Bears landing Bushrod, Bennett was all according to Emery’s plan
BY SEAN JENSEN firstname.lastname@example.org March 16, 2013 12:40AM
Updated: April 18, 2013 7:04AM
Bears general manager Phil Emery couldn’t mask his glee Wednesday at Halas Hall as he introduced his newest players, offensive tackle Jermon Bushrod and tight end Martellus Bennett.
Emery called landing Bushrod, in particular, a ‘‘perfect storm’’ — the rare opportunity to sign a two-time Pro Bowl left tackle in his prime via free agency.
But Emery apparently has a good poker face, and he’s evidently a storm chaser, based on interviews with six league sources who spoke on condition of anonymity.
In his second offseason as a GM, facing a new, three-day negotiating period before the official start of free agency, Emery navigated the process by keeping his cards close to his vest and cashing in his chips to execute what was believed to be the Bears’ most desired plan all along.
He didn’t have to be proactive. The Bears probably were the first call placed by any agent with an offensive lineman. Ditto for agents with tight ends, what with Emery even acknowledging in his post-season news conference that Kellen Davis had had a ‘‘rough year.’’
So the Bears connected with the agents of notable offensive linemen and tight ends — a lot of them — before free agency officially opened Tuesday afternoon.
There were left tackles such as Bushrod, Jake Long and Bryant McKinnie. Right tackles such as Phil Loadholt and Andre Smith. Tight ends such as Bennett, Jared Cook and Dustin Keller. Even guard Andy Levitre.
Emery was casting a wide net.
With only $7.01 million entering free agency, Emery had a small window if he was going to add a coveted lineman and tight end.
The key, of course, was determining the market.
After the NFL Combine, there was speculation that Long was looking for $10 million-plus a year, while Smith and Loadholt wanted to get close to double figures — absurd for those two because they’re right tackles. Cook, meanwhile, reportedly was looking to command a contract on par with elite tight ends, pushing for close to $8 million a year despite limited production.
As for his own free agents, Emery’s primarily focus was Pro Bowl defensive tackle Henry Melton, who received the franchise tag. He publicly acknowledged that he hoped several of the free agents — Brian Urlacher, Jonathan Scott, Israel Idonije and Nick Roach among them — would return, but he privately wanted them back at his price, which is why they hit the market.
For instance, the Bears didn’t place a $1.32 million tag on restricted free-agent defensive tackle Nate Collins. Then, two days after free agency opened, the Bears re-signed Collins for the veteran minimum of $715,000, thus saving $605,000.
The priorities with the limited cap space were a tackle and tight end — and Emery’s patience seemingly paid off.
The Bears did make a play for Loadholt, whom many considered the best right tackle available. But 10 minutes before free agency opened, the Minnesota Vikings announced that Loadholt had re-signed with them. His haul? A four-year deal worth $25 million (an average of $6.25 million) that included $7 million guaranteed.
In Nashville, Levitre agreed to a six-year, $46.8 million (average of $7.8 million) contract with the Tennessee Titans.
But it’s believed Bushrod was the Bears’ top choice.
Although his play was panned, most notably by the website Pro Football Focus, the Bears valued Bushrod’s combination of size, athleticism and development and his relationship with new offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer. In New Orleans, under Kromer, Bushrod ascended from a fourth-round pick into a two-time Pro Bowl selection.
And his price was right; five years, $35.96 million, an average of $7.19 million a season.
The key: The Bears got a talented left tackle instead of a right tackle for less than $1 million more a season, a small price to pay given that Bushrod will be protecting Jay Cutler’s blind side.
As for tight end, the Bears saved $2 million a season. Cook is more athletic, but Bennett is more well-rounded, proven and a much better blocker.
As of Friday, the Bears have $5.6 million in salary-cap space, nearly half of which needs to be allocated for the rookie pool.
If they choose to do more, they can create more space with restructures, releases and extensions, but they’re looking for bargains now — especially with their own free agents.