In the Phil Emery era of the Chicago Bears, the team hasn’t slacked when it comes to free agency.
As proactive as any team in the past two years, general manager Emery has made sure the Bears have targeted key free agents early, set aside appropriate money and other resources to draw players in and acted swiftly to secure new contracts at the dawn of the signing period.
Two years ago saw the trade for Brandon Marshall and the signings of Michael Bush and Jason Campbell, last year the signings of Martellus Bennett and Jermon Bushrod. The offense has long been a subject of woe for Bears fans and now it is the source of pride for everyone connected to the franchise.
In 2014, the rebuilding of the defense is now what the Bears’ future is hinging upon and once again Emery is playing for keeps as new impact players hit the market. Led by the signing of former Raiders defensive end Lamarr Houston, who is to play switcheroo with the now-departed Julius Peppers, the Bears locked down three new players in the first day of the NFL’s 2014 free agency period Tuesday and re-signed a key pickup from the last off season.
In all, its likely that the team secured three starters on defense in the past 24 hours, with each making the first key steps to making one of the worst defensive units of 2013 respectable once again.
Here is a quick breakdown of each of the key moves from Tuesday and a look at some interesting rumors floating about who else could come into Halas Hall and who could be leaving along with Big Pep:
Releasing Julius Peppers
This is the move with which the Bears built its free agency bounty on — releasing the Bears of their most cumbersome contract, one provided to a player that unfortunately just had to go.
Its tough to be a devoted fan to an NFL organization. At times they do incredibly inspired things, such as when the Bears brought in the then five-time Pro Bowl selection in 2010 (three more selections came in Chicago), but with every moment of “man, we really came up…” there is the bookend feeling of “its time…there’s nothing more we can do with him.”
Peppers is in a sort of awkward position in regards to his Bears legacy, he’s certainly will be remembered and his run as a Bear should go down as a little more than a footnote, but his greatest years weren’t here and his time here didn’t help produce a world championship or any such thing. Coming to grips with Peppers not playing in a Bears uniform is not the same as coming to grips with Devin Hester or Brian Urlacher not playing for the team anymore.
Still, Pep was a magnificent athlete and an steady locker room figure who Chicago football fans got to revel in on multiple occasions, he made big plays constantly in one of football’s big impact positions. It certainly was a pleasure to see the big man play for your team.
He can’t be begrudged for taking the paper he took (or the promise of that paper, at least) just as the Bears can’t be begrudged for this strategic release — changes had to be made, monies had to be freed up and when your on-field worth becomes shadowed by your cap number, you get on the firing line quick. Here’s to Peppers going catching on to another team, a team he likes and playing out the remainder of his football days on his own accord.
New signings — Houston, Mundy, Senn
Lamarr Houston comes in as the successor to Peppers, expected to rejuvenate a Bears’ defensive line that was hard hit by injuries and harder hit by opposing offensive lines and running backs.
Houston signed a five-year, $35 million dollar contract with $15 mil guaranteed, he comes into the situation of being Chicago’s newest high-impact defensive savior at the promising age of 26, a player who seems to just be coming into his upside. Houston’s career-high in sacks last season (six) doesn’t set hearts aflame on a line that had the fewest sacks in the NFL last season, but his 69 tackles do and his 6-foot-3, 300 pound frame looks ready to do what he does best — stop the run.
Houston seems able to push pressure from the inside if not out-quicking tackles from the edges, however he does the job if the former Texas Longhorn builds on what he did in Oakland he’ll be worthy of praise as a new Monster of the Midway.
Beyond the tore-up defensive line, the Bears’ safety unit looked most eligible for turnover entering this off-season and the first band-aid put on that gaping wound was the signing of former New York Giant and Pittsbugh Steeler Ryan Mundy, inked for two years, the money unknown as of yet.
Mundy (6-foot-1, 209) had a bit of a breakthrough year last year, starting nine games and playing in all 16 for the Giants, previously he only started five games in four years in Steel City. Mundy’s numbers last year (77 tackles, one sack, one interception) are serviceable and given who he stands to replace (the almost-out-the-door Major Wright) and the Bears’ multi-year agreement with him he should be expected to start more than nine games this season.
Linebacker and special teams specialist Jordan Senn comes over from the Carolina Panthers, he is being expected to replace Blake Costanzo as a backup LB and special teams leader. Senn is a former special teams captain for the Panthers as reported by the Chicago Tribune, so the six-year veteran stands to be a potential leader for the Bears in that phase of play.
Resigning D.J. Williams
A re-signing won’t provide as much sizzle as bringing in new players, but bringing Williams back into the fold is a key, affordable move for the team to make at one of its most important positions.
Williams, who came to Chicago as a free agent last year, will play under a new one-year contract this season. I was one of those who was ambivalent about Williams starting at middle linebacker at the beginning of the 2013 regular season, preferring more the momentum of explosive rookie Jon Bostic at the time — I was wrong.
Williams played well in his six starts before missing the final two-thirds of the season with a torn pectoral. The injury robbed the Bears defense of what looked to be at least an 80-90 tackle season and a veteran presence in the middle of the field that could have only helped in disastrous run-stopping attempts versus the likes of St. Louis, Detroit and Philadelphia.
Securing Williams helps get an important position under wraps early in the off-season and it could lay the groundwork for important work done by both him and Bostic. Steel sharpens steel and both the 11-year veteran and the second-year up-and-comer could use each other’s presence to raise their game. Williams will likely start but there should be a better player behind him this season and that makes the defense’s depth all the better.
What’s to Come
It seems like the major acquisitions have been made by the Bears’ front office, the rest of this free agency period will hinge on who the team decides to bring back and who wants to be brought back, depending on one’s amount of leverage.
The Bears have little leverage in regards to backup quarterback Josh McCown. Teams want McCown and it seems like Tampa Bay is most on the hunt, he was already in Tampa by Tuesday for a visit, the first of what should be a whirlwind tour. The Bucs had a huge haul in the opening hours of free agency and with new coach Lovie Smith they may try to fill in some of their spots ideal for cheaper, veteran talent with discarded Bears including McCown and maybe Devin Hester and Charles Tillman.
Meanwhile, the Bears may look to none other than former tormentor Jared Allen to help boost the defensive line further but there may be competition from Seattle there.
The Tribune is providing a nice free agency tracker on the Bears which I recommend. On their list of “to-do’s” there are still 15 unsigned players from last year on offense and defense for the Bears to make decisions on. You have to figure they are not givens at this point — either because of the respective player’s talents or their potential impact on the team’s financial flexibility — or they’d have been secured like Jay Cutler, Tim Jennings, D.J. Williams and a few others have been.
Looking at the Bears’ final 15 to sign, here is my list in order of who I’d most want to see in the navy blue and orange next year: 1. Josh McCown, 2. Charles Tillman, 3. Corey Wooten, 4. Henry Melton, 5. Jonathan Scott, 6. Patrick Mannelly, 7. Zack Bowman, 8. James Anderson, 9. Blake Costanzo, 10. Major Wright, 11. Craig Steltz, 12-15. Who Cares Pts. I-IV.
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