That was the takeaway message I took from Phil Emery and Marc Trestman’s exit press conference.
We can forget Chris Conte’s mishap (good luck finding another team, Chris). We can forget the final 46 seconds that took the Bears from a playoff sleeper to mediocre sob story. What we should be focusing on is this upcoming offseason, which will be the reason the Bears return to playoff contenders instead of pretenders for years to come.
In two years, Emery stole Brandon Marshall from the Dolphins, put the pieces together for the most consistent offensive line in recent memory, and gave Jay Cutler a few new toys to play with named Jeffery and Bennett.
Not to mention he signed the first offensive minded head coach in franchise history; a man who’s system helped Cutler earn a seven-year extension and made Josh McCown look like Peyton Manning.
It may take another year or two to see the returns from the windfall of defensive moves that he all but promised, but Emery has made it clear that defense will be his priority this offseason.
Emery attacks the free agent market and the draft as if he was playing franchise mode in Madden. Honestly, some of the moves he pulled off to create this offense seemed to be moves only possible in video games. Instead of just talking about bringing in big names like your usual Chicago team’s front office, Emery actually puts his pie-in-the-sky plans in motion.
That makes me incredibly excited to see what kind of talent he can bring in to help this defense.
Let’s start with the actual dollar amount he’ll have left to play with. With Cutler’s seven-year deal (which I love) and the new contracts given to Tim Jennings and Matt Slauson factored in, the Bears will come in $11,597,223 under the cap for next season (according to sportrac.com).
A big factor to consider will be the status of Julius Peppers and his monster contract. His cap hit will be over $18 million this year and $20 million the next. He has already restructured his contract twice and posted underwhelming stats last season considering his salary.
The Bears could hang on to him and hope he returns to prime Peppers, but cutting him seems like the better option. The $18 million he’s due can be much better spent elsewhere.
So instead of having about $11.5 million to play with, Emery would now have nearly $30 million worth of Band-Aids to help patch up his team’s glaring wounds.
On offense, there’s actually very little to fix. Strange, huh? But if McCown does decide to retire, or leave for another team, the Bears will need to add backup quarterback to their shopping list. The only other item on that list would be resigning Roberto Garza.
For a backup quarterback, why not go with Shaun Hill? The 33 year old has been the backup quarterback for the Lions for the past four seasons. Not only will Hill come cheaper than McCown (thanks to that miracle five-game stretch he had this year), he also has a very similar skill set.
McCown worked so well in Trestman’s system because he was accurate with his throws, didn’t make stupid decisions, and also posed no serious competition to Cutler for the starting job. Just ask Trestman.
At 33 and as a career backup, Hill wouldn’t put any undue pressure on Cutler. Trestman wouldn’t allow it. And he actually has a higher career completion percentage than McCown. In a worst case scenario, Hill could come in and make every throw necessary in Trestman’s offensive scheme to keep the ship afloat.
Problem solved at roughly $1.5 million per year. Now we’re down to $28 million.
Next up is getting Garza back, which is probably the most important cog in the offense that everyone overlooks. Garza is the lone holdover from an Angelo era marred by offensive linemen that resembled revolving doors. He’s been a steady force in the middle of the line for the past nine seasons and has been Cutler’s center for the past three.
Familiarity between Cutler and Trestman is a huge plus going forward; the same goes for the connection between Cutler and Garza. The more that can be kept the same, the likelier Cutler can spend time thriving instead of re-learning new schemes and player tendencies.
At $2 million a year, bringing back Garza should be no problem, and his “heir” can always be taken with a mid round pick in the draft.
And now the fun begins, with $26 million left in the bank.
A lot has been made of the Bears possibly switching schemes from their traditional 4-3 defense to a 3-4 set. Emery seems very emotionally tied to his very first first-round pick Shea McClellin and put forward a very compelling explanation for why he thinks he’d succeed as a 3-4 stand up rush end (think Demarcus Ware down in Dallas).
I love the idea. Look, McClellin is undersized and will get manhandled more often than not if he keeps rushing as a traditional defensive end that starts in a three point stance. But stand him up and get him a running start, and he can take advantage of his greatest ability: speed.
McClellin had flashes of brilliance, such as racking up three sacks and ending Aaron Rodgers season in the Bears’ first meeting with the Packers. Why not put him in a position where we can see that type of production from him more often?
As Emery stated in his press conference, many stand up rushers in 3-4 scheme flamed out with their first team before becoming pro bowl-caliber on another team. By switching to a 3-4 now, the Bears can avoid the embarrassment on having another top draft pick fizzle and can possibly create a monster with McClellin as a stand up rusher.
Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker has utilized the 3-4 in the past, and he’ll get at least one more season to prove his worth here in Chicago. Why not fit your scheme around your personnel instead of the other way around?
That’s one glaring need fixed without spending any extra coin. Too bad a consistent pass rush was only one of the many problems on a defense that was statistically the worst in the franchise’s storied history.
With Peppers cut (for the sake of this argument) and Corey Wootton a free agent, the team would need two defensive ends. But in the 3-4, you only need one nose tackle to stuff the middle of the line.
I like Henry Melton as much as the next guy, but his questionable bill of health and his history as a college running back make me question his ability to act as a true nose tackle.
Just look around the league: Ryan Pickett, Haloti Ngata, Barry Cofield, etc. A nose tackle in a 3-4 has to be a mammoth, black-hole type mass of a human being. Not saying Melton is small at 280 lbs, but compared to those names I just rattled off, he’s not exactly big either. He’s actually about 40 lbs lighter than all of them.
The Bears currently have Stephen Paea under contract, and Jeremiah Ratliff could come back for around the $1 million in base salary the Bears spent on him in 2013. In case you’re wondering, both weigh north of 300 lbs.
$25 million to go.
Even though Corey Wootton is due to get a raise from his rookie contract that just expired, the recent hip surgery and subsequent rehab may bring his price point down a bit. My best guess: a mid-length deal worth $3 million a year.
Wootton deserves to come back to prove his worth. He was forced to slide inside to the interior of the line when a handful of linemen went down with injuries. He also admitted to playing through most of the season on that bum hip he just had fixed up, and he’s only a year removed from a seven sack season in 2012 at his natural end position.
The potential is there, just as it is with former Raider defensive end Lamarr Houston. He’ll be entering his age 27 season in 2014 just like Wootton, giving the Bears a potent edge combo for years to come. He’ll be looking for a raise of his own, and he’ll likely get it in the form of a deal worth upward of $8 million a year. Reason being, his ceiling is higher than Wootton’s and his production has been more consistent.
$11 million well spent along the defensive line. Let’s move to the linebackers.
Lance Briggs will be one incumbent outside linebacker, and we can pencil in Shea McClellin as the stand-up rush end.
In an interview with ‘Waddle and Silvy’ on ESPN Radio 1000, Emery had mentioned the idea of moving second-year man Jon Bostic to an outside linebacker position as his career progressed to exploit his athleticism. Like most of Emery’s ideas, I love this one as well.
This leaves an obvious hole at middle linebacker. The solution’s name is Brandon Spikes. Yes, that Brandon Spikes, the one currently on IR.
The age of 27 seems to be a theme here, as Spikes will be hitting that age next September. As one of the leagues best run-stopping linebackers, he’s exactly what the doctor ordered for the Bears.
A solid salary for an upper-echelon linebacker is around $4 million. While Spikes is good, he’s not quite elite. That, mixed with injury concerns, may knock his yearly salary to around $3 million a year.
In a perfect world, the Bears will have two tiers of their defense fixed with $14 million dollars left to play with. But even in a perfect world, the secondary will need all the help it can get.
Like Julius Peppers, it seems imminent that Charles Tillman has played his last snap as a Bear. He’s about to turn 33 next month and he’ll likely ask for more than the Bears will be willing to fork over. His best days are behind him.
Tim Jennings will become the default number one corner on his new four-year contract, leaving the number two spot vacated. The solution here isn’t free agency, but the NFL Draft.
The Bears hold the 14th pick this season, and they’d be wise to spend it on the best available cornerback in the first round. They’ve had much better luck drafting corners (see: Tillman, Vasher, Bowman, etc.) than safeties (see: any safety in recent memory).
Back to my perfect world: the Bears will have a realistic shot at the top available cornerback in the draft, Darqueze Dennard. The Michigan State product could still be on the board at 14 given the amount of teams in the top ten who desperately need quarterbacks.
In a slightly less perfect world, Dennard will be gone and the Bears can scoop up Justin Gilbert from Oklahoma State. He’s nearly a carbon copy of Dennard, standing an inch taller and weighing in three pounds heavier. Unless it’s a misprint on cbssports.com, then they’ve even clocked identical 4.52 40-yard dash times.
Rookie salaries for picks in the low teens don’t break the bank, especially on the defensive side of the ball. You can expect any player’s cap hit to total less than $1 million, especially in their first season.
That leaves $10 million to bring up the weakest of the weakest links on the defense: the safeties.
The team will improve simply by letting Chris Conte go. But why stop there? Especially when an elite safety is roaming the streets in search of a job.
I’m talking about Jarius Byrd, a man not long removed from leading the NFL in interceptions and who has made the All-NFL first of second team every single season of his career thus far.
And guess what? He’ll be 27 next season. It’s clearly a sign.
According to nfltraderumors.co, the Buffalo Bills are willing to throw the book at Byrd to retain his services. The Bears need to up the ante and throw the majority of their remaining money at Byrd to pry him out of the NFL Purgatory known as Buffalo.
Hopefully $8 million a year would please the man. After all, it would make him the highest paid safety in the league, which is exactly what he’s been wishing for since the Bills slapped the franchise tag on him this past summer.
That’ll leave roughly $2 million left to fill out the roster with a few veteran retreads and rookie free agents looking to latch on for a league minimum cost. With all of the costly additions to the defense, it would make it unlikely that the Bears could also retain Devin Hester and slot him back in his “designated hitter” role as a return ace.
His services are a luxury, and if forgoing his minor value meant that the Bears could haul in the kind of talent I listed above, then I’ll gladly help Hester pack his bags to leave town.
Again, this is all purely speculation. There may be an unforeseen trade or two that I haven’t accounted for. After all, the Bears brought in Cutler and Brandon Marshall via trades that were never really rumored to exist until the very last second.
Maybe the figures I proposed are slightly off and the Bears will need more than $2 million to fill out the rest of the roster. We’ll never truly know until the free agent dominoes start falling, which will start in the coming weeks.
The point I’m trying to make here is that at least this type of speculation, this extremely optimistic and slightly unrealistic list of wants and needs, has now been brought into the realm of possibility by Phil Emery.
He had an equally pressing issue on the offense and made quick work of it, turning it into one of the leagues most efficient units both through the air and on the ground. One can only wonder to what heights he can take this defense.
One thing is for sure: within two years time, the Bears will be back to being the Monsters of the Midway that we’ve grown accustomed to. Trust me, I trust Emery.