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With Packers so deep, Bears can’t botch draft

The Packers might not even need A-list draft picks stay top Bears next season.  |   Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

The Packers might not even need A-list draft picks to stay on top of the Bears next season. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: May 14, 2011 4:57AM

DALLAS — The Bears might be the NFC North champions, but they won’t be favored to repeat.

Win or lose Sunday in Super Bowl XLV, the Green Bay Packers will be considerably stronger next season, even if they whiff on their entire 2011 draft class. They have 15 players on injured reserve, including key ones such as tight end Jermichael Finley, running back Ryan Grant and linebacker Brandon Chillar — not to mention defensive tackle Johnny Jolly, who was suspended the entire season as a result of drug charges and can apply for reinstatement.

‘‘Those are good problems — when you have competition and a number of good players,’’ Packers president Mark Murphy said. ‘‘We’ve got a young team, and I think we’re really positioned to be successful well into the future.’’

The Bears have a talented roster, too, but they aren’t young, and they aren’t deep. They have 15 players over age 30 and unproven backups at several positions, most notably on the offensive line. The Packers, on the other hand, have only eight players over 30 while more than half the roster is younger than 25.

Bears ownership isn’t expected to empower general manager Jerry Angelo to make another expensive foray into free agency, so the club will have to maximize its full allotment of draft picks, especially the money ones.

They didn’t have a first-round pick in three of the last five drafts, and neither of the players they did select (tight end Greg Olsen and offensive lineman Chris Williams) have been to the Pro Bowl. In 2005, the Bears spent the fourth overall pick on running back Cedric Benson; eight other players drafted in that year’s first round have been to the Pro Bowl.

Kevin Colbert, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ director of football operations, noted that nearly three-quarters of Pro Bowl players were selected in the first three rounds.

‘‘So it’s very important that you get those players right,’’ Colbert said, ‘‘and we really emphasize making sure we don’t make mistakes on the 1’s, 2’s and 3’s. If you get lucky on the later rounds, great. But the 1’s, 2’s and 3’s, if you miss on them, they can set you back for some years.’’

The Packers and Steelers have more home runs than strikeouts. Both starting quarterbacks, Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger, are first-rounders, as are the star defensive players, the Packers’ Clay Matthews and the Steelers’ Troy Polamalu.

Both teams also have unearthed some gems. The Steelers found one in linebacker James Harrison, while the Packers developed one in cornerback Tramon Williams.

The common thread is a commitment to building a team without relying much on unrestricted free agency.

‘‘It’s not the end-all, be-all — there are different ways of doing it,’’ Packers general manager Ted Thompson said. ‘‘But it’s just the way that I personally [like to do it], and I think Kevin would say the same thing. The [way] the NFL is set up, that’s the way that you kind of continue to get better.’’

Since 2006, five players taken by the Bears in the first three rounds are gone: defensive tackle Dusty Dvoracek (third), linebacker Michael Okwo (third), defensive end Dan Bazuin (second), defensive lineman Jarron Gilbert (second) and receiver Juaquin Iglesias (third).

There have been gems, such as special-teams ace Corey Graham (fifth), receiver Johnny Knox (fifth), cornerback D.J. Moore (fourth) and defensive tackle Henry Melton (fourth). And other late-round selections have flashed their potential, namely cornerback Zack Bowman (fifth), tight end Kellen Davis (fifth) and right tackle J’Marcus Webb (seventh).

But one of the Bears’ advantages will be that cornerstone players on offense and defense are under contract in 2011, which isn’t a bad position to start in.

The reality is, there’s no telling how a season will play out and whether the Bears can defy the odds and again avoid any major injuries. Consider that the NFC has been represented by 10 different teams in the last 10 Super Bowls, while the AFC has been represented by only four: the Steelers (three appearances), the New England Patriots (four), the Indianapolis Colts (two) and the Oakland Raiders.

‘‘Over the course of a season, things are going to happen,’’ Thompson said, ‘‘and they’ve happened to the Steelers, too. They’ve happened to a lot of people.

‘‘We talk to our players about this being a tough business, and there’s no time for excuses. Nobody cares. Other teams don’t care if you have injuries, and they’re not going to take it easy on you, so you just have to be ready to go.’’

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