Will the Bears target a DT in the first round after releasing Tommie Harris?

Tommie Harris told the media in early February that he wouldn’t be a distraction like Albert Haynesworth has been with the Redskins when it came to the uncertainty of his future with the Bears. Of course, he wasn’t around long enough to be a distraction because the team cut him on Monday.

Chicago Bears defensive tackle Tommie Harris walks off the field after warmups before a preseason game against the Oakland Raiders at Soldier Field in Chicago on August 21, 2010. UPI/Brian Kersey

The Bears apparently had some interest in bringing the former Pro Bowler back next season, but only if he were willing to take a sizable paycut. He wasn’t, and the Bears had little choice but to release him seeing as how he was owed a $2.3 million roster bonus. His play has declined over the last several years and despite the addition of Julius Peppers to the defensive line last season, Harris finished with just 13 tackles and two sacks in 15 games.

There is no shortage of teams looking for defensive tackle help, so Harris will certainly resurface somewhere. Seeing as how he was just released, it’s difficult to narrow down a list of potential suitors for him, so the more intriguing question at this point is how this move could affect the Bears’ draft plans.

Chicago holds the No. 29 overall pick and it must upgrade its offensive line. Depending on how the first round plays out, Wisconsin’s Gabe Carimi, Mississippi State’s Derek Sherrod, Boston College’s Anthony Castonzo, Colorado’s Nate Solder and Villanova’s Benjamin Ijalana are all possibilities for the Bears at No. 29. But what if the decision to release Harris prompts GM Jerry Angelo to go in another direction?

Angelo has had a difficult time building an offensive line over the years and struggles to draft in the first round. He has an eye for defensive talent, however, so maybe he’ll stick with what he knows best. Releasing Harris opens a hole at defensive tackle and Chicago Sun-Times writer Neil Hayes recently suggested that Illinois’ Corey Liuget could be the Bears’ top pick.

Liuget’s stock appears to be on the rise the closer we get to April’s draft. Behind Nick Fairley and Marcell Dareus, Liuget is the best three-technique tackle in the draft. (Temple’s Muhammad Wilkerson is somewhere in the mix, too.) Liuget, who isn’t even 21 yet, racked up 12.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks as a third-year junior in 2010, leading the Illini in QB pressures as well. He’s quite the talent, although I’m not sure if he’ll fall to the Bears at No. 29. He’s expected to go somewhere late in the first, but I have the Rams taking him at No. 14 (which seems high now, but if Liuget’s stock continues to climb then maybe No. 14 won’t seem like such a reach come April).

Either way, the Bears’ draft plans just got a little more interesting.

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2010 likely a make or break year for Bears’ Tommie Harris in Chicago

CHICAGO - DECEMBER 28: Tommie Harris #91 of the Chicago Bears rests on the bench during a game against the Minnesota Vikings at Soldier Field on December 28, 2009 in Chicago, Illinois. The Bears defeated the Vikings 36-30 in overtime. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

If this is the healthiest Tommie Harris has been in years, it certainly doesn’t show on the field.

When the Bears brought in Julius Peppers this offseason, they believed that he could make their entire defense better. For the most part, they’ve been right, as Peppers has been a man-child and you can see the improved production in players such as Brian Urlacher (who thinks it’s 2002 again) and Lance Briggs (who has always been highly productive, but who has been freed to make even more plays from his outside ‘backer position).

But oddly enough, one area Peppers hasn’t helped is the defensive line. The Bears haven’t gotten much production (especially in the pass rush department) out of their two tackle positions or the end spot opposite Peppers. Despite being 3-0, they only have two sacks on the year and one of those came from Urlacher.

The guy that was supposed to benefit the most from Peppers’ arrival was Harris, but that hasn’t been the case. In fact, the coaching staff deactivated him for the Bears’ Monday night game against the Packers, even though he was healthy and wasn’t being punished. Officials claimed that the deactivation was in effort to get the team’s top 45 players on the game-day roster. (The Bears wanted to reward Matt Toeania while also getting a look at Henry Melton and Marcus Harrison.)

There have been rumors that Harris wants to be traded, but he won’t cause waves with the team winning. And why would he? He doesn’t want to be perceived as a selfish player in case the Bears find a trade partner and decide to part ways with the former first rounder.

The problem is that the team signed him to a four-year, $40 million contract extension in June of 2008 and has already paid him $21.5 million to date. The Bears know what kind of talent Harris is and if he ever returns to form (there’s a chance his knees still aren’t fully recovered and he just needs more time), they don’t want to be the team that paid most of his contract and then traded him for pennies on the dollar.

A trade is highly unlikely this year. However, Harris is due a $2.5 million roster bonus and a $500,000 workout bonus on June 1 of next year, so the Bears could decide to release him then. In 2011 and 2012, he’ll make a combined $4.8 million, so the Bears don’t want to pick up that tab if he isn’t going to be productive.

If a switch turns on and he starts playing like Tommie Harris version 2007, then everyone gets what they want. Harris, who is still only 27, gets more playing time, the Bears get the productive player they thought they were signing to an extension in ’08 and Peppers gets his complement on the defensive line.

But if he continues to struggle, then this will likely be his last season in Chicago. After all, there’s no sense in paying an interior defensive lineman upwards of $4 million a year if he isn’t one of the top 45 players on the roster.

Warren Sapp rips Bears’ Tommie Harris for not playing with more awareness

CHICAGO - SEPTEMBER 12: Tommie Harris  of the Chicago Bears pressures Shaun Hill  of the Detroit Lions during the NFL season opening game at Soldier Field on September 12, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois. The Bears defeated the Lions 19-14. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Warren Sapp made his money playing in the “Tampa 2” defense that the Chicago Bears currently employ under head coach Lovie Smith (a disciple of Tony Dungy). And considering how successful he was in that system, it was interesting to hear his thoughts on Bears’ defensive tackle Tommie Harris in an appearance on WSCR-AM 670 Wednesday evening.

Here are Sapp’s comments about Harris, courtesy from the Chicago Tribune:

“You can’t do that as an under tackle in that defense,” Sapp said. “He needs to set the table and have a quarterback sitting right there on the stage for Julius to come around the corner. He doesn’t have a problem with getting up the middle. It was just the awareness of the game that really eluded it for me. From what I know about the position, it just looked bad.”

“I never got in his corner, that’s the whole point of it,” said Sapp, who had 96 1/2 sacks in 13 seasons. “He was never my guy. It was always he was supposed to be this and … that. Now he says he’s healthy again so let’s see.

“There has only been one of me. He plays the game with no awareness. If you’re talking about a three-technique in that system, you can’t play like that.”

Harris went to three straight Pro Bowls from 2005 to 2007, but his production fell off a cliff after he signed a $40 million contract extension in June of ’08. Some of that has to do with injuries, but some feel that his work ethic and desire have also been lacking.

While Sapp may have been harsh in his criticisms, he probably echoed what some have already been thinking about Harris – that he’s just going through the motions or is playing selfish football. Granted, Harris did have two quarterback hits and a fumble recovery in last week’s win over the Lions, so maybe he’s starting to get back to being the player he was earlier in this career. (Keep in mind that this was the first offseason that he’s been completely healthy since 2006, so injuries have played a role in him underachieving over the last couple of years.)

Regardless of what Sapp said (or if he’s right or not), it’s time for Harris to step up. If the Bears are going to keep pace with the Packers in the NFC North, they’ll need a dominant effort from their defensive line week in and week out.

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