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Bears Wed Mar 13 2013

Bears Make Headlines In Opening Hours Of Free Agency

Thumbnail image for GB bears icon.pngThe Bears didn't make the biggest signing on the opening day of free agency (Mike Wallace: Dolphins), but they made the most noise in the early hours of the new league year.

Tight end Martellus Bennett (four years, $20 million) and left tackle Jermon Bushrod (five years, $36 million) were top names at their respective positions, but nobody was quite sure how much cash the Bears had available. Reports had them anywhere between three and seven million dollars under the salary cap, and the $12 million they just doled out annually to the new Bears means more roster trimming is on the way.

The cap numbers for those players is probably lessened in the first year to make sure they fit into the Bears salary structure, but it surely will lead to the cutting of Kellen Davis ($2.5 million savings) and quite possibly Devin Hester ($2.1 million savings) to make room. It also means that this is probably the last season the Bears can afford Julius Peppers. With the contracts of Bennett and Bushrod likely to hit the cap harder in future seasons, along with the probability that Jay Cutler re-signs for big money, the $17 million dollar All-Pro defensive end will likely be a luxury the team simply can't afford next season.

It's clear the Bears are interested in playing for a Super Bowl right now, and GM Phil Emery has been the headline-maker each of the past two seasons on the opening day of free agency. On this day a year ago, he traded for the uber-talented yet possibly crazy Brandon Marshall. That worked out pretty well. One can only hope that both Bennett and Bushrod can sniff that kind of success.

Bennett immediately becomes the starter at tight end as a guy that can play all three downs. Many people had the Bears in on Jared Cook, the massive speedster from Tennessee, as the big name upgrade. Instead, Emery targeted a player that was more affordable (Cook will likely make $7-plus million annually), and is more well-rounded because of his skill as an inline blocker. The worry with Bennett is that he has just one productive pro season under his belt -- last year in New York -- after wearing out his welcome in Dallas before that. He seems motivated to prove his worth, and being close with Marshall off the field will surely help when introducing and implementing his ego and skill set with the rest of the offense (re: Cutler).

The Bushrod signing was by far the most surprising move of the day, but not so much so if you look deeper. The Bears pursued former All-Pro Jake Long, but knew their dip into free agency would be one and done if they signed him because of the money he commands (if he rediscovers his form, he's a Hall of Fame player). They also kicked the tires on Vikings tackle Phil Loadholt, hoping for the double whammy of strengthening the team while weakening a division rival, but he re-signed shortly before the free agent bidding opened up.

That left Bushrod as the next viable option. He's been to the previous two Pro Bowls, and is very familiar with new offensive line coach Aaron Kromer, whom he played for his entire career in New Orleans. But the book on him isn't overwhelmingly positive. Why would the Saints let their Pro Bowl left tackle leave town? It's a legitimate question, and Pro Football Focus notes that Bushrod graded out 44th in their tackle ratings last year, just slightly ahead of incumbent J'Marcus Webb. If you're looking solely at 2012 performance, $7 million a year for Bushrod isn't exactly getting bang for your buck. Don't think the Bears pay attention to advanced statistics websites like PFF? Think again.

Prior to 2012 though, Bushrod was one of the most reliable tackles in the game, and had improved steadily throughout his time starting in New Orleans. His stats last year took a hit because of the way he started the season, which could have been a result of the Saints coaching debacle, which featured an interim-interim coach for the first half of the season. At 28, the Bears believe Bushrod can play out all five years of his contract at a steady level, and solidify a position that has been a black hole for the franchise since the retiring of John Tait, who they spent big money (successfully) on in 2004.

Even though he Bushrod may not be the mauling, franchise changing pass protector every team dreams about, he's a solid upgrade that at the very least allows the Bears to shuffle the rest of the offensive line as a means of improvement. Webb could move back to right tackle, and Gabe Carimi could slide into right guard in hopes of making good on what's been a disappointing few years in Chicago to this point.

Bears fans should be excited about everything that's happened thus far. Defensively, however, it likely means that Brian Urlacher won't return unless he takes a lot less money than the $5 million he's reportedly asked for. It also means less cash is available for Nick Roach and Israel Idonije. The signings do give the franchise far more flexibility on draft day, and that's a great sign for a team that needs to take the best player available regardless of position.

Cutler has more weapons to play with, and a year to make it work with a new coach and playcaller. There are no more excuses. It's time to take the Bears to the playoffs and beyond. Emery has infused the team with a ton of (high priced) talent. For Cutler, it's put up or shut up in the final year of his contract. Hopefully him signing elsewhere won't put the Bears on the front page of free agency news for the third straight year.

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