The Bears were clearly the biggest beneficiaries of the free-agent period in the opening hours of the 2010 season. Free agency began at 11:01 p.m. Thursday Chicago time, but within 14 hours, the Bears had made a huge splash in the free-agent pool. The Bears plucked the player viewed as the plum of the free-agent Class of 2010 when they signed defensive end Julius Peppers to a six-year contract worth as much as $91.5 million with $42 million of that in guaranteed money over the first three years of the deal. The team also signed former Vikings running back Chester Taylor to a four-year deal worth $12.5 million – $7 million of that guaranteed to be paid out this season. The team also shelled out $17 million ($6 million guaranteed) for a five-year contract to tight end Brandon Manumaleuna, who spent the first years of his career playing under new Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz in St. Louis.
When the dust had settled on a very hectic morning and early afternoon, the Bears committed as much as $121 million in the three players, although the conventional wisdom is that none of the contracts will be paid out in full – not unusual in contract signings around the league. However, it was a clear indication to Bears fans that the team is committed to making a difference in their approach.
While it didn't get nearly as much attention as the Bears' megabuck signings, Detroit was busy as well. The Lions signed former Tennessee defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch to a four-year deal worth $26 million, with $10 million in guarantees, made a trade with the Cleveland Browns for former Packers defensive tackle Corey Williams (giving up a fifth-round pick for Williams and a seventh-rounder from Cleveland) and re-signed offensive lineman Jon Jansen to a one-year deal. Detroit currently sits with the No. 2 pick in the 2010 draft, which could further bolster its trenches, as defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh of Nebraska or Gerald McCoy of Oklahoma are expected to be selected by the Lions if they don't trade out of the second spot in the draft.
With a late-night visit from Lions offensive coordinator and former Vikings coordinator Scott Linehan, the Lions also gave Seattle (and former Vikings) wide receiver Nate Burleson a five-year, $25 million contract to be a No. 2 receiving option alongside star receiver Calvin Johnson, adding another piece to the Lions roster puzzle.
While the signings made headlines, did they really have the impact that giddy fans in both cities anticipate? Keep in mind that when the Bears gave up two first-round picks and a third-rounder to acquire QB Jay Cutler last year, many pundits all but handed the NFC North title to the Bears. The same day the team signed future Hall of Fame left tackle Orlando Pace, who it was thought would protect Cutler's blind side. Instead, the Bears quickly learned that Pace had nothing left in the tank – so much so that he was released earlier this week. Cutler was dismal in his first season with the Bears. His 26 interceptions in 2009 were by far the worst in the league – the only other players with 20 interceptions were rookies Matthew Stafford and Mark Sanchez.
While there is no denying Peppers' ability, Taylor is likely going to be in a time-share at best with third-year man Matt Forte and Manumaleuna is likely going to be little more than a glorified blocker. In nine NFL seasons, he has missed just two games. But, in 142 career games, he has caught just 110 passes for 965 yards and 12 touchdowns. That comes down to an average of 12 catches a year for 107 yards and one touchdown a year – not the kind of dual-threat production that one would expect for a $17 million deal.
While the Bears fans, as well as their media types, are once again self-proclaiming their team as the next NFC North champs, when one looks at the problems Chicago had last year, most of those issues were on offense and centered on an ineffective offensive line and a young cast of wide receivers devoid of top talent – their top wide receiver was converted defensive back Devin Hester, who would likely be a No. 2 or 3 receiver at best on most NFL teams. The Bears stole the headlines Friday, but they failed to address their most pressing needs. Add to that Chicago's problems stopping the run (they ranked 23rd in the league last year), Peppers likely won't do a lot to help that aspect of the Chicago defense.
The Lions had the 32nd-ranked defense last year and were equal-opportunity dismal – 26th vs. the run and 32nd vs. the pass. The production for Vanden Bosch has significantly decreased each of the last two years with a much better Tennessee team, two teams have all but given up on Williams (Green Bay and Cleveland) and both have traded him away. Burleson, while a talented player, is a complementary receiver, not a game-breaker, who is being paid substantial money to be the No. 2 guy in Detroit.
In the end, the Bears and Lions may have tightened the gulf that lay between them and the Vikings and Packers at the top of the NFC North, but did they really make up enough ground to be viewed as playoff contenders in 2010? The Bears don't have a draft pick until the third round and the Lions are one of the few non-expansion teams in league history to have the first overall pick in one year and the second overall pick the next. They're just awful and a few big-money signings here or there aren't going to change that.
As Bears fans wake up this morning and read the stories about the new players they have signed, the chatter will likely be much the same as it was a year ago when they mortgaged their 2009 and 2010 drafts to get Cutler. They are anointing the team as the next big thing in the NFC North. It didn't work out last year and, as the team tries to adjust to a new, complicated offense that historically has left its quarterbacks beaten and battered, it would seem the Bears are a long way from being the Monsters of the Midway or the second coming of the Greatest Show on Turf.
In truth, $121 million bought the Bears some quality players, but, in the end, it may be money that was spent at the wrong positions to make an immediate difference.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.