Bears can't afford a luxury

Better off spending money on something they need more than want

For a team whose makeshift offense begs for a makeover, the Bears signing free-agent defensive end Mario Williams would be like a guy buying a big-screen plasma TV to watch from the futon in his studio apartment.

The Bears would be better off spending money on something they need more than want. They desperately need players who will provide points and protection more than sacks. Williams represents a luxury, an $18 million-a-year hood ornament that indeed would give the Bears the NFL's best bookend pass-rushers who would have to dominate on a team forced to win every game 10-9.

With $24 million in salary-cap space, the Bears easily can afford Williams. What they can't afford is to ignore the offense again in the offseason tradition of Jerry Angelo. Quarterback Jay Cutler stands ready to enter his prime. Help him, Phil Emery, before your stockpiling of sack men translates into more Cutler sacks too.

Illinois sent none of its 13 Division I basketball schools to the NCAA tournament, so Chicago will rely on the Bears to generate any March madness beginning at 3 p.m. Tuesday, when the free-agent signing period begins. The intriguing idea of the Bears adding Williams, a younger version of Julius Peppers, keeps gaining momentum in league circles.

What is it they say about too much of a good thing?

I subscribe to the theory that defense wins championships, the latest evidence coming in the Giants' Super Bowl XLVI win in which when they held the Patriots to 17 points. The Giants proved no team can have enough pass-rushers. If the Bears signed Williams, the move would be hard to roundly criticize given the overall talent and how it should give Lovie Smith his best defense ever.

But the oft-overlooked lesson of the Giants championship came when Eli Manning stood behind a sturdy offensive line and completed the clutch pass of the game to big-play wide receiver Mario Manningham. Sturdy offensive line and big-play wide receiver aren't terms I recall using in relation to the Bears offense since the Cutler trade three years ago.

A smart priority list for Emery and an aggressive financial approach by the Bears can change the way we describe the offense by week's end.

By all means, the Bears should engage Williams in negotiations in case they strike out with more necessary targets. But when writing big checks for free agents, focus on defensive end only after addressing wide receiver and the offensive line. And their first point of emphasis defensively should be in the secondary, not the front seven.

To be more specific, Emery's first call should be to wide receiver Vincent Jackson. Then guard Carl Nicks. Then safety LaRon Landry. Those players fill more glaring needs and would represent a wiser allocation of funds than Williams, likely the most expensive free agent on the market.

When building a championship roster, how a GM allocates money can matter as much as how he evaluates talent. Consider how much money the Bears already have invested on defense for 2012. The respective salary-cap hits for Peppers ($12.183 million), Brian Urlacher ($9.7 million), Charles Tillman ($7.96 million) and Lance Briggs ($5.99 million) total nearly $36 million — 30 percent of the cap space occupied by four core defensive players. Williams' salary potentially could push that toward $50 million for five players — 40 percent overall.

Cutler comes at a cost of $9.6 million in '12 and Matt Forte, due to the franchise tag, will count $7.7 million against the cap — unless they finally strike a new deal. To balance the roster, and the books, the offense needs two more big-ticket items.

Ignoring the obvious offensive shortcomings to pursue Williams also would make me wonder how much faith Smith still has in his beloved Cover-2 scheme. How many Pro Bowlers does one defense need to function? Draft a defensive tackle, sign a discarded veteran, more affordable impact pass-rusher such as Kamerion Wimbley and find creative ways to coach your way through the rest of the problems.

Did anybody wake up the day after the Bears season ended and think, boy, another pass-rusher would put this team over the top? But add a downfield threat the caliber of Jackson — or, to a lesser degree Marques Colston — and a Pro Bowl-caliber offensive lineman such as Nicks or Ben Grubbs, and optimism reigns again at Halas Hall.

Emery has an opportunity to achieve instant credibility and buy the Bears back into playoff contention. Or, if he neglects a needy offense again for the sake of defense, the decision will be much harder to defend than the Bears next season.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh
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