By Adam Hoge-
BOURBONNAIS, Ill (CBS) — Before a majority of the Bears’ roster even arrived at Olivet Nazarene University Wednesday, the conversation around campus was centered on who would be coming back to Bourbonnais next year.
General manager Phil Emery got the chatter going by declaring that no contract extensions will be offered until the conclusion of the 2013 season, but the reality is that these same conversations have been going on between players — and in some cases between the players, their agents and Emery — for weeks now.
A number of pending free agents (and there are a total of 43 current Bears players entering the final year of their current deal right now) reached out to Emery in the offseason about an extension, but were essentially told the same thing we were Wednesday: It’s not happening until the season is over. In fact, kicker Robbie Gould inquired about an extension within the last two weeks and was denied.
Gould is one of many Bears veterans entering 2013 with some awkwardness. There has been extreme turnover the last two seasons and it appears many of the mainstays of the Lovie Smith era have been left with one foot out the door. In most cases, that’s not by choice. While Emery pointed to the salary cap and a desire to keep the focus on football as two main reasons extensions won’t be addressed until after the season, it’s not that simple. In truth, restructuring some of the expiring contracts by hammering out extensions in the offseason could have helped alleviate the lack of cap space entering the season.
The reality is that this is a calculated move by Emery that allows him to evaluate the roster from top to bottom in 2013 while making one last push at a Super Bowl with a veteran defense that has been very successful over the years. As the general manager said Wednesday, the Bears’ No. 1 goal is to win championships. He has attempted to that this year by going out and filling in some big holes through free agency and the draft. And if it doesn’t work out, then he’ll overhaul a big portion of the old roster and bring in his own new blood with the same No. 1 goal in mind.
Either way, your 2014 Bears are most likely going to look very different than this year’s version, especially on defense. If the team struggles this year, an overhaul is obvious. And if they’re successful, Emery most likely won’t have the space to bring everyone back because they will all command more money.
It was pointed out to Emery Wednesday that quarterback Jay Cutler could create a lot of leverage with a big season. The GM’s response, of course, was:
“If you’re saying an enormous amount of leverage, that means we had a great season. And that’s a problem I look forward to.”
The good news is that the Bears will have a lot of cap space to work with next offseason. The bad news is that it still won’t be enough to bring everyone back if they make a deep run in the playoffs. A deep run means Cutler had a big year, which also means he is going to demand a big portion of the cap figure.
And as many of the veterans are starting to realize, that greatly minimizes their chances of playing in Chicago — where most of them, if not all, want to stay — next season.
That leaves the important question: of the 17 “significant” pending free agents, which ones will be priorities for Emery?
“I think they’ve seen since I’ve been here that we will reward players that are on the upside, still improving and still contributing, whether they’re young or old as Chicago Bears and we will reward them,” the general manager said.
He threw the “young or old” part in at the end, but the key words there are “upside”, “still improving” and “still contributing”.
So in other words, of the group that includes Jay Cutler, Roberto Garza, J’Marcus Webb, Matt Slauson, Charles Tillman, Tim Jennings, Kelvin Hayden, Zack Bowman, Henry Melton, Major Wright, Corey Wootton, D.J. Williams, James Anderson, Sedrick Ellis, Devin Hester, Robbie Gould and Patrick Mannelly, which ones will still have upside following the 2013 season?
Emery has 16 NFL games to figure that out, but one would assume names like Tillman, Jennings, Hayden, Garza, Hester, Gould and even Mannelly won’t be at the top of the list based on where they are at in their respective careers.
Wednesday, Emery said he hasn’t seen any “pushback” from players upset about the lack of an extension on the table. That’s because they all know they need to use 2013 to impress the general manager and convince him to bring them back. They also know this will likely be their last chance at a Super Bowl in Chicago.
But that doesn’t mean they aren’t talking to each other. And it doesn’t mean they aren’t listening to every word Emery says about the situation.
Oh, they’re listening. Very carefully.
Conditioning Test Awaits
Bears players will take their conditioning tests Thursday, which consists of three 300-yard shuttles that must be completed in a period of time designated by position. We know that defensive backs must complete each shuttle in less than 56 seconds with a two minute break in between each one.
Head coach Marc Trestman said players will not be fined if they fail the test.
“I don’t even look at it as a test,” he said. “I look at it as an accountability exercise. The times are very minimal. We’re not trying to run anybody off or wear anybody down. It’s a minimalized test where everybody can see everybody out there for the day and see everybody running and see what kind of condition they’re in.”
He also doesn’t envision anyone failing the test.
“Based on what I saw in the spring, there isn’t anybody who should have trouble finishing it,” Trestman said. “And if he doesn’t, that’s just a signal that his coach needs to give him a little more conditioning work to get up with the rest of the guys.”
Of course, none of the players want that.
– Brandon Marshall is healthy and says he’s without limitations. So why is he still monitoring his hip closely? He explained the situation yesterday.
– Oh, and yes, Marshall showed up to camp with a Segway.
The conditioning test will take place in the morning. Players will also take their physicals. There is a team meeting scheduled for 4:15 p.m. Media availability is scheduled for lunchtime.
Adam Hoge covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamHoge.