With baseball season upon us, the NHL playoffs around the corner, and women beginning to don tank tops in public once more after a long hibernation, it is easy to forget about the franchise that fills our fall Sundays with joy and heartbreak in rapid succession.  Well, maybe it’s not all that easy to forget as ESPNChicago.com keeps a running ticker of days, hours, minutes, and seconds until the NFL Draft is upon us (for the record it is exactly three weeks away as of this writing). 

With everyone’s attention on March Madness (specifically looking-but-not-looking at Kevin Ware’s broken leg) and whether Derrick Rose is going to return (he’s not) I wanted to throw some flowers at the feet of Phil Emery and the Bears front office for conducting what has thus far been an outstanding offseason in my opinion. 

After the Bears collapsed down the stretch once again this past December (how soon we forget they got off to a 7-1 start) there were some serious issues that needed to be addressed with the team.  The offensive line was in shambles for the Nth consecutive year, the defense was aging, there was no presence in the middle of the field on offense, and our rivals had our number (Green Bay has won the last six meetings).  It was time to shake things up at Halas Hall.

Phil Emery went to work in early January by relieving Lovie Smith of his duties with a year left on his contract, hired Mark Trestman away from Montreal (as in Canada), placed the franchise tag on Tommie Harris 2.0 (aka Henry Melton), let go the face of the franchise from the past 13 seasons (it was time), and used free agency to fill every glaring gap on the roster.

The point of this article is not to get into the specific details of each move that was made, but more to take an overall perspective of what has been done and where the team goes from here.  As noted above, if polled, any football fan would have told you in January that the Bears needed to address the offensive line, linebacker, and tight end positions primarily this off season.  It was to the point that if a mock draft was created that didn’t have the Bears taking the best available offensive lineman, no matter the position, the entire draft was laughed off as being absurd and  uneducated.  Their needs were clear and unavoidable.

Within the first four hours of free agency opening on March 12th however that all began to change.  The Bears wasted no time signing the New Orleans Saints perennial Pro Bowl left tackle Jermon Bushrod and New York Giants on-the-rise tight end Martellus Bennett.  While the Bushrod deal had its skeptics (there’s serious debate whether he’s just the product of Drew Brees and the Saints system), the Bennett signing widely received praise around the league.  For the record I was and am a fan of the Bushrod signing for the following reasons:

  • Our new offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer was the Saints offensive line coach for the past few seasons.  If anyone knows if Bushrod is legitimate or just a product of a system it would be him.
  • He signed for less than what the Giants gave Will Beatty who has never been to a Pro Bowl
  • The alternative left tackle on the market was Jake Long who got essentially the same money from the Rams but had to reportedly endure a 16 hour physical before the St. Louis doctors would give him the all clear.
  • Miami let their franchise left tackle and former #1 overall pick go due to their concerns over his health.  New Orleans let Bushrod go because of cap constraints leaving them in a position where they literally couldn’t sign him if they wanted to (they reportedly did want to but “at their price” and the Bears never gave them that option).

The true value of his signing will bear out on Sundays this fall.

The primary point is that in the first few hours of the market opening, Phil Emery had made major strides in closing two of the three biggest holes on the team.  All of a sudden there was no guarantee that the Bears had to do anything with the 20th pick in the draft.

Eight days later the team officially parted ways with Brian Urlacher – a move that hurts more in one’s fandom than in actual production on the field – and three days after that they had signed his replacement, DJ Williams, to a one year, team friendly deal. 

Bill Barnwell over at Grantland.com wrote some excellent articles about the free agent market and how it has changed over the year.  In particular this column he wrote the day prior to the beginning of free agency, talking about the stunted growth of the salary cap and the surplus of talented players that would come available for pennies on the dollar was particular enlightening.  His piece about Urlacher and the “Hometown Premium” is also worth a read.  Essentially what Barnwell says is that the sucker teams of NFL free agency are those that rush out and give exorbitant contract on the first day, locking up their cap space for years to come.  The smart teams are those that read the market and find cheap short term value from multiple players who will contribute to the team’s success the following year.  Say what you will about the Bushrod signing, but I’d argue that the Bears toed the line successfully between these two camps.  They rushed out and paid handsomely for two pieces that fit dire needs of the team going forward in Bushrod and Bennett.  They then worked the system and found multiple players for bargain basement prices to fill out the roster for this coming season.  In what has become an extreme buyers market (as Barnwell predicted) the Bears have since signed four additional players (James Anderson (LB), Kelvin Hayden (CB), Matt Slauson (OG), and Jonathan Scott (OT)) to minimum salary deals and each has a very realistic chance to contribute a great deal to the team’s success this fall.

Aside from the Tom Zbikowski signing (which I just don’t understand where he fits – in an ever more passing oriented league, who needs a safety that plays in the box and can’t cover anyone?) the Bears have spent the off season filling holes with cheap but more than capable talent. 

As noted above, at this point the mock draft world is up in arms as to what the Bears are going to do because they don’t have to do anything.  What Phil Emery has done is provide himself and the team flexibility to take the best player available with each selection, and not have to take the best player at a given position because there are no other options on the roster to fill it.  This is the way successful teams are built. 

This is not to say that there isn’t room for improvement.  A continued youth movement on the offensive line, in the linebacking corps, and at cornerback is still a high priority; but now the Bears can sit at the 20th pick and decide whether they want to take the best tight end, wide receiver, lineman, etc. that they have on their board.  The key to success in the draft is in adding as much talent to your team as you can.  When you are consciously trying to fill holes through the draft it is nearly impossible to be taking the highest rated player overall at the same time.  Maybe the Bears take Notre Dame’s Tyler Eifert and all of a sudden have the best tight end tandem in the league this side of New England.  Maybe they trade down and get two of San Francisco’s 2nd round picks for the 20th selection and use those two slots to take Alabama’s Barrett Jones at center and Arkansas’ Tyler Wilson at quarterback.  Now Jay Culter’s heir apparent is on the roster and Jay loses leverage in his contract negotiation next year while the offensive line gains its anchor for the next ten seasons.   

Flexibility and roster agility are some of the primary keys to success in today’s NFL and I think Phil Emery has done an outstanding job over the past month ensuring that he and the Bears have both.  The moves he has made have opened a world of possibilities for where the team focuses their attention in the draft, which makes them both unpredictable and dangerous for the rest of the league.  For that I would like to tip my cap and start my own counter ticking down to the day the Bears reassembles in Bourbonais.  It’s only four short months and counting.