By Adam Hoge-
HALAS HALL (CBS) — When the Bears announced at last month’s scouting combine that they would stick with a 4-3 defense, they also made it clear there would be some flexibility and variation within the scheme.
The defense is expected to operate primarily out of a one-gap front, but head coach Marc Trestman also said the specifics of the scheme would be determined based on the personnel. He said they were “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.”
But we are beginning to know who a few of them are.
The Bears have made three signings over the last two days, two of which clearly fit the idea of “transcending scheme” with versatility.
DE Lamaar Houston – According to Emery, Houston played 649 snaps in 2012 with his hand on the ground on the left side of the Raiders’ defense. He also had 40-50 snaps inside at tackle. In 2013, Houson had about 180 snaps with his hand on the ground on the right side of the defense and over 700 snaps standing up in a two-point stance. Basically, Houston can play inside and outside, out of a two-point stance and out of a three-point stance. That’s about as versatile as it gets.
S Ryan Mundy – Mundy blurs the line between free and strong safety, a growing trend in the NFL. It’s apparent the Bears want competition at both starting safety spots and ideally want their safeties to be able to play up in the box, back in coverage and possibly even at the line of scrimmage in press-man coverage. Mundy fits the needed skill set.
S M.D. Jennings – Jennings is more of a free safety, but he should provide competition to Chris Conte. While the idea of having 11 scheme versatile players is ideal, it’s also not feasible. Players who can do multiple things at a high level are rare and the free agent market is certainly not littered with them. Jennings is also a good special teamer.
So how set in stone is the Bears’ defensive scheme? Houston hinted at some progress Wednesday when I asked him about it:
“I believe they have a scheme set, but I think they are just going to fit players who fit in the scheme. It seems like Mr. Emery and Tucker and Coach Trestman have a good idea of what they’re doing. They’re guys that get it. I don’t think they’re just going out and grabbing guys that they can get because they are the best guys, I think they are grabbing them because they fit a specific skill set within the defense.”
At first glance, Houston’s comments appear to contradict what Trestman said last month about “putting a system of football together to accommodate the players.” However, that’s not necessarily the case if that system of football is a hybrid 4-3 defense. The Bears may know what they want to do on defense, which is why they are searching for scheme versatile players to fit the system, but at the same time, how they operate the specifics within the scheme will ultimately be determined by the skill sets of the best 11 players who walk onto the field in September.
So how will the rest of the defense be filled out? Here’s more of what we learned from Emery Wednesday:
Are the Bears interested in Jared Allen?
The Bears still need another starting defensive end and even though Allen turns 32 next month, he still posted 11.5 sacks, 29 quarterback knockdowns and nine hurries last season, according to STATS. When Phil Emery talks about disruptions, those are the numbers he’s looking at, and Allen’s disruption total in 2013 would have easily led the Bears.
And that’s why it’s not surprising that Emery admitted the Bears have interest Allen. At the same time, it’s also evident that Allen’s current price tag is too high and the Bears are content to wait out the market to see if it comes down.
Will Corey Wootton and Henry Melton come back?
Both players are rehabbing from surgeries, so their futures may not be decided quickly. When asked specifically about Melton, Emery said: “I believe Henry has got a number of teams to look through. They’re very interested in his medical status.”
Teams will want Wootton and Melton seen by their own doctors before they sign either one. The advantage the Bears have is that both players were rehabbing at Halas Hall this winter before their contracts expired, so Emery knows the most about their medical statuses. Because of that, the Bears likely know exactly how much they’re willing to offer either player and for how long. Now it’s a wait-and-see approach as the rest of the NFL determines their value. If those values remain at or below the Bears’ number, there’s a good chance one or both will be back in a Bears uniform next season. If that’s the case, it’s doubtful either one is handed a starting job, but they’ll certainly compete for one.
What about Julius Peppers?
His situation is very similar to Jared Allen’s. Peppers’ dollar figure needs to be established on the open market and then Emery can see how it compares to the number they are comfortable paying him.
“We’re always open to getting better at every level of our team and our roster so any player, including Julius, if they want to have an opportunity to come back and we can provide that opportunity, meaning we have the cap space, we’re always open to it,” Emery said.
What’s the latest on Charles Tillman?
All Emery would say Wednesday is that “it’s an ongoing conversation” with Tillman, which means the Bears are still in play for the cornerback. Tillman visited the Buccaneers in the last 24 hours and now it’s likely a matter of money and Tillman deciding what’s best for his family. He’s rooted deep in Chicago now and has done a ton of work here with his foundation, but that doesn’t mean he won’t spend a couple years finishing up his career with Lovie Smith for more money.
And what if Tillman doesn’t come back?
Emery was surprisingly open about the cornerback position, indicating they’ll likely draft one in May.
“The draft has a lot more depth than what’s available in the (unrestricted free agent) class and if we’re going to make a major move it would be more relative to the draft than it would be in UFA,” the GM said.
How have the draft plans changed?
They really haven’t. The Bears still need help on defense and could make the case for using their first round pick on any position except probably outside linebacker.
Emery had a very interesting quote connecting possible upcoming free agent moves to his draft plans: “In terms of the players still available in the UFA market, when we make the next couple of moves that will provide clarity in terms of what our draft moves may be.”
What’s next in free agency?
Emery did a great job of explaining the “waves” of free agency:
“There is a first wave — that goes with signing your own players, which we did. Now comes this next wave where players maybe felt they were going to get a higher amount. They just found out that maybe their market wasn’t there and they’re a little more willing to listen.
“And then there’s a third wave where players know they’re either going for the veteran minimum or a little above that and they’re just looking for opportunity.”
– Outside of Malaysia Flight 370, the other big mystery this week is why the Bears cut tight end Dante Rosario less than two weeks after re-signing him. Emery didn’t give an exact answer Wednesday, but he did say “there’s a good chance he’ll come back” and insisted Rosario wasn’t cut because of anything the tight end did. My guess is that it’s just a cap accounting issue and Rosario will end up back with the Bears in time for OTAs.
– Are the Bears really content with Jordan Palmer as their backup? I believe they are. People asked the same question about Josh McCown a year ago and that worked out pretty well. The Bears believe in Marc Trestman’s ability to get the most out of his quarterbacks and Palmer is already in a more advantageous position than McCown was last year because he spent a good portion of last season in Trestman’s quarterback room. It’s still likely the Bears add someone else to the mix and they could even draft a quarterback, but if they do, it will be because Trestman believes he can develop that quarterback.
– Who will the Bears add to the running back mix? Emery said “the No. 1 quality of a running back for us is that he can pass protect.” Sorry guys, that probably means they aren’t going after Darren Sproles.
Adam Hoge covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamHoge.