Second phase of pre-free agency opens for Bears, NFL

Second phase of pre-free agency opens for Bears, NFL
March 8, 2014, 10:45 am
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The underground market of the NFL has been in motion for months, the informal back-channel chats between agents and teams, between players and players for that matter. Joakim Noah’s “recruiting” pitch to Carmelo Anthony is an NBA case study of how it’s done.

The NFL acknowledged the phenomenon by instituting a three-day talking period, beginning mid-Saturday, during which everyone can stop skulking around, leaving coded messages with false names or whatever, and talk contract details more substantively with free agents-to-be.

The process isn’t so much the point, though. It is what the Bears will ultimately do or be able to do as of 3 p.m. Tuesday when conversations can be converted to contracts. That happened last year about this time with left tackle Jermon Bushrod and tight end Martellus Bennett.

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But the Bears have been aggressive at re-signings since even before the end of the 2013 season, retaining 10 players among which have been critical starters ranging from Jay Cutler to Roberto Garza to Tim Jennings to Jeremiah Ratliff, plus Robbie Gould.

The salary cap was increased by some $10 million, giving the Bears and everyone else some wiggle room. Having the money is not necessarily the hard part, though.

The Bears are not expected to make the kind of early splash they did with Bushrod and Bennett. Part of the reason is that there are arguably too few impact players worth what striking in the beginning hours of free agency can cost.

Bad misses

Having a critical need has nothing to do with filling it. The Bears struck boldly for cornerbacks Tom Carter (1997) and Thomas Smith (2000). Both were major-money busts. Linebacker/pass rusher Bryan Cox (1996) was going to make over the capabilities and disposition of the defense but was gone two years into a four-year, $13.2-million deal, accomplishing neither.

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The Bears needed No. 2 running backs when they signed Kevin Jones, Chester Taylor and Marion Barber, plus Michael Bush. As longtime Bears and NFL executive Bill Tobin once said, “Paying a player $2 million does not make him a $2-million player.”

Market analysis

The Bears have needs on the defensive line. The problem is that everyone wants impact defensive linemen and very few of them come available. Julius Peppers was a triumph for the Jerry Angelo/Lovie Smith regime and would still be one but for production that dipped precipitously last season, creating an issue that has not seen action, yet.

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General manager Phil Emery and coach Marc Trestman made the same declaration: “Decisions are made when they have to be made.”

The consensus top of the defensive end market consists of Seattle’s Michael Bennett and Cincinnati’s Michael Johnson. The latter is a physical fit for the Bears’ scheme (6-7, 270) and is a right end but saw production fall from 11.5 sacks to 3.5 last season when Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins went down mid-season with a knee injury. Ideally, the right end is not a complementary player for the prices the good ones command, and Johnson was playing under a franchise tag. Johnson is rated a solid all-around end, but the Bears can have that with Corey Wootton coming of offseason hip surgery.

Other names at end and tackle will circulate, and virtually every player in the NFL is on every team’s “radar;” tracking the abilities and availabilities of players is why people in pro-personnel departments have jobs.