Bears Offseason Activity More Than Just Hype
Free agency is an exciting time for NFL fans, largely due to it’s timing during the offseason when fans are overly optimistic about the upcoming season – after all, we are all fanatics (you did know fan was short for fanatic, right?).
Through free agency and the draft, a general manager can address short and long-term needs alike and reshape a team in a very short period of time – at least on paper. Dealing only with college players, the draft is an undeniable roll-of-the-dice on raw talent. Free agency also involves taking chances on players, but it allows teams to roll the dice on veteran players. The levels of free agency include signing veterans off the open market, signing undrafted rookies and also re-signing (or not) players from a team's existing roster. Each year, there are intriguing free agent acquisitions as well as parting of ways with players the team either could not afford to re-sign, or decided it was best not to do so. One sure thing that comes with free agency is a bombardment of hype and speculation, and its important to sort through that hype to discover who was brought in to provide competition in camp, who will add real value this season, and who is just riding the wave of wishful thinking and unrealistic expectations.
Should They Stay Or Should They Go?
The Bears did an excellent job retaining talent by re-signing 17 players from their 2013 roster. Headlining the “Should They Stay” list are QB Jay Cutler, K Robbie Gould, and CBs Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman. There was no moving forward without these core players, so re-signing them for 2014 was a no-brainer. I won’t go into who was paid what and for how long – they just needed to be here. Long-term impact on the Bears salary cap is a subject for another article.
Also signed off the “Should They Stay” list are two “transitional” veterans – DT Jeremiah Ratliff and LB D.J. Williams. I label them as “transitional” because they are not the future for the Bears. What they do offer is veteran experience at key positions where the Bears have young players who need time to develop. At age 32 and entering his 10th season, Ratliff can be a solid interior lineman who we should see in a rotation with DTs Will Sutton and Ego Ferguson – two young, exciting draft additions who have tremendous upside. At age 31 and entering his 11th season, Williams serves much the same role at linebacker. Second-year players Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene should be ready to step up, but having Williams there with All-Pro Lance Briggs when the season kicks off should solidify the linebacking core.
The last retention signing I’ll mention may be the most important. Recent history tells us that there is a better-than-average chance we’ll see the second string quarterback play significant reps and even start a few games. With the loss of last year's Cinderella story, Josh McCown – signed by Tampa Bay to play for former Bears coach Lovie Smith – the re-signing of QB Jordan Palmer is huge. That’s high praise for a 30-year-old player entering his sixth season who has attempted a total of 15 passes in his career. But if McCown’s success shows what time in the Trestman system can do for a quarterback, then Palmer is worth keeping around. The bottom line is that if Trestman wants to work with Palmer, then you keep him around.
The only “Should They Go” player I’ll mention is DE Julius Peppers – now a Green Bay Packer. Entering his 13th NFL season, he is well beyond his prime. 2013 was his least productive year with the Bears, recording just 7.5 sacks and spending an obvious lack of time in the opposition's backfield. If he experiences a rebirth in Green Bay in 2014, it will be the worst move of the offseason, but I’m not counting on that happening.
Free Agent Acquisitions
We have the book on free agent players since we’ve seen what they can do with other NFL teams, and they basically fall into two categories – either the player is entering the twilight years of his career or he is young and has shown flashes of potential. The tough part is to decide if the aging veterans have enough left in the tank to still be difference makers, and whether the raw talent and upside of the younger veterans will continue to develop and result in multi-year contributors in the prime of their careers. Peppers is a recent example of the aging vet that paid off for a couple of years and then was let go as dwindling performance becomes apparent. The Bears were able to enjoy a few years of beast-mode from Peppers before he showed an obvious decline in 2013, so he was a textbook example of an excellent free agent signing.
Chicago jumped into the hype in a big way by signing DE Jared Allen, a five-time Pro Bowler with the division rival Minnesota Vikings. At age 32 and entering his 11th season, he claims to feel great and has told fans to watch and see how well he does in 2014. If you look at his numbers, he’s yet to fall off when it comes to production. With 128.5 career sacks, Allen averages 12.8 per year. In 2013, he recorded 11.5 sacks and in 2012, he added 12.0. I doubt we will see the 22 sacks he posted in 2011, but that was a Hall-of-Fame effort and out of character, even for him. Probably the most important thing Allen brings is consistency, not only in his sack totals, but also in his presence in each game. He’s played in all but three games in his first 10 years in the league. I love what GM Phil Emery has done. Essentially, he traded up by bringing Allen in and letting Peppers go. Allen is essentially at the same point of his career that Peppers was when the Bears acquired him in 2010. All expectations are that he has a couple years of beast-mode to offer before anyone can begin to regret his four-year contract.
I love the signing of DE Lamarr Houston, who spent his first four years in Oakland, as well. I love this because he represents the flip side of the Allen signing. As I mentioned, you hope Allen is a veteran that has a few good years left. You hope Houston is the young, up-and-coming, long-term contributor. If your gamble on Houston pays off, you have him for his prime years.
A Steal Amongst The Undrafted Free Agents
I think the Bears landed one surefire steal and one wait-and-see prospect in their list of undrafted free agents. The steal is LB Christian Jones out of Florida State. Projected by many draft day experts as a second or third round pick, I’m trying to figure out how he went undrafted. I checked in with my go-to Florida State fan that assured me Jones is a stud – a real beast that packs a big punch. The 6-3, 240 pounder is “highly athletic and a physical tackler”, according to his draft analysis on NFL.com. As an edge rusher from his linebacker position, he led the Seminoles in quarterback hurries, posted eight tackles for a loss and was a constant force in the opposition’s backfield.
Wait-And-See Free Agents
The last set of free agents are the ones that may, or may not, amount to anything. They may not even earn a roster spot, but are interesting to watch nonetheless. QB Jordan Lynch of Northern Illinois is my pick to make the team, and should provide someone to root for in training camp. A feisty, competitive, overachieving quarterback in college, Lynch had no problem making the move to running back in the NFL. Anyone who watched him frustrate defenses and post a 24-4 career record and earn a spot as a Heisman Trophy finalist knows what you get from Lynch. Quite frankly, he was a major problem to defend and he is the answer to the question of how Northern Illinois was selected to the BCS Orange Bowl to play Florida State. He appears to be just as smart as he is tough, and you just want to find a roster spot for guys like that. I don’t see Lynch as the next Tim Tebow since he quickly accepted the fact he was not going to play quarterback in the NFL. He might wash out quickly, but I’ll enjoy watching him work to make the team.
A New Defense In 2014
My take is that free agency secured players from the offensive side of the ball which is already doing very well. But the big impact is that free agency has played a huge part in rebuilding a Bears defensive front that provides plenty of reason for excitement and high expectations. Two veteran ends in Allen and Houston, and a rotation of veteran Ratliff and rookies Sutton and Ferguson inside.
On paper, free agency has complemented the draft and rebuilt a Bears defense that has the potential to erase the abomination that was 2013.