By Brad Biggs Chicago Tribune
ORLANDO, Fla. — Score one for the Bears.
The team’s initial target when free agency opened more than two weeks ago was Michael Bennett, but the Bears couldn’t prevent the Super Bowl champion Seahawks from retaining a disruptive lineman who would have filled a void at right end.
With the NFL owners meeting wrapping up Wednesday morning, Bears general manager Phil Emery pulled off a move that was felt from here to the Pacific Northwest, agreeing to terms with Jared Allen on a four-year contract worth $15.5 million guaranteed and potentially $32 million overall.
Allen, who made two visits to the Seahawks and had an offer from them last weekend, gives the Bears a legitimate edge rusher and right end and allows them to shift Lamarr Houston, signed to a $35 million, five-year contract at the outset of free agency, to left end where he probably fits best.
The Seahawks were courting Allen, who turns 32 next week, but it was going to be a challenge for them to squeeze him into their salary cap structure with a host of young players on the roster that need to be extended. Two sources said the Bears’ offer was well north of where the Seahawks were money-wise and one said Seattle was looking at Allen at about $5.5 million per season.
So, the Bears ponied up to get a player that provides them with something very different than they have and very different than they had. Houston is considered a strong defender against the run but its questionable whether he could have lined up at right end and consistently and generated the pressure the Bears need. Last season they were tied for last in the league in sacks.
In effectively replacing new Packer Julius Peppers, who is two years older, Allen is very different. The knock on Peppers was that his motor was inconsistent, especially at times last season when he went through games without much statistical impact. Allen is the epitome of a hustle player and has been a model of consistency with seven consecutive seasons of at least 11 sacks. Like Peppers, he has been durable, starting all 96 regular-season games for the Vikings over the last six seasons. His weakness? A propensity to chase the quarterback has led scouts to question his run defense, particularly in 2013.
Playing home games in the Metrodome, a noisy environment with a fast-track artificial surface, put Allen in an ideal place to rack up pass-rushing statistics. But speed never has defined his ability. He’s considered a technician along with being a high-motor performer and the stats bear that out. Over the last six seasons, Allen has produced 581⁄2 sacks in 68 games on turf and 27 sacks in 28 games on natural grass. That is significant for the Bears, who inevitably wind up on some sloppy sod for a few games each season at Soldier Field.
One of the keys to maximizing Allen’s impact will be reducing his playing time, one NFC general manager said.
Allen was on the field for 91 percent of the Vikings’ defensive snaps last season, 92 percent in 2012 and 94 percent in 2011. That is the way Allen likes it, and convincing him to scale that back will be paramount to bringing out his best in pass-rushing situations and a challenge for coach Marc Trestman and defensive coordinator Mel Tucker.
Peppers played 81.7 percent of the snaps last season and reaching that range likely will be the Bears’ goal, especially with Willie Young in the mix.
Young was signed to a $9 million, three-year contract, and now he projects as a capable third end. In the nickel defense, which the Bears used roughly half of the time last season, Houston can slide inside with Allen and Young on the ends.
What the Bears have done is something generally that can be accomplished only at the outset of free agency — they have pushed the roster from the top down.
Adding Allen, who the Broncos also pursued at the outset of free agency and the Cowboys were on before they landed Henry Melton, doesn’t do much for the team’s stated goal to get younger on defense. Three of the four marquee players on defense — Allen, linebacker Lance Briggs and cornerback Charles Tillman — are clearly in the twilight of their careers.
But in adding Allen, the Bears got better and outmaneuvered the reigning NFL champions to do so. The only place the team is going to get younger is in the draft, and pairing Allen with Houston creates more possibilities there with the team now in position to turn the focus away from the defensive line and to the secondary in the first round.