Even though Free Agency is not over quite yet, things finally appear to be winding down as the next NFL draft approaches ever so much closer by the day. Coming off a very bitter end to their promising season, the Bears looked to bolster their entire roster, in addition to completely re-building a defense that yielded the worst results statistically in franchise history. Some of the most important questions asked prior to the season finale included, "what is the plan at QB? What will this defense look like? Who is likely to get cut? Will ____ be brought back next season?" Literally days after the season ended, and even before the final game was played, Phil Emery along with Cliff Stein answered a few of those questions immediately.
Instead of trying to list all the transactions individually, here is a link from their official website that features a full list of transactions made during the 2014 year so far. Not included in that list are the re-signings/signings of Robbie Gould, WR/KR Chris Williams, and Tony Fiammetta, who were all signed/re-signed the week leading into the home game against Green Bay. Needless to say, a long list of major moves were made on both sides of the ball, and almost all questions Bears fans could have ever asked about ways to improve the team, were answered soundly to say the least. Of course, there are still a few issues that need to be resolved, which will be brought up as I go over each of the key moves made to address team needs.
1) Re-signing key veterans.
Many people only focus on the time period which begins with Free Agency that starts in March in terms of making moves with the intent of improving the team. Except, the Bears' Free Agency began in December, when five major re-signings took place both before and after their home game against the Packers: Robbie Gould, Tony Fiammetta, Matt Slauson, Tim Jennings, and last but most importantly Jay Cutler.
The reason why the later is perhaps the biggest move made all off-season, is because that ended almost all speculation as to who the Franchise QB shall be for the foreseeable future. With not only Cutler locked up long term, but Jennings and Slauson as well, they managed to bring back their top three free agents well before the fiesta began last month. And, when that said fiesta started, they continued to bring back more of their best players such as: Charles Tillman, Roberto Garza, and D.J. Williams. Eventually, the entire starting offense from the 2013 season was locked up for at least another year, along with the Pro-Bowl tandem at CB, and some depth at DT with Jeremiah Ratliff in addition to Nate Collins. All of those moves allowed for the Bears to focus entirely on the market, without much concern as to who else they needed to re-sign, and even cut.
2) Addition by subtraction.
Another underrated series of moves the Bears have made, is all the cuts they've done to build cap space, and allow themselves the opportunity of making several splash signings once negotiations began. By far the biggest cut came when Julius Peppers had his contract terminated, which opened up a solid $10 million for immediate use. Otherwise, had they kept him for the 2014 season, he would have counted a whopping $14 million against the cap. For a veteran who's likely entering into the twilight years of his career, the money previously obligated to him was far too unreasonable to justify. The same can be said for RB Michael Bush, as he turned into the latest of a bad line in bust FA signings at RB. Devin Hester will always be a favorite player of mine, but his days of being the most feared kick returner in the league are almost at an end as well. Earl Bennett was a solid receiver, but nothing special. This goes to show how serious Phil Emery and his staff are in terms of building their image for a map to a long overdue championship, as only players they feel can truly offer them a competitive advantage are being kept/rewarded.
3) Key signings/actual additions.
Once the time came to land the players needed at positions of need, the front office delivered in a big way. Starting with day one, they were aggressive and relentless in their pursuit of players, and they didn't just stop with one big signing. Several big signings were made to the DE position alone, and upgrades have also been added to the Safety positions. My biggest takeaway from all the signings, is how reasonable all the contracts are. Where Julius Peppers would have costed $14 million to keep this season just by himself, Jared Allen ($3 million), Lamarr Houston ($5 million), Willie Young ($2.6 million) and Israel Idonije ($570 k) combined count just a little over $11 million against the 2014 cap. Simply put: pure genius.
Not only do all four cost far cheaper combined, all four players are upgrades over the previous DE rotation of Peppers, Wootton, McClellin, and Bass. To have the league's leading sack specialist as your RDE, and the best run stopping DE in the NFL as your LDE, on the same DL, is going to be a serious problem for opposing OCs to game-plan against. And another note, all four of those new DEs have at least one full season as a starter under their respective belts, so the depth at DE is considerably deeper than it has been in years. In regards to the Safety position, and DT for the matter, both stand for some more players to be brought in via the draft, but they have brought in competition and a likely starter in Ryan Mundy, who projects as an upgrade over Major Wright at SS. The FS position is still a concern, but at least there will be an actual competition during camp, which will probably feature a rookie vs. M.D. Jennings vs. Craig Steltz vs. Chris Conte. And yet, even after all the attention paid to the defense, they still added a few solid additions to offense.
4) Continuing to add pieces into the offense.
Yes, the defense still needs more pieces, which again will likely come through the draft despite the slew of signings made in all positions on that side of the ball. But, it doesn't hurt anything to add more talent to the depth chart behind the starting offense, and a move I really liked was the signing of former starting Center for the Saints in Brian de la Puente. de la Puente has started 44 straight games since taking over for the former great Bears Center in Olin Kreutz during the 2011 season. As it stands, he's the back-up at Center behind Roberto Garza, in addition to possibly being a back-up at either Guard position. However, if Garza happens to suffer a serious decline in performance this season, or if an injury were to happen, de la Puente could take over immediately and wind up being the long-term starter at Center. His current contract allows for him to be extended at any point in the season, which might mean he's already been selected as the Center of the future. Besides that signing, they also added a couple receivers with return ability, and a true blocking TE in Matthew Mulligan. Back-up QB still remains a question, and again I feel that will be addressed at some point later in the draft or in the form of a "bargain bin" signing of a veteran signal caller.
Overall, for their efforts, I shall give the Bears a solid "A". The amount of work done in completing at least 37 different transactions is stunning to say the least, and yet the quality didn't suffer despite such a large number of additions. The money was spent wisely across the board to bring in not just band-aids like we've seen in the past, but actual long-term solutions to the pre-existing problems. The biggest losses suffered this season were in the forms of Josh McCown and Henry Melton, which neither are anything close to being fatal blows. Henry Melton is coming off both an ACL reconstructive procedure and a rather messy legal problem spawning from his incident at a bar in Texas, and Josh McCown was a nothing short of a great back-up, but in all honesty he deserved a chance to start elsewhere instead of being stuck behind a player he likely would have never unseated in Jay Cutler. The Bears are in prime position to choose the best players on the board this upcoming draft, and are in an immediate position to contend for the Super Bowl. After reviewing the Free Agency period yourself, how would you grade the Bears, and why? Sound off below in the comments section. Bear Down!