Monday, March 29, 2010

Bears spend big, but will it bring big results?

When you draft as poorly as Jerry Angelo, you need to turn to the free agent market in order to improve your team. And when you trade away virtually all of your draft picks for a franchise quarterback, you really need to look to free agency to fill your team's holes.

So that's exactly what the Bears have done, making a splash--hell, doing a cannonball--on the first day of free agency by signing DE Julius Peppers, RB Chester Taylor, and TE Brandon Manumaleuna.

As the Bears' Chicago counterparts on the North side have shown them, free agency ain't cheap. Peppers: $91.5 million, $42 guaranteed. Taylor: $12.5 million, $7 guaranteed. Manumaleuna: $17 million, $6 guaranteed.

They've anted up, but will the new additions up their win total?

I really like the additional of Taylor to the backfield. In his only season as a Viking in which he got the bulk of the carries, he ran for 1,216 yards. While no one knows if the thief who stole Matt Forte's talent will return it in time for the 2010 season, the Bears now have two solid backs. Plus, Taylor is adept at catching passes from the halfback position--he's had 40+ receptions four of the last five years. The Bears had no balance on offense last year; hopefully having more talent at the running back position will provide some.

The other offensive addition is not quite as dynamic. In fact, Manumaleuna has had no more than 15 receptions since 2003. He is the reason the phrase "blocking tight end" exists. He's 6-foot-2, 295 pounds, and has played in high-powered offenses such as Mike Martz's greatest show on turf and the recent Chargers' squads. It's hard to get excited about a blocking tight end, but the Bears should be willing to pay a trash can $17 million if it can block.

The 2009 Bears defense had a unique ability to make opposing quarterbacks feel comfortable. Peppers should help to change that. While he's over the hill as far as defensive linemen go (he's 30--there's no way the Bears keep him around for all six years of his contract), he was in the top 10 in the NFL in sacks in 2006, 2008 and 2009. Football's big secret is that it's all about the offensive and defensive lines: get pressure on the other team's quarterback and protect your own QB, and you'll win your share of games. For this reason, Peppers makes the Bears' D significantly better. He makes the rest of the defensive line better because he'll draw double teams. He makes Urlacher and the linebacking corps better for the same reason. He makes the secondary better because they shouldn't have to cover their receivers for quite as long. He was seriously overpaid, but if he has a couple real good seasons with 10 or 12 sacks, he could help revive a flatlining Bears defense.

Of course, what frustrated Bears fans more than anything last year were Cutler's boneheaded plays and a lack of protection from the offensive line. None of the above free agents will fix those problems, and a limited number of draft picks--including none in the first two rounds--won't help, either. If Brett Favre returns to the Vikings, are the Bears now better than them? I don't think so. Are they better than the Packers? I'm not so sure. After all, it's difficult to turn a 7-9 team into an 11-5 team with one Friday's worth of free agents.

But give the Bears credit. They put themselves into a corner by limiting themselves to free agency, but they didn't sit around when it came time to improve the team. The Bears are a better team than they were when their season ended in January. But don't let all those dollar signs fool you--there's still work to be done.

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