By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) Phil Emery noted that the interview process leading to him being named the fifth general manager in Bears history took 15 hours. Judging by his introductory press conference, I’m guessing he spoke for at least 13 of them.
While pedantic at times, Emery was clearly thrilled by the opportunity and seemed eager to take on the tremendous task he’s inherited. One off-season will not be enough to solve the myriad of personnel issues – an offense lacking playmakers, and an aging defense – but here’s some short-term advice for Phil that he certainly didn’t ask for:
Self Scouting/Bears Free Agents
Seeing that NFL free agency doesn’t commence until March 13, 2012, and the draft isn’t until April 26, 2012, Emery’s first order of business will be self-scouting and making decisions on the Bears’ 14 free agents, all of which are unrestricted except running back Kahlil Bell. Let’s separate this group of players into three categories: must have, nice to have, and don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
Must have (5):
- Running back Matt Forte: This is as obvious as butter in a Paula Deen recipe. Forte is currently the only playmaker on the Bears offense that opposing defenses must game plan for. How Emery handles Forte’s future will affect fickle fan’s perception of the new GM, but I would fully support and understand the use of the collectively bargained franchise tag. Running back is a disposable, chew ‘em up and spit ‘em out position, which makes it easy to understand why teams are becoming more reluctant to dole out long, guaranteed contracts.
- Defensive end Israel Idonije: While Idonije has yet to become the bookend opposite Julius Peppers, he is the second best defensive end on the roster. In addition to being the second best defensive end on the roster, Idonije is a vital special teams contributor and a positive locker room influence, so attempts should be made to retain him at a reasonable price. As a restricted free agent (RFA) in 2006, Idonije received an offer sheet from the Buffalo Bills, so it’s safe to assume he will garner some interest on the open market.
- Running back Kahlil Bell: Bell is a restricted free agent, so he is free to negotiate and sign an offer sheet with another team, but the Bears will have the opportunity to match any offer, or receive draft-pick compensation. When asked to carry the load, Bell showed flashes of productivity, however his propensity to fumble is an issue. While he’ll never be a primary running back, he is an effective change-of-pace back, worth having on the roster.
- Cornerback Corey Graham: Fresh off a Pro Bowl season as a special teamer, Graham has found his niche in the NFL. In addition to being a premier special teamer, Graham played well at nickel back in relief of DJ Moore, registering interceptions in three straight games. The Bears would be wise to keep Graham in the fold.
- Safety Craig Steltz: Chances are you’ve just had a dog head tilt reaction to this one, but trust me, it makes sense. Steltz is another valuable multi-phase special teamer, but he also turned a few heads when he was forced into action at safety, improving his level of play every week. Yes, he was brutalized by Jermichael Finley, but the Bears coaching staff is just as much at fault for thinking that would be a successful match-up. Steltz has value as a back-up strong safety, and on a team with more questions than answers at the position, he should be retained.
Nice to have (3):
- Quarterback Josh McCown: McCown’s performance at the end of the season earned him the right to compete for a back-up role in an NFL training camp, will it be Bourbonnais? McCown demonstrated a good feel for pressure in the pocket, anticipated routes, and was athletic enough to move the chains with his feet when he made the decision to tuck it and run. Seeing the Bears 2011 season was derailed by not having an adequate No. 2 option on the roster, the back-up quarterback should be a priority, and I wouldn’t be upset if the Bears brought back McCown as their No. 3.
- Tight End Kellen Davis: How much longer will the Bears wait for Kellen Davis to arrive? He certainly has the size and athleticism to be a factor at the tight end position, but has yet to put it together. Seeing that only Matt Spaeth is under contract for next season, Davis could be brought back. Whether Davis is brought back or not, the Bears will certainly look to upgrade at the tight end position, a position that has enjoyed a renaissance over the past few seasons.
- Cornerback Tim Jennings: The 2011 season proved that Tim Jennings is not a starting caliber cornerback in the NFL. Jennings failed to come up with interceptions in crucial moments of games (on passes that hit him in the hands) and was beat deep often this season. If you’re bringing Jennings back as an insurance policy, that’s fine, but it cannot be as a starter.
Don’t let the door hit you on the way out (6):
- Wide receiver Roy Williams: Williams only fell 40-some catches short of the 70-80 catch season predicted by former offensive coordinator Mike Martz. Williams is another in a long line of receivers with unmet potential, plagued with a poor attitude and questionable hands, Williams seemed to fight the ball as it reached his hands/body, I bet he’d make a great volleyball player.
- Safety Brandon Merriweather: I understood the signing at the time, as the safety position is the one position on defense former general manager Jerry Angelo failed to solve. Merriweather’s undisciplined free-styling and completely reckless head-hunting was a poor match for Lovie Smith’s scheme which requires disciplined, technique sound performers.
- Cornerback Zach Bowman: Remember a few years ago, when Bowman was the talk of training camp? If we say something enough, it eventually becomes true, right? Wrong. Telling every media outlet that Bowman was a No. 1 corner, never made him a No. 1 corner. In a pass happy league, Bowman has the physical traits you’d look for in a cornerback, too bad he was burned more than a blunt at a Cypress Hill concert.
- Quarterback Caleb Hanie: Just one year ago, fresh off a ridiculously hyped average relief quarterbacking performance against the Packers in the NFC Championship game, Caleb Hanie was making his case to be an NFL starting quarterback. Jay Cutler’s broken thumb afforded Hanie that opportunity, and he completely flopped. Hanie’s performances conjured memories of Jonathan Quinn, Henry Burris, and Todd Collins. I mean, he was outperformed by Tyler Palko. In a league desperate for quarterback talent, Hanie cost himself millions of dollars, and may need to find a new profession.
- Defensive Tackle Amobi Okoye: Okoye was the talk of the pre-season, showing flashes of the talent that made him the 10th overall pick in the 2007 draft. Once the lights came on in the regular season, Okoye was nowhere to be found. On a team that believes in cycling defensive lineman to keep them fresh, Okoye never capitalized on his opportunities. Unless he’s willing to take a very cheap one-year deal, the Bears are best served to look elsewhere for a three-technique.
- Long Snapper Chris Massey: I bet you’re saying, who? Massey was brought in to replace the ultra-reliable Patrick Mannelly, who tore his ACL against the Chargers. Assuming a full recovery for Mannelly, Massey has no place. However, his number should be kept on speed dial as he was effective.
NFL Free Agency
Priority 1: Finding a proven No. 1 wide receiver. The Bears need to bring in a legitimate No. 1 wide receiver who will improve the Bears offense the moment the ink dries on his contract. Granted, as of yet, we don’t know who will get franchise tagged, but names like Vincent Jackson, Dwayne Bowe, Marques Colston, DeSean Jackson, and Stevie Johnson may be out there, so the Bears should have an opportunity to add a playmaking receiver that they’ve lacked for a decade.
Priority 2: Bolstering the defensive secondary. Five of the Bears 14 free agents are in the defensive secondary so this unit should have a very different feel to it in 2012, which is a good thing. The crop of free agent cornerbacks is deep, with names like Brent Grimes, Carlos Rogers, Brandon Carr, and Aaron Ross. The crop of strong safeties is intriguing as well, with Tyvon Branch and LaRon Landry topping the list. The Bears have two starters set in the defensive secondary set at this point, cornerback Charles Tillman and free safety Chris Conte. Major Wright has been majorly wrong in his time as a Bear, so more competition at the strong safety and cornerback is needed.
Priority 3: Adding competition on the offensive line. Obviously, the Bears need significant upgrades on an offensive line that has surrendered an NFL high 105 sacks over the past two seasons. The Bears must do a better job of protecting Jay Cutler, and could use more talent at both tackle and guard, specifically left tackle. Unfortunately, the free agent market doesn’t offer much in the form of a left tackle, so one strategy may be to sign a proven offensive guard, like Carl Nicks or Ben Grubbs, which would allow Chris Williams – the guy they spent the 14th pick in the 2008 draft on to be the left tackle of the future – to compete with J’Marcus Webb at left tackle. Webb certainly leaves a lot to be desired as the protector of Cutler’s blind side, and cannot go into the 2012 season without competing for his job.
Priority 1: Find a defensive cornerstone for the future. The Bears window to win with their veteran core of defenders is closing rapidly, so they would be wise to invest an early selection on a defensive player who can be the cornerstone of the future, preferably at defensive end or cornerback. All season long, I praised Alabama outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw, and mentioned he should be a target for the Bears in the first round. Upshaw was the best player on the best defense in college football, and helped his draft stock immensely by showing up to the Senior Bowl at 273 pounds, making him a viable option in a 3-4 or 4-3. Upshaw may have improved his stock so much that he may be off the board at #19, so the Bears may be forced to look elsewhere. While I believe in the best player available approach to drafting, the Bears have holes at specific positions, which may force them to draft for need in the early rounds of the draft.
Priority 2: Continue to add offensive playmakers in the passing game. The Bears need as many weapons as they can get in the passing game, both at wide receiver and tight end. The Bears should look to add both a big ticket wide receiver in free agency and a developmental receiver early in the draft. Tight end is also a position of need, perhaps the Bears turn around and use the third round pick they received from Carolina in the Greg Olsen trade to fill that void?
Priority 3: Re-stock the linebacker position. The Bears must start preparing for the inevitable decline of Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs. Both of these two continue to perform at a high level, but questions about their longevity are valid. How well will Urlacher bounce back from the knee injury he suffered in the season finale in Minnesota? Outside of the starters, the Bears linebacking corps has very limited talent, so devoting middle round picks to this position would be wise.
I don’t envy Phil Emery one bit, as he’s taken over a very unique situation. More often than not, a new general manager takes over a team who is in dire straits, in desperate need of a compete tear down and re-build. The Bears, however, feel like they are still competing for a championship. This expectation of winning leaves Emery with a razor-thin margin for error this off-season. While I wasn’t overly enthused about the list of general manager candidates, or how the Bears handled the process in general, I will give Emery a chance to right the ship.
He can’t be worse than Jerry Angelo. Right?
Dan Durkin joined The Score’s columnist community after finishing runner-up in the 2011 Pepsi Max Score Search. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois where he was a member of the men’s football team (despite his best efforts to join the women’s team). Dan is a longtime Scorehead, known as Dan in Wicker Park – even though he no longer resides in Wicker Park – who will be sharing NFL analysis and opinions. You can follow Dan on Twitter @djdurkin. To read more of Dan’s blogs click here.