Well, that escalated quickly.
GM Phil Emery followed up his amazing opening act last season with an equally impressive performance in the first few hours of this year’s free agency period.
About 60 minutes after the opening bell, former Giants tight end Martellus Bennett was watching the ink dry on his new four-year deal with the Bears. The terms of Bennett’s contract have not yet been disclosed.
A few hours later, ESPN’s Adam Schefter confirmed that former Saints Pro Bowl left tackle Jermon Bushrod would be joining Bennett in the Windy City on a five-year, $36 million deal, making him the highest paid offensive lineman in team history.
Emery surely has a few more tricks up his sleeve in the coming days, but the two moves he has already made have greatly improved the roster and have also given the Bears some wiggle room in terms of draft strategy.
Martellus Bennett, 26, provides the Bears with a much-needed receiving threat from the tight end position. He recorded career highs in receptions (55), yards (626), and touchdowns (5) in his only season with the New York Giants.
The Bears have been in dire need of legit pass catching tight end since Greg Olsen left town in 2010. The Bears tight end rotation last year was highlighted by now-failed experiment Kellen Davis and Matt Spaeth. That group only managed to haul in 33 passes for 318 yards and three touchdowns all season.
Standing at 6’7”, Bennett combines soft hands with his huge frame, making him an ideal red-zone target and safety valve for Jay Cutler. Signing Bennett also gives the Bears flexibility to possibly cut Kellen Davis, which would clear up $2.5 million in cap space.
In that scenario, Bennett would be joined in the rotation by Evan Rodriguez, a 24-year old second-year player out of Temple, as well as Spaeth.
Rodriguez got very little playing time last season, but fans and coaches alike believe he has the potential to be a contributor in the passing game. Spaeth would continue to factor in mostly in the run game.
Signing Bennett not only bolsters the roster, but it also frees the Bears up a bit come draft day. Instead of having to consider tight ends Tyler Eifert and Zach Ertz with the 20th pick, the Bears can focus in on the best available offensive linemen or linebacker, either of which would fill a more pressing need.
Bushrod, 29, served as Drew Brees’ blind side protector for the past four seasons in New Orleans. He will be reunited with offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer, who was on the Saints coaching staff for five seasons before joining the Bears this past January.
Having been to the Pro Bowl in 2011, Bushrod immediately becomes the most qualified player amongst a group of linemen who have allowed a whopping 113 quarterback sacks over the past three seasons.
This signing proves that Phil Emery has been heeding the advice I’ve been giving him in my articles! Well… maybe this move was just common sense. But either way, adding Bushrod creates a ripple effect that will solidify the entire line.
Slotting Bushrod at left tackle most likely means a switch to right tackle for J’Marcus Webb. That would presumably push Gabe Carimi to the inside of the line to play guard alongside Lance Louis, assuming Louis is a) re-signed and b) healthy to start the season.
Signing Bushrod is great. Structuring his contract in a way to make his cap hit only total $3 million this season is even better. But hopefully the Bears are far from done adding to the offensive line.
Rumors have been swirling around Jake Long’s name, but with Bushrod in the fold, Long would seem like a luxury the Bears can’t afford.
If the Bears find a way to restructure some of the larger contracts on the team (Tillman, Peppers, etc.) and cut some players (Davis) to create some cap room, they may test the free agent waters once again in hopes of solidifying the offensive line.
Here are some names that are still available that might realistically fit into the Bears remaining budget.
Brandon Moore, G, New York Jets: The Bears have expressed interest in the University of Illinois product for the past several days. The Jets seem to have little interest in bringing back one of the best available interior linemen for next season.
The 10-year veteran is a much more cost effective option than other free agents. The Bears could possibly structure a deal to reduce his cap hit to around $2 million. That means they’d have to free up some cap space first.
Kevin Boothe, G, New York Giants: On the other side of New York, it seems like the Giants are already making contingency plans to replace Boothe. Run blocking is his forte, but he would be a modest upgrade in the passing game at the very least.
If Boothe commands another contract like the one he played with last year, his cap hit would hover in the $1.5-$2 million range.
Then again, the Bears may wait until April 25th to further improve their offensive line via the draft.
But Phil Emery can take a stroll down the free agency bargain isle and find a few players at other positions who can step in and immediately impact the team in 2013.
Wide Receivers – A speedy option in the slot would really round out the offense.
Danny Amendola, St. Louis Rams: Okay, not exactly a bargain at the $6 million annual salary he’s asking for, but we can all dream. Amendola is essentially Wes Welker 2.0 and would wreak havoc in the slot.
Darrius Heyward-Bey, Oakland Raiders: If people have been projecting West Virginia’s Tavon Austin to be a good fit because of his speed, then the same can be said about Heyward-Bey. DHB ran a 4.3 second 40-yard dash at the 2009 NFL Combine. He’s trying to rebound from a concussion, but he could be a home-run threat out of the slot with a small price tag.
Defensive Line – Someone needs to step up and take pressure off of an aging Julius Peppers.
Israel Idonije, DE, Chicago Bears: He’s overshadowed here in Chicago by Peppers, but his impact on defense and special teams can’t be understated. The Bears would be wise to try everything they can to bring Izzy back.
Terrance Knighton, DT, Jacksonville Jaguars: After being selected to the NFL All-Rookie Team in 2009, Knighton hasn’t really kept that momentum going. But the 27 year old will come with a discounted price tag, and a fresh start may help him unveil the potential we got a glimpse of in ’09.
Other Options: John Abraham (Atlanta Falcons)
Linebacker – The Urlacher situation is still unsolved, and Nick Roach may not return.
Nick Barnett, Buffalo Bills: His best days may be behind him, but he can still be a serviceable game manager at middle linebacker. He can serve as a bridge to whoever Urlacher’s successor ends up being if the Bears don’t resign him.
Other Options: Karlos Dansby (Miami Dolphins), Rey Maualuga (Cincinnati Bengals)
Cornerback – This year’s cornerback market is LOADED. Kelvin Hayden will test free agency, and Charles Tillman isn’t getting any younger.
Aqib Talib, New England Patriots: The best cornerback on the market who has a very physical style of play. Some off the field issues may drive his price down, but he still may prove to be too expensive for the Bears.
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Philadelphia Eagles: Pairing him with Nnamdi Asomugha was supposed to be a shut-down tandem for years to come in Philly. Instead, a 4-12 record has left both looking for fresh starts. DRC will be the younger and cheaper of the two.
Safety – The Bears have a few above-average safeties, but some bargain buys could make for some interesting job competition.
Louis Delmas, Detroit Lions: He’s only 25 years old, but he’s also been plagued with injuries throughout his career. When healthy, he’s a force to be reckoned with in the secondary.
Adrian Wilson, Arizona Cardinals: A physical force for years in Arizona, Wilson’s rugged style of play fits right in with the Bears. At 34, the former All-Pro and Pro-Bowler may be available for the veteran’s minimum salary. He’d make for one heck of a mentor.
Any combination of two or three of these signings can make this one of the best free agency periods in recent memory for the Bears.
Personally, I think offensive line and linebacker will be addressed through the draft, so the remainder of free agency should focus in on wide receivers, cornerbacks, and maybe a safety.
I’d be one happy camper if we broke camp with Darrius Heyward-Bey, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and Adrian Wilson all donning orange and navy.
Do you think the Bears will free up enough space to make some more moves in free agency? Or do you think they’ve done their damage and will wait it out until draft time?