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Bears Fri Mar 14 2014
Though most of Phil Emery's work in free agency has been in locking up his team's own talent, he's moved quickly in the open negotiating period, and landed starters at need positions while adding much needed depth at key spots across the roster.
Since Tuesday's barrage of movement, the Bears have continued a quest to improve the defense all in one offseason, similar to what they did with the other side of the ball last winter and spring. The most important part of that rebuild won't come until May's draft, but the steps taken should solidify a unit that was decimated by injuries in 2013.
Bears sign safety M.D. Jennings to a one-year contract.
Packers fans have rejoiced this move, as they felt the same way about Jennings as Bears fans feel about Chris Conte, but their performances last year were in different worlds. Jennings might have been a disappointment in Green Bay, but he surely would've been an upgrade in Chicago. Conte ranked as the fifth worst safety in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus, and though he was put into some terrible positions by his teammates up front, he missed badly on many plays coming right at him.
Jennings and Ryan Mundy are depth adds at a position where the Bears had none in 2013. Despite brutal play in the back line, Conte and Major Wright kept their jobs because the talent behind them (Craig Steltz and Anthony Walters) was thought to be even worse by the coaches.
If the regular season started tomorrow, Mundy at strong and Jennings at weak safety would be the starters, but there will definitely be a competition. Conte starting isn't out of the question either, lest you forget that he was a competent number one as recently as 2012 when there were actually plays being made in front of him.
The signings at safety signal one thing for certain -- the position will be addressed in the first three rounds (and likely the top two) of the draft come May.
DE Willie Young signs for three years, $9 million.
Young qualifies as the biggest signing not named Lamarr Houston for the Bears in free agency, and it locks up the starting defensive end spots. You may not know a ton about the former Detroit Lions player because he hasn't racked up a ton of sacks, but PFF ranked him third amongst 4-3 DEs in quarterback hurries last year, and 15th in total pressures (sacks, hits, and hurries combined).
He lined up 75 percent of the time at left end, which is a perfect compliment to Houston's near 90 percent at right end. Houston was brought in to stop the run and hopefully improve at getting to the passer (he ranked 12th in total QB pressures), and Young was brought in to purely harass the quarterback. Young will turn 29 during the season, so his productivity shouldn't show any age decline for at least another couple of seasons.
With Peppers gone and Shea McClellin moving to linebacker, the Bears needed to spend money at the edges of the line, and they did just that.
Bears sign Domenik Hixon to one-year deal.
This deal will likely be close to the veterans minimum, as the Bears are set at the receiver position (assuming they keep Earl Bennett). Emery said Hixon is being added for competition and depth, and it's hard to read otherwise.
Hixon's signing seems like it will spell the end to Eric Weems' time in Chicago at some point, as it would save the Bears $1 million in cap space that will likely be needed later. Hixon has experience returning kicks and playing special teams, two major areas of need for the Bears this offseason. If the Bears can afford it, Weems might stick around, but he's an easy cut now if the team needs cap room.
Bears sign TE Dante Rosario to one-year deal...again.
You are reading this correctly. In the matter of two weeks, Rosario was signed, released, and signed again. It likely had to do with cap mechanics, so we'll just leave it at that. It didn't hurt the Bears monetarily to let him go earlier.
The Bears have roughly $8 million in cap space remaining, but nearly $5 million of that will need to be saved to sign draft picks, and it's usually a good idea to hold back a million or so during the season to absorb injury replacements. However, the team can free up more space by restructuring the deals of Jay Cutler or Tim Jennings whenever they want. The downside is that it adds potential dead money burden to the ends of their deals -- something the Bears are desperate to avoid.
Quarterback?: With Josh McCown getting wild money to be Lovie Smith's signal caller in Tampa Bay, the Bears are left without a reliable backup on their roster. However, it's unlikely they'll go out and get someone other than a camp body for competition and depth purposes.
You might think that's crazy, but last August, it wasn't even a sure thing that McCown would make the Bears' roster. Matt Blanchard beating him out for the backup job was a real possibility before his injury, and the team wasn't afraid to break camp with only two QBs, as they later proved.
Jordan Palmer was called into camp after Blanchard's injury last season, and returned when Cutler went down against Washington. He knows the system, and if the belief is that Marc Trestman can take almost any QB and make him at least serviceable, then I doubt the Bears will worry about spending money on anyone else. It's unlikely they'll draft anyone this year either, considering all the needs they have on defense, and the fact that Cutler has three guaranteed years on his new deal. A drafted QB will likely be a priority next year -- unless Palmer performs as well as McCown did.
Running Back: Matt Forte and Michael Ford are the only RBs on the roster after Michael Bush was cut. Forte is a pretty resilient runner, and is one of the best at avoiding huge hits that take games away. With the devaluing of running backs in the draft, I'd think the Bears would either use a late round pick, or snag a couple undrafted free agents to compete for a roster spot that would likely include some special teams duty. They won't spend any money here.
Offensive Tackle: Eben Britton and Jonathan Scott are both free agents, and it wouldn't be surprising to see either or both back with the Bears if they don't find good offers elsewhere. Swing tackle is an important position, but not one you can spend much money on. Either or both guys could only be brought back on vet minimum contracts. Britton played a lot last year as a second tight end, and the team values his versatility in that regard -- they just can't afford to give him much money.
Tight End: This is more of a want than a need, but if Martellus Bennett goes down, the offense will be hurting in a big way. Of any offensive position, this is the most likely one the Bears would use a pick on this year, since they won't spend any money here in free agency.
Defensive Tackle: Nate Collins, Jeremiah Ratliff, Stephen Paea, and Tracy Robertson are on the roster, and Henry Melton is still out visiting other teams (they're mainly checking on his knee). I'm inclined to think that Melton isn't coming back because he'll cost too much money, and the Bears are in prime position to grab a DT in rounds one or two. Plus, Collins and Ratliff are both best at three technique (though Ratliff is good a nose too), and Melton would create a logjam there.
Defensive End: After Houston and Young, names like Austen Lane, Trevor Scott, and Cheta Ozougwu don't really strike fear into opponents. They need another reliable pass rusher, and they may try to get in on one of the remaining veterans, but only if the price is right (re: low). It feels like the Bears are going to use a couple mid-round picks on this spot.
Cornerback: Charles Tillman is still out there and it sounds like his trip to Tampa didn't go that well. The Bears need a starter here, and they haven't been shy about wanting him back, but only at the team's price. Even if Tillman is brought back into the fold, the Bears needs to get younger here and will likely spend a top three pick on the spot. At the same time, this is likely the spot where the Bears would spend some of their remaining money. Tarrell Brown might be a backup option to Tillman.
Safety: The signings of Mundy and Jennings, two mediocre safeties at best, screams high draft pick. They're going to pick the best one available in rounds one or two, and I doubt they'll add anymore veterans to the mix.