What We Learned About the Bears After the Start of Free Agency
After the inking of Houston was announced, the Bears added safety Ryan Mundy and linebacker Jordan Senn, then doubled up at the safety position with M.D. Jennings Wednesday.
In all, the Bears came away with one definite starter, two players who will compete for a starting job and one special teams ace.
Not a bad haul in two days.
What the Bears didn't add was a franchise player or someone they can build their defense around. That will have to come via the draft, as most of the top-level free agents have already signed elsewhere.
As general manager Phil Emery made clear when he met with the media, the Bears have a lot of work left to do. They still have holes on their roster that need filling and plenty of questions regarding who will fill them.
This is a start. As you'll see in the following slides, we learned a bit more about the kinds of players the Bears are looking for, where they'll look and what positions still need work.
The Bears Want Athletes
Out of the Bears' four free-agent signings, three ran 40-yard dash times of 4.55 or better when they came into the NFL, and all had verticals higher than 33 inches.
Lamarr Houston came into the league as a defensive tackle. He ran a 4.84 40-yard dash and had a 33.5-inch vertical at 305 pounds. He also did 30 bench press reps prior to the draft.
Ryan Mundy had a 40-yard dash time of 4.55 seconds, while M.D. Jennings ran a 4.53. Mundy weighed 215 pounds at the time and added a vertical jump of 36 inches, while Jennings had a vertical of 35.5 inches at 187 pounds. Both had broad jumps greater than 10 feet.
Perhaps the most unique athlete is Jordan Senn, who entered the league as a safety. At 5'11", 224 pounds, he ran a 4.56 40-yard dash with a 36.5-inch vertical. It's not hard to see why he was so good on special teams for the Carolina Panthers.
This is important to note for two reasons.
First, it's yet another indication of the kind of players that general manager Phil Emery likes. He wants high-level athletes. I wouldn't expect the Bears to sign anyone who doesn't fit that bill.
Secondly, it gives them versatility. Mundy can play either safety spot or be a standout on special teams. Jennings may not be big enough to play in the box, but he can be a free safety, slot cornerback or—like Mundy and Senn—be a standout on special teams.
Even though he's around 300 pounds, Houston oftentimes played in a two-point stance in Oakland and was even able to drop back in coverage.
The Bears are building their defense from scratch. They need guys who can contribute in multiple ways, and they got that with their initial free-agent haul.
Bears Still Need More Help on the Back End
While the Bears brought in two safeties to compete for starting spots, they still have a hole at that position.
Mundy was adequate as a fill-in for the New York Giants, but they didn't bring him in to be a starter, and he played the third-most snaps of any safety on their roster. In his defense, he was behind a pair of talented players in Antrel Rolle and Will Hill.
With the Pittsburgh Steelers—where he started his career—Mundy played behind Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu. Maybe he's a victim of circumstance and is capable of playing at a higher level, but he hasn't proven that yet.
The Bears could certainly live with Mundy as a starter, but Jennings is still a big question mark.
Jennings played a lot for the Green Bay Packers over the last two years, but he was seen as a large part of their problem in 2013. Like the Bears, the Packers suffered from subpar safety play, with Jennings being their version of Chris Conte.
The two have combined for just four interceptions in their entire careers. They're simply not the difference-makers many had envisioned the Bears getting.
It's possible that Conte and Jennings could bring the best out of one another, but they'd be best off with some insurance in case they play at the levels they displayed in 2013.
Given Conte's cap number next season, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Bears either dip back into the free-agent market or spend a high draft pick on the position.
Bears Are Going to Be Physical
The team's top two signings—Houston and Mundy—both bring a physical presence that it sorely lacked last season.
Houston regularly grades out as one of the best run defenders in the league at Pro Football Focus (subscription required). He had 69 tackles the last two years, including 15 behind the line of scrimmage. When he does arrive to the ball, he usually does so with authority.
Not only does Houston make plays in the backfield, but he sets the edge and allows others to flow to the ball. In watching film, he reminds me a lot of former Bear Alex Brown.
Mundy may have his limitations in coverage, but he's a heady, physical player.
"I think I bring a physical nature to the defense," Mundy said, via Larry Mayer of ChicagoBears.com. "That's been my M.O. for as long as I can remember, since I started playing football. I'm not a guy who's going to shy away from contact. I like to get down there and mix it up with tight ends and running backs, and I might even run into a few linemen here and there.
The tape backs that up. To me, he's best when he plays in the box, and he's a very sure tackler. He's not Donte Whitner or T.J. Ward, but he's well above average in terms of physicality.
Rebuilding the Defense Is Going to Take a While
General manager Phil Emery didn't fix the Bears offense overnight, and he won't be able to do that with their defense either. It took Emery two offseasons to get the offense right, and the defense may be in even worse shape.
When he took over, the Bears had two offensive cornerstones in place in quarterback Jay Cutler and running back Matt Forte. They got lucky with Brandon Marshall being made available and Alshon Jeffery dropping in the draft.
The defense could take more work and time.
The Bears added a key part in Houston, but I don't think anyone views him as a franchise player. Mundy is a borderline starter, and Jennings is a potential starter, but he's more likely a special teams player.
The team still needs help at cornerback, safety, defensive end and defensive tackle. It will be a tall order for Emery to fill this offseason.
The Bearns may wait a year on safety to see if Conte or Jennings can reach their potential next to Mundy. They'd still be left with major needs along the defensive line and at cornerback. They'll likely target those spots early in the draft, but there's no guarantee on what they'll get.
Of course, Chicago also has question marks at linebacker since there is reason to doubt that both Shea McClellin and Jon Bostic will continue to struggle.
So the Bears' first step in rebuilding their defense was just that, a step. They did go in the right direction, and it will be interesting to see what their next step will be.