NFL Nation: Chicago Bears
ESPN.com's Todd McShay revealed his fourth 2014 mock draft on ESPN Insider today, with this one covering the first two rounds, and his choices for the Bears certainly make lots of sense.
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Hester made that apparent Wednesday with a couple of posts on his Twitter account.
To all my Bears fans I never wanted to leave the Bears, the organization decided to go another route with me. The things I did in Chicago— Devin Hester (@D_Hest23) April 9, 2014
probably would never happen again and I always wanted to retire as a Bears pic.twitter.com/YbrOa1XxmE— Devin Hester (@D_Hest23) April 9, 2014
Hester is correct that there’s a good chance his exploits in Chicago won’t ever be duplicated, but he shouldn’t dismiss the possibility of eventually retiring as a Bear. From the looks of everything, the sides parted on good terms. When the Bears announced they wouldn’t re-sign Hester, general manager Phil Emery put out a complimentary statement, thanking the return man for his contributions over the years.
One team source even said that “Devin holds a very special place for me. He is loved and well-respected by everybody. This is one of the harsh realities of the business aspect of the NFL.”
“For the past eight seasons we have been honored to have Devin Hester as a part of our organization,” Emery said in a statement. “While Devin has redefined the pinnacle standard of the return position in the NFL, the memories and contributions he has given us cannot be measured by stats or numbers. Not only is Devin a special player, he is also an exceptional person. He is a great teammate, husband and father. Devin represented the organization off the field as well as he did on it. When his career is over, he will always be a welcome member of the Bears family. We thank him for his dedication and wish his family the best.”
In the 2013 season, Hester averaged 27.6 yards per kickoff return and 14.2 yards per punt return, and he is the NFL’s all-time leader in punt return touchdowns (13) and punt/kick return TDs (18). In all, Hester has produced 20 return TDs, which is an NFL record.
So while the workload won't lighten as the Bears prepare for the NFL draft and the April 22 start of the offseason program, they've unwittingly utilized a core motto of former NFL coach Dennis Green: Plan your work and work your plan. That has led to the Bears signing 30 players since the final week of December, a group that includes 17 returners, 10 unrestricted free agents and three street free agents to drastically improve -- at least on paper -- one of the NFL's worst defenses of 2013.
"I think we'll slow down a tad," Bears general manager Phil Emery said on March 31. "But we have a lot of work to do. We have some positions we want to make more competitive. The draft's around the corner."
Not to diminish the work to be done over the next few weeks, but Chicago's activity up to this point should make things easier moving forward. Headed into the offseason, the Bears needed to address a defensive line that played a major role in 2013 in the defense allowing 5.34 yards per rushing attempt (the league average was 4.10), and did so by signing Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston, Willie Young, and Israel Idonije, in addition to bringing back Jeremiah Ratliff and Nate Collins.
The club also re-signed starting corners Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman, while adding to the safety position by acquiring M.D. Jennings, Danny McCray and Ryan Mundy.
So is the defense better now than it was in 2013?
"The obvious answer to that would be we're healthier [than in 2013] because nobody's hurt," Emery said. "Also, I think we've added some guys at key points in their career. Jared adds experience, production, leadership. Somebody like Lamarr and Willie add some youth, speed and [physicality]. Really excited about Jeremiah Ratliff this year. He's excited about playing. He wants to finish here. He added so much the last few weeks [of 2013] in terms of leadership; unbelievably mentally tough player. So yeah, I think the collective group, we've gotten stronger and we're headed in the right direction as far as we want to establish as a defensive football team."
Given the financial commitments to Houston, Allen and Young -- all defensive ends -- it'll be interesting to see how defensive coordinator Mel Tucker finds ways to get them on the field at the same time. Allen is the bona fide starter at right end, and Houston will play on the left side. But it's likely the Bears will take advantage of Houston's versatility and kick him inside to defensive tackle on passing downs while playing Young opposite Allen at end.
Even without the benefit of the upcoming draft, Chicago's defensive line appears to be a more dynamic group than it was in 2013.
"It's up to our coaches to find ways to get them all on the field at the same time or at different times or different personnel groupings or groupings against personnel," Emery said.
Depending on the direction the Bears take in May in the draft, that task could become more difficult for Tucker. Despite the Bears adding Jennings, McCray and Mundy in free agency, the club could stand to acquire another safety in the draft capable of competing for a starting job; especially with the possibility Chris Conte might miss time at camp after undergoing shoulder surgery.
But the club might see more value in using its first-round pick on one of the talented interior defensive line prospects such as Pittsburgh's Aaron Donald or Florida State's Timmy Jernigan, as picking a safety at No. 14 might be a little too high for the team's tastes. Surely, the Bears will address safety in the first three rounds, in addition to adding depth at some point at corner and at linebacker.
Emery declined to say whether the signing of Allen or all the work done to revamp the defensive line will change the club's draft plans -- only that "it's always been about getting the best players possible to continue to build our team towards winning championships. To do that, you have to have high-quality players and players that can make plays. We talked at the end of the season about having more playmakers on our team."
The Bears certainly added some. In the process, they made the possibility of a defensive renaissance similar to what was experienced on the other side of the ball in 2013 a potentially easier undertaking.
They've planned their work and are working their plan.
So, similar to the way the club retooled the offense going into 2013, the Bears plan to work diligently on the defense, with the draft most likely focusing on cornerback, defensive tackle, safety and perhaps even linebacker additions.
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Nothing was inside one of the many plazas at AT&T Stadium announcing something big.
The local kid comes home.
The kid from Grapevine High, who was a running back at the University of Texas, is playing for the local pro team in town.
Melton's signing didn't get the star treatment from the organization in terms of a news conference (reporters had a conference call), but there were photos of Melton smiling as he posed for pictures with defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli and a team official signing his contract on the team website.
Some Cowboys' fans were yearning for this team to do something in free agency after watching star defensive end DeMarcus Ware get cut and then sign a contract 24 hours later with Denver. The fans saw defensive tackle Jason Hatcher, off a Pro Bowl season, visit Seattle and eventually sign with division rival Washington.
Now, the fans were looking for something to shout about.
Enter Melton, who agreed to an incentive-laden deal this week to become the pass rushing defensive tackle that the Cowboys lost in Hatcher.
Melton comes home to become the savior for a defense that was terrible last season.
And with that there could be distractions.
"I've been in the NFL long enough," Melton said during that conference call on Wednesday. "I have a small group of people that I trust and go with and they are good people and I associate with good people."
Later, Melton said of his friends, "they don't have a negative influence on me."
Yet, here is Melton defending himself in a lawsuit by a bar owner in Grapevine, Texas alleging Melton bit him during a fight.
Melton has denied any wrongdoing and said he'll be vindicated.
"Yes, it is what it is," Melton said regarding the lawsuit. "Everyone sees it as (a money grab), no truth on what's been reported off the papers with no investigation into what really happened. We're going to move on from it and whatever happens, happens and the truth will come out eventually."
The fight occurred when Melton was recovering from knee surgery last December. Bar fights happen more often than we know, it's just when a scrap breaks out with an NFL player, it usually elevates from the police blotter to national news.
Melton seems smart enough to know he can't get into any more trouble around here given the standards being set.
The Cowboys and Melton need each other.
The local kid, who wasn't a Cowboys' fan growing up, but was a Ray Crockett fan because his famous relative played for three NFL teams, winning two Super Bowls with the Denver Broncos.
Melton is coming off a knee injury and has to prove he'll come back after participating in just three games for the Chicago Bears last season.
Melton said he's trying to regain his Pro Bowl form of 2012, hence why Marinelli is like Yoda to him. Marinelli was the Bears' defensive coordinator when Melton reached Pro Bowl heights.
The Cowboys and Melton need for that to happen again.
So any distractions of the local kid coming home must end.
"That's what the position demands," Melton said. "It doesn't matter I was part of a great defense (in Chicago) and I had a lot of hall of famers, future hall of famers on my team. But I still have a bullseye playing that position. For the defense to be successful, the three technique, has to do his job and be very disruptive."
“We gave them a chance to make an offer, and they said they would wait to see what the market was and we don’t do business like that,” Melton said. “They dropped out early.”
According to a source familiar with the situation, the Bears never really ever entered the derby because they didn’t make an offer.
Asked about Melton at the start of free agency, Emery said he “pretty much left it with [agent] Jordan [Woy] that [Melton] was gonna go through [the free-agent] process, and when he got through it, and he had a pretty good idea of what his market is, we could talk at that time.”
Upon learning of those remarks, the source said, “If you want to sign someone badly enough, you make offers and don’t wait.”
So that’s where we stand regarding Melton, who will attempt to regain his Pro Bowl form after undergoing left ACL surgery in 2013. The Bears paid Melton $8.45 million last season as the franchise player, and received just three games as a return on the investment.
So Chicago probably made the right move in not overpaying for Melton.
The club will certainly find out in 2014 when it hosts Melton and Dallas at Soldier Field.
Four days ago, in light of news that Henry Melton was the subject of a civil suit, we wrote that regardless of what might take place in a courtroom, the potential return of the defensive tackle was uncertain because of Chicago's unwillingness to overspend.
With Melton posting on Twitter on Tuesday that he's signing with the Dallas Cowboys, let's put it out there right now: The Chicago Bears made the right move despite the fact they'll lose a talented player.
It's also why the organization, after gifting Melton $8.45 million last season in the form of the franchise tag, made the conscious decision to not risk wasting money again. Melton was certainly deserving of a major payday considering he was coming off a 2012 season in which he posted six sacks on the way to making his first Pro Bowl. But the Bears got just three games worth of production the last time they invested heavily in Melton, and those three outings likely won't go down as the defensive tackle's strongest performances.
Make no mistake about it: The Bears wanted to bring back Melton, because in Chicago's defensive system, he's the player who makes it all go. But the Bears stuck to their plan of bringing back Melton only at their own price, which is part of the reason he's headed to Dallas.
"Henry, in particular, he has got to fully dedicate himself to rehab. He has to fully dedicate his mind and his focus to football, which is extremely important," Emery said back on Jan. 2. "And as I have sat down and talked to him, there was a reason we franchise-tagged him [last season]. There was a reason for that investment. The under-tackle position in the scheme that we're in is the engine that drives the defense. When he was in the game, even though from a statistical standpoint he wasn't off to a fast start, it was very evident on tape that he was a very important part of the defense. So he knows, and that has been related to him that we signed you for a reason. Now let's focus in on getting healthy, and obviously he has some off-the-field issues that he needs to make sure he's focused in on football and having a passion for football."
The Bears made it clear from the beginning that they would not spend frivolously to bring back Melton, with Emery saying he “pretty much left it with [agent] Jordan [Woy] that [Melton] was gonna go through [the free-agent] process, and when he got through it, and he had a pretty good idea of what his market is, we could talk at that time.”
But that time never came because Melton hit the market without the Bears ever making a contract offer, according to an NFL source who said “if you want to sign someone badly enough, you make offers and don't wait.”
Apparently, the Cowboys jumped in quickly with a suitable deal for Melton, who is originally from Grapevine, Texas, a suburb of Dallas, after the defensive tackle also visited with the Minnesota Vikings, Seattle Seahawks and the St. Louis Rams. In Dallas, Melton will be reunited with Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, who served in the same capacity with the Bears from 2010-12, and has called the defensive tackle one of the most natural pass-rushers he's ever coached.
Will Marinelli again coax the best out of Melton in Dallas? That's certainly likely.
But the question marks concerning Melton in Chicago were too significant for the cap-strapped Bears to comfortably make a significant investment in him.
Biggest surprise: Chicago’s judicious handling of free agency to this point is somewhat of a surprise. Despite several needs on defense, the Bears have resisted the temptation to overspend just for the sake of filling spots. The front office has identified the types of players it would like to add to the defense, and it hasn’t waffled. The club is also staying patient, knowing there are still bargains to be had in the later stages of free agency.
What’s next? It’s difficult at this point to say how free agency will affect Chicago’s draft because free agency for the Bears will likely go all the way until May as the team continues to exercise restraint in its search for impact players. The Bears will still be active in the second and third wave of free agency, and it’s likely the club will land at least one more defensive starter. Even with that, Chicago’s draft will still be focused on defense because it’s time to start looking toward the future. Defensive tackle would appear to be the main target in the draft, and that could still be the case, even if the Bears managed to bring back free agent Henry Melton.
So although Tillman is a big name in Chicago, he certainly fits the above description. That's why the Bears benefitted greatly Friday by agreeing to terms with Tillman, who embodies all the traits Chicago’s front office constantly raves about.
“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,” Bears general manager Phil Emery said. “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.”
A two-time Pro Bowler and the 2013 Walter Payton Man of the Year, Tillman ranks No. 3 in team history with 36 interceptions and leads the franchise in defensive return touchdowns (nine), INT return TDs (eight) and interception return yards (675).
Since Tillman came into the league in 2003, he’s tied for fifth in INTs, fifth in INT return yardage, and he’s tied for second in INT return TDs, all accomplished while starting in 150 of 154 games.
Tillman’s 42 forced fumbles rank as second in the league since 2003, and is the most among active cornerbacks. Tillman ranks as the only player since 2003 to pick off 30 or more passes and force 30-plus fumbles. In six of the last nine seasons, Tillman has ranked in the top 10 in forced fumbles.
Tillman currently ranks No. 5 in franchise history in tackles, and he’s broken up 132 passes which is good for fifth in the NFL since 2003.
At the NFL combine back in February, Emery said that defensive coordinator Mel Tucker told him a team’s cornerbacks are usually indicative of a defense’s toughness. Emery agreed, and with Tillman now in the fold paired with Tim Jennings, the stage is set for the Bears to build the defense exactly the way the front office envisioned.
“We need tough, physical players,” Emery said at the combine. “That’s what we want: tough, physical athletes. Mel [Tucker] has said it several times to me and I believe it. I know our players believe it: that, generally, the toughness of the team shows up at corner.”
Well, they don’t get much tougher than Tillman.
Chicago’s signings thus far in free agency certainly make such a move prudent. Although the Bears re-signed defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff and Nate Collins before the start of free agency, the club still hasn’t put together an enticing enough offer to bring back Henry Melton, who, according to a league source, is visiting Minnesota but also has several other visits lined up.
If the Bears can’t re-sign Melton or any other starting-level defensive tackles in free agency, they’ll certainly turn to the draft to address that need. Kiper sent Florida State defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan to the Bears at No. 14 in his first two mock drafts, writing in Mock 2.0 that “I’m a bigger fan of Jernigan in a 4-3 look, where he’s using his power to go through a blocker and not trying to beat people off the snap and use quickness.”
McShay chose Donald in his last mock draft, saying, "Donald is a perfect fit for the Bears’ scheme as a 3-technique defensive tackle. I don’t know if there’s been a prospect who has helped his stock more during the draft process than him. He was unblockable at the Senior Bowl, and that, put together with an unbelievable overall workout at the combine. He’s shorter than prototype size, but he has long arms and a powerful upper body and creates a lot of big plays with his anticipation and quickness. FSU’s Timmy Jernigan is a fit as a 3-technique as well, but Donald is a much better finisher as a pass-rusher."
Kiper and McShay have both been consistent throughout their mock drafts in Chicago's using its first-round pick to address the defensive tackle position, and from this vantage point they’re on the money.
Donald might actually be more of a fit than Jernigan at No. 14 because the Bears might benefit from pairing him with Ratliff next season. If Donald doesn’t pan out early, the worst-case scenario is he would provide depth at a position that lacked it in 2013 when injuries rendered the defense rudderless.
The Bears last season gave up the most points (478) and total yards (6,313) in franchise history as opponents put together 10 100-yard-rushing performances.
Uncertainty still exists along Chicago’s defensive line despite the signings of Ratliff, Collins and free-agent defensive end Lamarr Houston. The Bears need to add along the front four to avoid experiencing another catastrophe such as what they endured in 2013.
“I feel like I can make an impact right away, feel like I can come in and have trust in the coaches and playbook and make plays right away,” Donald said last month at the NFL combine.
At this point, that’s certainly what the Bears need in their attempt to revamp the defense.
General manager Phil Emery believes the Bears could still find another starter in the coming days. Entering free agency, the belief among many was that several bargains could be found if teams were willing to wait. That scenario now seems to be playing out around the league.
Why? Because the landscape continues to change daily as teams decide to release players in order to create cap room to bring aboard other players. As the first wave of free agency wanes, the high dollars commanded by some of the players hitting the market will gradually decrease.
“This thing goes in waves,” Emery explained. “There is a first wave; that goes with signing your own players, which we did. Now comes the next wave where players maybe felt they were going to get a higher amount, then just found out that maybe their market wasn’t there and they’re a little more willing to listen.”
That could take place with players such as cornerback Charles Tillman and defensive tackle Henry Melton. Tillman is visiting with Tampa Bay, but the Bears remain committed to re-signing him, as Emery on Wednesday said that “with Charles, it’s an ongoing conversation.” Melton, meanwhile, is to visit to the Minnesota Vikings, according to a source, which added the defensive tackle is set to take numerous other undisclosed visits.
If their free-agent trips fail to yield anything fruitful, the Bears could re-sign them to cap-friendly deals.
Should the Bears wait out free agency even a little longer, they could still possibly find potential starters like they did last offseason with linebackers D.J. Williams and James Anderson. Williams signed last season near the end of March, and the team signed Anderson just two days later.
“There’s a third wave [of free agency] where players know they’re either going for the veteran minimum or a little bit above that and they’re just looking for an opportunity,” Emery said. “It’s kind of what happens after the college draft [of undrafted players], where players are just looking for the right opportunity.”
Could recently the released Julius Peppers return to Chicago in such a fashion? It’s a hypothetical question, but Emery won’t rule it out if it could take place at the right price.
“That could occur for a number of players in terms of coming to the Bears depending on what their market is once that’s been determined,” Emery said. “So we’re open. We’re always open to getting better at every level of our team and our roster. So any player, including Julius, if they want to have an opportunity to come back, and we can provide that opportunity -- meaning we have the cap space -- we're always open to it.”
With the release of Julius Peppers and the Bears' last-place league standing in sacks last season, general manager Phil Emery addressed that concern quickly when talking about Houston, who had a career-high six sacks last season.
"He's a good pass-rusher," Emery said. "When I looked at him versus the players that we have on our team, his two-year combined total disruptions is higher than anybody on our team. And I know I've used that word disruption and there are a lot of variations of what that means ...
"The research from 2008 on [shows] when a pass play is performed without pressure, without a knockdown, hit or sack, the percentage of completion is about 64 percent. When there's a sack, obviously it goes to 0. But with a hit or a pressure, it goes to 38.5. So those are significant when you talk about disruptions of a passer. And he certainly has had those."
And Houston, Emery emphasized, was targeted by the Bears because of his versatility, his tackle totals (tops in the NFL for defensive ends playing in the 4-3 over the past two seasons combined) and his ability to play against the run or the pass, both standing up or with his hand on the ground.
"I think that's very important," Houston said of being an all-around end. "Sack totals are important in this league and mine haven't been the highest, but I know that I will prove to everybody that there's a reason I'm here and in the future, it will tell you how good of a player I can be with this group of men and how good of a group we can be together."
What does it say that the Bears put such faith in the 26-year-old former second-round draft choice out of Texas?
"That they believe in me," Houston said. "They believe in what I can do, they have a use for my skill set, and I think doing that is only going to help me get better and improve my game."
Also introduced to the media Wednesday, safety Ryan Mundy vowed to compete for a starting spot with a physical approach to the game.
"That's been my M.O. for as long as I can remember, since I started playing football," said Mundy, who signed a two-year deal. "I'm not a guy who's going to shy away from contact. I like to get down there, mix it up with tight ends, running backs, might even run into a few linemen here and there.
"I think that's the No. 1 attribute I bring to the game. I like to use my size and strength and combine that with my athletic ability to get guys on the ground and get some third-down stops for our defense."
The 6-1, 209-pounder started just 14 of 80 games over five seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New York Giants, but appeared in all of them, and started one of four postseason games he played, finishing with four tackles and two forced fumbles.
Emery said the Bears will continue to "look at safety extensively" in free agency, the draft and post-draft.
"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."
Williams, a former first-round pick, never panned out with the Chicago Bears. He started 16 games at left guard last season and now will have a chance to step into that same role with the Bills.
ESPN Bills reporter Mike Rodak, ESPN Rams reporter Nick Wagoner, and ESPN Chicago's Jeff Dickerson discuss the signing:
Rodak: Nick, how did the Rams' line as a whole perform last season? Did Williams make it better or worse?
Wagoner: As expected, the Rams had their share of injury issues on a line full of veterans. They were mostly solid, especially after the team refocused on the run game. But they also had their share of struggles, especially when they faced the dominant front sevens in the NFC West. Williams was the weakest link of the group, though he provided more durability than any of his linemates. He held up OK, but those division foes especially had a knack for getting the better of him.
Jeff, you saw Williams early in his career and when the Bears first tried to make him a guard. Did you ever envision he'd land a contract like the one he got from Buffalo?
Dickerson: Not a chance. The Bears touted Williams as their franchise left tackle of the future when the team selected him in the first round (No. 14 overall) of the 2008 NFL draft, but he hardly lived up to expectations and is considered one of the Bears' biggest draft busts, along with Gabe Carimi, in the last seven or eight years. His chronic injuries and uneven play ultimately led to his release. To be fair, Williams turned out to be much better suited to play inside at guard, however, he was never viewed as one of the elite guards in the NFL, except by the Bills, apparently.
Rodak: Jeff, Doug Marrone is a former offensive line coach and has valued size among offensive linemen early in his tenure with the Bills. Williams (6-foot-6, 326 pounds) is a load, but how effectively did he use his size with the Bears?
Dickerson: Again, I don't want to make it sound as if Williams was a terrible guard, but he never had the reputation of being an ultra-athletic or ultra-aggressive offensive lineman. Maybe that changed when Williams went to St. Louis. Obviously, he has the requisite size to play inside. Marrone is a terrific coach. Hopefully it's a good pairing. But his size was never viewed as a negative or a positive when Williams played in Chicago.
Rodak: Nick, what was your sense on how the Rams valued Williams? Do you think they wanted to bring him back as a starter?
Wagoner: They had interest in bringing him back, though I think it's likely if he'd come back he would have either been a backup or, more likely, in a competition for the starting job like he was in 2013. To me, it made sense if they could get him back to serve as a swing man simply because he could play anywhere on the line except center. Having a player like that at a cheap price is pretty much ideal for a backup. But I don't think they were going to extend themselves too far to bring him back. Offensive line coach Paul Boudreau has a great reputation for taking reclamation projects and getting something out of them. Although this is another starter subtracted from the line, I believe the Rams feel they can upgrade the starter at this spot and develop someone else to fill a backup swing role he could have had.
Jeff, something that applies to the Rams and Bills, but you saw up close. The Rams look like they're going to have to do some quick work to improve the line this offseason and they may have to use the draft to do so. It seems the Bears were able to do that last year, what did you see in how they were able to turn it around so quickly?
Dickerson: General manager Phil Emery double-dipped in free agency and the draft. He spent big bucks to land left tackle Jermon Bush and reunite him with his old New Orleans Saints offensive line coach Aaron Kromer, and followed that up by signing guard Matt Slauson. Both turned out to be major upgrades over what the Bears had in 2012. Then Emery drafted right guard Kyle Long in the first round and right tackle Jordan Mills in the fifth round to complement veteran center Roberto Garza. It was a stroke of pure genius.
Wagoner: The Rams might need some of that genius in the next couple of months here though when they lean on Boudreau to be their offensive line whisperer of sorts.
Mike, obviously this is a move that has Jeff and I scratching our heads, and I know you feel that way, too. What was the need for Buffalo on the offensive line, how do you see Williams fitting in and what do the Bills hope to get from him?
Rodak: Nick, the Bills have told Williams that they want him to be their left guard. That was a problem area for the Bills last season, as they never found someone reliable to step in for Andy Levitre. The Bills are big on Williams' size and if it works out, then he'll be an upgrade over Doug Legursky, who should ideally be their backup center. With the contract the Bills gave Williams, he should be starting at left guard on Day 1. If he's not, that's a problem. They're not paying him to be a backup, although with his versatility, he could help as a swing player at several positions. It's a signing that addresses an area of need but also comes with an element of financial risk.
Because of Houston’s size (6-feet-3, 302 pounds), he can line up as an interior pass-rusher but his natural position is out on the edge at end where he should be stout against the run. Houston's talents would be a definite plus for a Bears' defense that allowed the most total yards in franchise history, in addition to surrendering 10 100-yard rushing performances, as well as a 211-yard outing by Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson.
After failing to entice Seattle defensive end Michael Bennett with a strong offer on Monday, the Bears focused in on Houston, who is coming off a career-high six sacks in 2013, to go with 56 tackles and two forced fumbles. Houston won’t necessarily wow observers with big sack numbers. He's produced seasons of 5, 1, 4 and 6 sacks over his first four seasons in the NFL, while also producing 41 quarterback hurries.
Still, Houston’s lack of gaudy statistics mask the flexibility he gives the Bears not only schematically, but also in what the club does moving forward in free agency and the NFL draft.
If Chicago needs Houston to line up as a three-technique in a pressure package on third down, he’s capable of doing that and being disruptive. On regular downs, Houston is capable of playing out on the end and snuffing out the run with consistency.
The question now is what the Houston signing means for the future of defensive end Julius Peppers. The club is trying to shop Peppers in a trade that won’t ever materialize because of the fact he’ll count $18.183 million against the cap in 2014. So eventually, the Bears will be forced to cut Peppers if they decide (which is likely what will happen) to move forward without him.
But as it stands now, Houston appears to be the only proven starter at defensive end if Peppers isn’t around in 2014. Remember, Corey Wootton, who is normally the starter opposite Peppers is a free agent, who isn’t expected to return next season.
Cutting Peppers with the post-June 1 designation would result in dead money of $4.183 million in 2014 and $4.183 million in 2015, but considering his cap figures over the next two years, the dead money still represents a respective savings of $14 million and $16.5 million over two years.
So if moving on without Peppers is truly the plan, the Bears still need to do more work along that front four. Remember, the Bears still haven’t re-signed defensive tackle Henry Melton, and it’s unknown whether they’ll be able to because he’s generating interest among multiple teams.
Bears general manager Phil Emery said that some of the defense’s problems up front last season could be attributed to the club being one defensive lineman short due to injuries.
So while Houston represents a promising start to free agency for Chicago, there’s still plenty left to do to fill in holes along that defensive front.
The Bears whiffed -- but not for lack of trying hard -- on Plan A with Bennett, offering more money than the Seahawks, who eventually retained Bennett with somewhat of a hometown discount. But the Bears under the direction of general manager Phil Emery typically devise alternate strategies for adding the players they want in free agency. So while Plan B, C and the other options aren’t fully known at this point, it’s likely Chicago expects to make a flurry of moves in the first wave of free agency and be active all the way through the process.
That’s why the team cut running back Michael Bush -- freeing up $1.85 million in cap space -- released tight end Dante Rosario, and put out calls around the league, according to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter, for a potential trade for Peppers, which likely won’t ever take place. With Peppers counting $18.183 million against Chicago’s cap in 2014, no team wants to take in that salary via a trade. So when a team starts shopping a player, it often results in the club eventually cutting him.
Cutting Peppers with the post-June 1 designation would result in $4.183 million worth of dead money in 2014 and $4.183 million in 2015, but given his astronomical cap figures over the next two years, that would still represent respective savings of $14 million and $16.5 million.
But at this point cutting Peppers doesn’t appear to be imminent.
What does seem to be on the way is the re-signing of middle linebacker D.J. Williams. The sides had been in discussion since last week, and negotiations were expected to continue through the weekend. As of Monday evening, the sides -- although still talking -- hadn't come to an agreement, according to a league source who expected a deal to take place late Monday night or early Tuesday.
Chicago also remains interested in re-signing other free agents such as cornerback Charles Tillman, defensive tackle Henry Melton and backup quarterback Josh McCown. Little information has emerged regarding Tillman’s situation, although he’s been linked to Tampa Bay because of his history with former Bears head coach Lovie Smith. The Bears have worked diligently to bring back Tillman, and it’s likely the effort will continue as the cornerback’s prospects with other teams could be limited by his age.
Melton, meanwhile, has generated interest from multiple teams, including the Dallas Cowboys, according to a league source, which would make sense given the defensive tackle’s familiarity with defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. That doesn’t mean the Bears won’t be able to re-sign Melton. After all, the Cowboys are tight against their cap, and it’s unknown what kind of money another team might offer Melton, whose value could be diminished since he is coming off an ACL surgery.
As for McCown, as of right now, the Buccaneers appear to be the front-runner to land the quarterback, according to multiple sources, unless another one of the interested teams steps up with a more enticing offer, as the career backup may receive an opportunity to compete for a starting job. According to ESPNChicago’s Jeff Dickerson, McCown’s camp has been in contact with the Bucs, Bears, New York Jets and Houston Texans.
Dickerson also reported the Bears reached out to Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson on Saturday, ostensibly as a secondary option to Bennett, when the negotiation window for unrestricted free agents opened around the league. Although the sides engaged in preliminary talks, as of Monday evening it was believed the Bears weren’t at the top of the list for Johnson, who is widely considered the best available defensive end remaining on the market.
The Bears are also targeting defensive end Lamarr Houston of the Raiders according to a report on the NFL Network.
It’s unknown at this point where that leaves the Bears in terms of addressing needs along the defensive line, but several potential lower-priced options exist, and the salary demands could drop depending on how the first wave of free agency goes.
Safety is another area of need the Bears hope to address in free agency. The San Francisco Chronicle reported Chicago has expressed interest in San Francisco’s Donte Whitner, who would give the Bears an intimidating presence on the back end. A source also confirmed the club’s interest in New York Giants safety Ryan Mundy, who finds Chicago an intriguing opportunity because he’d receive a chance to compete for a starting job.
The Bears ended the day Monday with nearly $10.2 million in cap space, and it’s worth noting the club spent $5.775 million during free agency for the 2013 season on three starters in Jermon Bushrod, Matt Slauson and Martellus Bennett.
So as the initial sting of losing out on Bennett wears off, Emery said back in January the Bears will still be plenty competitive in terms of putting together a solid team once free agency opens on Tuesday.
We all just have to wait and see.