By Adam Hoge-
INDIANAPOLIS (CBS) — Speaking publicly with the media for the first time since Jan. 2, Bears general manager Phil Emery and head coach Marc Trestman addressed a number of key offseason topics Thursday.
Here’s everything you need to know from both conversations.
What will the Bears’ defensive scheme look like?
The Bears announced Tuesday that they will stay in a 4-3 front, but beyond that, nothing has been decided.
Emery said they’ll stay in “predominantly a one-gap front,” but also said there will be flexibility.
“There’s a lot of teams that run 3-4s that run 40 fronts, nickel fronts, against nickel pass sets,” Emery said. “So you could see us in a wide variety of alignments, but the base of it will be a 40 front.”
Trestman said the specifics within the scheme will be built around the personnel, most of which hasn’t been acquired yet. At this point, there are only two or three positions set on defense, with Lance Briggs at weak-side linebacker, Tim Jennings at cornerback and Stephen Paea most likely remaining one of the two starting defensive tackles.
“What we’re doing is we’re looking at the existing scheme and going through the process of putting a system of football together to accommodate the players that we have when we get going, and we’re not going to know who those players are for quite some time,” Trestman said.
Trestman compared the process to last year when, at this point of the offseason, the Bears didn’t have 10 players who would end up becoming key players on offense. As they acquired those players, they designed the offense around their skill sets. This year, they’ll do the same on defense, and Emery detailed the offseason plan.
“It started with signing several veteran players back at the end of the year and the next step was making sure that our coaching staff was aligned correctly with experience and the skill sets that regardless of who we draft or bring in as a UFA, (from the) street, from Canada or from Arena League, that they have the skills to enhance what the positive traits of that player are and to fit it into our system of defense,” Emery said.
“That’s why we went with more experienced coaches that have had numerous stays and stops and positive experiences running 4-3, 3-4, multiple-front defenses. That it gives us the same flexibility that our offensive staff gives us. One of the biggest reasons we hired Marc as our head coach is that he had demonstrated ability to take the positive skills that players have and mold it into something positive and to positively produce on the field and win championships. We want that the same on our defense.”
Why the Bears kept defensive coordinator Mel Tucker
After an extensive evaluation after the season, Emery and Trestman determined that Tucker fit the coaching mold that the general manager described in the previous quote.
“His ability to communicate, his understanding of defenses on all three levels, the details and assimilating a system of football where he knew it but he had to move forward on an intellectual level of knowing the terminology and nuances that came with adapting and assimilating the defense, and being able to teach it and lead men,” Trestman said. “I had confidence in him from the beginning that he could do that. At the end of the season, that did not change.”
When Tucker came in last season, he agreed to learn the terminology from the previous defensive system that had been in place under Lovie Smith. This year will be different, as Tucker has the opportunity to build the defense around the personnel.
“It’s wide open this year, and everything’s on the table this year in terms of where we’re going defensively … the language is wide open,” Trestman said.
While the Bears decided to keep Tucker, they did let go of three assistants and hired Paul Pasqualoni as defensive line coach, Reggie Herring as linebackers coach and Clint Hurtt as assistant defensive line coach.
Initially, the Bears just let go of two assistants (linebackers coach Tim Tibesar and defensive line coach Mike Phair) and said that would be it, but in the process of interviewing candidates, they really liked what they heard from Hurtt in an interview at the Senior Bowl and decided they needed to make a spot for him on the staff.
“We looked at that, once we interviewed him, as, ‘How do we get him on the staff with the right mix of veteran coaches?’ We didn’t want to pass him up, so we found a way,” Emery said.
That’s when they let go assistant defensive line coach Mike Sinclair.
Emery made sure to point out that Louisville, where Hurtt came from, was No. 1 in the nation in sacks and disruptions on the quarterback last year.
Will Julius Peppers be cut?
Obviously, Emery wasn’t going to answer the question of defensive end Julius Peppers’ future directly Thursday, as he simply stated: “He’s part of our team. He’s under contract.”
But that doesn’t mean he will be in a few months. Most likely, a decision on whether to cut Peppers hasn’t been made yet. Depending on offseason acquisitions, the Bears might need the defensive end next season — albeit most likely at a reduced rate.
“Veteran, not veteran, rookie free agent that made your team, somebody you drafted that you have to move on from — it’s all the same decision process,” Emery said. “To quote Marc, ‘Decisions are made when they have to be made.’”
Showing off their cohesion together, Trestman had already quoted Emery when the Peppers topic was brought up.
“Phil said it right,” Trestman said. “Like a lot of us, we had 8-8 seasons. Julius has been an important part of our locker room. His work ethic was exceptional during the whole season. His focus was good. I’m sure he’ll tell you as we all did, that he had very, very good moments and moments when he didn’t play as well as he would have liked.”
Let the linebacker competition begin
The Bears officially announced that Shea McClellin has made the move to linebacker (read the full story here), where he will compete with Jon Bostic, Khaseem Greene and any other linebackers who are added for two starting spots.
McClellin will start on the strong-side and Bostic in the middle, but both players will see time at both spots.
Bostic’s rookie year was underwhelming, but he was also thrown into the fire early because of injuries. Emery still believes Bostic could one day be the successor to Briggs on the weak side, but he’ll work at the other two positions for now.
“I’ll just go back to his athleticism and speed,” Emery said. “You want that weak-side linebacker to be your cleanup hitter. He’s usually on the weak side of the formation, which means offenses run to their strengths, that he’s running to the backside filling or chasing down players. And his speed and his athleticism allows him to do that. That’s what I’m talking about. At some point that may be his spot.”
Free agency outlook
As is his usual policy with contracts, Emery was reluctant to talk about specific free agents, but center Roberto Garza, linebacker D.J. Williams, cornerback Charles Tillman and quarterback Josh McCown were singled out by either Trestman or Emery as players they want want back.
It’s unclear if any of those players will re-up with the Bears before the new league year starts March 11 — McCown can’t sign a contract until then — but Emery made it sound like he’s prepared for all of his free agents to-be to hit the open market.
“Obviously, we had a high number of contracts that expired,” he said. “And those players want their opportunity to get into the open market, and that’s OK. That’s good. That’s good for both sides. It allows better conversations. You have a better feel for market value. The No. 1 job of a front office collectively is always know the player’s market, and No. 1 job of an agent is to always to know a player’s market. So when those are established at times with certain players, it makes the conversations better, they’re more fluid and we can come to a conclusion quicker.”
What is Henry Melton’s status?
For someone playing under a franchise tag, Henry Melton had about as bad of a year as one could have.
Quiet start to the season? Check. Torn ACL? Check. Arrest for assault? Check. Your employer questioning your commitment to your job? Check.
Trestman said Thursday that Melton is at Halas Hall rehabbing every day, and he spent 30-45 minutes talking to him Wednesday.
“He’s in every day early,” Trestman said. “He’s got to drive in from downtown. If you see him, you’ll see that he has been training, and he has been working. He’s very focused. You’ll see he dropped some weight. He looks very good physically right now.”
The coach sounded pleased with the direction Melton is headed.
“He’s committed to getting himself back, and he’s got work to do to get there, but he’s in a very good place right now and we all understand the situation and we’ll see where it goes,” Trestman said.
But ultimately it will be Emery who decides how far the team will go to keep Melton, and he wasn’tnearly as open as Trestman was when discussing the defensive tackle.
“Yeah, he’s made progress,” Emery said. “He’s made positive progress.”
Bears want Garza, McCown and Tillman back
While Emery was reluctant to talk about specific pending free agents, he was pretty clear about cornerback Tillman.
“Certainly Charles knows we want him back, and we’ll just work through it,” Emery said. “It’s a step-by-step process.”
Meanwhile, Trestman had similar opinions about Garza and McCown.
“It’s a tough business,” Trestman said. “We want Roberto back. He knows we want him back. We believe he should finish his career with the Bears. He does so much in our community. He’s such a leader in our locker room. He knows how we feel about him.”
Trestman said he talks with McCown frequently.
“We just like to talk football,” Trestman said. “He knows exactly where he stands with us. I think that he’s going to take his time, see where things are at, and when he’s ready to say, ‘I want to come back,’ I know Phil’s going to do everything he can and we’re going to do everything can to make sure he is.”
Fair or not, safety Chris Conte became the poster child of a disappointing defense when his blown coverage in Week 17 allowed the Packers to win the game and the NFC North.
“We’ve texted significantly over the last month,” Trestman said. “He’s challenged by moving forward. He knows he’s got to get better. He’s working in any way he can at this point in time, working out and training, to get himself started. (Defensive backs coach) Jon Hoke has communicated with him even more than I am. I think that he knows he didn’t play as well as he could play, he’s moving forward, which is a good thing.”
At this point, there’s absolutely no indication that Conte won’t be with the team in training camp, but he will be competing for the starting job he has held for the majority of the last three seasons.
“Chris knows he has to come in and compete to start,” Emery said. “My vision for him is that he does compete and win it. I’d love to be talking to him about an extension. So let’s see what he does.”
Not satisfied on offense
With all the focus on the defense — and deservedly so — it was interesting to hear both Trestman and Emery say they are not satisfied with the league’s No. 2 scoring offense.
“We’d like to be first,” Emery said. “We’d like to be first in the league in offense. So to get to that goal, we’re going to have to improve in all areas.”
Emery said the pacing of the offense could get better and also mentioned short-yardage situations and the red zone. The truth is, the Bears did leave points off the scoreboard last season in those situations.
“It’s how much we left on the field,” Trestman said. “It’s how much better we can be. And most coaches would say that it wasn’t about what teams were doing defensively. With all due respect, it’s things that we need to do better and can do better that can allow us to be a lot more productive in those areas.”
– Right tackle Jordan Mills, who had surgery after breaking his left foot in the season finale, has been “working his tail off,” according to Emery, and his rehab is on schedule. Mills is expected to be ready for OTAs in May.
– Emery avoided a question about a possible extension for Brandon Marshall, who is headed into a contract year. The GM only said he knows Marshall will be with the Bears this season.
– Can wide receiver Marquess Wilson, who essentially redshirted last season, push Earl Bennett for a job? Emery’s response: “I love competition, so we’ll see how it comes out.”
Adam Hoge covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamHoge.