After early hold-backs, Bears strike for two cornerbacks in makeover of secondary

After early hold-backs, Bears strike for two cornerbacks in makeover of secondary

The Bears pulled out of huge-ticket bidding for A.J. Bouye and Stephon Gilmore on day one of free agency in their quest for a starter-grade cornerback, or two. But they didn’t back out too far, coming back to wrap up contracts with a pair of 27-year-old cornerbacks on Saturday: a one-year contract with former New York Giants No. 1 pick Prince Amukamara and following that with a three-year deal for Marcus Cooper, who started 13 games last season for Arizona and led the Cardinals in interceptions last season.

The Bears have now signed six unrestricted free agents from other teams within the last 48 hours: corners Amukamara and Cooper, safety Quintin Demps, quarterback Mike Glennon, tight end Dion Sims and receiver Markus Wheaton. Amukamara and Cooper are both 27 and give the Bears, who have Tracy Porter turning 31 this August, potential longer-term solutions at a position that has been wanting outside of Porter.

With the signing of Demps on Friday, the Bears have done a near full makeover of a secondary that produced historic-low takeaways the past two seasons. The Bears still hold the No. 3 pick of the draft, with elite talent available at both cornerback and safety and the Bears positioning themselves closer to the ideal of being able to secure max-impact, best-available players rather than draft to fill position needs.

The cornerback market exploded early, with Bouye and Gilmore netting five-year packages in excess of $65 million. But the Bears struck back with $7 million guaranteed for 2017 on Amukamara’s deal, and invested on a three-year pact with Cooper, who has had looks at safety as recently as last season.

[RELATED: Bears officially sign Prince Amukamara, re-sign Christian Jones, Johnthan Banks]

Where the Bears did not want to get into the financial blizzard around the early signings, they lured Amukamara with a deal that may have been short term but was at the right level for one season, giving the former No. 1 pick a chance to take his career to the level he’d hoped coming into the NFL as the 19th overall pick of his draft.

“Not a lot of people were agreeing with me,” Amukamara said, laughing, “which is what free agency is all about. It was down to the wire and I was considering a long-term deal with another team but the Bears just made it worth my while.”

Amukamara played with Demps as a member of the Giants’ secondary in 2014, Demps leading the Giants with 4 interceptions. “He knows how to get the ball,” Amukamara said. 

Cooper, 27 and a Pro Bowl alternate last year, was a seventh-round pick by the San Francisco 49ers in 2013 but was cut before the regular season. He went to Kansas City (2013-15) before being traded to Arizona prior to last season. He has played in 56 games, starting 24 after not sticking with the defense under then-coordinator Vic Fangio in San Francisco his first time around.

“I’m a very big fan of Vic. I was with him in San Francisco and also with [Bears secondary coach] Ed Donatell,” Cooper said. “These guys are two geniuses of the game, been around a long time, seen a lot of things and have great defensive schemes. I’m looking for this time to be very productive. We’ve already had familiarity with each other, know how one another thinks, and I’m looking to come in with him and get things done.”

Cornerback and safety have been tough fills in free agency for the Bears at too many times. When free agency in its current form began a quarter-century ago, the Bears marked the moment by signing former San Diego Charger Anthony Blaylock. Blaylock’s career ended after that season due to injuries. Since then, cornerbacks have not typically been hits for the Bears in free agency.

Blaylock. Tom Carter (’97-98). Thomas Smith (’00). Dismal results. Draft hits on Charles Tillman and Nathan Vasher afforded the Bears the luxury of staying out of the market at the pricey position but eventually Vasher faded. The Bears scored with Tim Jennings (’10-14) and Tracy Porter (’15-16).

But Porter turns 31 in August, Kyle Fuller has not developed to the level of his first-round selection, Alan Ball was a failed fix, and lower-tier additions (Bryce Callahan, Jacoby Glenn, Demontre Hurst, Deiondre’ Hall) have not established themselves as starter-grade answers.

Safety has seen myriad failed, one-year tries with Adam Archuleta, Chris Hudson, Ryan Mundy (injured) and most recently Antrel Rolle.

Jordan Howard wants to lead Bears... and lead the league

Jordan Howard wants to lead Bears... and lead the league

So Jordan Howard finished second in the NFL in rushing in his rookie season, despite just a dozen carries in the first three games. The fifth-round pick joined the man who beat him out for the rushing title, Ezekiel Elliott, as one of just five rookies in history to average five or more yards per carry on over 250 carries. And he set the Bears' rookie rushing record with his 1,313 yards while becoming just the fourth in franchise history to rush for that many yards in a season.

Sounds pretty hard to top, like we might be set up for the dreaded sophomore slump.

But...

"Things are a lot different this year because I know what to expect," Howard said during the team's minicamp two weeks ago. "I know all the plays and things like that. I’m not out there thinking, so I can just play free and fast.

"I definitely feel like a veteran 'cause I know what to expect and can help the young guys on the plays that they're not understanding. I’m just more comfortable and want to be a leader."

One of the other things we learned about Howard last year is he's low-key, a man of few words. So the Indiana product by way of UAB will make his points verbally when needed, but his actions will speak louder.

"He was a rookie a year ago and didn't even go in trying to be a leader, telling a five-year guy what was up," said head coach John Fox. "I think with time, and obviously with production like he had, I think it's a role he can fall in to. We're in a performance-based business and even in that locker room, what they do on Sundays gives them some credibility."

One of the concerns about Howard coming out of college was durability, but he answered the bell once he became the starter in week four against Detroit. And he probably wasn't used nearly as much as he should have. The good news about that is he was subject to less wear and tear, averaging just 18 carries per game from that Lions game on.

But besides taking more of a leadership role, Howard wanted to work on his speed without sacrificing the strong base that, paired with keen vision and work by the offensive line, allowed him to hit holes quickly and charge toward the second level of opposing defenses.

"Just improving on the little things – my conditioning, my weight, catching passes. And looking for ways to finish runs better," says Howard. "I feel like I’m in much better shape than I was at this time last year, a little more toned-up."

"It's just training," said Fox. "When you get to that it's more like track speed than football speed and I think he proved pretty worthy of that a year ago as a rookie. Y'know we all can improve on things, and that's the expectation. He's trained hard.

"This time of year last year he wasn’t even practicing," Fox remembered. "I like where we are, we’ve brought in more competition, and he’s better for it. He’s kind of gotten used to an NFL season, he’s come back ready to roll, but he still has work to do before we get to training camp."  

Oh, and the 22-year-old has a couple of other goals he didn't mind sharing, besides being a leader and getting a little faster.

"First off, make the playoffs. Be the leading rusher, and just help the team in any way I can and stay consistent."

Did Brandon Marshall disrespect Jay Cutler with Hall of Fame shade?

Did Brandon Marshall disrespect Jay Cutler with Hall of Fame shade?

Brandon Marshall is no stranger to keeping it real.

The outspoken All-Pro receiver never minces his words and that continued over the weekend when he showed off his signed jersey collection.

Marshall took to Instagram and showed off "Santa" hanging all of the jerseys he's swapped with other NFL players:

Santa doing work.. . #jerseychallenge

A post shared by Brandon Marshall (@bmarshall) on

The list includes a host of current and future Hall of Fame players: Champ Bailey, Cris Carter, John Lynch, Darrelle Revis, Lance Briggs, Adam Vinatieri, Adrian Peterson, Larry Fitzgerald, Joe Thomas.

When almost all the framed jerseys were hung, Marshall took his followers through:

@nfl #jerseychallenge

A post shared by Brandon Marshall (@bmarshall) on

Marshall compliments each player before, calling them "Hall of Famers" before getting to Jay Cutler at the end and going "Hall of..." multiple times.

Was that Marshall throwing shade at his former quarterback in both Denver and Chicago? If it was an innocent mistake or whatever, there's no way Marshall would've posted the Instagram video, right?

Marshall and Cutler were good friends from the beginning of their careers with the Broncos. So much so that the Bears traded a pair of third round draft picks in March 2012 to allow the two to continue their bromance by the lake:

But Marshall and Cutler have had a contentious relationship since.

Last summer, Marshall responded to a Tweet saying "of course" he misses Cutler. Last August, Marshall hopped on ESPN's First Take and said he thought Cutler could win the MVP Award in the 2016 NFL season.

At the same time, Marshall talked about his relationship with Cutler and said he was the only person on the Bears with the "huevos" to hold the enigmatic quarterback accountable. Marshall also said he was "sad" he didn't talk to Cutler much in the year leading up to August 2016.