Emery thinking long-term in free agency

Bears GM Phil Emery has a habit of signing free-agent acquisitions to one-year deals. While that may seem shortsighted, it's actually a sound strategy for building toward the future.

Since Bill Belichick took over in New England, the Patriots' organization has adopted a cutthroat nature when it comes to roster personnel. In moves many questioned at the time, New England has slashed or traded productive veterans, those beloved by fans and teammates alike, if the team feels he's no longer worth his contract.

From Mike Vrabel to Randy Moss to Brandon Meriweather, the Patriots have never been shy about cutting ties with players they perceive as dead weight. Belichick passed along this mindset to those within his organization, particularly Scott Pioli and Thomas Dimitroff.

Chicago Bears GM Phil Emery knows firsthand this philosophy, having worked under Dimitroff in Atlanta and Pioli in Kansas City. Yet Emery has actually taken the idea further by limiting the size of his free-agent contracts.

Last offseason, his first as a general manager, Emery signed all but one of his free-agent acquisitions (Michael Bush) to one-year deals. This offseason has been no different. Emery made his big splash on the first day of free agency by signing TE Martellus Bennett and OT Jermon Bushrod to multi-year deals. Those guys are expected to have major impacts on the offense and Emery wants to build around them, thus the long contracts.


Phil Emery
Jerry Lai/USA TODAY Sports

Since then, all but one new Bears player has been signed to a one-year deal. Not only that, but they've all been at or near the veteran minimum salary. Emery has signed these players on the cheap out of necessity more than anything else. According to Pro Football Talk, the Bears have $5.3 million in cap space. That might appear more than enough to round out the roster, until you realize that last year's rookie pool cost Chicago $4.1 million. The Bears have one less draft pick this year, so that number will fall closer to $3.5 million. Either way you slice it, once the rookies get paid, there won't be much left over for the veterans. So even if he wanted to, Emery doesn't have the luxury of shopping for high-priced free agents.

Yet he doesn't have to sign them all to one-year contracts. By doing this, he accomplishes two goals. First, he's able to personally vet each player up close throughout the course of the season. He gets to see how they react to adversity, how susceptible they are to injury, how they interact with the coaches, how they fit in the locker room and, most importantly, how they make the football team better on the field.

If the player proves to be a valuable member of the team, one that can help the organization progress toward championships, then Emery re-signs him to a long-term deal. If he doesn't live up to expectations, the player walks without leaving behind dead money that counts toward next year's cap.

The second advantage of this strategy is it clears substantial money off the books every offseason. So if the Bears want to re-sign Jay Cutler to a franchise deal next offseason, or secure younger players like Henry Melton and Corey Wootton to long-term contracts, or extend Brandon Marshall, or sign a big-name free agent, the money will be there to make those moves.

It's a system reminiscent of the one-and-done college basketball programs of this era. Think of Kentucky coach John Calipari. Every year he loads up on the most talented players in the country, most of whom bolt for the NBA the next season. Even in Memphis, that was Calipari's method of operation. From Derrick Rose to Tyreke Evans to Anthony Davis, last year's first overall draft pick, Calipari has to annually re-stock the meat of his roster.

Emery's preference for one-year contracts follows this same idea. He signs as much talent as he can every offseason and then tries to find better players the following year. It's a trial-and-error system that, while risky, can pay big dividends.

The biggest difference between Calipari and Emery is that Calipari, due to a ridiculous rule initiated by the NBA, has no choice but to watch his best players walk every year. Emery, on the other hand, does it on purpose.

While this makes his job substantially more difficult each offseason, it also allows him to infuse fresh talent on the team. And if they outperform their one-year deals, they'll get a bigger, longer contract next year.

So while it may seem Emery is flying by the seat of his pants, he's actually conducting business in an organized, forward-thinking manner designed to build the best roster in the shortest time possible.


Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.

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