Phil Emery's Masterful Free-Agency Period Makes Chicago Bears NFC Contenders

Ty SchalterNFL National Lead WriterMarch 26, 2014

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Dec. 31, 2012 was the end of an era: the Chicago Bears' Lovie Smith Era.

New general manager Phil Emery had given Smith one season to prove he was the right coach to lead the Bears back to the Super Bowl. After missing the playoffs for the fifth time in six seasons, Emery sent Smith packing.

The Bears team that remained was skilled, tough, experienced, old and expensive.

Years of freely spending money and draft picks to acquire veterans like Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall and Julius Peppers amounted to a Bears offense that was somehow much less than the sum of its parts and an elite defense on the verge of losing its edge.

After Emery made a brilliant outside-the-box hire in Marc Trestman, who turned the Bears offense into the second-best scoring unit in the NFL, the defense cratered in 2013. Again, the Bears fell just short of the playoffs.

In the 2014 offseason, Emery had to overhaul a massively disappointing front seven and shore up the the aging, leaky secondary. Just weeks after the start of free agency, he may have already done it.


Out with (Some of) the Old

Emery's decision to allow iconic middle linebacker Brian Urlacher to leave at the end of 2012 was no less important (symbolically) than the decision to part with Smith.

In 2014, Emery let returner Devin Hester leave in free agency and released Peppers. Hester had publicly considered retiring in the wake of Smith's firing, per Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune, and Peppers' release gave Emery $9.8 million in much-needed cap savings, also per Biggs.

Safety Major Wright, drafted by Smith and the Bears in the third round of the 2010 draft, was also allowed to leave, along with 2010 fourth-round defensive end Corey Wootton. Perennially disappointing receiver Earl Bennett, troubled 2009 fourth-round defensive tackle Henry Melton and ascendant backup quarterback Josh McCown were also let go.

Emery wasn't getting rid of Smith's most trusted veterans in some kind of power play, though.

Just two years removed from being named first-team All-Pro and two months removed from being named the NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year, cornerback Charles Tillman was re-signed by Emery.

Tillman should be able to anchor the secondary until the Bears draft a replacement—and continue the Bears legacy of leadership in the locker room.


In With (a Whole Lot of) the New

In four-time All-Pro Jared Allen, per Lindsay H. Jones of USA Today, Emery has the crown jewel of a rich free-agent haul.

Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

Allen, a 6'6", 265-pound pass-rusher who's all but un-blockable when in top form, will formidably pair with up-and-coming inside-outside pocket-collapser Lamarr Houston from the Oakland Raiders. A pair of solid two-way ends, Willie Young and Israel Idonije, will join holdovers like Shea McClellin in the battle for heavy rotational snaps.

Trestman admits finding high-quality football players with positive locker-room presence was a big selling point for the Bears' three biggest signings, per Rich Campbell of the Chicago Tribune:

We know we’ve added three very good players to our football team, who we not only know will bring it on the field and play with good motors, but also be really good in our locker room, which is where we start. What kind of people will they be in the locker room? We all think they bring tremendous value as people and as personalities, as character in our locker room.

Trestman went on to laud Emery and vice president of football administration Cliff Stein for those moves, citing their willingness to stick to the script the team had laid out before free agency. Part of that plan also might have included some patchwork on the back end of the defense. 

In the secondary, the Bears shopped a little more judiciously. Besides bringing back Tillman, safeties Ryan Mundy, M.D. Jennings and Danny McCray were brought in to battle with incumbent Chris Conte for both starting roles.

Emery also signed receiver/returner Domenik Hixon, presumably to audition for Hester's old job as returner.

All the holes have been filled, and all the major needs met—and the draft hasn't happened yet!


Back in Navy

Bleacher Report NFL analyst Gary Davenport recently pored over many of the top experts' mock drafts, and current consensus has Emery drafting an impact defensive tackle with the No. 14 overall pick.

As Bleacher Report NFL lead writer Matt Bowen told Adam Lefkoe, the signing of Allen gives Emery the flexibility to add a game-changer at cornerback or safety:

At this point, the Bears are ready to take the field with a vastly improved defense. If coordinator Mel Tucker can't get any more out of these new starters than he did out of last year's group, there will be serious questions asked about his effectiveness.

Then again, if quarterback Jay Cutler, running back Matt Forte, receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, tight end Martellus Bennett and the resurgent offensive line can again form one of the top offenses in the NFL, even a middling defense would make the Bears serious contenders in the NFC.