When Phil Emery spoke openly after the 2013 season about the need to get younger on defense, that the Bears would go defense-heavy in the draft, the general manager was in fact laying out only a portion of a three-stage strategy that began unfolding in earnest last year, has continued through this point of the 2014 offseason, and still has that third step to play out.
The real trick is on defense, where Emery and the Bears are close to doing two distinctly different things at basically the same time: stock a roster with solid veterans while simultaneously building with youth. Here is how Emery and the Bears have done it and are still doing it:
Phase One: The offense
The first was obvious last offseason and through the year: Create a championship offense, in particular settle on a franchise quarterback, whether that in fact was indeed Jay Cutler. Incoming head coach Marc Trestman and offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer were explicitly and publicly reserved in assessments of Cutler, who played to hoped-for levels. Injuries were an issue but Cutler statistically had his highest single-season passer rating anyway, reduced his sack issues and had the second-highest completion percentage of his career. He made the new-contract decision for the organization.
Age was not the issue on offense that it was one defense, and Emery invested in four new starting offensive linemen, all under the age of 30, with a first-round pick on a guard (Kyle Long). Even the core backups with the exception of Jonathan Scott (31) were sub-30 (Eben Britton, Taylor Boggs, James Brown.
Emery traded to acquire Brandon Marshall in 2012 and traded up to draft Alshon Jeffery; both sub-30. Marquess Wilson a 2013 draft selection is 22. The four tight ends, led by free-agent pickup Martellus Bennett, are all sub-30.
The point was that not only had the talent level being raised to the planned level, it was done with players in peak years. That ultimately factors hugely into steps 2 and 3, which is where this becomes exponentially more interesting.
Phase Two: The 2013 and 2014 defensive cores
Where the plan developed by Emery with the endorsement of chairman George McCaskey and President Ted Phillips took a hit was the injury tsunami that derailed the 2013 defense. Did Emery err in overestimating how good a top-five defense in 2012 would be in 2013? Not really.
The injury list isn’t worth re-chronicling. What is perhaps noteworthy is that so many of those players who seemed inadequate last year have mysteriously found work even as the Bears have gone in different directions this offseason:
The Green Bay Packers snapped up Julius Peppers. Corey Wootton, still rehabbing a hip injury, is a Minnesota Viking. Backup cornerback Zack Bowman is now a New York Giant. Henry Melton, still rehabbing his torn ACL, was signed by the Dallas Cowboys.
Even Devin Hester was an Atlanta Falcon nine days into free agency, where he’s going to be tried again as a receiver, for Matt Ryan.
If Emery overestimated talent in 2013, then a number of teams appear to be doing exactly the same thing on some of the very same players.
Phase Three: The real trick
What Emery is on the brink of pulling off is the unique juggling trick of getting significantly better with veterans (Jared Allen, Jeremiah Ratliff, D.J. Williams, Charles Tillman, Nate Collins, Lamarr Houston, Willie Young) and getting younger at the same time. The reason:
Consider a scenario: When the New York Giants drafted Jason Pierre-Paul with the 15th pick of the 2010 draft. He is a two-time Pro Bowl defensive end and 2011 All-Pro.
He also did not start a single game as a rookie on a team that went 10-6.
What Emery and the offseason have done to this point is put in place a defense good enough to win now, and that is with zero draft choices. The Bears now are arguably in the position of grabbing a big-time pass rusher like Kony Ealy of Missouri with the 14th pick, and Ealy not being good enough as a rookie to beat out Allen, Houston or Young for a starting job initially.
If Emery elects defensive tackle at No. 14, does Pittsburgh’s Aaron Donald, a potential designer three-technique, easily beat out Ratliff? Not based on Allen’s assessment on Monday:
“I know Jay Ratliff,” Allen said. “If he’s healthy, he’s a beast. He’s an absolute beast.”
An elite cornerback may be the choice at No. 14: better by Opening Day than Tim Jennings or Tillman? If he is, Emery has hit a home run. Safety? A more fluid situation, but the positions in front of that typically are addressed that high in drafts.
Emery’s plays have resulted in a dramatically upgraded veteran defense with an entire draft still at hand to stock a pipeline on that same side of the ball.
“It’s always been about getting the best players possible to continue to build our team towards to winning championships,” Emery said. “And to do that, you have to have high-quality players and players that can make plays. We talked about at the end of the season about having more playmakers on our team, and Jared fits that role.”