Former Chicago Bears GM Phil Emery loved the first few days of free agency. It was his yearly opportunity to send the Windy City into frenzy.
For Emery, the first week of free agency was time to trade for Brandon Marshall, and sign high-profile players like Jermon Bushrod, Martellus Bennett, Jared Allen, Michael Bush, Lamarr Houston, Jason Campbell, Ryan Mundy, Matt Slauson and Willie Young.
Emery in March, there wasn’t a more popular GM in the country.
Yet dominating headlines during the first week of free agency did very little in January, as the Bears failed to make the playoffs in each of Emery’s three seasons at the helm.
New GM Ryan Pace has a different perspective on free agency.
“I believe that to have sustained success you must build your team through the draft and you must strongly believe in player development,” Pace said in January. “We’re going to explore every avenue to get the best players here. So that can change year-to-year. In a perfect world, you’re acquiring players in free agency that allow you to draft the best player available in the draft.”
To that end, Pace immediately acquired his foundation piece on defense, OLB/DE Pernell McPhee. For Emery, that would have been the tip of the iceberg, the starting gun followed by a flurry of big-name signings.
Eddie Royal (5-10, 185)
The Bears are very familiar with Royal. He played under John Fox in 2011, Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase was Royal’s receivers coach for two years in Denver, and Royal had his best year as professional catching passes from Jay Cutler his rookie season in 2008 (91 catches, 980 yards, 5 TDs).
Royal is a complementary player, a slot receiver whose value comes in three- and four-receiver sets. He won’t be asked to replace Marshall, as he’s a completely different type of pass catcher. Marshall is a flanker whose size is his biggest asset. Royal is six inches shorter than Marshall and relies on his quickness to be effective on offense.
To be clear, Marshall’s replacement is still not on the roster, unless the club feels Marquess Wilson and his 15 career catches can fill shoes of that size.
In Royal’s first game in the NFL, he caught nine passes from Cutler for 146 yards and a touchdown. It was the first of three 100-yard receiving efforts from Royal that season, who fed off the attention defenses paid Marshall on the other side of the field.
The Broncos traded Cutler the following offseason and Royal’s numbers tumbled downhill accordingly. Between 2009-2013, Royal never had a season with more than 60 catches or 630 yards. Yet last season, he again found his groove and had the second-best campaign, numbers-wise, of his seven-year career (62 catches, 778 yards and a career-high 7 TDs).
He turns 29 in May but Royal’s output last year shows he still has plenty left in the tank. Now he returns to his favorite quarterback, the one with whom he posted career highs. Cutler no longer has to feed Marshall, while defenses will surely roll coverage toward Alshon Jeffery, meaning Royal has an opportunity to match his production as a rookie.
Royal nearly re-signed with the Chargers but his potential playing with Cutler surely played a big part in his decision to come to Chicago.
He has experience as a returner also but that has dwindled throughout his career. He hasn’t returned a kickoff since 2011, when he returned just three, and was a part-time punt returner for the Chargers. That said, he did average 9.1 yards per punt return in 2014, sixth best in the league amongst those who returned 10 or more punts.
The Bears struggled mightily in the return game last year, so Royal should have value there as well.
In addition, he’s sure-handed as a receiver. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Royal hasn’t dropped more than six passes in a season. By comparison, Marshall dropped 28 passes in 2012 and 2013 combined.
Antrel Rolle (6-0, 206)
Rolle came into the league as a cornerback in 2005 (8th overall selection) and didn’t convert to free safety until his fourth NFL season. Plainly stated, Rolle is a baller.
He’s a three-time Pro Bowler and a two-time All-Pro. He’s been to two Super Bowls, winning one with the Giants in 2011.
Rolle is an iron man who played in every single contest during his five years in New York. He has started 80 straight games, the third-longest active starting streak among NFL safeties, which followed a streak of 63 consecutive games played from 2006-2009. Since 2006, he’s missed just one of 144 contests due to injury.
His 27 interceptions since 2005 are fourth among NFL safeties, while he’s third at his position with nine total interceptions over the last two seasons.
Rolle, a team captain for the Giants the past two years, will bring veteran leadership in spades to Chicago’s locker room, which was a full-blown mess last season. His presence will have the exact opposite to that of Marshall.
Yet Rolle is 32 years old and it’s fair to question how much he has left in the tank. He played at his usual high level last season but he’s at an age where NFL players head downhill in a hurry.
In addition, he’s not a secure tackler and he struggles in run support. He missed 17 tackles in 2014, which was 8th most among safeties, per PFF. Over the past three seasons, Rolle has 40 missed tackles, or 0.83 per game. By comparison, Chris Conte, whom many Bears fans consider the worst tackler to ever play in the NFL, missed 0.76 tackles per contest the past three years (33 missed tackles, 43 games played).
That’s not promising for a defense that tackled like my sister the past two years.
Yet in coverage, Rolle is solid and will be a big boost to the back end of the secondary. He’ll get to play with an old friend, Ryan Mundy, who started nine games alongside Rolle in 2013. New York’s pass defense was 10th best in the league with Rolle and Mundy at safety.
Pernell McPhee (6-3, 280)
We reached out to Aaron Wilson of RavensInsider.com and the Baltimore Sun, who covered McPhee for four years in Baltimore, to get his thoughts on Chicago’s new pass rusher.
“Pernell McPhee is a pure pass rusher with some unconventional moves in his repertoire,” Wilson said. “He lines up everywhere from outside linebacker in a two-point stance to defensive end with his hand down to over the center. He can slip blocks well, is really powerful for his size even though he's not that bulky, and is faster than he looks at 6-3, 280.
“This is a hungry football player who never stops coming, is truly relentless and is also a good run-stopper. He just needs more snaps to become even more productive.
“His upside is tremendous. The only drawback with him is some cartilage issues with his knees, but that hasn't bothered him in the past year. When healthy, he was very good for the Ravens.”
The concerns with McPhee are his knees. Following a 6.0-sack rookie season in 2011, he had multiple knee surgeries. It took him nearly two years to get back to full strength, which is what McPhee yesterday attributed to his 7.5-sack campaign in 2014.
“I was healthy. That’s the key,” he said. “That’s the key in this game. Stay hungry and healthy. That’s the key.”
McPhee’s top attribute is his versatility. The Ravens lined him up at every position along the front seven, using him as a mismatch nightmare on passing downs.
Yet with versatility also comes the reality that McPhee doesn’t have a natural position. If coordinator Vic Fangio fails to properly utilize McPhee, his value is diminished. And if injuries pile up – as they have the past two seasons for Chicago’s defense – and you’re forced to plug McPhee in at one spot, where do you put him?
McPhee is a great player, one who will bring nastiness and physicality to the Bears’ front seven – particularly on passing downs, when he’s borderline unstoppable at times – but he’s somewhat limited.
Additionally, McPhee has never played starter-level snaps in any of his four NFL seasons. He played 540 snaps last year, which was his career-high snap count. By comparison, under Fangio in 2012 and 2013, 49ers OLB Ahmad Brooks averaged 990 snaps per season.
More reps don’t always equate to increased production. It’s anyone’s guess how twice as much field time will affect McPhee, as he’s never done it before.
FREE AGENCY POSITIONAL PREVIEWS
OFFENSE: Quarterback | Running back | Tight end |
Offensive tackle | Offensive guard | Center
DEFENSE: Defensive tackle | Defensive end | Outside linebacker |
Inside linebacker | Safety | Cornerback
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fifth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter.