With the acquisition of Jared Allen, the Chicago Bears have now moved the needle on free agency as much or more than any team in the NFL, with the exception of the Denver Broncos, and have to be considered the co-favorites to win the NFC North.
Are they Super Bowl contenders? Let's have a draft first.
The Bears could be one of the oldest defenses in the NFL, but in Allen, Jeremiah Ratliff, Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings, you can now state that half the starters on defense have been to multiple Pro Bowls. All but Briggs, along with Lamarr Houston, Ryan Mundy and Willie Young, were free agents. It is almost certain all seven of those free agents will be opening day starters.
Plug in D.J. Williams, who has at times played close to a Pro Bowl level when healthy, and you’ve essentially got nine new starters – if you include Briggs – for the team that had such a disastrous second half of the 2013 season.
As they suggested they might at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, Phil Emery and Marc Trestman have rebuilt the Bears' entire defense in one offseason – albeit with the return of a few injured stars – just as they did with the offense in 2013.
Of course, the rub is all those Pro Bowlers – with the possible exception of Jennings and Williams – are clearly past their primes, so how much will they have left and can they stay healthy? Allen was the missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle and now it’s definitely worth a shot to find out. It won’t be a dominant defense, but now it should be good enough.
I have written and said since they signed him that Lamarr Houston might be the best three-technique in the NFL, but I don’t see how he projects as a right end. With the option of starting Allen and Young at end and David Bass, Cheta Ozougwu, Cornelius Washington, Trevor Scott, Austen Lane and Izzy Idonije all competing to be the third and fourth rotational rushers, there’s now no need to waste Houston there.
Certainly you can slide him outside and up and down the line on occasion – although, unlike Julius Peppers, Allen should not slide inside – but starting Houston at tackle would give the Bears a rare asset.
Both Houston and Ratliff are talented enough to play the three-technique or the anchor/nose tackle, stuff the run or be disruptive in the backfield. Most teams don’t have one player like that. The Bears have two. If Nate Collins is healthy, don’t be surprised if Stephen Paea is the odd man out. Or will competition for a roster spot make Paea the player Jerry Angelo and Lovie Smith hoped he would be?
What’s left to do? Mundy deserves a shot to start, but he’ll never be mistaken for one of the top safeties in the league. The Bears still need two starting safeties, depth at cornerback and more pass rush. You can’t be overly excited about any of the six guys competing for the third and fourth end spots.
And, of course, just because Shea McClellin and Jonathan Bostic are competing for the "Sam" linebacker spot doesn’t mean you have a good one, but you have to be a lot more comfortable with the experiment than you were yesterday.
The Bears still aren’t better than the Packers. Peppers could very well prove to be a more compelling get for them than Allen is for the Bears, and Aaron Rodgers is still an easy choice over Jay Cutler.
But the two clubs are competitive at every other position and it may be as simple as the team that stays the healthiest wins the North.
Certainly, there is much work for the Bears left to do, but now we’ve got a border war!
Oh, and by the way Vikings and Lions, how do you like that one?