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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Long Road Back: Phil Emery and Bears Free Agency So Far

The free agency period is one of my favorite things about football, and it's also one of the worst. I love it, because after the Superbowl a dark period completely absent of any remotely relevant football news kills my soul, and free agency comes along to allow me to play armchair GM and ruthlessly scour twitter for news about player movements. Then comes the dark side. The breathless waiting, the anger over inactivity, the despair over watching players you had pegged as potential franchise-savers move on to other teams, and worst of all, the criticism of pretty much everything but fans and sports-writers.

If your team engages in a spending spree they'll be acclaimed a dream team by fans and some writers while having others tut tut and point out that "offseason champs" rarely win real Superbowls. If your team doesn't spend you'll have plenty of people asking why they are sitting idle.

The fact of the matter is that NFL Free Agency is neither the fool's gold some writers and organizations view it as nor the quick path to success that the Redskins and Cowboys desperately wish to believe it is. Like everything else it's a useful tool that has to be carefully managed and scrutinized. People will praise the Seahawks largely home-built roster till the cows come home and rightfully so,  but it's hard to picture them hoisting that trophy without the contributions of Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, and Marshawn Lynch, all key cogs acquired from other teams. Likewise, the Broncos got to the game thanks to their free agent QB, guard, DT, and CB, but these things will be forgotten the next time someone wants to make a point as to why free agency is pointless.

In the NFL free agency boils down to the same thing it does in every sport: pay for future performance, not past performance. At the truly elite positions, this is hard to do in the NFL. Most teams aren't going to let those players escape in their primes. If you're seeking a double-digit sack guy, a franchise QB, or an all-Pro wideout, well, you're screwed, and you're going to spend way too much money for their closest passable imitation on the market and end up disappointed anyway.

But if you're content to just add good players, if you look for guys you can build around, even if they aren't the cornerstones, and you pay them accordingly, there's some good stuff to be had. I believe that's what Phil has done so far.

I like Lamarr Houston. He's not likely to suddenly morph into double-digit sack guy, like some fans have tried to project, nor does he need to justify the deal he was given like some sports-writers have suggested. Phil Emery's neither stupid or dishonest. He knows what Lamarr Houston is, he's said what Lamarr Houston is, and he paid Lamarr Houston fair market value for exactly what he offers: downright elite run defense and average pass rush. He's not a player that needs to come off the field in passing situations. He'll make quarterbacks uncomfortable, and he'll open up opportunities for other guys to do more than that. It's a good signing.

Willie Young's also a good signing. Like, Houston (26), and unlike many other free agents, he's still under 30 (28) and is entering the prime years of his career. Last year was his first where he got starter's reps, and he turned in a very solid season as a pass rusher (60 total QB pressures, even if he had just 4 sacks). The deal pays Willie Young like the solid rotational player he is at worst (3 years, 9 million) and could end up being a steal if he, not Houston, develops into the ten sack guy people think he's capable of being.

Ryan Mundy is a guy who probably won't embarrass himself if forced to start. Fortunately for us, that's light years above last year's contributor at the strong safety position, Major Wright, who finished dead f*&king last in PFF's safety rankings. That's really all I've got there.

As for the rest of the back end of the roster guys the Bears have added (MD Jennings, other shitty safeties likely to only be special teamers, Domenik Hixon), well, snooze. If you're panicking and screaming that MD Jennings isn't starter material, well, relax. Emery's not thinking that either, and Jennings' pay check spells that out.

I don't think Emery is done yet. There are bargains still to be had out there, and Phil did a good job last year in scouring the secondary market to bring in guys like Slauson and DJ Williams. I'm sure there's potentially another DB and a DL that he'll add, but only at his price. I, too, would like Chris Clemons at free safety, Bears fan on Twitter, and I'm sure Phil Emery would too, but I doubt he's willing to pay him big money he's probably not worth under any objective evaluation and have the opportunity cost be the chance to draft a potentially elite safety in the first round or possibly even make a run at a top tier safety in free agency Next year.

Is Phil also probably aware that even with the new guys added and the guy's re-signed from last year (Jay Ratliff, Nate Collins, DJ Williams, Charles Tillman) the defense, while undoubtedly better, is still probably far from good? Sure. Are there more bearded, real tree camo loving band-aids out there who could get this defense in better shape for 2014 alone out there? Absolutely. He's not going to go down that road, for several reasons:

1) That approach is a large reason why we're in the mess we're in in the first place, and it only gets worse down the road.

The 2013 Bears defense was based on a hope that the 2012 defense, long in the tooth and overpriced as it was, could handle one more trip around the sun without a total collapse, giving Emery time to pick and choose where he needed to infuse the roster with younger talent. That didn't happen, injuries and age wiped out the costliest and most important players on the roster, and there were no experienced reinforcements ready to step in, largely thanks to the fact that, as many have pointed out with the departure of Henry Melton, there's not a single damn player left on the roster from Jerry Angelo's 2004-2010 drafts other than Matt Forte. That's damn hard to overcome. It actually says a lot about Emery and even Angelo too that the team's managed to be competitive and avoid a Cowboys or Skins like cap hell while still having to rely largely on players developed by other organizations, but the day of reckoning came. The fanbase is going to have to accept, as Emery seemingly has, that the best case scenario for the defense in 2014 may just be "strive for mediocrity" while Phil loads up in the draft and keeps the cap clear to target top young defensive talent in free agency next year.

2) They don't need to be the 2012 Bears Defense to Win

This is important. This team won 8 games last year despite a defense that was historically bad. If the run defense alone had been competent (something that seems the only safe assumption about the 2014 Bears given that Young, Houston, Ratliff, Collins, Briggs, and Tillman are all better run defenders than their predecessors/the people filling in for them while were hurt last year) they probably prevent the upset losses they suffered at the hands of the Rams and Vikings and earn themselves a playoff berth. Next year the offense should be capable of carrying a mediocre defense, and if that's the one year solution the team needs to accept in order to position themselves for a true rebuild of the defense going forward, I can accept that.

In short, I like the moves the Bears have made so far, and I understand the ones they haven't made to this point. I think they'll be better, even if the defense will likely be far from great. The path to greatness isn't paved with whatever is left in free agency anyway. Hopefully Phil can buck recent trends on defense and find that route in the draft. Go Bears.