Monday, March 18, 2013

Bears Making Right Moves as NFL Offseason Begins

The frenzy surrounding the first week of NFL free agency shows just how powerful and popular that league is. It is clear from the dedication from sports talk radio, the attention on national sports TV, the hysteria of the modern sports twitter mafia to be the first to drop a story ("sources say") as well as the numerous articles surrounding the first real week of the league year prove that the NFL is King. The Bears kick started the league year in exciting fashion for the second year in a row. This time last year it was inking Michael Bush and Jason Campbell to deals (smart moves at the time even if they were barely used or underperformed when they were used, respectively) to go along with the mega trade for Brandon Marshall.

This year, the Bears addressed massive needs at tight end and left tackle by acquiring two of the marquee free agents at both positions. The acquisitions of Martellus Bennett and Jermon Bushrod instantly make the Bears a better football team and shore up major weaknesses from last year. I applaud the apparent secrecy under which Phil Emery made the moves, and certainly appreciate the fresh sense of driven moves from Halas Hall that he's brought in his short time on the job. The reason I waited a week to write about it, however, is because of the skepticism that continues to surround the Brian Urlacher issue. Even after landing two marquee free agents, Emery's success or failure this free agency could very well hinge on how he deals with the Bears legend.
First, though, the good. I'll start with Bennett because he was the first signing to come down the pipeline. To help make room for Bennett, the Bears released Kellen Davis in a no brainer move. Bennett brings not just the potential for game breaking plays in the receiving game, but the potential to be a three down, multi-formation tight end who can stay on the field in every situation. His versatility is his strongest attribute and I think illustrates the sort of "untapped" potential he has.

Bennett will have every chance to succeed
Standing 6'6, 265 pounds with great athleticism, you can line up Bennett on the line where he can be another blocker or chip off and create opportunities in the quick passing game. Bennett will in this way be able to help the running game and the passing game just as a blocking tight end. Being able to shift him out to different formations eases the burden on the rest of the receivers as well as Jay Cutler, giving the enigmatic QB an opportunity to look away from Marshall. Not to mention that Bennett will provide matchup problems if you line him up outside or on the line. I've watched his career develop from Dallas to New York, and I've always felt that he has as much potential as any other tight end out there. Now that he's being paid as such, he'll have every opportunity in the world to show it for the Bears.

The simple fact that the Bears even went after a huge, splashy free agent offensive lineman illustrates a marked philosophical change from the Bears. Unlike last year, where the entire organization espoused about how talented the existing linemen on the team were and how Mike Tice was going to develop them into a solid cohesive unit, the Bears recognized a major deficiency at the left tackle position and addressed it with one of the better free agents on the market. Bushrod is a two time Pro Bowler who has been responsible for Drew Brees' blindside the past few years. He comes to Chicago to join his former offensive line coach in New Orleans, Aaron Kromer, who accepted the same position in addition to his new offensive coordinator duties in Chicago. Bushrod lauded Kromer after signing with the Bears, indicating that in large part he's the reason he looked to Chicago first when he realized he wouldn't be back in New Orleans.

Shutting down Allen? Yes please. 
Bushrod gives the Bears a true top left tackle unlike they've had in years, someone who can be left on his own to protect Cutler's blindside without having to scheme or bring help over. He commanded a ton of money, but give the Bears credit for recognizing that what they had wasn't getting it done and making the big move. This just seems like yet another move the Bears wouldn't have made even 5 years ago, and it could be one that makes a huge difference in a league dominated by elite pass rushers and a division stocked full of them.

This should have a major impact on the way the offense looks. Combined with the addition of Marc Trestman as coach, the Bears are in line to have the opportunity to have their most productive offense in some time. On the line, it appears that J'Marcus Webb will get his shot at right tackle, where I think he'll fare much better without all the pressure that left tackle brings. If the Bears can shore up the interior, and I think that tackle-bust Gabe Carimi will stick there, they have a real shot of turning a major weakness into an actual strength.

In the receiving corps, you'd like to see the Bears add another speed receiver, something they sorely lacked last season and won't have going forward considering Johnny Knox sadly retired and Devin Hester looks to be focusing more on special teams than receiving. A speed receiver would help take the top off defenses and allow guys like Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, and Earl Bennett to have more freedom in the middle of the field. Of course, the Bears could go and add another tight end but I think they like what they saw from Evan Rodriguez in limited action last year and feel it is worth giving him a shot as the second tight end after Bennett. At running back, the Bears are set with Matt Forte and Bush, so on paper at least this offense looks like it has the potential to make some noise. I disclaim that statement with the fact that it's March 18th and the NFL season is months away, but it's definitely exciting to look at for now.

Finally, though, we have the Urlacher situation. The signings of Bennett and Bushrod can lead to a couple interpretations. The first is that the Bears just won't have the money to resign their unquestioned leader, and the second is that the Bears are serious about winning now and from there we could guess that they would be interested in bringing him back. But this is where the secrecy of Phil Emery has to drive you crazy. His poker face is brilliant; being grilled about Urlacher at the introductory press conferences for Bennett and Bushrod didn't even faze him.

What will happen with Urlacher?
I personally think that the Bears will resign him, and they're letting him "test" the market to get a real idea of what his value is. It's hard to imagine a team swooping out of nowhere and giving him a big deal, and Urlacher is already on record as saying that he's willing to give the Bears a hometown discount to stay here. I was actually encouraged that the Bears didn't make a serious effort (from what we can tell) to resign Nick Roach - even if I did want the underrated linebacker back - because I interpreted that to mean that they're saving whatever resources they have to resign Urlacher. For me, whatever the Bears have to do to get him signed, do it. Urlacher deserves a shot with a complete team at the title and from all indications is healthy and able to contribute. He's been nothing but an unbelievable player for this franchise and shouldn't have one injury-marred season wash him out of town.

I do believe that Urlacher still has enough in the tank to be in the least a functional two down linebacker, and the Bears would be smart to sign Urlacher and then proceed to draft his heir apparent in April. But all of this notwithstanding, you don't let a franchise-legend that can still get after it walk away. You just don't. I totally understand that if Urlacher doesn't have it physically, but we have nothing to prove that, unless the Bears aren't telling us. He'd be the perfect leader to smooth the transition from the Lovie Smith era to the new coaching staff, and he'd be a tremendous help in terms of continuity to push this team forward during the transition. I hope Emery and the Bears get it done.

Regardless, though, Bears fans have to be encouraged by what they've seen. For the second straight offseason, the Bears have been one of the more active teams in the league at the start of free agency. They made two shrewd moves that should pay off immediately. The Bears are a much better team than they were only a week ago, a fact that is due to the dedication, intelligence, and philosophical shift under the Emery era Bears. I recall writing some time ago that the Bears needed to have an organizational culture shift, a franchise-wide attitude change that would put them in the same echelon as the Packers, Patriots, Ravens, and Steelers. The team needed to make every single move with a direction towards winning games. It had been some time since we've seen that from the Bears. For now, though, under Phil Emery and George McCaskey it looks to be taking shape.