Monday, March 12, 2012

Time for Emery to Shine as Free Agency Begins

With the NFL free agency period set to begin tomorrow afternoon, the Bears enter it with the all-too-familiar need to improve multiple positions on the roster. Almost every position on the roster needs upgrades or depth. Sadly, the Bears found themselves in this same position last year, coming out of the lockout with a clear need for several positions that was simply not addressed. Perhaps Jerry Angelo spent too much time during the lockout playing golf, who knows. But there is hope for change, as the woeful management of Angelo has been replaced by Phil Emery. Although not much is known about Emery's intentions in terms of philosophy, the simple fact that the Bears moved in a new direction creates hope, false or not, that the Bears will start to more closely resemble what a professional football franchise should look and act like.

Time to see what Emery can do
This is Emery's chance to prove himself. Bears fans are sick of watching year after year go by without neglected positions being addressed. This is the organization, of course, that makes a blockbuster trade for franchise quarterback Jay Cutler, but then refuses to upgrade his receivers or offensive line. This is also the team that outside the acquisition of Julius Peppers, seemed to rely more on the reputation of its defense rather than find players who can make it the force it should be. For Emery, he's hopefully going to have access to the $30 million in cap room that the Bears sit on, because he's going to need it.

There are holes and needs all over the team. The Bears know they need to have a competent backup quarterback, or at least someone who isn't so bad as to single-handedly ruin any playoff chance (cough Caleb Hanie cough). Clearly, the Bears need to add a legitimate receiver or two to the existing corps. One glance at the difference in weapons available to Aaron Rodgers and those available to Cutler tells you everything you need to know. Not to mention that once Cutler went down, we saw how much better he had made the receivers look in every game. Of course, the offensive line could always use work, especially considering the unknown status of Gabe Carimi, but it's a position that improved greatly as the year went on. Still, it's a need that should be addressed. And really, don't we look stupid trading away Greg Olsen now. The reason he was shipped out was because former offensive coordinator Mike Martz didn't feature a receiving tight end in his offense. That's it. No budging or flexibility from Martz to incorporate the athletic Olsen into the offense. Why do that? Definitely didn't work out for New England or San Francisco, right? I doubt the Bears go after a tight end in free agency, but I hope they can grab one in the draft. Unless, of course, they feel Kellen Davis is the answer.

And that's only the offense. On defense, there is a need at defensive end to complement Julius Peppers, a need at cornerback, and even though the Bears won't admit it, a need at linebacker to start grooming the future replacements for Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs. And although it looks like Emery inherited a team in deep need of a rebuild, this is still the same Bears team that was 7-3 and starting to fire on all cylinders before Jay Cutler got hurt. There is enough on the roster that if the Bears are aggressive in free agency and have a good draft, there is absolutely no reason that the team can't make the playoffs next year. They just have to start strong.

Adding Williams could make the defense dominant
So who might the Bears go after to fill these holes? There are indications that the Bears will press for Texans DE Mario Williams, for one. I'm not sure if the Bears will actually pull it off, but try to imagine for a second Williams lined up on the opposite end of a line anchored by Julius Peppers. It's terrifying to think of. Neither of the players would face constant double teams, and even if they did it would free up the rest of the defense to make plays. Having both of those players would form the best pair of pass rushers on a single team in the league, even giving the pass rushing trio on the New York Giants a run for their money. Normally, I wouldn't want to make the position such a priority when we already have such a highly paid DE in Peppers, but with the way the Bears defense is designed, coupled with the success that the Giants have had with their elite pass rush, it's certainly not a bad idea to seek out another outstanding player for the defensive line. It would allow the Bears to utilize the full extent of their defense, as much of their pass coverage is based upon the premise of a good pass rush. I'm not so sure how dead set Williams is on leaving Houston, but the allure of playing with Peppers must be tantalizing. Let's hope the Bears can lock it down like they did with Peppers a couple years ago.

Jackson would instantly improve the offense
The other big name on the list is Vincent Jackson. Lovie Smith is known to fall in love with players that dominate against the Bears, and Jackson's 7 catches and 165 yard performance against the Bears last year certainly qualifies him. But more than that, the 6'5, 230 pound Jackson would give the Bears and Cutler a true number 1 receiver for the first time in ages. For some reason, Angelo felt that the current group was good enough to compete, when in reality you could pluck the 5th receiver off the Packers and he'd start on the Bears from Day 1. I hope Emery recognizes what a passing league the NFL has become and makes moves, both in free agency and the draft, to drastically upgrade the position. A lineup of Devin Hester, Johnny Knox, and Earl Bennett simply does not cut it. Adding Jackson to the group would immediately impact the rest of the offense. My only worry is that because receivers like Dwayne Bowe, who were thought to hit the market but were franchised by their respective teams, aren't available, the price for the de facto number 1 receiver on the market will sky rocket. Can the Bears afford to pay Jackson $12 million a year if it gets that high? Maybe, depending on whether or not they land Williams. If he falls through, the Bears might look for a similar, but cheaper alternative along the lines of a player like Marques Colston. Again, this is another are where Emery will get a chance to show that things really are changing at Halas Hall.

As for the rest of the offense, I suspect the Bears will look for a cheap veteran to bring in as a backup quarterback to Cutler. They could do this while resigning Josh McCown and have a relatively solid stable of quarterbacks going into the season. I think of players like Kyle Orton and David Garrard as fitting this mold. However, this area might take awhile longer, as multiple teams wait to see how the Peyton Manning sweepstakes sort out before the rest of the quarterbacks find new homes. At running back, the Bears placed the franchise tag on Matt Forte with the hopes of securing a long term contract before the season. I don't think I can emphasize enough how much Emery needs to get that deal done. Behind him, they tendered an offer to Kahlil Bell in the hopes he sticks around to back up Forte. I hope he does, but really anything is better than Marion Barber. And with the offensive line, I wouldn't expect the Bears to be players for any of the huge free agents but rather look to add depth through the draft. While that may not sound like much, they already made huge strides by cutting Frank "Oh My God" Omiyale.

Besides Williams on defense, the Bears need help at corner and linebacker. The Bears have never been huge spenders on corners due in large part to the design of the defense, where zone coverage is used more often than not. Lovie always wants ball hawking players in his secondaries, guys who can wait for the pass rush to make a play and sit in coverage looking to create a turnover. Charles Tillman is a great example of a corner who is extremely valuable to the Bears in how he creates turnovers and operates within the zone, but might not be as valuable to a defense that utilizes more of a man coverage approach. As such, its difficult to tell who the Bears might go after to bolster that unit, but I expect them to make a play for a middle of the road corner like Kelvin Hayden and seek to draft players to fit their mold later on.

And finally, it would certainly behoove the Bears to start looking for depth at linebacker for the sad day when Urlacher retires. Not to mention that Lance Briggs isn't getting any younger. Still, both players still play at a very high level and look to do so for at least a few years. It would be smart for the Bears to find a young athletic linebacker to push Nick Roach at the strong side linebacker spot. Ideally, this is a versatile player who can fill in at the middle and weak spots as well. Various media reports have centered on Seahawks LB David Hawthorne, but he might be too expensive. And really, we can't even be sure how much emphasis the Bears will actually place on this. They're certainly comfortable drafting linebackers later in the draft and developing them, like Lance Briggs in the 3rd round of the 2003 draft and Nick Roach, who was actually undrafted.

The bottom line here is that Phil Emery, and by extension his boss George McCaskey, has the opportunity to put his stamp on the Bears and show that they're serious about doing what it takes to be consistently competitive. I've gone on ad nauseum about the need to establish a culture from the top to the bottom of any organization to make it successful every year. For McCaskey to stand out from previous bad leadership under his brother Michael, he needs to ensure that this happens. Firing Angelo and hiring Emery, who by all accounts is a genuinely smart football type with an emphasis on personnel, is a good step in the right direction. But really, coming out in free agency and the draft and showing that the team is serious about committing resources to the team instead of keeping cash like a bad episode of Hoarders will really prove that change is coming to a team seemingly stuck a few decades back.

Even more than that, Bears fans deserve it. We've toiled for years, selling out the stadium and lining the pockets of the McCaskey family only to see them sit on a pile of cash, refusing to spend money to upgrade positions in need. Again, what sense does it make to acquire Jay Cutler and then not surround him with talent? Do serious, consistent organizations do anything related to that?

The basic pieces are there. It's a passing league and we have a good quarterback. We have one of the best running backs in the NFL. The defense has leaders and stars like Urlacher and Peppers. If Emery steps up to the plate right away, he can fill some holes that will make the Bears a seriously dangerous team. And more than that, it will show that the Bears are going all out to be serious contenders every year. Here's hoping that the onset of the free agency period tomorrow coincides with the dawn of a new era of leadership at Halas Hall.