By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) Phil Emery wants to win now. He said it himself, and his roster moves – particularly those in the trade and free agent market – back up the rhetoric.
When Emery was hired, team president Ted Phillips pointed out that the Bears were clearly slipping behind the talent gap, and Emery’s “sterling” talent evaluation coupled with the depth of his plan distinguished him from his competitors.
The talent gap Phillips referred to is real, just look within the division. Their rivals have collectively drafted the league’s best quarterback (Aaron Rodgers), running back (Adrian Peterson), and wide receiver (Calvin Johnson).
Years of failed draft picks by the previous regime forced the Bears to add blue chip talent via trades and free agency. In fact, the Bears didn’t draft any of the three largest hits to their cap: Julius Peppers ($16.3M), Jay Cutler ($10.37M), and Brandon Marshall ($9.3M). Simply put, teams pay for not drafting well.
To be fair, in a relatively short period of time, Emery has narrowed that gap. In 2012, he orchestrated the most successful trade in the league, acquiring Marshall, the Bears best offensive weapon since Walter Payton. In 2013, he’s used free agency to plug persistent problems at left tackle (Jermon Bushrod) and tight end (Martellus Bennett)
Emery has made some longer-term investments on offense, while keeping things fairly status quo on defense. He jettisoned defensive-minded head coach Lovie Smith for quarterback “guru” Marc Trestman, and turned the page on Brian Urlacher, a franchise fixture for 13 seasons. The hope is Trestman can quickly turn around the offense, and Mel Tucker can bleed another year of production out of the defense.
After making a big splash on day one of free agency, Emery’s created some flexibility in the draft by signing a series of sensible 1-year mercenary contracts at positions of need. With the draft just three weeks away and only five picks to work with, Emery has his work cut out for him.
So, what sort of impact should Bears fans expect from the 2013 draft class? A starter on each side of the ball is realistic, but this draft is really about adding depth – young depth at that – to a roster that desperately lacks it.
Offensively, the lack of top-end talent and depth along the interior of the offensive line is alarming. The end is near for center Roberto Garza, and there’s no heir apparent on the roster. The moment the ink dried on free agent guard Matt Slauson’s one-year contract he became the most talented guard on the roster, which is a problem. The Bears must prioritize the interior offensive line.
Signing Bushrod was a step in the right direction, but beyond that, the remaining tackles on the roster – J’Marcus Webb, Jonathan Scott, and Cory Brandon – are all entering the final year of their contracts. The competition at right tackle between Webb and Scott, should produce an average starter, with the loser becoming the swing tackle. However, much like the situation at guard, the Bears must elevate the talent-level at offensive tackle.
Once you get past the top three of the wide receiver depth chart, you’re left with players best suited as special teamers. The Bears lack a vertical threat who can put pressure over the top of a defense, and make teams pay for doubling Marshall. As it stands, Earl Bennett, Devin Hester, and Eric Weems will make a combined $6.7M, which is a large sum considering their level of production. The Bears must find younger, cheaper, and more productive talent at wide receiver.
Defensively, seven of the Bears projected starters are entering the final year of their contracts. Emery kept the starting front four and secondary intact, and added two proven, professional linebackers. However, this is a prove it year for many players on the Bears defense, and there are depth issues at every level.
Losing Urlacher has understandably been one of the biggest storylines of the offseason. However, even if Urlacher had returned, the Bears still would have needed to start planning for the future at linebacker. Lance Briggs returns, but will be 33 this fall, and can only be counted on for a few more seasons. Free agents DJ Williams and James Anderson are essentially one year rentals, and there’s no depth past the starters.
Aside from designating Henry Melton the team’s franchise player, defensive tackle is a position that hasn’t received enough attention. Currently, there are only three on the roster, Melton, Stephen Paea, and Nate Collins. Fortunately, this draft is deep at defensive tackle.
The Bears’ top four cornerbacks are all entering the final year of their contracts. Starters Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings seem like logical candidates for extensions – and in turn cap relief – but Emery seems content to make them play for new deals. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Bears spend an early pick on a cornerback and let him immediately compete for the nickel position.
Ideally, Emery will trade back from the 20th spot to recoup a pick or two, as the Bears clearly have more needs than draft resources. Just last season, the Bengals traded back from the 21st spot to the 27th spot, and picked up a third-round pick in the process. Seeing that the Bears don’t have a third-round pick, that trade could serve as Emery’s blueprint.
As is the challenge for any general manager of a team with Super Bowl aspirations, the goal is to win now and simultaneously build for the future. For the Bears, the future is now. This makes it even more essential for Emery to lean upon his years of experience as a scout, and not only meet, but exceed the expectations of his bosses.
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.