By Dan Durkin
(CBS) Just a year ago, I offered Phil Emery some advice that he certainly didn’t ask for, nor frankly need. However, judging by the moves he orchestrated during his first year on the job, we saw the team through the same lens, for the most part, which was a refreshing departure from the previous regime.
Emery brought back four of the five free agents I deemed must have’s (Corey Graham was the lone departure), and accomplished two of the three priorities I suggested in both free agency and the draft. Thus, either Phil is an accessible chap with an open mind who enjoys my writing, or he took a similar look at the current state of the franchise he generally manages.
With the country just days away from celebrating the resolution of another memorable NFL season, the Super Bowl also serves as a litmus test for the 30 other clubs about how close – but in most cases, far – they are from winning one of their own. With an aging defense and an offense in dire need of protection and more weapons, that Super Bowl intersection point doesn’t appear to be very close for the Bears.
Hiring head coach Marc Trestman was just the first of many major decisions Emery must make this off-season. With 20 free agents of their own, decent – roughly $12M by my count – cap space, and only five draft picks, Emery’s margin for error is like the love of Manti Te’o’s life, non-existent.
So, here I am again, offering Emery a free consultation on some steps he can take to help the Bears find a companion for their lone Lombardi Trophy:
Self-Scouting/Bears Free Agents
Free agency begins on March 12th, so that’s the first order of business. Of the 20 free agents, 18 are unrestricted, six are starters, one is a restricted free agent (RFA), and one is an exclusive rights free agent. Once again, 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 (4):
- Guard Lance Louis: Prior to tearing his ACL – on a blindside cheap shot from Jared Allen – Louis was exceedingly the Bears best offensive lineman in 2012. Linemen aren’t required to make the drastic change of direction cuts that skill position players are, so Louis should make a full recovery. In a cruel way, the injury may have saved the Bears a few million dollars. Louis is one of the few bright spots on the line, and a player Bears should retain and develop.
- Linebacker Nick Roach: Currently, Lance Briggs is the only starter-quality linebacker currently under contract, thus, Roach should be a priority. Roach started the season at the Sam (strong-side) linebacker spot, but Brian Urlacher’s injury forced him into action at the Mike (middle) linebacker spot. This demonstrated Roach’s versatility and value to the club, as he was adequate at Mike. At 27, he can be counted on for a few more productive seasons.
- Cornerback Kelvin Hayden: Sherrick McManus and Isiah Frey are currently the third and fourth cornerbacks on the depth chart behind starters Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings, both of whom are set to become free agents in 2014. Thus, retaining Hayden is necessary. Hayden struggled as a starter against the Packers, but his physical play-style helped supplant DJ Moore as the nickel back. In a receiver-rich division, Hayden is a solid third corner.
- Defensive Tackle Nate Collins (RFA): Collins showed flashes last season, playing with relentless hustle on the inside. As it stands, the Bears only starter-quality defensive tackles under contract are Stephen Paea and Matt Toeaina (who I believe may be cut). As a restricted free agent, the Bears can tender Collins at a low level and develop this 25 year-old talent.
Nice to have (7):
- Defensive Tackle Henry Melton: On the heels of a Pro Bowl season, Melton is looking to get paid. Reports are the two sides aren’t close on a deal, so this will be an interesting situation to monitor. The franchise tag amount for a defensive tackle is $8.3M, which could be a prohibitive number. How much do new defensive coordinator Mel Tucker and Emery value a one-gap Tampa-2 three-technique? Melton is uber talented, but can the Bears sign him and still address bigger needs on offense? This negotiation could have a domino-effect on the Bears free agency plans.
- Linebacker Brian Urlacher: Urlacher has been the face of the franchise for the past decade, so this is a very delicate situation. It was difficult to see Urlacher play the role of wounded warrior last year, dragging a leg, rounding off his cuts, unable to flash that rare, explosive change of direction that’s made him special and a first ballot Hall-of-Famer. Urlacher’s made it clear he wants to stay in Chicago, so if the Bears deem him physically able to play, it would be nice to see the two sides work out a reasonable deal.
- Defensive End Israel Idonije: Idonije has been the consummate professional and teammate during his time with the Bears. He’s been flexible – and genetically capable – to fluctuate his weight to play inside and outside, whenever the Bears needed him to. While he never materialized into the pass rusher they hoped for, and has struggled at times against the run (don’t watch the 2012 Texans game tape), the Bears should make a fair, short-term offer to Idonije.
- Cornerback Zach Bowman: While he can’t be counted on as an every-down corner, Bowman was a standout special teams performer in 2012, potentially carving out his niche in the NFL. Look around the league, every successful team has a handful of willing special teams players, so at a reasonable price tag, Bowman could become the new Corey Graham.
- Defensive Tackle Amobi Okoye: Okoye made his way into Lovie Smith’s doghouse last season for his practice habits, and was a healthy scratch (inactive) for several games. He was eventually cut, then brought back again late in the season. Like others, Okoye is a defensive tackle that fits the mold of the Tampa-2 scheme, so his retention may not be vital moving forward, but he could be a nice rotation guy at a backup’s pay scale.
- Offensive Tackle Jonathan Scott: Once the offensive line started to take a nosedive – Gabe Carimi in particular, who is trending towards “bust” – the Bears brought in Scott off the street, and he became the starter at right tackle in Week 12. While he only gave up one sack in five starts, Scott can’t be viewed as a long-term answer at right tackle. However, with only Carimi and J’Marcus Webb under contract, Emery could consider bringing back Scott on a modest deal with a small cap impact to compete for the swing tackle role.
- Running Back Armando Allen (ERFA): As an exclusive rights free agent, the Bears control Allen’s rights, and can offer him a three year minimum-salary deal, take it or leave it. Allen played a minor role on the team, both offensively and on special teams, but is replaceable.
Don’t let the door hit you on the way out (9):
- Cornerback DJ Moore: Moore did himself no favors this season both on and off the field. Moore’s public reaction to the Cutler-Webb “bumpgate” was mistake number one. Mistake number two was performing poorly on the field. Moore had a rough night against the Lions on Monday Night football, and then slowly saw his playing time decrease until he was replaced by Hayden. Moore re-entered the line-up against the Packers and was targeted mercilessly by Aaron Rodgers. Moore had his moments, but it’s safe to assume he’s played his last snap in Chicago.
- Running Back Kahlil Bell: Like Okoye, Bell was a roster yo-yo in 2012. Bell’s season got off to a rough start when he refused to take a pay cut, so the Bears cut him outright. Injuries at running back brought Bell back, but he didn’t make the most of his opportunities to warrant a new contract.
- Quarterback Jason Campbell: Seeing how much of an occupational hazard it is to be a quarterback for the Chicago Bears, Campbell was paid handsomely – $3.5M guaranteed – to ensure the Bears didn’t suffer a repeat of the 2011 season. Well, Campbell was forced into the starting lineup and he was nothing short of atrocious. Granted, few could succeed behind the Bears’ line, but Campbell looked incapable of completing any passes other than a check down. Despite having worked with Trestman prior to the 2005 draft, the Bears should look elsewhere for their backup quarterback.
- Linebacker Geno Hayes: Hayes was brought to the Bears because of his familiarity as a Will (weak-side) linebacker in a Tampa-2 system. Urlacher’s injury forced Hayes into action at the Sam linebacker spot. Hayes is undersized and was frequently over-matched in the run game. In three starts, Hayes didn’t show enough to warrant a new contract.
- Quarterback Josh McCown: McCown was cut prior to the season when the Bears elected to go with two quarterbacks. Once again, the Bears’ leaky line got Cutler concussed and they were forced back into the McCown contingency plan. If McCown wants a more stable future in the league, he should consider coaching.
- Guard Chris Spencer: At $3.75M, Spencer was the Bears’ highest paid offensive lineman in 2012. Let that sink in for a moment, and no, it’s not a typo. Spencer showed promise as a pulling guard in the 2011 season, but was a turnstile in pass protection this past season. Unless the Bears view the 28-year old Spencer as Garza’s heir apparent at center, there’s no reason to keep him on the roster.
- Guard Chilo Rachal: Even prior to his abrupt, bizarre departure from the team, I frequently wrote that Rachal may have been the worst of all Bears offensive lineman. Rachal looked unsure of his assignments, committed frequent penalties, and struggled as a run blocker. Safe to say, this bridge has been burned.
- Kicker Olindo Mare: It’s nice to know Olindo Mare is still capable of making a field goal, but with a healthy Robbie Gould, Mare gets the boot.
- Safety Troy Nolan: Who? Exactly. Goodbye.
NFL Free Agency
Priority 1: Find a proven left tackle. On a team with a defense built to win now, the Bears must make immediate improvements on the line, specifically on the blind side. Relying on the draft to solve this perennial problem isn’t a prudent approach.
We’ve seen enough of the J’Marcus Webb experiment to know the Bears must improve the talent level at the left tackle position. Fans are tantalized by names like Ryan Clady, Jake Long, and Brandon Albert, but will the Bears have enough money to secure the services of an elite left tackle?
A better question is, will these players even make it to free agency? It’s rare for elite left tackles to hit the open market, and if they do, questions must be raised about their health. If the Bears are out of the market for some of the top-level players, keep an eye on Jermon Bushrod who worked with offensive line coach Aaron Kromer in New Orleans.
Priority 2: Find a tight end. While the rest of the NFL has enjoyed a renaissance at the tight end position, the Bears brought a spork to a knife fight. All season long, I wrote that I couldn’t wait to refer to Kellen Davis as an ex-Bear. With a $100K roster bonus due in March, that glorious day may be approaching.
When your own general manager refers to your season as “rough,” the writing’s on the wall. Davis was a complete liability in every aspect of tight end play, pass protection, run blocking, and catching the ball. With a $2.4M base salary and $1.35M in guaranteed money due, the Bears could save a little over $1M by cutting Davis. Seems like a relative no-brainer.
Names like Martellus Bennett, Fred Davis, Jared Cook, and Dustin Keller could hit the unrestricted market and should be considered. The Bears would be wise to use both the free agent market and the draft to revamp their talent-poor tight end position group.
Priority 3: Find a backup quarterback. Last off-season, Emery struck fast in the free agency to secure one of the (seemingly) better options on the market (Jason Campbell), however, the Bears overpaid. This season, the Bears will again be in the market for a veteran backup, and I suggest they look at Matt Moore. Moore was cast aside by rookie Ryan Tannehill this past season, but was solid as a full-time starter in 2011.
Priority 1: Drafting the best player available in the first round. This sounds like a firm grasp of the obvious statement, but teams are often forced to draft for need, which leads to bypassing talent with a higher ceiling at a different position.
As it stands right now, you could make a legitimate case for the Bears drafting any position in the first round other than quarterback and running back. Fans seem to have a laser beam-like focus on drafting a left tackle prospect in the first round – which very well may happen – but Emery must stick to his board and trust his evaluations. Having only five total selections in the draft makes it even more imperative that he follows this philosophy.
Priority 2: Add a building block on the offensive line. Couple the potential left tackle acquired in free agency with a young offensive lineman in the draft for offensive line coach Aaron Kromer to groom. Kromer turned Jahri Evans (fourth round) and Carl Nicks (fifth round) into All-Pro guards, and Jermon Bushrod (fourth round) into a Pro-Bowler. I maintained all season long that the Bears must find a replacement for Roberto Garza, and they may be in a position to select a premier interior offensive lineman in round one.
Priority 3: Add a building block to the back seven of the defense. The Bears seem to have young talent to work with at safety and defensive end, but need to re-stock at linebacker and cornerback. As I alluded to earlier, both Jennings and Tillman are free agents after this season, so is Lance Briggs. Thus, it’s imperative that Emery adds more talent to the mix, so the cupboard isn’t completely bare on defense in 2014.
Take it all in, and it quickly becomes apparent how difficult Emery’s task at hand is. My biggest concern about the construction of the Bears’ roster during the Angelo-era was that as soon as the talent on offense caught up with the defense, it would be too late. That’s the very issue that Emery is dealing with right now, he’s the guy stuck paying the bill after a dine-and-dash.
Bears played five of the six NFC playoff teams and lost to all of them. Watching the level of competition throughout the playoffs has been thrilling as a fan of NFL football, but also sobering as a Bears fan. Comparing the Bears to the elite teams, their deficiencies in pass protection and at tight end must be remedied if they want to take the next step. Defensively, the Bears measure up to the Super Bowl participants, they just have a ways to go on offense both schematically and talent-wise.
So, Phil, pour yourself a cup of coffee, put the lanyards on and give this column a read. Or not.
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.