The point of every offseason is to improve from where a team finished the previous season: fix deficiencies, upgrade both the top, middle and bottom of the roster, mesh players with schemes.
Through the first week of free agency, the Bears have accomplished a seeming contradiction: spending millions, yet arguably winding up below the level at which they began the 2013 season; and at the same time positioning themselves to go into training camp with a roster as strong on defense as last year’s was weak.
The contradiction isn’t a contradiction when looking at the offseason in two connected — yet distinctly separate — areas of football operations: free agency and the draft.
Free agency so far
The key to the offseason is what the Bears do for their defensive line. And based on what they did in the opening days of free agency, the Bears right now are not as good in that area as they were when they began the 2013 season.
Using sacks alone as a measure of pass rush, the Bears’ starting defensive ends for 2013 were Julius Peppers and Corey Wootton. Peppers, in the third-worst season of his career, finished with 7.5 sacks. Lamarr Houston’s best season was 2013, with six sacks.
Willie Young was signed for $9 million over three years. He has a total of six career sacks, three in 2011 and three in 2013. Corey Wootton had seven in 2012 alone when he started his first seven games. Last year, Wootton played most of his season out of position at tackle and still had 3.5 sacks besides developing as a run stopper out of a need for simple survival.
The Bears could yet bring back Wootton, still rehabbing from January hip surgery. But if the season started today, the Bears would be lining up with less on the edges than they began 2013.
Going into last season the Bears had a Pro Bowl three-technique: Henry Melton. They signed Jeremiah Ratliff ahead of free agency, a one-time Pro Bowl tackle but not up to the level of the 2013 pre-injury Melton.
But here’s the thing…
If the Bears stopped now, that would be one thing. But GM Phil Emery made two very telling declarations that combine with his offseason pattern of last year to suggest where this is all heading.
First, “We're putting in a system of football where we have to be able to stop the run first, obviously, and that's where we're focused on,” Emery said during the NFL Scouting Combine. Meaning: The Bears didn’t necessarily just settle for Houston, a physical end in the 280-pound range; they needed him. Given the play of Peppers last season, Houston may indeed represent an upgrade against the run.
Second, Emery was explicit in stating that the draft would be about defense. Nothing in the signings and re-signings suggest that this has changed — except that rather than desperation shopping, the Bears are positioned to add to a solid veteran base with a best-player-available draft strategy.
Last offseason, Emery was bringing in a Sedrick Ellis and Turk McBride for depth behind Melton, Peppers and others. This year, the plan was reversed: He’s acquired Houston and Young, even Charles Tillman, likely starters. For now. The unspoken goal of the draft is expected to be finding youngsters to beat them out.