What's Next for the Chicago Bears After Initial Wave of Free-Agent Signings

Matt EurichAnalyst IMarch 23, 2014

Chicago Bears' general manager Phil Emery talks about free agents, defensive end Lamarr Houston and safety Ryan Mundy, after they were signed during an NFL football news conference Wednesday, March 12, 2014, in Lake Forest, Ill. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

Phil Emery and the Chicago Bears have been busy since the new league year started on March 11.

The team bolstered its defense by signing defensive ends Lamarr Houston, Willie Young and Israel Idonije; linebacker D.J. Williams; cornerback Charles Tillman; safeties M.D. Jennings, Ryan Mundy, Danny McCray and Craig Steltz; wide receiver/kick returner Domenik Hixon and special teamer/linebacker Jordan Senn. The team also released defensive end Julius Peppers and wide receiver Earl Bennett, via ChicagoBears.com

Despite making so many moves, Emery is likely not done trying to improve his team. At the team's press conference announcing the signing of Houston and Mundy, per ESPNChicago.com, Emery elaborated on what their process will be like throughout the rest of free agency, saying:

Whether you find out about it or not, there will be a number of workouts run through this building between now and before the start of the season. We’re going to keep looking at this roster, and if we find a skill or trait in a player at a position that is better than what we currently have, we’re going to sign him and we’ll release another player. We’re going to keep working the roster to improve the level of competition so we get better as a team.

While he has helped bolster a defense that struggled in 2013, there are still plenty of holes that need to be filled, particularly with the team's depth. Now that the initial wave of free agency has passed, the Bears can still find players who can impact the roster through free agency, the draft and they can free up more money to spend by restructuring some of their current contracts.


Quality Free Agents Still Available

Nick Wass/Associated Press

Much of the focus this offseason has been spent on improving the Bears defense. Despite having one of the league's best offenses in 2013, there are still some areas on that side of the football that the team can address via free agency.

After a career year in Chicago in 2013, veteran backup quarterback Josh McCown tested the free-agent market. He ultimately landed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneerssigning a two-year, $10 million contract, via ESPN.com—leaving an opening at the No. 2 quarterback spot for the Bears. 

The Bears signed veteran Jordan Palmer to a one-year deal earlier this offseason, via CSNChicago.com, and currently have second-year man Jerrod Johnson on their roster but they could still be in the market for a free-agent backup. 

Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

According to ESPN.com, the New York Jets released Mark Sanchez late last week after the team came to terms with veteran quarterback Michael Vick. A former fifth overall pick of the Jets in 2009, Sanchez struggled with turnovers during his tenure in New York, throwing 69 interceptions in 62 games. He missed the entire 2013 season with a shoulder injury, but he has familiarity with Bears quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh, who held the same title with the Jets from 2009 until 2012.

It is tough to assume that Marc Trestman could "fix" Sanchez much like he did with McCown, but at the right price, he could help solidify the backup quarterback position. If the asking price is too high, Kevin Kolb and Colt McCoy could be viable options considering their previous experience in a West Coast offense. 

Despite signing four safeties already this offseason, Emery has stated that he is not done looking at improving the position, as reported by Patrick Finley of 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.”

Rumors circulated over the weekend that the Bears have interest in former Ravens safety James Ihedigbo, according to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press:

Ihedigbo had a career-high 101 tackles and three interceptions last season while starting every game for the Ravens. 

Another option could be veteran Chris Clemons. He has the versatility to play both free and strong safety, is strong in the box against the run and has been steady throughout his tenure in the league. Despite being one of the best remaining options at the position, Bleacher Report's Dan Pompei thinks the Bears will likely rely on the draft to bolster the position, tweeting:

Considering Pompei's stance, the Bears' best option to bolstering not just their secondary, but their team will be through the draft.


Find Depth and Youth Through the Draft

Dec 26, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA; Pittsburgh Panthers defensive lineman Aaron Donald (97) holds the lineman of the game trophy after defeating Bowling Green Falcons 30-27 to win the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA
Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

While there are still holes that need to be filled on this Bears roster, the signings they have already made will give them flexibility when they are selecting 14th overall in NFL draft this May.

In his latest scouting notebook, Bleacher Report's Matt Miller has Pittsburgh's Aaron Donald going to the Bears in his latest mock draft. Along with having Donald going to the Bears at No. 14, he lists him as one of his "five up" players for the week, writing:

"The love affair with Donald's game isn't so much about these new discoveries on his film, but rather about the instant impact he can bring to an NFL defensive line. If you're a team in need of a 3-technique pass-rusher, he's your guy. No questions asked."

After losing Henry Melton to the Dallas Cowboys last week, via ESPN.com, the Bears have a need at the 3-technique and Donald could help fill that void. The team could also look at Florida State's Timmy Jernigan and Minnesota's Ra'Shede Hageman to fill the position through the draft.

If the team believes competition breeds success, then drafting a safety in one of the first two rounds could provide a push for guys like Chris Conte. 

Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix has been described as a prototypical ball-hawking safety, as he consistently has a great break on the ball and has good enough hands to haul in interceptions. Bleacher Report's Matt Miller says of Clinton-Dix, "Like Eric Reid and Kenny Vaccaro from the 2013 class, the Alabama safety can step in and make an impact from his first day on the job."

Clinton-Dix, along with Louisville's Calvin Pryor, could be two possibilities when the team selects at No. 14. If the Bears decide one of the defensive tackles are too good to pass up, Washington State's Deone Bucannon could be an option in the second round.

Bucannon was a tackling machine at Washington State and is an intimidating in-the-box safety who plays well against the run and has good, but not great, coverage abilities.

The first two rounds of the draft are big for Emery, as he will need to find two players who can have an impact in their rookie seasons. 


Team Can Create More Cap Space with Contract Extensions and Restructures

Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

One of the biggest moves for the Bears this offseason was re-signing quarterback Jay Cutler. Just days after the 2013 season officially concluded, the team announced it had signed him to a seven-year, $126.7 million deal. 

While his cap hit in 2014 is a league-high $22.5 million via Sportrac.com, according to Joel Corry of National Football Post, the Bears can lower Cutler’s cap number since they can create cap room at any time during the deal with their discretionary right to convert a portion of his base salary into a signing bonus. 

If there is still a talented player in free agency the team thinks could help in 2014 and he is a bit out of its current price range, the flexibility with Cutler's deal will allow the Bears to free up cap space. Another alternative would be to extend a player like Brandon Marshall, giving him more guaranteed money and lowering his 2014 cap hit.