In the first 10 days of the league season, in his first season as a general manager, Phil Emery orchestrated a flurry of activity in his initial efforts to close the talent gap between the Chicago Bears and their NFC North competition in Green Bay and Detroit.
That was the mandate from Bears president and CEO Ted Phillips when he fired Jerry Angelo and hired Emery in January. Close the talent gap.
"We intend to compete next year," Phillips said the day he fired Angelo. "(The) decision was made that we need to keep up the pace with our division rivals. We want to close that talent gap."
So far, so good.
Most of the early returns have been positive; a lot of fans are practically giddy. But no one believes that Emery's work is completed.
Brandon Marshall, while he comes with a buyer-beware tag, elevates the Bears' passing offense to a level not seen in the Lovie Smith era. Jay Cutler and Marshall both made the Pro Bowl when they collaborated for two full seasons in Denver. Both are better, more experienced players now.
Brandon Marshall & Phil Emery
David Banks/US Presswire
Marshall cost the Bears just two third-round picks, and the $27.5 million he's due over the next three years is about $2 million a year less than the Bucs will pay Vincent Jackson, who is a year older than Marshall. Jackson has three 1,000-yard seasons; Marshall has five in a row. In that time, Jackson has 4,242 yards, while Marshall has 5,938, and he leads in receptions 474-242. Marshall has 32 touchdown catches; one more than Jackson.
Unrestricted free agent Michael Bush is the best backup running back on the Bears' roster since Cedric Benson played behind Thomas Jones in 2006. Incumbent starter, franchise player and world-class whiner Matt Forte may not think picking up Bush was a good idea. But he was arguably the best back on the market, and he gives the Bears peace of mind if Forte gets hurt or decides he's too insulted by his $7.742 million salary to come to work.
With the addition of quarterback Jason Campbell and the re-signing of Josh McCown behind Cutler, the Bears' backup quarterbacks have a combined 103 starts in the NFL, 70 of them by Campbell, who was a starter in each of the past five seasons.
Considering the Bears averaged 26.8 points in the 10 games that Jay Cutler played and scored 30 or more in six of them, the team may finally have an offense that the defense can be proud of.
But Cutler won't stay healthy, and he won't have time to get the ball to Marshall unless the offensive line improves. No talent has been added in an area that was a sore spot in 2011. The expected return of last year's first-round pick, Gabe Carimi, will help. But more help is needed before the line can be considered a playoff-caliber unit.
Improvements at the skill positions will be undermined if the guys up front don't perform at a higher level.
And the defense hasn't gotten any better yet. Re-signing unrestricted defensive end Israel Idonije helps maintain the status quo, but it doesn't help the pass rush, which was a weakness last season. There's not much left in free agency, so any pass-rush improvement, and any help for the offensive line help will have to come from the draft at the end of April.
That's where the pressure will really be on Emery to outdo his predecessor.
"Obviously we want to do better in the early parts of the draft," Phillips said back in January.
--The Bears haven't confirmed or denied rumors that former No. 1 wide receiver Johnny Knox won't be ready to play when the 2012 season begins, but they seem to be operating under the assumption he won't.
Wednesday night the Bears announced the addition of their third wide receiver since free agency began, when they signed Devin Thomas to a one-year deal. Two weeks before, the Bears traded for three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Brandon Marshall and signed unrestricted free agent Eric Weems.
WR Devin Thomas
Jim O'Connor/US Presswire
Bears coach Lovie Smith was asked then about Knox, who underwent spinal fusion surgery in December after suffering the injury on a vicious hit against the Seahawks on Dec. 18.
"He's come a long ways," Smith said, "and he has a long ways to go."
In Thomas, the Bears have added another big receiver to 2011's undersized group that did not have a player with more than 37 catches and no one close to Knox's 727 yards.
The 6-2, 221-pound Thomas was a big deal coming out of Michigan State, and he was selected early in the second round (34th overall) in the 2008 draft by the Redskins. Thomas led the Big Ten with 1,260 receiving yards on 79 catches in his final season with the Spartans and set the conference record with 1,350 kickoff-return yards, averaging 29.1 yards per attempt.
But he has never come close to living up to his draft status. In four seasons, Thomas has just 43 receptions for 482 yards (11.2-yard average) and three touchdowns. He had just three catches for 37 yards last season with the Giants, but he had 25 kickoff returns for 607 yards (24.3-yard average), and eight special teams tackles.
During the Giants' Super Bowl run, he had two fumble recoveries on special teams, including one that set up the game-winning field goal in overtime of the NFC Championship Game.
--The Bears are still looking for another pass-rush threat to complement Julius Peppers, and there's a good chance that Illinois junior Whitney Mercilus will be available when they pick 19th in the first round.
The 6-3 1/2-inch, 254-pound Mercilus led the nation with 16 sacks and nine forced fumbles last season, and he had a Big Ten-best 22 1/2 tackles for loss. But, according to Pro Football Weekly's draft expert Nolan Nawrocki, the Bears shouldn't draft the one-year wonder, who had a total of two sacks in his first two seasons with the Illini.
"Personally, I think it's too much of a reach just based on the tape," Nawrocki said on a conference call Wednesday. Nawrocki believes the Bears would be better off with an offensive lineman, specifically Georgia's 6-6, 345-pound Cordy Glenn.
"I fully expect the top two tackles, Riley Reiff and Matt Kalil, to be off the board at that point," Nawrocki said. "I think next you're looking at guys like Cordy Glenn who could potentially play tackle or guard. I think he'd be a very good fit for the Bears."
Glenn was a four-year starter for the Bulldogs, and he moved to left tackle last season after playing mostly guard his first three years. The Bears have a greater need for a left tackle, but at any spot on the line, Glenn is the type of massive body that offensive line coach Mike Tice prefers.
"He has some of the power that Mike Tice would like," Nawrocki said. "Last year they had to go to more of a zone-blocking scheme to accommodate ... to maximize the talent they had on that roster. I don't think they had the size or strength that Tice prefers to move defenders off the ball.
"I think Glenn would be a great fit. The big question with Mercilus is he would be a bit of a reach at that point."
--NFL running back may be the only job where 28 is considered retirement age.
RB Marion Barber
Ron Chenoy/US Presswire
That's how old Bears running back Marion Barber is, and he announced he's calling it a career after seven seasons, including the first six with the Cowboys.
Barber faced an uphill battle to stick with the Bears after they agreed a day earlier to pay unrestricted free agent Michael Bush $14 million over four years to back up starter Matt Forte. Barber had one year left on the two-year, $4.5 million deal he signed last summer that included a $500,000 signing bonus. His retirement saves the Bears $2 million under this year's salary cap, his base salary of $1.9 million plus a $100,000 workout bonus. They take just a $250,000 cap hit for Barber, the prorated portion of his signing bonus.
"I want to thank everyone who helped me become a better player," Barber told the Bears' website. "I owe a lot to a lot of coaches, and am also very grateful to the owners and organizations I played for. Last but not least, I want to thank the fans for the support and inspiration they gave me."
Bears fans supported Barber because of his physical and violent running style that helped him score a team-best six touchdowns last season, but they were disappointed by his play in a 13-10 overtime loss to the Broncos on Dec. 11. With the Bears trying to run out the clock late in regulation, Barber ran out of bounds, stopping the clock. In overtime, he lost a fumble that led to the Broncos' game-winning field goal.
The 5-11, 218-pound Barber was a fourth-round choice of the Cowboys in 2005 and, in six seasons in Dallas rushed for 4,358 yards on 1,042 carries with 47 touchdowns and a 4.2-yard rushing average. He also caught 174 passes for 1,280 yards (7.4-yard average) and six touchdowns. In three seasons at the University of Minnesota, Barber finished second in career all-purpose yards with 4,495 and in rushing touchdowns with 35.
Barber averaged just 3.7 yards on 114 carries for the Bears (422 yards) last season, and he was outperformed by Kahlil Bell, who began the year third in the depth chart but rushed for 337 yards on 79 carries, a 4.3-yard average.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "If there was a big concern, we wouldn't have made the trade." -- Bears coach Lovie Smith on wide receiver Brandon Marshall's off-the-field problems.
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