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Bears Wed Mar 12 2014
Make that three years in a row that Phil Emery has made his presence known in the early hours of free agency. He started with the Brandon Marshall trade for a pair of third round picks to give Jay Cutler the premier receiver that all quarterbacks love throwing to, and followed that up last year with another weapon and a backside protector in Martellus Bennett and Jermon Bushrod on the opening day of the league year.
With a combined $210 million in extra cap room that teams weren't expecting, the money was going to fly around regardless. It was just a matter of who and where. Here's how the order of events played out in Lake Forest.
Bears sign DE Lamarr Houston: Five years, $35 million with $15 million guaranteed.
It wasn't a surprise to see the Bears make a big signing on the defensive line, a unit that was decimated by injuries and poor play in 2013. Houston fits exactly what the Bears were looking for too: a young player with a sterling history of health and performance on the rise. Check all three boxes there, not to mention he can comfortably play in both the 4-3 and 3-4 defenses.
The former Oakland Raider was ranked in the top 10 overall in most free agent rankings, and hasn't missed a single game in his four-year career. He'll turn just 27 years old this summer, and is one of the best run defending ends in the league, ranking as the fifth best 4-3 DE in stopping the ground game according to Pro Football Focus (a website well respected by Phil Emery).
The reason why he didn't get an outrageous contract is because he doesn't score well in a key stat every team is looking for in a defensive end: sacks. He had a career high six sacks last season, and has just 16 throughout his entire career. For comparison sake, Julius Peppers had 7.5 in a down year last season, and 38 in his four years with the Bears. Houston did, however, account for 14 more QB hurries and 10 more QB hits than Peppers did, but it took him 300 more snaps to do so.
It's no secret that the run defense was a problem last season, and Houston is step one in fixing it. At the time of his signing, despite the large contract number, the Bears could fit Houston in under the cap while keeping Peppers' pass rush ability on the opposite side. They would have to seriously backload the deal to make it happen, but the opportunity was there. If anything, it would buy the team more time, and hold Peppers somewhat hostage on the roster while other teams spent their free agent dollars elsewhere, and possibly forcing him to swallow the pill and take the pay cut that would lower his cap hit.
Bears re-sign MLB D.J. Williams: one year, $1.5 million with $100K guaranteed.
With no multi-year offers on the market, Williams wanted to return to the Bears in an effort to finish what he started last year. You could easily say that his season ending pectoral injury was the stake in the heart of the Bears defense. The proof is in the pudding. In his six games played, the team gave up an average of 102 yards on the ground. In the final ten -- and you should probably grab a barf bag before reading this -- 197.1 yards per game on the ground for the Bears' opponents.
He'll immediately slip back into his role as the starting middle linebacker, and that means Jon Bostic and Shea McClellin will be fighting for the Sam linebacker job in camp. Bostic proved last season he can't play in the middle, and is likely more suited as a weakside guy in the future, but nobody is moving Lance Briggs off his spot until he's not in uniform any longer.
Bears sign LB Jordan Senn to a one-year deal.
Blake Costanzo was a free agent, and they couldn't bring him back after performing so terribly in his fill-in duty at linebacker. Senn is of the same mold -- a special teams ace that doubles as a backup linebacker. He's seen just 26 snaps outside of special teams in the last two years, and hasn't started a game at linebacker since 2011, where he played fine in four games, and was a disaster for his last three according to PFF. The Bears special teams units were laughably bad last season, which necessitated this signing that will be at or near the league minimum.
Bears sign S Ryan Mundy to a two-year deal.
Mundy was an on-and-off starter for the Giants the past couple of seasons, and will likely be in competition for a starting safety job with the Bears. Chris Conte is still on the roster, and will be pushed to a backup position if all goes well in the draft. Part of the reason he and the departed Major Wright played so badly was because they got no help in front of them.
Mundy is 29 and is another solid special teams player. Two-way guys like him are important because of the 45-man active roster restriction on game days. Roster spots are crucial, and it explains why a guy like Devin Hester wasn't re-signed and will likely have a problem finding a job in free agency.
Word leaks out that year one of Houston's deal is a $9 million cap hit.
Uh oh. So...Pepp...about that pay cut...
UPDATE: $9 million is the cash cost. His cap hit is actually $5.04 million in 2014.
It hasn't been confirmed whether or not the Bears were asking him to take a pay cut, but if they did, his answer was clearly: no thanks. His cap hit this season was set to be north of $18 million, and it was just too much for a team with so many needs. He was a dominant player for the Bears during his short four years, and the backloaded cap hits finally came due. The team saved $9.8 million by cutting him, and will use those funds to fill their myriad needs elsewhere -- including his spot at defensive end.
Despite his mediocre play last season, his loss is a big one. He was loved by his teammates, and played in every single game in Chicago. The cost just wasn't worth the output for a guy that just turned 34.
With Peppers gone, the Bears don't have a single defensive end that can get to the quarterback, and probably need to add two. The draft won't be a savior in that regard either, as the top pass rushers will all be off the board before their pick at 14, and it's not regarded as a deep draft at defensive end. They team will likely have interest in the recently released DeMarcus Ware (cut for the same reason Peppers was), but the early word on the street is that he's visiting Denver, and won't be leaving.
Jared Allen is name that the Bears have also been mildly linked to, and he fits their needs exactly as a wide defensive end that pins his ears back on third downs. He didn't grade out well according to PFF last year, but his raw numbers of 13 sacks and 18 hits each put him in the top 5 of those two categories for 4-3 DE's. Justin Tuck is another guy the Bears could make a play for as well, along with the possibility of bringing back Corey Wootten, though he isn't as deft at hitting the quarterback as the others. Whatever happens, the deals will have to be short (think three years at most) and light on money since the team has to hold back cap space for their draftees.
Backup tight end is a need as well after the puzzling release of Donte Rosario just 11 days after he was re-signed. If Josh McCown ends up signing in Tampa Bay, Houston, or New York -- the places he's scheduled to visit over the next few days -- it'll likely result in a search for another backup QB. Charles Tillman is still out there too, and if he signs in Tampa Bay with Lovie Smith (where he's visiting this week), it leaves open another corner that needs to be signed.
The Bears will obviously be drafting for some of these positions as well, and the draft class is heavy on depth at defensive tackle, cornerback, and safety -- three position in dire need of help. However, they can't fill all their holes in the draft, and still have some money to spend in a free agent pool that still has some talent remaining. The rest of free agency won't be nearly as fun or wild as Day 1 was, but it'll be just as important for a team on the verge of taking the next step.