HALAS HALL (CBS) — The Bears answered their most pressing offseason question by announcing a seven-year extension for Jay Cutler on Thursday.
But there are still a number of lingering questions that need to be answered if the Bears are going to continue working toward winning a Super Bowl, which general manager Phil Emery reaffirms as the team’s goal every time he holds a press conference.
Here’s my take on all the topics discussed Thursday at Halas Hall:
Too Much For Cutler?
At first glance, $54 million guaranteed seems like a lot for Cutler. And $18 million a year is more than what I initially thought he would get.
But keep in mind that the Bears can play with the cap hit, which is ultimately what matters. For instance, Aaron Rodgers is reportedly earning about $40 million this season, but his cap hit is only $12 million. That’s because a lot of the guaranteed money is loaded into the signing bonus, which can be spread out across the first five years of the contract.
That means Cutler’s cap hit for next season could theoretically be around $11 million, which is a lot less than the reported $16.5 million the franchise tag would have cost.
Update: Pro Football Talk is reporting that the deal does not have a signing bonus and all the guaranteed money is in the first three years of the deal. Essentially, that means the cap hits will be higher in the first three years, but the Bears assume no-risk in the last four years of the deal. They can either bring him back each of those last four years or cut him with no cap penalty. If the numbers in the report are correct, that means Cutler’s cap hit in 2014 will be $22.5 million, which is obviously a lot more than what the franchise tag would have cost in cap space. Personally, I find it hard to believe the cap hit will be that high and I expect more information will come out.
Either way, Cutler’s cap hit in 2014 will impact what Emery will be able to do with the defense, but there’s still room to work with. The numbers still need to be finalized, but even with Cutler, Matt Slauson and Tim Jennings re-signed, I’d be surprised if the Bears don’t still have somewhere around $15 million in cap space to work with and they can still free up another $10 million or so if they cut ties with Julius Peppers.
Thus, this deal still makes a lot of sense for the Bears, who now have their franchise quarterback for the last three years Marc Trestman is under contract, with the possibility for four more if the Trestman-Cutler duo produces championships.
Tucker, DeCamillis Future Up In the Air
The Bears left the door open to coordinator changes Thursday when Marc Trestman said “everything is on the table.”
That said, Trestman also raved about defensive coordinator Mel Tucker and sounded like a guy who wants to bring him back.
“What we saw in the first three games was a Mel Tucker defense that looked very similar quite frankly to the tape that I looked at (of) 2012. That’s the facts. That’s what it looked like to me. So No. 1, the transition to the schematics was outstanding and the teaching was very clear, our gap controls, our fits, our ability to disrupt, all those things came into play,” Trestman said.
So why not just say Tucker is coming back?
Because the Bears still don’t know what scheme they’ll be running on defense in 2014 and it’s possible a different coordinator will become available that would be a better fit. Also, Trestman says he still hasn’t gotten through all the tape to finish his evaluation of the defense. He liked what he saw in the first three games and didn’t like what he saw in the last three games. The work Tucker did during the 10 games in between also matters in the evaluation.
Meanwhile, special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis isn’t necessarily safe either. Emery said the Bears’ kick and punt return units improved in 2013, but said there was a “falloff” in kick and punt coverage. He also said penalty discipline was an issue on special teams as well.
What To Do With McClellin?
To his credit, Emery was very critical of himself, specifically when talking about his drafting of defensive players. The reality is that he has yet to hit a home run with a single defensive player in the draft. Shea McClellin has underachieved. Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene have potential, but they haven’t put it together yet. Isaiah Frey has provided good value for a sixth round pick, but it’s unclear what his ceiling is.
Think about it like this: Emery has not drafted an Alshon Jeffery, Kyle Long or even Jordan Mills on the defensive side of the football. Do you trust him to do that? That remains to be seen, but fans should be encouraged that he took responsibility for those failures Thursday.
“We needed another safety to provide competition to improve our group. That’s on me,” Emery said. “I selected Brandon Hardin. I put that young man in a bad position to succeed, moved him from a corner to a safety and he wasn’t able to make that transformation, and that’s on me.”
It continued when he got to Shea McClellin:
“What we have to do with Shea is find ways to use the unique talents and skills of the players that we have,” Emery said. “Putting him at defensive end, that’s on me, not giving him the ultimate opportunity to succeed. He produced in a positive way but the overall impact of the last two seasons has not been at a high enough level.”
So, if McClellin is not a defensive end, what do the Bears do with him?
“We’ll look hard at Shea doing other things besides being lined up at defensive end,” Trestman said. “If that means moving him to a linebacker position as we move forward, that will be under consideration as well. But there’s no doubt as Phil and I watched the tape this week that he’s capable of more, and we’ll work towards that as we move forward. He’s got it in him. It’s our job as coaches, and it starts with me, to get him in a position to be more successful, and we feel confident we can get that done.”
Which brings us to a much larger question…
Which Defensive Scheme Will The Bears Use In 2014?
I’ve been among those ruling out a switch to a 3-4 the last few months, essentially because Emery has been ruling it out.
But that tune changed Thursday when neither Trestman and Emery ruled it out.
I maintain that Shea McClellin alone is not a good reason to switch to a 3-4. You don’t make a drastic switch like that just to accommodate one player — a unproven player at that. If it’s just about Shea, the Bears can find other ways to use him at linebacker.
“(A 3-4) doesn’t have to be an option to line up Shea at Sam linebacker,” Trestman said. “It doesn’t have to be an option to do that. It’s one of the options, but it doesn’t have to be a 3-4. Could it? Certainly. It just sounds easier because there’s four linebackers and there’s two other potential pass rushers involved, but it doesn’t have to be. But all of that will be on the table as a consideration to how we get more out of him.”
With McClellin at linebacker though, you’re starting to talk about a surplus of linebackers and deficiency on the defensive line. I’m not necessarily talking about talent, but simply numbers.
If Emery was to bring back both D.J. Williams and James Anderson, the Bears would already have six linebackers on their roster (along with Bostic, Greene, McClellin and Lance Briggs), which is typically what a 4-3 defense breaks camp with. You have to imagine Emery will want to draft another linebacker in May, so how do you make room for seven linebackers?
A 3-4 would accommodate that, but so would not re-signing Anderson (the Bears need to bring back Williams because they don’t have a proven middle linebacker elsewhere on their roster) or, wait for it… trading Lance Briggs.
Briggs isn’t happy right now, which Emery confirmed Thursday.
“(He) sounds like a very frustrated player who loves football and knows that there is a higher level of play that can be attained and is frustrated and angry about it. We share in that frustration and anger,” the general manager said.
Both Emery and Trestman talked highly about Briggs on Thursday, saying that he was playing at a Pro Bowl level before he got hurt. But does Briggs want to be a part of this thing going forward? His frustration the last few weeks makes that unclear.
Personally, I think moving Briggs makes this defense immediately worse, but if you can turn him into a high draft pick or simply extra draft picks then it might make sense, especially if he’s not fitting in with the current locker room. It all depends on what his value is coming off a shoulder injury at 33 years old. It might not be as high as the Bears would hope.
Again, all of these questions are hard to answer right now without knowing what scheme the Bears will be playing in 2014. Corey Wootton and Julius Peppers actually fit the mold of 3-4 defensive ends, but will they be back next season? Wootton is a free agent and Peppers is carrying an $18 million cap hit for inconsistent play. Meanwhile, you still don’t have a true two-gap nose tackle that can play a 3-4. That would have to addressed in the draft.
My guess is that the Bears will still be a 4-3 defense next year, but have more hybrid looks with changing personnel groups. The Seattle Seahawks do that well out of a base 4-3, while New Orleans has gotten more creative under Rob Ryan with a base 3-4. It can be done.
What’s Next For McCown?
Cutler’s signing doesn’t necessarily mean Josh McCown is done in Chicago. They want him back and Cutler wants him back. The problem is, he’ll probably have other options and will certainly command more than the minimum salary benefit deal he played on in 2013.
That said, the Bears saw firsthand how valuable he was as a backup quarterback and with the cap space they have, they might be willing to pay him more to stay in Chicago. Remember, Emery gave Jason Campbell $3.5 million to be the backup two years ago.
McCown will have decisions to make for his family and it may even involve the chance to start somewhere else. As I say often, it only takes one. It only takes one executive out there to think you can be the guy. That’s why the Bears will have some competition when it comes to bringing McCown back.
The Lovie Factor
One destination for McCown could be Tampa, where new head coach and former Bears head coach Lovie Smith likes him a lot. Of course, Lovie likes a lot of guys on the Bears roster, including free agent cornerback Charles Tillman and non-free agent linebacker Lance Briggs.
Emery sort of dismissed the idea that Smith’s hiring in Tampa will impact his ability to retain some of his own free agents, but he surely can’t be ignoring that notion.
“Oh yeah, most definitely,” Jennings said when asked if Lovie’s hiring might affect some of the Bears’ free agents. “That’s how this game works. That’s how this league works. Guys know guys, and they want to bring them into the system. So I wouldn’t be surprised at all, with Coach Smith being the head coach there, that he’s going to bring his guys into that system and try to run it the way he wants to run it.”
– Expect to see much more of wide receiver Marquess Wilson in 2014. Emery talked him up Thursday and it’s possible he could replace Earl Bennett on the roster, which would free up some cap space.
– Wilson, Cutler, Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Martellus Bennett and Matt Forte will all be a part of Marshall’s training group in Florida this offseason.
– Emery said right guard Kyle Long is an alternate for the Pro Bowl. He thought Long excelled in one-on-one pass protection this season, but had some technique and assignment issues from time-to-time. It will be interesting to see if the Bears consider using him at tackle instead of guard next year. That still seems like his destined position at some point in his career.
Adam Hoge covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamHoge.