Best and Worst Moves of Chicago Bears Free Agency so Far

Andrew Dannehy@@ADannChiBearsCorrespondent IMarch 20, 2013

Best and Worst Moves of Chicago Bears Free Agency so Far

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    While the Chicago Bears haven't had a lot of additions to their roster in free agency, sometimes it's what you don't do that makes just as big of an impact.

    The Bears made a big splash in the opening hours of free agency, signing both tight end Martellus Bennett and left tackle Jermon Bushrod, but they have been relatively quiet otherwise. 

    In this list, I rate those two signings as their best or worst moves, but also grade some moves they didn't make but could have.

    It's important to remember that, although the Bears appear to be "up against the cap" as general manager Phil Emery told Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune, there's a lot they can do to free space up with restructuring deals or releasing players.

    The free-agency period isn't just about the moves teams make, but what they don't do and the effects it has on other teams. A lot of gamesmanship happens in free agency as teams will do anything to gain a competitive advantage, including showing false interest in players to up their prices for competitors. 

    For the players they did acquire or should have, I've taken in account their skill set, past production, potential future production and how they fit with the Bears schematically. One of the most important factors I took into consideration was their cost. The teams that have the most long-term success are those that are fiscally responsible.

Best: Going After Phil Loadholt

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    When it comes to free agency, it isn't all about wins or losses, and the Bears' pursuit of Phil Loadholt represents the area between success and failure.

    The Chicago Tribune's Brad Biggs reported the Bears were "hot" on the Minnesota Vikings right tackle before free agency began; they didn't get him, but they at least caused a little stress for a division rival.

    Loadholt is a good player, arguably better than the tackle that they did sign (more on that in a later slide). Getting him to leave Minnesota may not have been realistic, but the Bears did make the Vikings pay more than they anticipated.

    According to ESPN's Tom Pelissero the Vikings didn't want to pay more than $5 million per season for their mountain of a tackle. With a little pressure from the Bears, they re-signed him and topped that mark by over a million dollars per season.

    Had it worked out, the Bears would've gotten a very good right tackle. Even though it didn't, they still put a small wrench in a division rival's plans. It was a win-win.

Worst: Not Pursuing Brandon Gibson

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    If used correctly in Miami, Brandon Gibson might go down as the biggest steal of the free-agent season, one the Bears may wish they got.

    Even when I put Gibson on my list of players the Bears should pursue, I didn't expect him to come as cheap as he did. He signed with the Dolphins for under $3.5 million per season, cheap for a player who brings a lot to the table.

    According to Pro Football Focus, St. Louis quarterbacks had a passer rating of 108.3 when throwing Gibson's way last season, compared to Amendola's rating of 88.3. Overall, St. Louis passers had a rating of 82.7 last season.

    Better yet, he brings exactly what the Bears lack in their receiving corps. According to PFF, Gibson caught 47.1 percent of his passes that were thrown beyond 20 yards, the 13th-best rate in the league amongst players who received at least 25 percent of their team's targets. 

    I didn't consider receiver among their biggest needs this offseason, but they couldn't have gone wrong signing a player like Gibson at that price.

Best: Releasing Kellen Davis and Matt Spaeth

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    This one was relatively simple. After signing Bennett, their top two tight ends from a season ago were expendable.

    Releasing Kellen Davis was the obvious move. He didn't live up to expectations after signing a two-year, $6 million contract before last season and was simply too expensive to keep around. 

    Davis managed just 47 catches over the last four seasons, eight fewer than Bennett had last year alone.

    He's still a young player with a lot of upside, but he continuously failed when the Bears needed him last season, finishing with the second-worst drop rate amongst all the tight ends in the league, according to Pro Football Focus.

    Matt Spaeth actually graded out well on PFF, but that was due almost entirely to his run blocking. He graded out as the best run-blocking tight end in the league, but caught just six passes for 28 yards last season. In two seasons with the Bears, Spaeth totaled just 13 receptions and 78 yards. 

    Spaeth's blocking ability is valuable—which is why he wasn't on the market for long—but with a multidimensional tight end in Bennett, it made sense for the Bears to cut costs there.

Worst: Signing Turk McBride

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    Their most recent signing was reported by ESPN's Jeff Dickerson on Wednesday and doesn't make a lot of sense to me.

    Turk McBride is simply not a good player. 

    He's managed to play in a total of 15 games the past two seasons for a New Orleans Saints team that ranked 20th and 31st in scoring defense. In that time, he had just 10 tackles and two sacks. If he doesn't even play for a bad defense, what makes them think he's going to help them at a position that's arguably their deepest?

    Sometimes good players just don't get opportunities, but McBride was bad even when he did play.

    Despite playing just 141 snaps, McBride received a grade of negative-four from PFF in 2012. In 2010, he started at defensive end for the Lions and registered five sacks, but still didn't grade out well, finishing with a negative-eight on PFF.

    The good news is this signing won't affect their negotiations with Israel Idonije, according to the Chicago Sun-Times Sean Jensen, but it seems like an unnecessary move.

    McBride's roster spot would be better used by a young player who hasn't gotten a chance instead of a player who has repeatedly failed.

Best: Letting Nick Roach Sign with Raiders

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    Nick Roach was a solid player for the Bears, but ultimately not an ideal starter at either the middle or the strong side, so letting him go to the Oakland Raiders was the right move.

    In 12 games as the starting strong-side linebacker, Roach played under half the team's snaps, leaving the field on passing downs. In those games, he received a grade of negative-2.7 from PFF. In four games as the starting middle linebacker, he received a positive-0.2 grade. Neither are great; neither are awful.

    Had the Bears brought him back, it likely would have been as the strong-side linebacker, but, ultimately, the price tag to do so was too steep. Roach signed with the Raiders for $13 million over four years, a better deal for him than for the Raiders.

    Roach was a solid player for the Bears, but not worth over $3 million per season, unless they were going to start him in the middle, ending Brian Urlacher's career with the team.

    At the end of the day, letting Roach sign with the Raiders was best for both sides.

Worst: Signing Jermon Bushrod

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    Let me start by saying the Bears became a better team by adding Bushrod. That's not the debate, but there was more that they could have done with that money.

    This was by far the most debated signing, but the fact of the matter is that if Bushrod is an upgrade over J'Marcus Webb, he isn't a major one.

    The PFF numbers support Webb as a better pass-blocker, although slightly worse overall. While some like to say Webb got more help, film review proves that to be mostly a myth.

    I took a look at the tape of both teams games against the Green Bay Packers on NFL Game Rewind.

    During their matchups with Clay Matthews and Co., the Bears used extra blockers to help Webb on 20.3 percent of their dropbacks. A relatively high number, but the Saints helped Bushrod out on 24.1 of their passing attempts against the Packers.

    That is a small sample size, but it proves that Bushrod wasn't always on an island like many believe. The Saints did a lot of chipping to help their tackles out, including some creative play designs that the Bears could be using this season.

    According to PFF, Webb did allow three more sacks but the Bears threw deep on a higher percentage of their passes, giving defenders more time to get to the quarterback. Jay Cutler threw beyond 20 yards on 15.9 percent of his snaps, compared to Drew Brees, who threw deep on 11.9 percent of his.

    The argument that playing on turf hurt Bushrod fails when compared to Detroit's Jeff Backus, who gave up 15 fewer hurries and only one sack—according to PFF—despite playing against Matthews, Jared Allen and Julius Peppers six times.

    It's common to argue the numbers and claim they don't tell the story, but scouts tend to agree with them in this case.

    Heading into free agency, Scouts Inc. gave Bushrod a 76 for a grade, one point higher than they had Webb prior to the season—unquestionably his best with the Bears.

    The Bleacher Report's Matt Miller didn't rank them far apart either, listing Webb as his 28th best left tackle and ranking Bushrod 25th.

    There's no doubt the Bears needed a tackle, but they didn't necessarily need it to be a left tackle. Is there any actual evidence that you need a great left tackle to win a Super Bowl? Baltimore's Bryant McKinnie was ranked 25th on PFF amongst left tackle with 10 or more games played this past season. The year before the Giants won the Super Bowl with David Diehl being rated as the worst linemen in the league on PFF.

    The Bears' plan is to move Webb to right tackle, but there's no guarantee that will work. They could've signed a proven right tackle for less money and kept with Webb on the left side.

    The money saved with that plan could have helped the Bears to bring back Brian Urlacher or sign a guard like Geoff Schwartz, who went to Kansas City for a bargain price.

    The Bears didn't just need a tackle, they needed a tackle, a center and at least one guard. Now they're left with more holes to fill and little money or draft picks to fill them.

Best: Signing Martellus Bennett

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    As I've already covered, Bears fans are going to love Bennett for a variety of reasons, most important is what he is going to bring to their football team.

    Bennett is a multidimensional tight end who will help both the Bears passing game and running game.

    The new Bears tight end was ranked 13th in run blocking on PFF last season. The only players who ranked ahead of him and had as many or more catches were Jason Witten and Rob Gronkowski.

    It was actually a down year for him in that aspect as he ranked second on PFF in 2011, fourth in 2010 and fifth in 2009.

    In addition to his blocking, he broke out as a receiver last season with 55 catches and five touchdowns. There is reason to believe the new coaching staff will get even more out of him in that area.

    Offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer comes to the Bears from New Orleans where tight ends where their primary tight ends have averaged 76 catches per season.

    It would be unrealistic to expect that kind of production from Bennett, but with his physical skills there it is certainly possible the Bears will get more out of him than we even expect.

    Heading into the offseason, it was widely assumed the Bears would pursue a tight end. I had three listed in among the 10 players they should target. Part of the reason was because I questioned his consistency, another was because I thought he would be the most expensive.

    Time will tell about his consistency, but the Bears got him at a fair price, signing him for four years and $20.4 million. That was far less than what St. Louis paid for Jared Cook and not much more than the Chiefs paid for Anthony Fasano.

    Ultimately, Bennett is a great fit with tremendous upside.

Worst: Letting Brian Urlacher Go

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    On Wednesday afternoon, the Bears announced they were moving on without their future Hall of Fame linebacker (h/t, ending his 13-year reign as the face of the franchise. 

    Urlacher isn't what he once was and isn't really even close, but he could've helped the Bears next season.

    It's hard to know how much of his struggles a year ago were because of age and how much were due the knee surgery he had before the season.

    According to PFF, Urlacher was the Bears' worst linebacker in 2012, He received a minus-11.2 grade in 727 snaps last season, particularly struggling against the run, where he missed a team-worst 10 tackles. He was excellent in pass coverage, where he graded out with a plus-6.7, the third best mark in the league for inside linebackers. In a passing league, it's hard to see how that skill wouldn't still be valuable to the Bears.

    Urlacher's PFF grade improved as the season went on and he got healthier. Over his first six games, he had a grade of minus-9.9, but was at minus-1.3 over his final six games. His last six also came against tougher competition, including Houston, San Francisco, Minnesota and Seattle.

    In 2011, the Bears star received an overall grade of plus-8.8 on PFF; it's hard to believe he could've declined that much in just one season.

    With Roach signing with Oakland and Geno Hayes already off to Jacksonville, the Bears are looking at a bare linebacker corps. Lance Briggs is the only player returning who played over 100 snaps.

    The Bears will likely use an early draft pick on a linebacker and bring in some free agents, but replacing a legend like Urlacher is about more than filling the position.