starting job from Nick Roach in an open competition this coming year?
“All good players are favorites of mine, I guess you could say that. But it will be good competition. You start over each year. Hunter has played a lot of football for us. I like what Nick Roach was able to do, even with injuries this past year, so we’ll let the guys battle it out, along with Jamar Williams. I wouldn’t count him out either.”

How would you assess Matt Forte’s rookie season?

Matt Forte set Bears rookie records for rushing yards, receptions and total yards from scrimmage.
“I think he had an outstanding season. He did everything we asked him to do. He carried the football as a runner, picking up the protections, learning the offense, just becoming a good teammate. He did everything we asked him to do for a rookie season. I’m anxious to see what he can come back with this next year.”

Is Garrett Wolfe your No. 2 running back?
“No. 2, No. 1 … we’re not putting a lot of numbers on guys right now. Garrett did a lot for us last year, special teams-wise and the few times he got an opportunity to run the football. I’m anxious to see him, the 2009 version of him.”

Given that Chris Williams missed half the season with a back injury, will you be more careful in drafting a player without any medical concerns in the first round?
“I think we were cautious last year. You have to make decisions. You evaluate players and sometimes they get injured or things pop up. Chris Williams is fine right now. He’ll line up at the left tackle position for us and we’re expecting big things out of him now. Looking at it in hindsight now, to have a chance to come in and learn your rookie year without playing I think has turned out well for him. But we’re always cautious. We look at everything. We have our doctors evaluate all of the players before we take them, and hopefully the guys we bring in this year will be able to play right away.”

Will injuries affect how you look at the draft; would you go for someone like Michael Crabtree?
“You don’t go into the draft trying to take guys that are injured. Crabtree, I’ve answered about three questions on him right now. I think it’s a little early even to go into that. We always try to get the best possible player, period, and that’s what we’ll do this year. That’s about all I can really tell you about that.”

What will Rod Marinelli bring to the table for the Bears?
“First off, just his expertise at the position. I think if you talk to players, coaches, everyone would say the same thing about Rod as a defensive line coach. I know he’s hit the pavement running quickly. Sometimes you go on reputation and other times you have a chance to go on what you really know. I spent five years with Rod. I know what type of coach he is and what type of man he is. I know what he will bring to our football team. He’s bringing a lot of excitement in the building. I know that the players are excited about getting a chance to work with him, and they’ll get a chance to work with him soon.”

How important is it to get a complement for Matt Forte or are you okay with him getting as many touches as he did as a rookie?
“I’m OK with him getting that many touches his first year. Do we need a good complement to go along with him? Yes, we’re always trying to do that. I think as you look at our history since we’ve been there as a staff, I think we’ve had our most productive years when we had two running backs that we really felt comfortable playing, and you would like to get back to that situation. Maybe we have that complement there right now.”

How big of a priority is it to add a top-flight pass rusher in free agency or the draft?
“Of course that will help whenever you can add a top-flight defensive lineman who’s a rusher. But the first thing you do is what we did. We brought in the best defensive line coach in the game. He’ll help a lot. From there, we’ll always try to keep our defensive line as one of our strengths, so you’ll always look to that.”

Is Danieal Manning in the mix at safety?
“He’s definitely in the safety mix, that’s a good way of putting it. Danieal has a lot of things going on right now. He was the best kickoff returner in the league this last year. Of course, I like what he was able to do at the nickel position. He made a lot of progress. That is a tough position to play. We put a lot of time into Danieal getting that down. So we have options with Danieal. Right now, before we get to the minicamp and all, we want to keep all of our options open.”

With 14 players around the league being designated as franchise players, how does that affect your approach to free agency?
“When you franchise [a player], what they’re saying is those are pretty good football players. Some of them, of course, we would have had interest in. It changes a little but, but there are a lot of good players. One door is closed, you look to the other.”

After evaluating tape, you said that Lance Briggs and Tommie Harris played well. What about Brian Urlacher?
“What I saw from Brian is that Brian did some good things during the course of the year. When I said Briggs played well, there are a lot of things he can improve on. Tommie can too. What I saw from our defensive players, is that at times they played very good football, all of them, individually and as a group, the works. But there were other times when we didn’t make plays that we need to and that we’ll make this coming season. Brian is a part of that.”

What stood out about Kyle Orton’s performance this past season?
“What stood out to me the most was how he started out the football season. This time last year, competing for the job, he earned it. And then starting off the football season, before Kyle injured his ankle I thought he was doing all of the things we thought he could do and we needed him to do. After the injury, he didn’t play as well. He is working out already. He is on a mission. I loved his leadership throughout. We got a chance to see him in some tough situations. Guys need to go through a little adversity, all quarterbacks do, you need to be able to handle it. He’s solid. He’ll be able to handle it. He’ll come back strong this season.”

Would you be comfortable with Caleb Hanie or Brett Basanez as your No. 2 quarterback?
“Yes, I would. Everybody wants a veteran, and that’s good, and who knows? We haven’t closed the door on any of our positions right now. But I think sometimes you have to go with young talent. Brett has played a little bit, has been in the league a little bit, but what I saw from Caleb Hanie last year gets you excited.”

If there’s a veteran quarterback in free agency who wants to be a starter, would you not look at that player because you don’t want to stunt Orton’s growth?
“We will look at veterans at every position, quarterback and all. In the offseason, you don’t shut any doors. You keep all the options open and you see what is available and see if it is a good fit for our football team. That’s the way we’ve looked at it every year. Nothing has changed this year. But if you ask me if I feel comfortable at the quarterback position right now, yes I do.”

You said earlier there might already be a complement to Matt Forte on the Bears roster. Could that be Kevin Jones (who’s slated to become an unrestricted free agent next Friday)?
“Yes, it could be Kevin Jones. It could be Garrett Wolfe. And I am really not trying to get around the question, but you do have to keep all of your options open. I just know that I like what Kevin Jones was able to do last year. He had an injury he was able to fight through. He’s been a No. 1 running back. At the end, he was coming into my office asking me what he could to help the football team win. He played some special teams. Garrett Wolfe has been a team player throughout, Adrian Peterson, all of those guys have been. So we’ll give him an opportunity but you always evaluate them against everything else that is available.”

Rod Marinelli said that Mark Anderson has done it before. Are you confident that Anderson can rebound and play like he did as a rookie?
“I definitely think he can. As you said, he’s done it before. It’s on record what he can do. Again, new defensive line coach coming in. We see a lot of guys for him to work with. Mark has done it. He will do it again. Another guy who played better than he was given credit for is Anthony Adams last year. Anthony didn’t dress a few games, he just kept working hard each week and as you look at the video he did some good football things.”

How much of a role do you envision Earl Bennett filling in 2009 and what does he have to do this year that he didn’t do last year to get on the field?
“He was just a rookie last year. He didn’t get an opportunity to be truthful. You have to wait your time a little bit as a rookie. Some things have happened. He will be in a position to show us what he can do soon. Earl did everything we asked him to do. We saw him on the practice field getting better and better and I know he was active there a little bit at the end. We like what we’ve seen from him and some of the questions we have right now, maybe he is the answer to some of them.”

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