WHEN TIGHT end Martellus Bennett teased Phil Emery about the general manager's no-new-contracts edict at the outset of training camp, Emery was quick with a comeback.
"You're the reason nobody else is getting deals," Emery told Bennett, who had already signed a four-year, $20.4 million free-agent pact during the off-season.
In an off-season of modest renewal for the Bears, the second-year G.M. has ambitiously toed the line between a roster rebuild and win-now mode. By making free-agency bids for established talent (Bennett and former Saints left tackle Jermon Bushrod) while simultaneously delaying decisions on several expiring contracts, Emery is setting up Chicago for contention in 2013, while leaving open the option of a roster razing in '14. It's not unlike the direction the Ravens took following their Super Bowl XLVII victory.
Emery has been willing to make hard decisions, the most notable of which involved Brian Urlacher, the face of the franchise for the last 13 years. The 35-year-old former NFL defensive player of the year became an unrestricted free agent in March, after earning a base salary of $7.5 million in 2012. The Bears were offering a one-year, $2 million deal for '13. Urlacher chose to move on and soon after retired. "The weight of that negotiation was not unfelt," says Emery. "I understood that if Brian didn't come back, there was going to be disappointment—on my part as well."
Age (on both sides of the ball) and the offensive line are the two biggest enemies of a franchise that finished 10--6 and out of the postseason for the fifth time in six years. Emery was especially aggressive in spackling the industrial-sized cracks in front of quarterback Jay Cutler, adding Bushrod and left guard Matt Slauson through free agency, and by drafting Oregon's Kyle Long with the 20th pick. Long has been one of the pleasant surprises of the preseason, moving plenty of bodies for backs Matt Forte and Michael Bush in new coach Marc Trestman's West Coast offense, which will run the ball more than most assume. (Whatever your philosophy, you would run the ball more often given the Bears' recent, disastrous history of pass protection; they've graded in the bottom five of the league in each of the last three years.) Long, the second NFL-playing son of Hall of Fame defensive end Howie Long (Chris Long is a defensive end for the Rams), takes on an especially critical role at right guard, with the right tackle position in flux: J'Marcus Webb may have lost the starting job to another rookie, Jordan Mills, a fifth-rounder.
At least the youngsters are pushing for jobs on offense. Lance Briggs will replace Urlacher as the primary defensive play-caller, but it's unclear how much longer he or his fellow thirtysomething brethren have left in navy blue. Cornerbacks Charles Tillman, 32, and Tim Jennings, 29, will each look to negotiate new contracts after the season. Emery brought in former Bronco D.J. Williams on a one-year deal to replace Urlacher, but the front office would love to see second-round pick Jon Bostic assert himself. So far, the reviews have been mixed; Bostic has struggled to get off blocks in the run game, but he excels in space, bringing highlight-reel hits. Plus, Emery adds, "it was very important that if we were going to take a linebacker in the second round, we got somebody who could immediately fill in all three spots."
Should Bostic nestle into the middle linebacker spot in Mel Tucker's 4--3 defense in place of Williams, who dealt with a calf injury in preseason, he'll twice meet Vikings running back and 2012 MVP Adrian Peterson. That could look ugly the first time around, but it's drafted players like Bostic and Long—young and rough around the edges—whom Emery would prefer to make a living off of rather than free agents. Certainly, he's seen the success That Team to the North has enjoyed abiding by that philosophy.
"With the current cap model, draft picks working out is the way to go," he says. "The cost of the younger players is lower. If you want cap flexibility to bring in key dynamic [veterans], that approach allows you to do that."
THE CASE FOR...
Quarterback Jay Cutler
The Chicago media called it a throwmance: Cutler to Brandon Marshall, 194 times. Nearly half of the QB's attempts went to his new No. 1 target. The good news is that a WR led the Bears in catches for the first time since Cutler arrived in 2009. The bad news is that one-dimensional offenses don't win titles. (Marshall was on the receiving end of 48 of Cutler's 81 completions during a 1--5 late-season free fall that cost Chicago a playoff berth.) New coach Marc Trestman, formerly of the Montreal Alouettes, is the perfect remedy for what ailed the Bears' passing game. Last season in the CFL three of the top 12 leaders in receiving yards were Alouettes, and in each of the past two years Trestman's teams boasted a pair of players among the league's 10 or so 1,000-yard WRs. To go hand in hand with the breaking of bad habits, new TE Martellus Bennett will be a useful hot read for a QB who was sacked 38 times in '12 and who hasn't enjoyed a proficient pass-catching tight end since '10. Add to that an O-line revamp and the maturation of second-year WR Alshon Jeffery, and it's a gimme that Cutler will improve on his middle-of-the-road 81.3 passer rating from '12.
SINCE YOU'VE BEEN GONE
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
RG KYLE LONG
AL TIELEMANS/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED