By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) Waiting seven months until meaningful games are played again may seem like an eternity to NFL fans.
Even though on-field activities are at a standstill, back offices are buzzing with activity. So for those of you craving nuggets of news, your appetite will be satiated smorgasbord-style over the coming weeks and months.
With the franchise tag window opening Monday, pro personnel departments, team accountants, general counsel and football administrators are analyzing spreadsheets, crunching numbers to optimize their payroll budget for the upcoming league year.
With the combine set to start on Feb. 22, college scouting departments are compiling copious notes and reports to help construct the team’s draft board.
At Halas Hall, the task at hand is onerous for the Bears.
Discussions are ongoing about the 47 players currently under contract, the 25 set to hit free agency, how they plan to use their seven draft picks and the $120 million already committed to the 2014 salary cap. Fresh off another playoff-less 8-8 season, the Bears’ personnel department has little margin for error this offseason.
So, here I am, once again offering some friendly pro-bono consulting to Bears general manager Phil Emery that clearly he didn’t ask for, nor frankly needs.
Looking back at my first two advice columns (Part I here, Part II here), Emery and I have largely viewed the Bears roster through the same prism, be it self-scouting, free agency and draft priorities.
Two years ago, Emery traded for a legitimate No. 1 wide receiver — Brandon Marshall — mere moments into the free agency period. Just last season, Emery brought on board two players I thought might fit the Bears new offensive philosophy in left tackle Jermon Bushrod and tight end Martellus Bennett.
This season, Emery must attack rebuilding the Bears downtrodden defense with the same fervor. This offseason presents Emery his first opportunity to wipe away Lovie Smith’s fingerprints and build the defense in his vision.
So without further ado, let’s approach this in the same sequence Emery and Co. will.
I. Self-Scouting/Bears Free Agents
Of the 25 free agents, 23 are unrestricted, and seven were Week 1 starters in 2013, nine if you include long snapper Patrick Mannelly and return specialist Devin Hester. Once again, let’s separate this group into three categories: must have, nice to have and don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
Must have (3):
– Defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff: Despite playing only five games, Ratliff proved he has recovered from his hip and groin injuries, anchoring in his gap at the point of attack and displaying lateral quickness to press the pocket. Ratliff has extensive experience as a zero-technique in a 30-front, so he transcends scheme.
– Long snapper Patrick Mannelly: Like all teams, the Bears have to maximize every available cap dollar, so it may make sense to try and find cheaper labor at long snapper. With Brandon Hartsock on the roster, the Bears have hedged their bets, but Mannelly is virtually bulletproof at an under-appreciated position.
– Quarterback Josh McCown: McCown’s performance in relief duty last year had fans (incorrectly) thinking Cutler was expendable. Yes, the common denominator of Cutler and McCown’s success was head coach Marc Trestman, which means his system could be plug-and-play with any quarterback. However, McCown is a known quantity who has proved he can win games when called upon. The question is, did he price himself out of Chicago?
Nice to have (8):
– Defensive end Corey Wootton: Wootton played the good soldier role in 2013, kicking inside when the Bears’ rash of injuries decimated their defensive tackle depth. That was a noble, team-first move to make in a contract year, but it also displayed Wootton’s versatility as a dependable rotational player and taught him the value of playing with a lower pad level.
– Cornerback Charles Tillman: Tillman said he will retire a Bear, but that doesn’t mean he will finish his career in Chicago. Undoubtedly, Tillman’s the best cornerback in team history, but injuries have taken a toll on his body, and he’s likely too expensive for the Bears to retain.
– Cornerback Zack Bowman: Bowman benefited from Tillman’s inability to stay on the field, turning in a solid performance. He has the length to play press man that scouts covet and could be an ideal third cornerback.
– Defensive tackle Henry Melton: Tearing his ACL while playing under the franchise tag was the worst-case scenario for Melton. Now he’s devalued at the negotiating table and will be likely forced to sign a “prove it” deal to show he still has the first-step quickness that earned him the franchise tag in the first place.
– Center Roberto Garza: Garza enjoyed a bounce-back season in 2013, but his skills are rapidly deteriorating. He’s well respected in the locker room and makes all the line calls, but his inability to anchor against zero and one-techniques and flow to the second level should prompt his successor to be brought in this offseason.
– Linebacker D.J. Williams: Williams’ season was cut short by a chest injury, but he was an effective blitzer when healthy. Currently, the Bears don’t have a “Mike” backer on the roster, so it could be worth it to bring Williams back on a one-year veteran minimum deal ($955,000).
– Defensive tackle Nate Collins (RFA): Restricted free agency has dried up across the NFL, so Collins likely won’t be tendered. But prior to tearing his ACL, he was as disruptive as any defensive lineman on the Bears. If healthy, he could be a cheap labor option in a group that lacks depth.
– Offensive tackle Eben Britton: Britton was a nice surprise for the Bears, setting the edge as a blocking tight end and wing back. He also played well in spot duty in the season finale against the Packers in filling in for Jordan Mills. Versatility is key for backup lineman, and Britton provides that to the Bears.
Don’t let the door hit you on the way out (14):
Explanations aren’t needed for a good portion of this group, but I will address those who were starters in Week 1 of 2013.
– Safety Major Wright: So much fan ire was justifiably directed at Chris Conte, but in my film review, Wright was even worse, particularly in pass coverage.
– Return specialist Devin Hester: Hester’s the greatest kick-returner in NFL history but has been reduced to a role player who has lost the burst that made him special.
– Linebacker James Anderson: While adequate in pass coverage, Anderson was a liability against the run. Shea McClellin and Jon Bostic will compete for the “Sam” backer position in 2014.
– Offensive tackle Jonathan Scott
– Safety Anthony Walters (RFA)
– Defensive tackle Landon Cohen
– Quarterback Jordan Palmer
– Cornerback Derrick Martin
– Center Taylor Boggs (ERFA)
– Linebacker Blake Costanzo
– Safety Craig Steltz
– Tight end Dante Rosario
– Cornerback Sherrick McManis
– Cornerback Kelvin Hayden
II. NFL Free Agency
Priority 1: Cut dead weight salaries — At the time of this writing, the Bears have a projected $6 million in free cap space. The Bears have more needs than resources, so extra cap space must be created. I discussed some options here, but to get more specific, cutting players like Julius Peppers ($9,816,665 savings), Earl Bennett ($2,450,000 savings) Michael Bush ($1,850,000 savings), Eric Weems ($1,100,000 savings) and Adam Podlesh ($1,0250,000 savings) would give the Bears an additional $16.24 million to work with. There could be more, but the performance level of that specific group simply does not match their pay grade.
Priority 2: Find a safety — Seeing how difficult it was for the Bears’ front four to generate pressure on their own, the Bears must find a more versatile safety who can play as a box defender and also contribute as a blitzer. The free-agent class is loaded with talent, and a player like T.J. Ward (Browns) should be given serious consideration. Ward was one of my favorite opponents to scout this past season. He was an excellent blitzer in Ray Horton’s pressure packages, a stout run defender and intermediate pass-zone defender.
Priority 3: Find a defensive end in the secondary market — The market for defensive ends last season was relatively soft, and the secondary market generated some great value. Players like Cliff Avril (two years, $13 million) and Michael Bennett (one year, $5 million) were bargains, signing shorter-term “prove it” deals. Soon-to-be free agents Lamarr Houston (Raiders), Willie Young (Lions) and Everson Griffen (Vikings) could be had for a reasonable price and would immediately add more juice to a group that desperately needs it.
III. NFL Draft
Priority 1: Draft the best player available (BPA) on defense in the first three rounds — A positive way of looking at the Bears’ myriad needs at every level of the defense is it will afford them flexibility in the draft. In terms of specific positions, free agency will clear up remaining roster needs once the draft arrives, but regardless of what happens in free agency, the Bears’ lack of young talent and depth on defense is staggering and was on full display in 2013.
Priority 2: Draft a center in the middle rounds — The end of the line has been reached for Garza, and there’s nothing in the pipeline. I had center as a top-four need for the Bears last season, so adding young talent to this position is overdue.
Priority 3: Draft a tight end — Martellus Bennett was worth the investment last season, but all the Bears’ other moves at tight end didn’t quite pan out. Free-agent Steve Maneri was cut during the season, Dante Rosario was worth the seventh-round pick but is just a guy, and the Bourbonnais buzz about Fendi Onobun — who is still on the roster — was bluster. Onobun’s butterfingers when the lights came on landed him on waivers. The Bears need a younger, more complete tight end who can play in two-tight end packages.
Easy enough, right?
Realistically, given the state it’s in, it will take Emery two years to rebuild the defense, so this offseason is phase one.
So, Phil, please put the lanyards on and give this column a read.
Follow Dan on Twitter @djdurkin.