When coach Lovie Smith announced at the owners meeting that Israel Idonije was moving to defensive end, he signaled the Bears were jumping into the trade market.
Whether they can be successful remains to be seen.
An NFL source told the Tribune the Bears are working actively to deal Alex Brown. If they cannot find a taker for the nine-year veteran who finished last season as a captain, they could release him. The move of Idonije likely signals the end of Brown's career with the Bears because there simply isn't enough playing time to go around.
Brown has started 107 games since being a fourth-round draft pick in 2002, one of the real mid-round finds by general manager Jerry Angelo. But the addition of defensive end Julius Peppers has made Brown, who has a base salary of $5 million this season, expendable. Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli raved about Mark Anderson in postseason meetings, and the Bears always have used a three-man rotation at end. That leaves Brown as the odd man out.
The timing might make it difficult for the Bears to swing a deal as teams could wait them out to see if he's released. His contract calls for a base salary of $5.5 million in 2011.
Brown probably would have had similar value to Kyle Vanden Bosch and Aaron Kampman on the open market. Vanden Bosch signed a $26 million, four-year contract with the Lions that included $11 million guaranteed. Brown, who turns 31 in June, has 29 1/2 sacks over the last five seasons, nine fewer than Vanden Bosch.
Kampman, who is recovering from a torn ACL, also got $26 million over four seasons from the Jaguars with $11 million guaranteed. But the big free agent shopping is over.
Idonije projects as a left end, and that's where he has played in the past. He played 30.9 percent of the defensive snaps last season, almost exclusively at tackle.
"What we're thinking about for him this year is letting him lock into end more, letting him keep his weight down," Smith said. "It's amazing what the guy can do with his body. ... I'd like to see him lock in and be more of a defensive end and see how good he can become."
Anderson spelled Brown and Adewale Ogunleye, getting 48.8 percent of the playing time. He's more experienced on the left side than Brown, but Anderson is now three full years removed from his 12-sack rookie season and has only 9 1/2 sacks to show in that time. The last time the Bears promoted Anderson over Brown, in 2007, it was a disaster. Anderson, a restricted free agent who is hoping for a multiyear deal, is a different player now.
"Very happy with Mark last year," Smith said. "He played better than he was given credit for. We feel comfortable with him."
Of course, Peppers, who will earn $20 million this season, is the man all eyes will be on. The Bears are holding out hope that Tommie Harris regains consistency at tackle, and they believe Peppers will make the entire line better. The plan is to move Jarron Gilbert, a third-round pick last season, and Henry Melton, a fourth-round pick, inside, but they could figure in the mix at end.
First, the Bears have to discover whether they can get something in return for one of their most consistent performers of the Angelo era.