able to sign Michael Bennett. Michael, brother of Bears tight end Martellus Bennett, was purportedly the Bears’ number one target in free agency until he quickly re-signed with Seattle. Would Phil Emery have been able to pull off what he has if he would have given Bennett more money than Seattle offered, which was reported? Probably not.
When Bennett went off the table, Emery quickly signed Raiders free agent defensive end Lamarr Houston. At the time I wasn’t real happy with the decision. I remember in 2000 when the Bears desperately needed a defensive end, and they reached to give run-stopping end Phillip Daniels a $20 million contract. Daniels ended up being a decent stout end for four seasons in Chicago, but never lived up to being paid as a premier pass rusher as he was paid to be. This was my initial concern with Houston. Lots of potential, could blossom, but neither built to be nor has shown the promise as an elite pass rusher.
Since then, Emery and the Bears signed promising young end Willie Young from Detroit, former Bear Israel Idonije, safety Ryan Mundy from the Giants, and re-signed cornerback Charles Tillman to a reasonable one-year deal. Tillman is arguably the face of the franchise. He also was able to re-sign defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff, a former Pro Bowler with potential to make a huge comeback.
About 10 days ago, I privately hoped the Bears would make a run at free agent DE Jared Allen. But like a lot of other possibilities (Jay Cutler in 2009, Brandon Marshall in 2012, Jermon Bushrod in 2013), I completely doubted the normally-conservative Bears would make any of these moves. Even when earlier this week the Bears pulled a quick restructure of Cutler’s deal to free cap space, I figured it was just to keep their options open during the season.
But I’ll be damned, they went out and landed Allen. And now I am as excited about a Bears season as I have been since the last Super Bowl run. While it’s granted that Emery’s drafting of Shea McClellin and Brandon Hardin still look like foolish moves, what he has done is taken the weakest areas of the Bears and turned them into strengths in his three offseasons. Chicago’s offensive line and group of receivers were complete jokes when he took over the team. Now the OL is far above average if not great, and receivers Marshall and Alshon Jeffery give Chicago an enviable group. He also made the right decision cutting Earl Bennett, a player I liked but who had been grossly overpaid by Jerry Angelo.
Following the embarrassing 2013 defensive season, now Emery has given the Bears a contending defensive line and solid corners if Tillman can stay healthy, and if nickel corner Kelvin Hayden can regain his 2012 form. The linebacker and safety position groups are still a work in progress. Will the LB corps of Lance Briggs, DJ Williams and Shea McClellin be able to stay healthy and play well enough until sophomores Jon Bostic and Kaseem Green prove worthy of their draft status? Will Mundy prove himself as starting-caliber at safety? Is 2013 scapegoat Chris Conte even in the picture anymore?
Emery’s moves in free agency allow him to truly go after the best players at the top of the draft. Will he take a defensive tackle that would make the Bears’ DL one of the most feared in the league, or finally take a safety that is any more than a stopgap (as the Bears have been playing with for a decade). Or, is there a middle linebacker the Bears could find in rounds two or three that could do a better job taking over for Williams after 2014, allowing Bostic to eventually succeed Briggs?
I can honestly say that if the Bears avoid injuries, they are certainly placed to do big things in 2014. I am already a little worried about their salary cap situation down the road. Marshall and Jeffery are in line for big extensions in 2015 and 2016.
But for now, if the draft lands studs at DT, S and perhaps LB, this Bears team will be scary.