On the NFL
11:08 PM CDT, March 19, 2013
PHOENIX — Perhaps they should rename them the Chicago Vultures.
Somewhere along the way, the Bears have become scavengers, sustaining themselves on what other teams have left behind.
If you had to project the Bears' 2013 starting lineup in March, you would say near 40 percent of it is likely to be made up of players other teams brought into the league (that's assuming the Bears will acquire either a veteran guard and/or a veteran linebacker who will start).
And it's not like the players the Bears acquired from other teams are complementary players — many are of the core variety.
The four Bears who will be paid the most in 2013 all are imports — Julius Peppers, Jermon Bushrod, Brandon Marshall and Jay Cutler.
The Bears drafted only four of their top dozen highest-paid players.
This did not happen by design. And the Bears do not aspire to be free-agent driven.
Here is how it got this way:
•They missed on too many high draft picks such as Dan Bazuin, Garrett Wolfe, Michael Okwo, Chris Williams, Marcus Harrison, Jarron Gilbert and Juaquin Iglesias in the top three rounds.
•Over a three-year period, they traded away six draft selections in the first three rounds for veterans, so they had fewer chances at hitting on picks.
•They even traded one of their successful high draft picks in Greg Olsen, only to have to look for his replacement on the free-agent market two years later.
Chairman George McCaskey said in the cases of Bushrod, Cutler, Peppers, Marshall and Martellus Bennett, the Bears faced "extraordinary opportunities" to acquire players.
"Who would have thought Cutler would be available when he was?" McCaskey said this week from the NFL annual meetings. "Peppers, same thing. Same with Bushrod and Bennett and Marshall. When you are doing your homework … and see that opportunity, you have to pounce on it."
The hit rate on veterans is considerably higher than the rate on draft picks because they have NFL track records. The only unknowns with established pros should be how they will fit in.
McCaskey sees the value of using free agency in concert with the draft. While the Bears don't aspire to be as draft-driven as, say, the Ravens or Packers, they do aspire to be more so than they have been.
Emery's ability to evaluate college players and project them to the NFL has a lot to do with why he became the team's general manager last year.
Emery has only five draft choices to work with this year but will have more if he can fulfill his wish of trading down.
At this point, every choice is precious.
"You always have to have an infusion of young talent," Bears President Ted Phillips said. "That's Phil's vision. I trust in our ability to bring in new talent in the draft that can add value to our team right away."
And the Bears also need for their first four picks last year — Shea McClellin, Alshon Jeffery, Brandon Hardin and Evan Rodriguez — to become consistent contributors in their second seasons.
Because they haven't had a steady stream of good young players entering the pipeline, the Bears are facing two issues
The first is they have a rapidly aging roster. The second is they have limited team-building flexibility and salary-cap restraints because too many roster spots are committed to expensive veterans instead of inexpensive young players.
Left tackle Bushrod was an excellent pickup, but he's not going to bring down the average age of the team. He will be 29 in August. Tight end Bennett, 26, should help in that sense.
"What you don't want to do is rely on free agency too much because you end up overpaying and you don't know (how) guys are going to finish their careers if they are older," Phillips said. "As long as you are selective on free-agent acquisitions, which I think we are, and you structure contracts in a way that you can see players fulfilling the ends of those contracts, then free agency will always play an important role."
But if free agency is playing a more important role than the draft, it will harm the long-term viability of the team.
It's time for the Bears to start correcting a problem.
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