Brandon Marshall Isn’t Going Anywhere

From ESPN.com:

“When the Chicago Bears restructured Jay Cutler‘s contract to clear cap space, speculation surfaced that it was to enable the Bears to sign All-Pro receiver Brandon Marshall to a long-term extension.

“Instead, Chicago signed free-agent DE Jared Allen to a four-year deal, and Marshall is heading toward the last year of his contract.”

Not so fast my friend.  According to Rich Campbell at the Chicago Tribune the Bears still have $7.5 million in cap space after the Allen signing.  I don’t know how much you need to sign draft picks but I doubt that it will be anywhere close to that.

Marshall makes it clear in the ESPN article that he has no intension of signing anywhere else.  I can’t imagine the team feels any differently and I can’t think of a better use for the remaining cap space.

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The Buffalo Bills Will Be for Sale

This item was buried in the Chicago Tribune article covering the death of Buffalo owner Ralph Wilson:

“According to the Buffalo News, the team will be placed in a trust, which likely will control the franchise for a minimum of a few years. Eventually, the trust will sell the team, with the proceeds going to Wilson’s estate, the newspaper reported.”

There’s no mention of a commitment to keep the team in Buffalo. Is anyone else thinking about the sound of the “Los Angeles Bills”?

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Bears Have Reason to Hope Wilson Will Develop

Last week I wrote that with the release of wide receiver Earl Bennett, the Bears would be in need of a new third wide receiver. Yesterday at the league meetings head coach Marc Trestman confirmed that wide receiver Marquess Wilson would have the first shot at the new opening with competition likely coming later in the offseason. Via Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune:

“I think he showed that we can work with him and develop him.  He’s got the football intelligence that we’re looking for and the ability to be flexible within the offense. He was consistent. So we’ll see how it goes. We’re not anointing people at this point in time. He’s going to have a chance to compete and be a part of what we do after Alshon [Jeffery] and Brandon (Marshall). We’ll see how it goes. We’ve got a long way to go but we like (Wilson) and we’re excited about him to develop him and work him.”

Wilson is a seventh round pick that hasn’t shown much simply because he’s been playing behind Marshall, Jeffery and Bennett.  But there’s good reason to hope that he’ll be replacing Bennett this season.

Wilson is 6’3”, 194 lb which fits the Bears ideal profile for a wide receiver. Wilson has also been working out with Marshall and Jeffrey at Marshall’s Fit Speed facility in the off-season. If Marshall can bring Wilson along like he did Jeffrey, Wilson will be quite an addition to the starting lineup in 2014.

The Bears need Wilson to develop. As pointed out by Mike Wilkening at profootballtalk.com, Marshall becomes an unrestricted free agent at the end of next season and Jeffrey’s contract is up after 2015. Wilson is only 21 years old and could serve as a young Insurance policy for the loss of either or both. The draft is the lifeblood of any NFL football franchise, and Wilson is a part of that for the Bears. Let’s hope for a productive 2014 for him.

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Mark Sanchez May Be Right for the Bears. Later.

John Mullen at CSNChicago.com addresses the question of whether Mark Sanchez is in the Bears’s future:

“The unknown is whether the Bears may take a flyer on Sanchez because [quarterback coach MattCavanaugh knows him from New York, or take a pass for precisely the same reason: because Cavanaugh knows him from New York.

“[General manager PhilEmery did leave the door decidedly unlocked for a Sanchez or reasonable facsimile thereof:

“At some point we’ll probably bring in a bunch of veterans after this wave of free agency—this first and second wave—and we take a look at who’s still looking for an opportunity,” Emery said this month, “and we’ll bring them in and we’ll try them out and we may sign another one.’”

The Bears is will be in the market for a young, developmental quarterback. However whether Sanchez fits that description is debatable. Sanchez is only 27 years old.   However he will be 30 years old three years from now at the effective end of Jay Cutler’s seven year contract. That may be a couple years older then the Bears would like.

It would be interesting to see what head coach Mark Trestman and Cavanaugh could do with Sanchez and they could develop him for a years or two, then trade him for a draft pick as the Packers were known to do for many years as they developed backups to Brett Favre. Nevertheless I’m inclined to believe that they would rather find a younger quarterback later in the draft. If they don’t find one (as happened let year) then I think that a veteran like Sanchez may be an option if he comes cheaply.

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Who Was the Most Important Signing So Far?

Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs visited the NFL Network and talked Bears [link].

Amongst his comments, I can completely agree with his statements regarding the signing of cornerback Charles Tillman.  Briggs said he was “the happiest man in Chicago” when Tillman resigned.  If that’s true, I wasn’t far behind.

I understand the Bears drive to get younger on defense but, unlike the other veteran players who have left the Bears over the past month, Tillman possesses one totally unique characteristic that would literally be impossible to replace.  You can find other, younger cornerbacks who can do a good job in both man-to-man and zone coverages.  But you’ll never find another cornerback anywhere who generates turnovers the way Tillman does.  I’ve never seen anything like it.  I doubt very much that we’ll ever see anything like it again.  I’m personally grateful for the opportunity to watch Tillman do his magic for at least another year.

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Owners to Consider Moving Kickoffs Forward – Again

Apparently moving kickoffs from the 30 yard line to the 35 yard line a few years ago didn’t take things far enough for at least some NFL owners.  Via profootballtalk.com:

“The Competition Committee announced today that owners will vote at next week’s league meeting on whether to move kickoffs again, this time to the 40-yard line.

“According to the Competition Committee, this is a rule proposal designed to take player safety into consideration: Moving the kickoff will result in more touchbacks, fewer returns and therefore fewer collisions. The NFL in recent years has identified kickoffs as some of the most dangerous plays in the game of football.”

I will never understand this.  There is a proposal to to move the extra point back to the 25 yard line because the almost automatic kick from the 3 yard line is too boring and a waste of time.  But is there a bigger, more boring waste of time than a touchback on a kickoff?

Either the play is too dangerous or it isn’t.  If it isn’t they should have the kickoffs from the 30 yard line and let the players play.  If it is, the owners should stop playing around and eliminate it.

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Third Wide Receiver Officially Becomes a Need for the Bears

Rich Campbell at the Chicago Tribune comments upon the release of number three wide receiver Earl Bennett:

“[MarquessWilson, a seventh-round pick out of Washington St., is positioned to compete with newly-signed Domenik Hixon for the No. 3 receiver spot. Wilson had two catches for 10 yards as a rookie.

“The Bears consider him a natural catcher and smooth runner. They like how he can beat press coverage with quickness and decisiveness.”

My gut tells me that the Bears won’t go into camp depending upon either Wilson or Hixon to do the job.  Wilson is unproven and Hixon hasn’t really shown himself to be in a class that deserves to be on the field that often.  I’d look for them to find at least a third, potentially better option.

One possibility is to find another receiver in what is thought to be a draft which is deep on talent.  The Bears will — and should — concentrate on drafting defense.  But if the right guys falls, another wide receiver is a very real possibility in either day two or three.  In the same way, a second tight end is also an option that I’m sure they’ll consider.

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Projecting the Future

Yesterday, I described the uncomfortable feeling I had about how the Bears were going about “improving” the defense.  Apparently I wasn’t alone.

Here’s what Steve Rosenbloom at the Chicago Tribune had to say as he urged the Bears to sign defensive end Jared Allen:

“Jared Allen has recorded double-digit sacks in each of the last seven seasons. That’s a right defensive end the way it oughta be.

“The way Julius Peppers used to be.

“The way the Bears need one to be.”

When you are talking about replacing the sacks generated by veterans like Peppers and, potentially, Henry Melton, Allen seems more like the guy conventional wisdom would indicate is needed.

The 2013 Bears defense was essentially the same as the 2012 version.  There was a lot of talent there.  With the new signings by general manager Phil Emery, that talent hasn’t been replaced “by the numbers”.

In thinking about this situation I realized that my uneasiness reminded me of the way I felt after Emery drafted offensive guard Kyle Long and linebacker Jon Bostic last year and defensive end Shea McClellin the year before.  Here’s what I said:

“Emery appears drafting by the numbers.  Like former Bears head coach Dave Wannstedt in the days when the Bears drafted the likes of John Thierry and Alonzo Spellman, Emery appears to be enamored with measurables that can be derived from workouts rather than what he sees in terms of play on the field.  He’s drafting ‘traits’ not football players.”

And it suddenly hit me:  what Emery is doing is what he’s done in the draft since he’s been here – he’s projecting future performance based upon “traits” and player development.

What traits is Emery looking for?  Here’s what he said about new defensive end Lamarr Houston: (via Melissa Isaacson at espn.com):

“He’s a good pass-rusher.  When I looked at him versus the players that we have on our team, his two-year combined total disruptions is higher than anybody on our team. And I know I’ve used that word disruption and there are a lot of variations of what that means …

“The research from 2008 on [shows] when a pass play is performed without pressure, without a knockdown, hit or sack, the percentage of completion is about 64 percent. When there’s a sack, obviously it goes to 0. But with a hit or a pressure, it goes to 38.5. So those are significant when you talk about disruptions of a passer. And he certainly has had those.”

Similarly, here’s what Rich Campbell and Dan Wiederer at the Tribune emphasized about the signing of defensive end Willie Young:

“In his first year as a starter last year with the Lions, harass quarterbacks is exactly what Young did, recording 11.5 knockdowns and 15 hurries (according to STATS). But sacking them – he only had three in 2013 for six in his career – is another thing.”

Yes it is.

Emery continues to play a dangerous game.  Going from “pressures” to “sacks” is a line that is difficult to cross.  There are a lot of players that never do it.  Yet Emery continues to be completely focused on bringing in unproven youth not only in the draft, but now in free agency as well.  This involves projecting forward to what he thinks the player is on his way to, not taking the more sure route of buying what the player already is.  Perhaps he’s forced to do it by budgetary constraints.

In any case, he’s betting heavily on his ability to tell the future and the coaching staff’s ability to make it happen.  Sometimes it works out, as it did for Long.  Sometimes it doesn’t as it has yet to do with McClellin.  All we can do is hold our breath and pray that he knows what he’s doing.  We surely won’t be alone.

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Why Can’t the Bears Be About the Money? Because It’s All About the Money.

As DeMarcus Ware disappears from the list of free agents, the question presents itself:  how can teams like the Denver Broncos continue to sign high priced veteran free agent after free agent while the Bears are already bumping their heads up against the cap?  Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune provides the answer - in part:

“The Bears have a snug salary-cap situation but have mechanisms to create more room. At this point, it’s probably more about the cash budget and the team has spent big when you go back to the signing spree that began in the final week of December.”

It does, indeed, go back to the signing spree in December.  But the “cash budget” part of this excerpt is probably more to the point.

A Salary Cap Primer

Knowledgable, long-time readers of this blog can safely skip this section.

Nearly all teams “work” the salary cap by putting a certain amount of guaranteed money into a signing bonus.  This bonus is paid to the player entirely up front but the cap hit is spread over the length of the contract or 5 years, which ever is shorter.

If I give player A a five year contract with a $30 million signing bonus, the cap hit for that $30 million dollars will be $6 million dollars every year for five years.  If you release player A after 3 years, the cap hit from years 4 and 5 “accelerate” into the current year resulting in $6 million dollars of cap space occupied by a player who isn’t on the roster (known as “dead money”).

When the Bears released Julius Peppers it was said that they “saved” $9.8 million in cap space.  But this is misleading.  Before he was released, Peppers cap number was $18.2 million.  Because they now aren’t paying him his salary, that money will not count against the cap.  But the $8.4 million dollars in guaranteed money that has already been paid and spread out over the length of the contract still counts and Peppers still occupies this much cap space even though he’s no longer with the team.

The Bears and the Cap

Peppers aside, as someone who hates to rob Peter to pay Paul, I’m happy to say that the current Bears front office generally avoids situations where a great deal of dead money is generated when players are released.  However, it may surprise many fans when they understand how far the Bears go in this matter and what the consequences are.

The Jay Cutler contract from last December is an excellent case in point.  Cutler signed a seven year contract but because its structured in a very special and clever way, the $54 million in guaranteed money is spread across the first three years only.  This makes it effectively a three year contract with what amounts to a Bears team option to keep Cutler with no cap hit if he’s released after that.  This is outstanding cap management.

But here’s what will surprise many – when the details are examined, one finds that the split of $18 million per year over the first three years isn’t even.  In fact, the Bears have front loaded the cap hit so that it is $22.5 million in the first year and only $15.5 million and $16 million in the second and third years, respectively.  This actually means that their cap hit in the first year is $4.5 million higher than normal from this contract.  Though they have contractually retained the option of converting some of Cutler’s salary into signing bonus to create room, its fairly evident that this is only for emergencies and they have no plans to do so.

Similarly, the sharp fan will note that Peppers was likely released without a post June 1 designation.  Releasing him with the post June 1 designation would have allowed the Bears to absorb some of the dead money in 2015 rather than 2014.  Instead, they chose to absorb the entire $8.4 million this year, thus increasing their cap number significantly.

So, while other teams spread their guaranteed money out to avoid hitting the cap, the Bears have actually fixed their contracts such that they will hit the salary cap sooner.  Why would they do this?

Cash is King

The answer comes in the first part of Biggs’s statement above.  Its about the “cash budget”.  And its evident that the franchise has limited cash on hand to spend.

The key is understanding that though you can spread the cap hit from a signing bonus across several years, the money has to be paid up front.  In order to avoid paying cash that you don’t have, you have to limit the number of big signings that you make.  Therefore, its not just a matter of spending the cap (which all teams must effectively do).  It’s a matter of spending the cap while limiting the cash spent – i.e. front loading the cap hit on a few contracts to limit the number signings that you make before hitting the ceiling.

Conclusion

Some might assume from this that my conclusion is that the Bears organization is “cheap”.  It’s not.  The Bears aren’t the Packers, who almost never spend anything in free agency and almost never improve their team except through the draft (which fortunately for them they are very good at doing).

However, it is important to note that though the Bears exist in a big market, they’re a family run organization.  It’s highly likely that the major portion of the family income still derives itself from the team with limited diversification.  The result is a large market franchise that essentially has to be run like a small market team.  And when you are a fan of a small market team, you have to accept the fact that they aren’t going to spend like the rich boys who run their franchises as much for hobby as profit.

Like the Packers a few other franchises around the league, the Bears have to make less money work smarter.  More than many teams, they have to spend carefully, draft effectively and they have to develop that young talent.  Former GM Jerry Angelo and head coach Lovie Smith weren’t up to that task and it resulted in their downfall where, more than usual, repeated mistakes can’t be made.  Preliminary indications are that current GM Phil Emery and head coach Marc Trestman are up to the challenge.

One thing is certain.  However they manage to beat the competition, it won’t be by out spending them.

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Newcomers To Count for More than Just Statistics

In considering the moves that the Bears have made since December, I find the question of whether they are actually better than they were at the beginning of 2013 to be debatable.

Though the offense has been left largely intact, we all know that the problems were on defense and that’s where improvements need to materialize.  In that respect, the lousy pass rush didn’t get any better with the loss of Julius Peppers (assuming he had anything at all left).  The addition of defensive end Lamarr Houston doesn’t help much there as he had a career high six sacks last year, lower that the 7 1/2 that Peppers generated in a “down year”.

Though he’s not officially gone, the return of corner back Charles Tillman and the turnovers he generated is also looking less and less likely.

However, all is not bad news because:

  1. GM Phil Emery emphasized yesterday in his press conference that the free agent signings (and re-signings) were only the first steps in the rebuilding process and there is a lot of work yet to be done before final judgment can be passed.
  2. The defense will be definitively younger, one of Emery’s stated goals.  Houston may not be a pass rushing force now but he’s on the rise and may yet quickly become one.
  3. The run defense will be better with the signing of both Houston and new safety Ryan Mundy.  Mundy may not start but if he doesn’t, whoever beats him out will have to bring at least the same physical style of play that he does.

And then there are the intangibles and this may be where the Bears made their biggest gains.  For instance, Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune quotes new Bears defensive end Houston about his role as a potential leader:

“‘[Emery] said he is looking forward to my leadership developing through my actions as a player,’ Houston said. ‘That is very important. I’m not really too much of an outspoken leader. I like to lead more by example and that is exactly what he is looking for.’”

Though it wasn’t the emphasis of his article, this quote from Dan Wiederer at the Chicago Tribune seems to emphasize the same possibility for Mundy:

“Mundy, after four seasons with the Steelers and one with the Giants, envisions an opening to become, in his words, ‘a tone setter’ and impact playmaker on the back end of the Bears defense.”

The fact that Emery actually took the time to emphasize this role with Houston and probably  Mundy indicates the importance that he attaches to it.  Setting “a new tone” may be as important as anything new additions to the Bears defense may do next year.

As good as the start was for the coaching staff on the offensive side of the ball, the start on the defensive side was miserable in 2013.  Faced with a new coaching staff that clearly catered to the defensive veterans already on the team rather than the other way around, its more than likely that both Emery and Trestman believe that the defense got complacent in 2013.  How else to explain, for instance, the 54-11 total demolition of the Bears by the Eagles late in the year?  Whatever was wrong that night, it was more than just talent and technique.  What was missing was pride and attitude, as well.

Replacing a defensive line coach who was an “assistant to an assistant” in 2012 and a linebackers coach that probably didn’t have the gravitas to motivate and insist on the needed changes was likely as big a step as any Emery will take in the offseason.  It was likely only the first on the way to instilling a new attitude on the defense.  Only time will tell where the road will end but here’s betting its at a point where harder work and higher intensity of play become the norm.  The free agent signings to date will be a big part of that change.

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