Appreciating the Excellent Work of Chicago Bears GM Phil Emery
Phil Emery became the general manager of the Chicago Bears in January of 2012.
Emery was taking over a franchise that had just seen its team go 8-8 after reaching the conference final the previous year. With the decorated Lovie Smith instilled as the team’s head coach, Emery had little to do in terms of rebuilding the roster immediately.
In many ways, this was a good landing spot for Emery. He wasn’t taking over a team with no obvious talent and he wouldn’t have to rush any search for a new head coach. Smith wasn’t going anywhere for another season at least.
However, it was also a tough situation to be inserted into.
While Smith allowed him to be patient with his search for a new head coach, it would also be difficult to remove him when the time ultimately came or make an impact on a roster that had an established identity. Furthermore, while the Bears had talent, it was primarily ageing talent on the defensive side of the ball.
Julius Peppers, Brian Urlacher, Israel Idonije, Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman were the staples of the defense. Each of those players had either already declined from their peaks or were in the rapid process of doing so.
There was little Emery could do to affect the defensive side of the ball with Smith still on the staff.
Smith was a defensive coordinator for the St. Louis Rams before he became the Bears head coach in 2004. From the outside-looking-in, he appeared to be primarily involved with creating a dominant defense while allowing the offense to fall into the hands of others.
Emery’s first draft didn’t go so well.
Shea McClellin was the 19th overall selection. The defensive end has really struggled to make any kind of impact during his first two years in the NFL. He is making the move to linebacker ahead of this season and appears to be in the greatest shape he has been in since he was drafted, but to this point he has been a bust.
Wasted picks permeated through Emery’s first draft class, but there were two incredible additions who would overshadow those mistakes.
In the second round of the 2012 draft, with the 45th overall pick, Emery selected South Carolina wide receiver Alshon Jeffery. Concerns over Jeffery’s weight during the pre-draft process caused him to slide in the second round, but what he has done in the NFL since then makes those concerns irrelevant.
Jeffery’s rookie season was positive, but unspectacular. It was his second season that suggested he could be a special player.
Not only did Jeffery finish the regular season with 89 receptions for 1,421 yards and seven touchdowns in 2013, he also did that while playing with backup quarterback Josh McCown. McCown’s statistical production earned him many plaudits around the league, but that statistical production was primarily a result of the weapons around him.
Jeffery’s ability to turn wayward passes into big receptions and his ability to make spectacular adjustments to the football in jump-ball situations really helped McCown. His ability to create separation against bigger defensive backs and catch the ball underneath to create YAC also made him a nightmare to cover.
Yet, Jeffery was the Bears’ second best receiver last season.
When Emery arrived in Chicago, the Bears had been working with combinations of Earl Bennett, Johnny Knox, Devin Hester and Kellen Davis as pass catchers. Greg Olsen, the team’s only viable receiving threat, had been traded to the Carolina Panthers because he didn’t fit the philosophy under Mike Martz.
Before he drafted Jeffery, Emery traded two third round picks to the Miami Dolphins for Brandon Marshall.
Marshall’s career had been marred by character concerns, but his production with Bears quarterback Jay Cutler in Denver with the Broncos highlighted his potential. Since Emery acquired Marshall, he has seemingly become a leader within the Bears locker room. More importantly, he has returned to dominating on the field.
By bringing in Jeffery and Marshall, Emery addressed the Bears biggest issue that was left by the previous regime.
Because Jeffery needed to develop and because the offense was still in need of a revamped offensive line and some viable options at tight end, the full impact of those added receivers wouldn’t be felt for 12 months. By that time, Emery had addressed every single issue facing the Bears offense.
Marc Trestman replaced Smith during the 2012 offseason and maybe not so coincidentally, this is when Emery really began to deconstruct the old roster.
Aaron Kromer arrived with Trestman to be the team’s offensive coordinator. Kromer had been the offensive line coach for the New Orleans Saints the previous season, so he had experience in an area where the Bears desperately needed help.
Emery signed Kromer’s former left tackle from the Saints, Jermon Bushrod, and he immediately became a reliable starter the left tackle spot. Left guard Matt Slauson wasn’t a high-priced free agent, but he represented good value and was a viable starter at the left guard spot. In two moves, Emery had solidified Jay Cutler’s blindside, but he still needed to fill out the rest of the offensive line.
Roberto Garza was the one offensive lineman Emery inherited who was worth keeping. He would continue to start at center. It was the right side that really needed to be reconstructed.
Emery spent a first round pick on Kyle Long, an athletic player who hadn’t played a huge amount in college but showed potential as Oregon’s left tackle. Long wasn’t an immediate star during his rookie season, but he was a good starter at right guard.
Next to Long, Emery found a late-round gem in Jordan Mills. Mills was a fifth-round pick who was expected to compete with J’Marcus Webb, the left tackle Emery inherited from the previous regime, but he easily beat him out during training camp.
In just two offseasons, Emery had built one of the best supporting casts in the NFL. The only players he kept from the previous regime were Roberto Garza, Jay Cutler and Matt Forte.
It would be premature to say that Emery has already turned the Bears roster around and built a dominant unit, but he’s certainly moving in the right direction. His first two drafts were underwhelming for defensive additions as Jon Bostic, Khaseem Greene, McClellin and Brandon Hardin have done little to be optimistic about to this point.
It’s the most recent moves that he has made that suggest he understands how to turn the unit around.
Cutting Julius Peppers after letting Brian Urlacher go the previous offseason showed that Emery was able to recognise declining performances and wasn’t scared of the backlash he would receive for removing vested veterans from the roster.
While Urlacher still hasn’t really been replaced, unless Bostic or Greene can take over that spot, the defensive line in Chicago looks better than it has in a long time.
Free agent additions Lamarr Houston, Willie Young and Jared Allen are proven talents who offer different skill sets to defensive coordinator Mel Tucker. Houston in particular is someone who can be a disruptive edge presence and an interior rusher in nickel packages.
Retaining Jay Ratliff as a low-risk, high-reward defensive tackle was a smart move, while Stephen Paea wasn’t worth getting rid of. By drafting Ego Ferguson and most significantly Will Sutton, Emery has added two very talented players at a position of need without overpaying for their services. Ferguson was a second round pick while Sutton lasted until the third round of the draft because of weight concerns.
Emery built the Bears offense in stages and he appears to be doing the same with the defense in the post-Smith era.
Kyle Fuller was the most talented cornerback in the draft, but he won’t be rushed into the starting lineup after being selected in the first round. Veteran Charles Tillman had a terrible season last year before landing on IR, but he was re-signed in the offseason to be a stop-gap starter if required.
Tillman and Tim Jennings, an excellent starter in his own right, will likely start this season, before Tillman gives way to Fuller as a starter across from Jennings in 2015. Fuller could still supplant Tillman or even play safety because the Bears have major concerns at that spot.
Emery signed multiple veterans at the safety spot, players who will only hold onto positions for a season or two before they are eventually replaced by more talented contributors. Brock Vereen was considered a value pick in the fourth round of this year’s draft, he could immediately start for the defense if he has a good training camp and preseason.
After rebuilding the team’s offense, Emery deserves a huge amount of credit for what he has done in Chicago.
While the general manager position is always very uncertain moving forward, because the nature of the work means they have very little control over what will work out and what won’t, Emery’s work to this point should be encouraging for fans.
He rebuilt the offense in stages through free agency and the draft, while also avoiding any potential controversies by immediately committing to Jay Cutler instead of Josh McCown and extending Brandon Marshall on a relatively cheap deal.