By Brad Biggs, Rich Campbell and Dan Wiederer, Tribune reporters
5:47 PM CDT, April 21, 2014
Through the Bears' aggressive start to free agency and their consistent activity in the later stages, the Tribune’s Chicago Bears coverage team is keeping you up to speed with all the latest transactions and news while also summarizing what everything means. Be sure to check back with this post regularly for updates.
What has happened so far...
THE LATEST (3:12 p.m. Monday): The Bears agreed with receiver Josh Morgan on a one-year contract. What it means: The acquisition intensifies the competition for the third receiver spot, which already includes Marquess Wilson and Domenik Hixon. If Morgan plays like he did in 2012, this could be quite a bargain. If the Bears get the 2013 version, he won't make much of an impact. But given the state of the Bears' roster, it's a low-risk investment with significant upside. Morgan in 2012 was a rugged run blocker who repeatedly demonstrated toughness in making catches in traffic over the middle. He wasn't an explosive threat after the catch, but he was reliable. In 2013, however, inconsistent route running contributed to a playing time reduction, which resulted in a falling out with coach Mike Shanahan that affected Morgan even when he was on the field. If Morgan, who turns 29 in June, commits to making the most of a fresh start with the Bears, he could be a productive contributor. Morgan returned punts and kicks for the Redskins last season, but that was by default more than anything becaus the Redskins didn't have a better option. Morgan wasn't productive, and if that is any indication, he's not the answer to replacing Devin Hester.
-- Safety Major Wright on April 4 reunited with former Bears coach Lovie Smith by signing a one-year deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. What it means: The Bears clarified their intention to move on from Wright, so his departure was no surprise. The Bucs gave him a one-year deal after he struggled last season to consistently finish tackles, take proper angles to ballcarriers and range in coverage. Even Chris Conte's shoulder surgery didn't make the Bears reconsider re-signing Wright, their starting strong safety for the last three seasons. However, safety remains a pressing need as the Bears approach the draft. It would be a surprise if the Bears didn't draft a safety in the first three rounds, especially because Conte could miss part of training camp.
-- Cornerback Zack Bowman agreed to a one-year deal with the New York Giants on March 31. What it means: The Bears will need to continue to search for depth at cornerback in the latter stages of free agency and into the draft in May. Bowman was not only a valuable special teams contributor, he aksi provided insurance on defense in the eight games Charles Tillman missed last season due to injury. Bowman's size -- he's 6-foot-1, 196 pounds -- allows him to match up with bigger receivers. And he held his own when needed on defense in 2013, matching Tillman with three interceptions, including two in a December road win over the Browns. With both Tillman and Tim Jennings re-signed and penciled in as the likely opening day starters and Kelvin Hayden and Isaiah Frey competing for the slot corner role, the Bears other reserve corners at present are Sherrick McManis, C.J. Wilson, Demontre Hurst, Derrick Martin and Derricus Purdy.
-- The Bears and former Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen agreed on a four-year deal that includes $15.5 million guaranteed. What it means: Allen is the impact pass rusher the Bears are counting on to fill their glaring void. He had 11 1/2 sacks at age 31 last season. And consider Julius Peppers was the only Bear with more than four sacks a year ago. Allen at his best is a disruptive pass rusher for whom opposing offenses must plan for. But his arrival comes with questions. The Bears' top priority on defense is improving against the run, coach Marc Trestman has said. And some NFL talent evaluators and analysts have questioned Allen's commitment to defending the run as opposed to his tenacity for tracking down quarterbacks. Fellow free-agent defensive ends Lamarr Houston and Willie Young have reputations as run stoppers, so it will be interesting to see how the Bears deploy the three of them. Allen is a right defensive end, and Houston has extensive experience on the left side, so the Bears figure to position them accordingly in their base defense and sub packages. The Bears have said they plan to capitalize on Houston's versatility, meaning they could move him all over as part of an end rotation that includes Allen, Young and free-agent Israel Idonije. And don't forget the Bears plan to use converted linebacker Shea McClellin as a situational pass rusher. Off the field, Allen is a big personality joining a defense in transition that still includes established veterans such as linebacker Lance Briggs and cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings. The Bears are counting on him to be a steadying influence.
-- Defensive end Corey Wootton has signed a one-year contract with the Minnesota Vikings, a deal reportedly worth up to $2 million. What it means: For the second time in free agency, a former Bears starting defensive end has found a new home within the division. Julius Peppers went to Green Bay and now Wootton lands in Minneapolis. Wootton's exit means the Bears will be without one of their most unselfish and jovial contributors from 2013. But with Wootton coming off hip surgery following a season in which his statistical production dipped as his role varied, the Bears never made a push to re-sign him. And their intentions to better their pass rush became clear with the signings of ends Lamarr Houston and Willie Young in the first week of free agency. Now, Wootton will get a new start with new Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer.
-- Defensive tackle Henry Melton's free agency tour came to an end with a new deal from the Dallas Cowboys. The deal is reportedly a one-year deal with a potential three-year option. What it means: The Bears need an impact player at three-technique, seeing as how they consider it among the most important positions in their defense. With earlier re-signings of Jeremiah Ratliff and Nate Collins, the Bears bolstered their depth at the position. But it would not be a surprise if they targeted it early in May's draft, perhaps with the No. 14 overall pick, where players such as Pitt's Aaron Donald, Florida State's Timmy Jernigan and Minnesota's Ra'Shede Hageman might be available. Melton's burst and quickness made him a pass-rushing threat, and the Bears covet a similar disruptive presence. They encouraged Melton to establish his value on the open market and did not feel compelled to match the Cowboys' offer, keeping in mind he's less than six months removed from reconstructive knee surgery. Whether Melton regains his explosiveness with the Cowboys will be interesting to watch from afar.
--The Bears finalized a one-year contract for cornerback and special teams standout Sherrick McManis. What it means: The Northwestern product is in the mix to contribute again this year. McManis, 26, was second on the team with 15 special teams tackles last season and 12 of them were solos. He has been considered one of the top special teams players on the team the last two years.
-- The Bears agreed to a one-year deal with defensive lineman Israel Idonije, who played for the Lions last season after spending 2004-12 with the Bears. What it means: Idonije had half a sack with the Lions in 15 games as a reserve last season, so it's ambitious to count on him to significantly improve the Bears pass rush. But he adds versatility and depth up front, an important asset given the organization's preparedness to move on without free-agent Corey Wootton, who is recovering from hip surgery. Idonije is positioned to join outside linebacker Shea McClellin as a situational pass rusher who complements first-stringers Lamarr Houston and Willie Young.
-- The Bears agreed to one-year deals with safeties Craig Steltz and Danny McCray. What it means: These are the third and fourth safeties to sign with the Bears in the last week, evidence of general manager Phil Emery's desire to intensify the competition for playing time at the position after Major Wright and Chris Conte underperformed in 2013. However, both Steltz and McCray are expected to make their biggest impact on special teams. Steltz, who's back for his seventh season with the Bears, ranked third on the team last season with 14 special teams tackles. He is a sound tackler whose physicality near the line of scrimmage is an asset. McCray started 10 games for the Cowboys in 2012.
-- The Bears re-signed cornerback Charles Tillman, agreeing to terms on a one-year deal that could total $3.4 million, of which $750,000 is guaranteed. What it means: Tillman's three interceptions and three forced fumbles in eight games last season demonstrate he still can be the playmaker the Bears' defense needs. Also, his leadership and presence should help a defense that's reshuffling. With Tim Jennings back, the Bears' cornerback tandem has experience, familiarity and a proven track record of success. But at age 33, Tillman has to remain available. He battled groin and knee injuries for the first two months of last season, then missed the final seven games after tearing his right triceps. He projects to remain a starter next season, but it would not be a shock if the Bears sought out a rookie corner in the early rounds of May's draft to develop behind Tillman.
-- The Bears signed defensive end Willie Young to a three-year contract worth $9 million. What it means: The financial details of Young's new deal indicate the Bears see him as a viable starting option on the edge. Young has been in the league for four years, originally a seventh-round pick of the Lions in 2010. But last season was his first as a full-time starter on defense. He made 15 starts, contributed 47 tackles and had three sacks. He's an athletic and rangy player who can be disruptive. But his arrival shouldn't be classified as a big-splash acquisition. After signing Lamarr Houston to a five-year deal early in free agency, Bears general manager Phil Emery may have found the guy to start opposite Houston at end. The Bears certainly need help and depth at the position. They cut Julius Peppers shortly after free agency began, are moving Shea McClellin from end to strongside linebacker and have no designs at present of re-signing Corey Wootton, who had hip surgery in January and is now a free agent. Young's arrival could help stimulate a pass rush that produced a league-low 31 sacks last year.
--The Bears terminated the contract of defensive end Julius Peppers. What it means: The Peppers transaction is hardly a surprise. He was on the books to make $14 million in 2014 with a salary cap hit north of $18 million. By cutting Peppers, the Bears were able to free up an additional $9.8 million in cap space, chunks of which will be needed to accomodate their bigger free agent signees, including defensive ends Lamarr Houston and Willie Young and safety Ryan Mundy. In four seasons with the Bears, Peppers delivered 38 sacks, three interceptions, nine forced fumbles and seven fumble recoveries. He turned 34 in January, but that didn't stop the Green Bay Packers from signing him.
-- The Bears signed safety Ryan Mundy to a two-year deal. What it means: In the first 90 minutes of the new league year, the Bears were able to address two major needs, bolstering their pass rush with the signing of defensive end Lamarr Houston, then adding a starting caliber safety in Mundy. Mundy, who turned 29 this winter, played in 2013 with the Giants, recording 77 tackles and one interception. He spent the first four seasons of his career with the Steelers. He's made only 14 career starts in his first five NFL seasons. But it's been expected that the Bears will let Major Wright walk away in free agency, leaving Mundy as a frontrunner to start alongside Chris Conte on the defense's back end.
-- The Bears agreed to a five-year, $35 million deal with defensive end Lamarr Houston just as free agency began. What it means: With $15 million in guaranteed money, the 26-year-old pass rusher will leave Oakland to boost the Bears' defensive line. Houston spent his first four seasons in Oakland and had a career-high six sacks in 2013 to go along with 69 tackles and two forced fumbles. Houston was a second-round pick in 2010. He's 6-foot-3 and said he is most comfortable playing around 280 pounds. And he's known as a hard worker. Now, the Bears are gambling on Houston realizing his full potential for a defense that had a league-low 31 sacks last season. After losing out to Seattle on Michael Bennett, general manager Phil Emery's ability to find a potential difference-making edge rusher is a good way to make a splash in free agency's first hour..
--The Bears finalized a new one-year contract with linebacker D.J. Williams. What it means: Both sides had been intent on remaining together and so in the days and hours before free agency began, it was all a matter of ironing out the contract details. Now that Williams is re-signed, he immediately becomes the front runner to start at middle linebacker, holding an advantage over Jon Bostic, who could offer competition there. Williams missed the final 10 games of last season with a torn pectoral. But in his six starts, he recorded 39 tackles with 4 1/2 tackles for loss and an additional three sacks, playing with a combination of power and instinct that impressed Bears general manager Phil Emery.
-- The Bears agreed with linebacker Jordan Senn on a one-year deal. What it means: This is a special teams signing more than anything else. Senn has spent the past five seasons with the Panthers, where he was a special teams captain last season. He started his career with two seasons in Indianapolis. The Bears had little desire to bring linebacker and special teams regular Blake Costanzo back. And Senn appears to be Costanzo's replacement. Senn made seven starts on defense in 2011 but has far more value as a special teamer.
--On March 10, defensive end Michael Bennett re-signed with the Seahawks, landing a new four-year deal reportedly worth $28.5 million to stay with the Super Bowl champions. What it means: The Bears’ aggressive and determined efforts to woo Bennett into a Chicago reunion with his brother Martellus did not pan out. Even with contract figures that trumped the money Seattle was offering, the Bears couldn’t convince Michael Bennett to leave a team, a system and a city where he found a great fit in 2013. With Bennett off the board, the Bears shifted their focus on the open market for difference-making pass rushers. And with Michael Johnson headed to play for Lovie Smith in Tampa Bay, Oakland’s Lamarr Houston became the best defensive end available for the Bears to pursue.
-- The Bears did not tender safety Anthony Walters the required one-year, $1.43 million contract required to secure his rights before free agency, according to a source with knowledge of the situation. What it means: This was expected, as the Bears could sign a starter for approximately that much money, and Walters was a special teamer last season. Don't rule out Walters' return to the Bears at a cheaper price.
--On March 9, the Bears re-signed defensive tackle Nate Collins to a one-year contract. What it means: Coming off an ACL tear that cost him the final 11 games of the season, Collins knew he wouldn’t have significant leverage or a surplus of suitors on the open market. So he opted to remain with the Bears under defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, with whom he has plenty of familiarity. Collins bolsters the depth at defensive tackle. But his signing wasn’t expected to impact the Bears’ efforts to re-sign Henry Melton.
-- The Bears agreed to a one-year contract with former Saints center Brian de la Puente on April 6. What it means: de la Puente was signed to back up Roberto Garza, and he immediately tops the list of possible successors to the 35-year-old. Garza is to the point of his career where he annually reassesses his desire to keep playing, so it's wise for the Bears to consider who will eventually replace him. de la Puente, who turns 29 in May, provides experienced depth, having started 44 of 48 games for the Saints over the last three seasons. Bears offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer knows de la Puente well from their time together with the Saints. The Saints were willing to part with de la Puente, and the open market produced only a one-year minimum contract for him, which is an indication of how other teams evaluated him. Perhaps Kromer can continue to develop him.
-- The Bears agreed to re-sign swing tackle Eben Britton to a one-year deal on April 4. What it means: Re-signing Britton deepens the offensive continuity to include one of last season's key reserves. Coach Marc Trestman at his media breakfast at the NFL owners' meetings praised Britton's versatility and knowledge of different positions. That provides some insurance in case the Bears' good health on the offensive line doesn't carry over from last season. Don't undervalue how important it was for the Bears to start the same five linemen in all 16 games last season. That said, Britton's impact this season will depend on the offensive line's collective health and whether the team's tight end depth (or lack thereof) requires him to repeat his role as a sixth-eligible lineman. The Bears hope to find a more complete tight end to back up Martellus Bennett, either in the later rounds of the draft or a priority college free agent. That would alleviate the need for Britton to serve as an extra blocker. After all, he's not a pass-catching threat, and the Bears would prefer that element of unpredictability and versatility from a sixth blocker.
-- The Bears terminated the contract of veteran wide receiver Earl Bennett after he declined a pay cut. What it means: The Bears created $2.45 million in salary cap space for 2014 and also a void at No. 3 receiver. Second-year receiver Marquess Wilson has general manager Phil Emery's confidence, but the seventh-round pick is unproven after only two catches for 10 yards as a rookie. The Bears consider Wilson a natural catcher and smooth runner, and they believe he is quick and decisive enough to beat press coverage. Newly signed free agent Domenik Hixon is expected to compete, but he had only seven catches for 55 yards last season for a Carolina Panthers team on which the receiver position was not a strength.
-- Quarterback Josh McCown signed a two-year deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The contract is worth $10 million with incentives potentially pushing it up to $15 million at its maximum value. What it means: The Bears will be searching for a new back-up quarterback with McCown skipping town for much more money and an opportunity to start, McCown also reunites with former Bears coach Lovie Smith in Tampa and will see if, at age 34, he can continue to success he had last season in Chicago. McCown was terrific in five starts and two relief appearances last season. Whether that was mostly due to the offensive system of head coach Marc Trestman and the ability to play with Pro Bowl playmakers Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Matt Forte, is up for debate. But McCown will be able to test his skills in Tampa, with the Bears now needing to find a new reliable No. 2 behind Jay Cutler. Jordan Palmer, the No. 3 for the second half of last season, signed a one-year deal with the Bears before free agency began. But that doesn't mean GM Phil Emery won't continue exploring the open market for a more experienced veteran.
-- The Bears agreed with receiver/special teamer Domenik Hixon on a one-year deal.What it means: Hixon, whose contract has a maximum value of $830,000, provides depth at receiver and also has experience returning punts and kickoffs, although he did neither for the Panthers in 2013. He had only seven receptions for 55 yards last season on a Panthers team for which the receiving corps was not a strength. Receiver Eric Weems played a similar role for the Bears last season. Could that make him redundant, especially considering Weems' $1.6 million cap number for 2014? Not necessarily. Weems would count $500,000 in dead money if the Bears released him, so they'd save only $1.1 million in that scenario. As for Earl Bennett, the Bears don't have another proven No. 3 wideout.
-- The Bears re-signed tight end Dante Rosario. For a second time. What it means: Rosario is returning on a one-year, low-risk deal. The Bears originally had announced his signing Feb. 27, more than a week in advance of free agency. But due to the fine print in Rosario's 2013 contract, a minimum-salary benefit deal, the Bears weren't technically eligible to re-sign Rosario until the opening of the new league year March 11. So formally, they had to release Rosario, a transaction that initially piqued curiosity. Rosario's return gives the Bears another special teams cog and role player, a candidate to compete for the No. 2 tight end job behind Martellus Bennett. Rosario's current contract is also a minimum-salary benefit deal. He is due to earn $855,000 this season and will count $570,000 vs. the salary cap.
-- The Bears released running back Michael Bush. What it means: With Pro Bowler Matt Forte demanding such a heavy workload in Marc Trestman’s offense and Bush proving ordinary at best in the time he did see on the field, the Bears made a shrewd business transaction. Releasing Bush cleared $1.85 million in salary cap space for 2014 and provided the team $2.85 million in cash savings. It also means the Bears will have to search for options to back up Forte in the backfield.
-- Quarterback Jordan Palmer and the Bears agreed to a one-year deal. What it means: Palmer will compete for the backup role behind Cutler. He spent the final 10 weeks of last season with the Bears and also part of the preseason, so he'd have an informational advantage over a draft pick or a free agent signed from the outside. But Palmer has played in only four regular season games in his career and none since 2010. He's a riskier backup option than McCown, but also was much cheaper.
-- Former Bear Devin Hester found a new home in Atlanta, agreeing to a three-year deal to join the Falcons. What it means: It was assumed since last season ended that the Bears would be allowing Hester to move on in 2014 so it shouldn't have been a shock when the team announced in the week before free agency began that they wouldn't be re-signing Hester. To set the record straight, Hester's simply contract expired and was not renewed. He was not released by the Bears, who simply didn't want to make a huge investment in a player at the tail end of his career and only contributing on special teams. Now Hester will chase the NFL's career record for return touchdowns from Atlanta, needing just one more to break his current tie with Deion Sanders. The Falcons hope to find use for Hester outside of special teams, looking at him as a possible weapon as a No. 3 or No. 4 receiver. The Bears, of course, will be searching for new options for punt and kickoff returns. Receiver Domenik Hixon, signed in March, could be in the mix. Chris Williams, signed at the end of last season, will compete for that role, too. And the Bears could seek out another player or two with return skills in May's draft.
-- The Bears signed former CFL long snapper Chad Rempel to a three-year contract on April 7. What it means: Rempel represents some insurance in case long snapper Pat Mannelly decides not to continue his career. Mannelly hopes to play a club-record 17th season following offseason hip surgery, and he is expected to decide this spring whether to do so. By signing Rempel to join Brandon Hartson on the long snapper depth chart, the Bears are insuring they'll have competition at the position in case Mannelly unexpectedly retires.
What’s left to do...
• Find additional depth in the secondary.
• Determine the future of unrestricted free agent linebacker James Anderson, not expected to re-sign in Chicago.
• Determine the future of unrestricted free agent linebacker Blake Costanzo, who's not expected to re-sign in Chicago.
• Determine the future of free agent safety Anthony Walters, who was not tendered a restricted free-agent contract.
• Determine the future of unrestricted free agent defensive tackle Landon Cohen, who's not expected to re-sign in Chicago.
• Pursue potential candidates to be the back-up quarterback to Jay Cutler.
• Search for a backup to running back Matt Forte.
• Determine the future of unrestricted free agent long snapper Patrick Mannelly.
• Determine the future of unrestricted free agent offensive tackle Jonathan Scott.
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