Setting Realistic Expectations for Each Chicago Bears Free Agent Signing

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Setting Realistic Expectations for Each Chicago Bears Free Agent Signing
Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

General manager Phil Emery and the Chicago Bears wasted little time on improving their team when free agency officially began last Tuesday.

Emery jumped right out of the gate and snagged former Oakland Raiders defensive end Lamarr Houston and former New York Giants safety Ryan Mundy on Day 1 while finalizing deals with safety M.D. Jennings, linebacker Jordan Senn, defensive end Willie Young, wide receiver Domenik Hixon and re-signing linebacker D.J. Williams in the days following the free-agency opener (via ChicagoBears.com). 

The team then made one of their biggest splashes, according to ChicagoBears.com, by re-signing veteran cornerback Charles Tillman to a one-year deal last Friday. 

Emery has set out to improve the Bears defense and has taken steps in the right direction to do so. While each player signed has been praised for what he can do on the field, fans need to have realistic expectations for what they can accomplish in 2014 and beyond.

 

Defensive Line Gets Younger and More Athletic

Following the signing of Lamarr Houston and the release of Julius Peppers last week, it was evident that the Bears wanted to get younger along the defensive line. 

Emery wasted little time finding a complement to Houston, signing former Detroit Lions defensive end Willie Young on the second day of free agency. 

Young is excited about the opportunity to play with Houston, having told Larry Mayer of ChicagoBears.com:

I'm very excited about lining up next to him at some point and making the best of the opportunity I have. I don't see offenses being able to slide one way or the other based on one player not being able to play up to expectations. I think we're somewhat similar. 

One of Houston and Young's biggest strengths is their ability against the run. In 2013, the Bears struggled mightily against the run. Injuries forced a lot of movement along the defensive line, but the majority of snaps taken at defensive end were by Peppers and Shea McClellin.

Julius Peppers and Shea McClellin 2013 Season Stats
Player Starts Tackles Sacks PFF Run Grade PFF Overall Grade
Julius Peppers 16 46 7 -2.7 (44th Best DE) -4.4 (36th Best DE)
Shea McClellin 10 30 4 -19.2 (52nd Best DE) -28.4 (51st Best DE)

Pro Football Focus (subscription required)

Both ranked poorly against the run, particularly McClellin, who graded out dead last at his position at Pro Football Focus (subscription required). By contrast, both Houston and Young graded quite well according to PFF metrics. 

Lamarr Houston and Willie Young 2013 Season Stats
Player Starts Tackles Sacks PFF Run Grade PFF Overall Grade
Lamarr Houston 16 69 6 +14.9 (5th Best DE) +11.4 (11th Best DE)
Willie Young 15 47 3 +5.1 (21st Best DE) +7.0 (16th Best DE)

Pro Football Focus (Subscription Required)

While Houston and Young are clearly upgrades against the run and should help a Bears defense that ranked dead last against the run, they will need to prove that they have the ability to get after the quarterback. 

Houston has 16 sacks in four seasons while Young has only six in his four years. In a conference call with the media last week, Emery talked about what he wants from his defensive players, saying, "Our goal and our thoughts about defensive players is to get the toughest, most aggressive, instinctive players that have a little bit of an old-school mentality, a Bear mentality.” (per the Daily Chronicle)

Both players have shown an ability to pressure the quarterback, but both have not been the most effective at closing. Young, according to Pro Football Focus, finished with the third-most quarterback hurries among 4-3 defensive ends with 48, and Houston was not far behind, finishing tied for ninth with 41 hurries.

“Offenses are going to have to figure out some kind of way to stop two guys who are coming off the edge with no intentions other than to harass quarterbacks," Young said in his conference call with the media last week (per the Daily Chronicle). 

The Bears are hoping that those hurries and "bad intentions" can translate into sacks next season. If the Bears can continue to bolster the talent around their new additions to the defense, Houston and Young could both reach double-digit sacks in 2014, in addition to improving the league's worst run defense.. 

 

Secondary Finds Depth

Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

Few would argue that the safety combination of Chris Conte and Major Wright was one of the worst in the league last season. Both struggled against the pass and with missed tackles and had few positive plays.

The team appears set to move on from Wright but Conte remains with the team having one year remaining on his rookie deal. 

Emery wasted little time trying to find depth at the position and struck a deal with former New York Giants safety Ryan Mundy on the first day of free agency. He has appeared in 80 games with 14 starts over five seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers (2009-12) and New York Giants (2013), registering 143 tackles and two interceptions. 

Emery praised Mundy at a press conference last week (per chicagobears.com):

When we were going through our process of evaluation and looking for safeties to enhance our roster, Ryan's name kept coming up. Here was a guy that showed good upside production when he had the opportunity, had excelled on [special] teams, had played high and low, and knew how to cover people. He had instincts and he could help others line up.

Despite the high praise, the Bears have not guaranteed Mundy a starting position, and he is okay with that. 

"I feel like I'm coming in here to compete for a starting opportunity, and that's all I can ask for," Mundy said. "I don't shy away from competition. I look forward to getting started with workouts and practices and everything like that. Nothing's set in stone and I don't take anything for granted. I'm just excited about the opportunity and I'm ready to get to work."

Morry Gash/Associated Press

The Bears were not finished with adding depth to the safety position, signing former Green Bay Packer M.D. Jennings to a one-year deal. He started all 16 games last year, finishing with 68 tackles, one sack and one fumble recovery.

Even though he started all 16 games, Jennings was a liability in coverage at times and the Packers were willing to let him walk. At this time, he is likely viewed as someone who could push Chris Conte at the free safety position and contribute on special teams.

Despite the additions of both Mundy and Jennings, Emery has stated that he is not done looking at improving the team's safety position, as reported by the Chicago Sun-Times: "We’re definitely going to look at the safety position. Continue to look at it extensively in the [free-agent] market and the draft and post-draft.”

At this point, it appears that Mundy will have the better chance of the two to win a starting role, but much of that is based oN whether or not the team adds another veteran or drafts a prospect who can compete with for the starting role at strong safety.

If the team upgrades the free safety position, Mundy should be a good in-the-box run-stopper with the physicality to matchup with tight ends in the passing game. Even if he is relegated to a supporting role, he should still be a solid contributor on special teams, having amassed 64 special-teams tackles since he entered the league in 2009, which is tied for third most in the NFL

Jennings' role will likely be to serve as a veteran with starting experience, someone who can push Conte or a rookie for the starting free safety role and contribute in special teams. 

 

 

Special Teams Adds Experience

MIKE MCCARN/Associated Press

While the Bears were busy bolstering its defensive line and finding depth in the secondary, it also inked deals with two veteran special teams contributors: Jordan Senn and Domenik Hixon, both from the Carolina Panthers.

Senn has appeared in 83 NFL games with seven starts over six seasons with the Indianapolis Colts (2008-09) and Carolina Panthers (2009-13). He has recorded 88 tackles, one interception and three forced fumbles while adding 49 tackles on special teams and was the Panthers' special teams captain in 2012. 

He is expected to take over the role on special teams previously held by Blake Costanzo, assuming the team will not be bringing him back in 2014. 

Senn told Larry Mayer of ChicagoBears.com: 

I'm extremely excited. It worked out well and to come up to Chicago and be a part of an organization that has a lot of history is very exciting to me. I have a couple of friends on the team and I've heard nothing but good things about the staff, the facility, the city; really everything.

He also got an opportunity to chat with special teams coach Joe DeCamillis and told ChicagoBears.com:

He sounded excited. I'm excited to be there and play for him. I've always had a lot of respect for the Bears special teams. It was a good conversation and I'm excited to meet him in person and sit down and talk with him.

Senn has experience playing weakside linebacker but will serve primarily as one of the team's special teams aces. 

Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

Hixon, a former return man early in his career, will get an opportunity to take over as the team's kick returner in 2014 following the departure of Devin Hester earlier this offseason. 

He has not returned kicks regularly since the 2009 season but Emery is willing to give him a chance, telling reporters during a conference call, "We're certainly going to give him an opportunity to return some kicks in practice and see what it looks like in the preseason."

He had his most impressive year as a return man in 2009, returning 57 kickoffs for 1,291 yards with a 22.6 yard return average. In 80 career returns he has averaged 24.6 yards per return and has one touchdown. 

After suffering back-to-back ACL injuries in 2010 and 2011, he bounced back in 2012 to catch 39 passes for 567 yards and two touchdowns for the Giants but finished last season with just seven receptions for 55 yards and one touchdown.

He can provide depth at the wide receiver position but in all likelihood he is viewed as a key piece to their special teams and Hixon is okay with that, telling Larry Mayer of ChicagoBears.com, "I like special teams. I enjoy that aspect of it, especially returning the football, and hopefully I can step in and do that."

Special teams coach Joe DeCamillas saw his unit struggle at times last season and the additions of Senn and Hixon should help fix some of their problems. Senn will provide the leadership of a former special teams captain who knows how important their unit is to the team and Hixon, if able to replicate his numbers from 2009, should provide the Bears with solid field position throughout the 2014 season. 

 

Veterans Get Another Shot

David Banks/Getty Images

On the first day of free agency, the team did not waste any time in re-signing one of its many veterans with an aspiring contract, inking D.J. Williams to a one-year deal according to Dan Wiederer of the Chicago Tribune.

It took a few more days after Williams signed, but the Bears announced the re-signing of veteran cornerback Charles Tillman on March 14. 

Williams suffered through injuries during his first season in Chicago, first with a calf injury in training camp and then a season-ending pectoral tear in Week 6. He finished the season with 39 tackles, 3.5 sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss.

Emery told Dan Wiederer of the Chicago Tribune back in February at the NFL Scouting Combine his thoughts on Williams, saying:

I saw a good football player. Saw a guy who has legitimately very good burst. Saw a player who has good instincts, gets around the ball and plays with a relentless style. We were not displeased with his effort. We were very pleased with where he was going and how he was progressing.

Bringing back Williams helps solidify a linebacker group that struggled mightily after his injury and an injury to Lance Briggs in the middle of the season. Williams has the flexibility to play all three linebacker positions but will likely be penciled in as the team's starter at middle linebacker, while Shea McClellin and Jon Bostic battle for the strong-side linebacker position.

Tillman's return had been in doubt since the season ended and was even more in doubt when, according to ProFootballTalk.com, he met with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week. Tampa Bay seemed like the logical choice for Tillman, as he could have reunited with former Bears' head coach Lovie Smith.

Despite the interest from the Buccaneers, he re-signed with the Bears on Friday for a one-year deal and Emery was excited to have him back, telling ChicagoBears.com:

Charles is one of the NFL's great players and a true leader on and off the field and we're happy he will be staying in Chicago. He remains the best in our game at forcing turnovers and always has brought a tough, physical presence to our secondary. Charles also has a special connection to the people and community across Chicago and we're excited for that to continue."

Tillman took to Twitter to playfully acknowledge his return to the Bears, tweeting: 

Tillman was coming off back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons in 2011 and 2012 before a triceps injury prematurely ended his 2013 season. 

It's good to be back," he told ChicagoBears.com. "I'm glad both sides were able to work out a deal. It means a lot [to remain with the Bears]."

Bringing back Tillman, much like Williams, helps solidify the defense and allows the team to look elsewhere for improvements on that side of the football. 

Prior to his injury in 2013, Tillman looked to be playing at or near the same Pro Bowl level he had been at in the previous to years. At the age of 33, Tillman may have difficulty maintaining his Pro Bowl-caliber play, but he still has a nose for the football. Chicago fans should expect him to intercept a pass and still be one of the league's best at forcing fumbles. 

 

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