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Phil Emery’s gamble with Bears’ free agents pays off

Cincinnati Bengals v Chicago Bears

Cincinnati Bengals v Chicago Bears

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Updated: December 18, 2013 4:00PM



Bears general manager Phil Emery understood the risk of having more than half the players on his roster in their final contract year in 2013, including Jay Cutler, Charles Tillman, Henry Melton, Devin Hester, Tim Jennings and Robbie Gould.

If they all had great seasons, Emery probably wouldn’t be able to keep them all.

‘‘That’s a problem I look forward to,’’ he said in July.

As it’s turned out, that hasn’t come to fruition. And with the Bears in control of their playoff destiny with two games to go, Emery’s gambit is looking more and more like a winning move. The Bears still could make the playoffs without any impending free agent having a break-the-bank season.

Most of the Bears’ key contributors to their 8-6 record are signed for 2014 and beyond. Only one of their 40 offensive touchdowns was scored by an upcoming free agent (quarterback Josh McCown leaped into the end zone for a seven-yard score against the Dallas Cowboys on Dec. 9). Wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, the breakout star of the offense, is in line for a big-money extension but still has two seasons left on his rookie contract.

Jeffery’s situation bears watching, but as far as the 2014 free agents are concerned, Emery and Bears negotiator Cliff Stein are unlikely to have to jump through too many hoops to keep everybody they want this offseason.

Melton, a Pro Bowl defensive tackle in 2012, is coming off a knee injury that ended his season after three games. Cornerback Tillman, who may or may not want to play for the Bears in 2014, also is coming off an injury that limited him to eight games.

Jennings, a Pro Bowl cornerback in 2012, is playing at a high level; he’s the only full-time starter on the defense with a positive rating by Pro Football Focus. But he’s still playing in one of the lowest-ranked defenses, and while he has two touchdowns this season, he only has three interceptions, well below his league-leading nine of 2012.

Hester still is a threat as a kick returner. He has one punt return for a touchdown and saw another one nullified by penalty. But, at 30, he hasn’t had a breakout season as a dedicated kick returner.

Defensive lineman Corey Wootton, who had seven sacks last season, has only two this season. His impact has been mitigated by selflessly helping to fill the void at tackle. Regrettably for Wootton, sacks have much more value than being a team guy in the NFL.

Many of the Bears’ most valuable free agents are unlikely to be cost-prohibitive. Robbie Gould is having another fine season (25 of 28 field goals, 116 points), but kicker is the second-lowest-paid position in football. Guard Matt Slauson is the Bears’ highest-rated offensive lineman, according to Pro Football Focus, but guard is the fifth-lowest-paid position. Blake Costanzo is their leading special-teams tackler, but he plays almost exclusively on special teams.

Emery probably would rather have tougher decisions to make. But he at least should have more room to maneuver. A year ago, the Bears didn’t make the playoffs and still had to overpay Melton (an $8.5  million salary-cap hit) after his Pro Bowl season. They are unlikely to be in that kind of pickle with any of their own free agents this offseason.

That includes the biggest of them all, Cutler. While he has a career-high 88.9 passer rating in 2013, Cutler has missed five complete games and parts of two others with injuries. Unlike 2011, when the Bears fell apart after Cutler was injured, they prospered in 2013, with McCown ranked third in the NFL in passer rating (109.8, with 13 touchdown passes and one interception in seven games).

While Cutler was brought to Chicago to lift an offense on his shoulders, this season has made it clear that it’s coach Marc Trestman’s offense and Emery’s supporting cast that have made Cutler as good as he’s ever been. Even when you have a cannon for an arm, there’s a lot to be said for being at the right place at the right time.

If Cutler is intent on breaking the bank, he probably could get a better deal elsewhere with a strong finish because Emery isn’t going to hamstring the salary cap by signing a quarterback to a mega-millions deal. But after all he’s been through in Denver and Chicago, an older, wiser Cutler seems to understand it would not be in his best interest to leave a comfort zone that won’t be easy for him to replicate: coaches he trusts and respects, an offensive line that can keep him clean and skill-position weapons he can depend on. And a best-friend-forever in Brandon Marshall. All in the same place.

Based on McCown’s success, you could argue that Cutler needs the Bears more than they need Cutler. That’s a 180-degree turn from July. Emery has a lot of work to do — especially on defense — but things seem to be slowly turning in his favor.

Email: mpotash@suntimes.com

Twitter: @markpotash



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