With the Jay Cutler frenzy in full force, it’s easy to focus on that at the expense of the other signings that Phil Emery announced today. Tim Jennings and Matt Slauson both re-upped for four years, and those are both very important retentions for the Bears. (I haven’t been able to find terms of either deal, but I’ll update this post with them as soon as I can.) Why are they important? Well, I’m glad you asked.
Jennings, 30, came to Chicago prior to the 2010 season in a reserve role, and full disclosure: I wasn’t thrilled about it at the time. As you might know by now, I live in Indiana, and we get every Colts game. (Plus, that was the heyday of the Peyton Manning era, so the Colts were on national television seemingly every other week.) I had seen Jennings play, and I wasn’t overly impressed. He was short, he didn’t seem that fast, and for some reason he seemed to give opposing receivers a massive cushion on every play. Particularly, I remember a play in a Colts-Patriots game in which he drew the Randy Moss assignment with the Patriots inside the five. Jennings backed off to the middle of the endzone, Moss ran to the goal-line, stopped, and Brady hit him. Jennings wasn’t within two yards of Moss at any point on the play; he may as well have been off the field. As was customary for me then (and now) I was cheering like crazy against New England, so that play irked me. And since I wasn’t following him on a game-to-game basis, those sort of fleeting glimpses were all I had by which to judge him.
But he’s been a revelation in Chicago, especially over the last two seasons. First, he’s played in all but two games since he joined the Bears. Second, he had nine picks last year, and four more this season. That led the league in 2012, and put him in a tie for 11th in 2013. The Bears coaching staff deserves a lot of credit, and it’s worth noting that he’s had the same position coach since he came to Chicago; DB coach Jon Hoke was the lone holdover from the Lovie Smith era. This season was an especially good test for Jennings; Charles Tillman missed a large portion of the year, meaning Jennings drew the opponents toughest assignment almost every week. He responded, holding players like Dez Bryant and Josh Gordon in check, despite a limited pass rush and minimal help from the overmatched safeties.
It remains to be seen what will happen with Tillman, due to his age and potential asking price. And I don’t think anyone expects the starting safety combination to remain the same. (If it is, I might cry.) Getting Jennings signed allows some flexibility as Phil Emery attacks his offseason plan. It’s one less thing to worry about, whether he slots in as the #1 or #2 corner next year. It helps to lock in the plan of attack for free agency, and then the draft.
Rather than being the only certainty at his positional group (like Jennings), Slauson becomes the fourth starting offensive lineman the Bears have under contract as they go forward. (Roberto Garza is also a free agent, and the likelihood of his return is up in the air.) Slauson, 27, joins Jermon Bushrod (29) to form a young-but-experienced left side on the Bears burgeoning offensive line. The right side consisted of two rookies (Kyle Long and Jordan Mills) who are obviously both still under contract, and they both played well. All four were new faces this year, and with the new group (as well as the new coaching staff) the Bears went from allowing the 8th highest sack total (44) to allowing the 28th highest (30). Jordan Mills apparently suffered a metatarsal injury, and his performance struggled some down the stretch. But I don’t think it’s crazy to call the offensive line a potential strength for the team; it’s certainly a far cry from the glaring weakness of prior years.
Slauson signed a one-year deal with the Bears last offseason, for near the minimum. Yet another great find by Phil Emery, who continues to inspire a lot of confidence (Shea McClellin notwithstanding), and I’m excited to see what Slauson can do going forward. (Plus, as I’ve mentioned before, he has a great Chicago Bear last name; perfect for maximum Superfan-accent pronunciation.)