Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Bears Strike Fast on First Day of Free Agency

Just like last year, Chicago Bears' General Manager Phil Emery wasted no time addressing his team's needs in the minutes after the NFL's new league year began today at 3 PM central time, also known as the official start of free agency. The free agent feeding frenzy has continued to escalate as contracts get larger, the salary cap grows, and many teams in a league of parity can rebuild a team in an offseason. In just the short few hours since the new league year began and contracts could officially be signed, the Bears announced they reached terms on a 5 year, $35 million deal with former Oakland Raiders defensive end Lamarr Houston, signed former New York Giants safety Ryan Mundy to a 2 year deal, resigned middle linebacker D.J. Williams to a 1 year deal, signed special teams ace Jordan Senn to a 1 year deal, and officially released Julius Peppers, who joins the recently released Michael Bush on the cap casualty chopping block.

It's strange, actually, dealing with a competent front office who has rededicated the franchise to identifying and acquiring top end talent. The Bears knew their weaknesses headed into the free agent and draft period, and wasted no time addressing them. After chasing Seahawks DE Michael Bennett and losing out, the Bears did (in my opinion) even better for themselves by landing Houston.

Houston fills a huge need for the Bears
Houston is 6'3, 302 pounds, and brings a versatility that allows him to slip inside and play the three technique defensive tackle position on passing downs, or remain outside and both rush the passer and defend the run. His adeptness at stuffing the run presumably made him an ideal target for the Bears, whose woeful run defense allowed 10 games with a rusher over 100 yards last season. What makes him better for the Bears than Bennett, though, is his age (26) and potential.

He'll be expected to be a top end pass rusher for the Bears, and although his sack numbers were nothing to be too excited about in Oakland, keep in mind that he was looked to for more than just sacks. Given his propensity for hard work (he comes in with a reputation of a great work ethic), and the exact physical, aggressive, tough nature that Emery wants to build with his defense, he has the opportunity here to really flourish. His salary is relatively cheap, especially if he hits the high levels of his ceiling.

I love this signing, coupled with the resignings of Jeremiah Ratliff and Nate Collins, because it gives the Bears an opportunity to look for depth and talent in the draft and the rest of free agency across the defensive line. The Bears expectedly released Julius Peppers and his unreal $18 million cap hit this year, so they need to replace his production even above signing Houston. For Peppers, it was more about the money than the production, and I would consider his free agent signing a success outside of the 2012 season. But Houston is a great start. Now the Bears can look to free agency to fill in the defensive end position, and look in the draft for defensive tackle and end as well.

I like where the Bears are going with the Mundy signing too. The move follows in the footsteps of the Bears moving on from Major Wright, so don't get too excited in thinking that he's replacing Chris Conte. I thought the Bears should have cut Conte mid season, but apparently they're going to give him every opportunity to come back and win the starting free safety job. I fully expect the Bears to draft some safety help (like they seemingly do every year) and perhaps bring back either Craig Steltz or Anthony Walters.

Mundy brings depth and potential to a needed position
Mundy is an intriguing addition. The 6'1, 209 pound safety was a 6th round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2008, and hasn't started full time in his entire career. He started 9 games last year, appearing in all 16 for the Giants, and had 70 tackles and 1 interception. He barely started at all prior to that, starting only 5 games in his time in Pittsburgh. The Bears again like his in the box, physical nature, as they try to reinvent a defense they felt was too soft all of last season. This will hopefully lead to better tackling ability than Wright, who entered last season with great promise only to tailspin and perform miserably in all aspects of his position. Certainly, they like his versatility, as he has experience playing both safety positions in both 4-3 and 3-4 defenses. For me, his age (29) doesn't count against him as he was not a major starter until last season with the Giants and in that sense is a relatively fresh player. He'll come to the Bears hungry, ready to win a spot, and ready to embrace the strong safety role vacated by Wright.

I also like the resigning of D.J. Williams. The veteran linebacker was turning in a good season as the Bears' starting middle linebacker last year before tearing his pectoral in Week 6, ending his season. His injury forced Jon Bostic into action much earlier than anticipated, and Bostic's head turning tackles in preseason notwithstanding, the rookie was in deep over his head nearly the entire season.

Williams has always had elite speed for the linebacker position, and still has it as an 11 year veteran. But again, the aspect that Emery liked the most was his physicality and toughness. In those 6 starts, he tallied 39 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and 4.5 tackles for a loss. Just imagine how differently the season might have gone with him and Lance Briggs healthy. Now, with Williams and Briggs back and healthy, it gives time for Bostic and Khaseem Greene to be groomed properly instead of thrust into the action with no real time to learn.

There's, of course, still more work to do. The Bears certainly need to add more defensive linemen to the roster. They should probably look for another linebacker for depth if they can find one, but it isn't a huge priority. Safety remains, for me, a huge concern. In a league full of passing offenses, one position that simply cannot be a liability is free safety as cornerbacks and defenses as a whole depend on them so much for over the top support. I maintain my belief (which really isn't rare at all) that Conte is not an NFL starter, so the Bears either need to continue to look in free agency, or make that a priority in the draft. The Bears are likely also in the market for a top level cornerback, as at this juncture it looks like Charles Tillman might be on his way out of town. The Bears desperately want him back, but his attachment to Lovie Smith might push him to Tampa. I hope not, and if he's gone, the Bears lose the exact type of big, physical corner that seems to have taken this league by storm (see, Richard Sherman). Let's hope that his price tag, and desire to stay with the Bears, holds him firm to Chicago.

The Bears should also look for a back up running back that doesn't come with a huge price tag, and might look to get Brandon Marshall his much-deserved extension and still add a receiver for depth. They'll likely need to look at either drafting a quarterback or signing a another, as at this point it looks like Josh McCown is headed elsewhere. We would all love for the Bears to keep him, but with the enormous cap hit that Jay Cutler has this year on his new deal (which I wholeheartedly believe was the right move), the Bears just might not want to pay $4-5 million for a backup, even as good as Josh was and is. The two most important spots though, remain defensive line and safety. Keep adding talent and depth there and the defensive turnaround could happen in a hurry.

Don't think for a minute that Emery hasn't noticed how elite, tough defenses have fared in recent playoffs, even if this is supposed to be an offensive league now. Surely he remembers from his previous time with the Bears just how far a tough defense can take a team. Now that he has the offense to go with it, he has set about with full steam ahead to rebuild his defense into a tenacious one, hopefully with the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks as a model (not to mention the 06 Bears).

Signing players like Lamarr Houston, Ryan Mundy, and D.J. Williams, while cutting dead cap weight in Julius Peppers, is a great start. We saw the Bears continue to make moves throughout free agency last year, so there is a good chance Emery isn't done. With that, and the upcoming draft that some think is the deepest in years, Emery has the opportunity to rebuild his defense into a tough, capable, and physical unit that could bounce back in a big way from last year's disaster. Time will tell, as the changes could only be beginning.