There wasn't much question to the fact that the 2013 Bears would look much different than the 2012 version. With a Head Coaching change usually comes an overhaul of the Staff as well as the Roster. The Bears will stake no claim in any "rebuilding" as speculated by some members of the media. Though this team sprinted out to (7-1), only to miss the Playoffs finishing (10-6), they simply saw areas that needed "re-tooling". Once newly appointed Head Coach Marc Trestman assembled his FULL Staff, him and GM Phil Emery rolled their sleeves back and wasted no time putting together what they believe will be a WINNER in 2013.
The Bears went into the off season with question marks at Offensive Line, Tight End, and Linebacker and needing added depth in the Secondary. The Bears started Free Agency (3/12/13) off with a BIG bang, on the first official day teams could sign players (Bennett and Bushrod). Let's break the current acquisitions down player by player and assign a grade to the pickup based on need and player availability.
3/12/13 Bears sign TE Martellus Bennett (4 yr deal) and LT Jermon Bushrod (5 yr deal). These 2 positions were in desperate need of a production boost and Bennett (coming off a 55 catch season w/ the Giants) provides a dual threat that can excel as a blocker in the run game and a receiver in the passing game. At 6'6" the talented Bennett provides QB Jay Cutler with a downfield threat to work the seam and another BIG redzone target ( along with the 6'4" Brandon Marshall and 6'3" Alshon Jeffery) and at only 26 the Bears feel his best days as a Pro are ahead of him. There were other options the Bears could have looked at (like Jared Cook, Dustin Keller and Delanie Walker to name a few) but with Bennett you get a combination of receiving and blocking skills in a 6'6" frame that the others just didn't offer. This move gets an (A). Bushrod, 28 (turns 29 in August), is a frontline Left Tackle coming into his prime and a former Pro Bowler (2011). He comes to a team with a desperate need to improve it's pass protection and having a chance to re-unite with Bears new Offensive Coordinator/O-Line Coach Aaron Kromer allows the former 4th round pick to be coached by a familiar voice despite being in a totally new environment. The Bears may have overpaid for Mr. Bushrod's services, in the eyes of some, but that's how it is when you have to "outsource" for certain team needs via Free Agency. Other names like Jake Long, Bryant McKinnie and Sebastian Vollmer were available but Bushrod was said to be the Bears target all along. This move gets an (A+)
3/15 - 3/16/13 Bears re-sign 2 of their own Free Agents in DT Nate Collins (1 yr deal) and CB Zack Bowman (1 yr deal) respectively. Collins is a guy they picked up from Jacksonville last year and at 25 gives them a young body that adds depth to a defensive line that had a good year creating pressure on opposing QBs that led to multiple takeaway opportunities. New Bears Defensive Coordinator Mel Tucker is familiar with Collins (from his days in Jacksonville) and hopes the 4th yr Pro out of Virginia can develop into a productive contributor for this Bears defensive unit. This move gets a (C+). Bowman experienced a resurgence in his 2nd stint with the Bears (after being released by the Vikings during the season) and filled in on defense and was tremendous on special teams coverage units. Bowman will have an opportunity to compete at Nickel back and hopes to regain his 2009 form that saw him pick off 6 passes in 12 starts. The Bears would like that as well. This move gets a (C+).
3/20-3/21/13 Bears agree to terms with DE Turk McBride (1 yr deal) and TE Steve Maneri (2 yr deal). McBride was an interesting signing to me because it seems the Bears valued him over the versatile Israel Idonije (who still remains unsigned at this point). McBride (turns 28 in May) is the younger of the 2 but Idonije (turns 33 in November) has been more productive (7.5 sacks last year to 0 for McBride). There is STILL a chance the Bears could bring Idonije back for his 10th yr (ALL with the Bears) but other teams have shown interest in his services. The Bears are hoping Defensive Line Coach Mike Phair can bring out the potential in McBride (a former 2nd rd pick by the Chiefs in 2007). I'll take production over potential, even though McBride is 5 years younger. McBride may get a re-do after this year and maybe a better grade if the Bears re-sign Idonije but if the move was McBride over Idonije this move gets a (D). The 25 year old Maneri is a very interesting prospect. The 6'6" 290 lb former Offensive Tackle is a tremendous blocker and will really help in pass protection and goal line sets. He replaces little used Matt Spaeth who has re-signed with his former team the Steelers. Assuming Evan Rodriguez stays at fullback, Maneri could possibly be the teams #2 Tight End (him or Kyle Adams) and I'm curious to see how well he catches the ball. Spaeth (6 catches in 16 gms last season) didn't give the Bears much in the receiving game and I'm not sure Maneri (5 catches in 13 gms last season) will be much more of a factor either but we'll see. I'll give this lateral acquisition a (C+) No reason to love it or hate it. *shrug*
3/23/13 Bears sign LB D.J. Williams (1 yr deal) and S Tom Zbikowski (1 yr deal). The Williams signing came on the heels of the team deciding not to re-sign LB Brian Urlacher, one of their All-Time Greats, and the departures of Nick Roach (to Oakland) and Geno Hayes (to Jacksonville). The sirens were really going off because LB went from being a position that needed depth to a position that now needed potential starters AND depth. As a long time fan of this franchise, it was tough to know #54 would no longer roam the MIKE linebacker position for the Orange and Navy. I salute him for his Defensive Rookie of the Year (2000), Defensive Player of the Year (2005), 4 x's 1st team All-Pro and 8 Pro Bowls but it's been clear the last few seasons that Urlacher was not the same Player that produced these very accomplishments. I'll even go on record to say that Williams (4 yrs younger) will anchor a LB Unit that still features 7 x Pro Bowler and the newly signed James Anderson (of Carolina) that by all accounts should out perform last year's unit with Briggs, Urlacher and Roach. This move gets a (B+). I like the Zbikowski signing because it adds a veteran to the mix at Safety to push young incumbents Chris Conte and Major Wright to continue improving. I also think it puts pressure on veteran Craig Steltz and last year's 3rd round pick Brandon Hardin (who sat the entire season due to a neck injury) to even make the team. One of these 3 (Zbikowski, Steltz and Hardin) are the "odd man out" what should be a hotly contested battle for a backup Safety position. Zbikowski also can return kicks and punts if needed. This move gets a (B-).
3/24 - 3/26/13 Bears sign LB James Anderson (1 yr deal) and re-sign veteran OT Jonathan Scott (1 yr deal) and CB Kelvin Hayden (1 yr deal). I like the Anderson (turns 30 in September) signing because it brings in a solid veteran that's been a starter the last 3 seasons and a productive one at that. Anderson will make the tackles Roach use to miss on a regular basis and gives the Bears a solid starting unit with Him, Williams and Briggs. This move gets an (A). Scott was an in season pickup last year that stepped in to start 7 of 12 gms played (when Chris Williams was released and Gabe Carimi was ineffective) and did an admirable job. Bringing him back puts him in the mix for the starting right tackle position with the aforementioned Carimi and former starting left tackle J'Marcus Webb. Bringing a solid contributor back at a reasonable rate that can push your younger players to be better is never a bad thing. This move gets a (C+). Bears brass are hoping Carimi can lock down the right guard spot and the loser between Scott and Webb ends up the swing tackle. Hayden was a player that decided to test the market after generating 5 takeaways (1 Int and 4 fumble recoveries) for his hometown Bears. Hayden (turns 30 in July) played all 16 gms with 2 starts (for the injured Tim Jennings) and won the Nickel job from the departed D.J. Moore and will have 1st crack at that position again this season. He had some struggles at times but will be playing for another contract at the end of the year and Bears brass hope he can build on his 5 takeaways from last year. I give this move a (B).
3/28 - 3/30/13 Bears re-sign RB Armando Allen (1 yr deal) and QB Josh McCown (1 yr deal) and add G Matt Slauson (1 yr deal). Allen was a guy I liked a lot, despite limited playing time. He is a guy I'm hoping THIS coaching staff will use more as he's solid with the ball in space both rushing and receiving and could help keep RBs Matt Forte and Michael Bush fresh down the stretch. I doubt they'll carry 3 RBs on the active roster but Allen is a guy that has stepped in and shown he can play when pressed into duty. there's no doubt in my mind that Coach Trestman and Co. liked enough on tape to bring him back. I give this move a (B). McCown has found a way to just kind of "stick around' after being recruited from the high school coaching ranks in North Carolina when Cutler went down with a thumb injury 2 seasons ago. The defection of Jason Campbell made it imperative that the Bears bring a veteran in to back up starter Jay Cutler and Mccown is an inexpensive, experienced option that has been around this team the past few seasons. I do look for the team to bring in another veteran, possibly when camp starts, and may draft a young QB to develop in Trestman's offense. This move gets a (C+). I like the Slauson move a lot because it gives the Bears a veteran (just turned 27) that's started all 16 gms 3 straight seasons (and didn't give up a sack last year) on the heels of losing G Lance Louis to the Dolphins. Slauson is a guy the Bears can slide into that LG spot and gives them flexibility in the upcoming Draft as well. This move gets an (A).
The Bears have done themselves well in a Free Agency period where many didn't feel they'd have the financial flexibility to acquire the type of talent that they have. There are still a few tweaks to be done to the roster (a few more releases and possible contract restructurings) that could free up a little more "wiggle room" for GM Phil Emery to fill out this roster. There is no doubt that with the moves made, to this point, the Bears are in better position to Draft "best player available" instead of strictly on "need". Emery has made it known that he is "open for business" as it relates to trading out of the 20th spot in the 1st round (in an effort to pick up more picks) in a draft rich in WR and CB talent. The Draft is upon us and this team will be reporting to mini-camp before we know it. Emery and Trestman have put this team in position to be a force in the NFC North, based on the moves made to this point. We all know, of course, that Championships aren't won in April nor on "paper". Stay tuned to see how this work of art comes together come late December/early January ... Hopefully the optimism will be budding for a strong Playoff run and not looking ahead to the off-season and Free Agency of 2014 ...