The Chicago Bears replaced the face of their franchise with a mug shot.
The Denver Broncos misplayed a game of chicken with one of the NFL’s top pass rushers.
In the process, both teams will spend the entire offseason being second-guessed for decisions that resulted in the respective departures of middle linebacker Brian Urlacher and outside linebacker/defensive end Elvis Dumervil.
Let’s start with Dumervil, who reached a contract agreement Sunday with the Baltimore Ravens. As much blame as agent Marty Magid has taken for reportedly botching the contract restructuring that would have kept his now-former client in the fold, Denver is the one that opened itself up to losing Dumervil by trying to cut his salary in the first place.
It’s understandable that the Broncos didn’t want to pay Dumervil his scheduled $12 million base salary despite the fact he had 11 sacks last season and is still in his football prime at age 29. The figure is a lofty one and was part of a lucrative contract that top Broncos football executive John Elway inherited from the previous regime.
Denver, though, made a major mistake by allowing negotiations with Magid to drag into the free-agent signing period rather than setting a firm deadline beforehand. Almost all of the top potential replacements available were off the market by the time a fax issue caused a last-minute agreement between the Broncos and Dumervil to unravel. The Broncos were forced to cut Dumervil on March 15 to avoid having to guarantee his $12 million salary.
The Broncos then couldn’t get Dumervil re-signed as the Ravens swooped in with a five-year contract that reportedly includes an $8.5 million payout in the first season. The restructuring that Denver thought it had agreed upon with Magid would have lowered Dumervil’s base salary to $8 million. And with almost $5 million in “dead money” now counting against their salary cap following Dumervil’s release, the Broncos weren’t in position to realistically offer a better deal.
The top veteran pass-rushing options for Denver now aren’t nearly as appealing as retaining Dumervil. John Abraham and Dwight Freeney are two of five active NFL players with 100-plus sacks but both showed steep decline last season. Abraham, 35, had 10 sacks but only one in Atlanta’s final eight games including the playoffs. Miscast as a 3-4 outside linebacker, the 33-year-old Freeney notched only five sacks for Indianapolis.
At this point in their storied careers, Abraham and Freeney are both best suited to receive the bulk of their snaps in pass-rush situations. Dumervil was a 16-game starter in 2012.
The Bears are under heavy scrutiny as well for their handling of Urlacher and the decision not to re-sign one of the greatest players in team history. But while the monetary value of a 34-year-old coming off an injury-plagued season can be debated, there is no arguing that Chicago failed to replace Urlacher’s character and leadership by inking a new middle linebacker who, coincidentally enough, also was released by Denver earlier this offseason.
D.J. Williams has gotten convicted of two alcohol-related driving offenses during his eight-year NFL career. He was sentenced last year to 30 days of home confinement stemming from a 2010 traffic incident. His latest conviction prompted the NFL to add three more games onto a six-week suspension that Williams was already serving for having failed a drug test.
The Broncos weren’t about to pay Williams his scheduled $6 million base salary for 2013, especially knowing he is one more off-field misstep away from even more severe league sanctions. It’s Bears general manager Phil Emery who now has to worry about Williams keeping it together, not to mention rebounding from a disappointing 14-tackle season in 2012. The pressure will rise even more if Urlacher signs with a division rival like Minnesota, which has a middle linebacker vacancy and plays the same type of “Tampa-Two” defense in which he has prospered.
In the long run, maybe the Bears and Broncos will be proven to have made the right decisions. Urlacher could be done as a player. He has received scant interest in free agency. The one-year, $2 million contract that Urlacher said was offered to him in a “take-it-or-leave-it” fashion could eventually seem like a bonanza.
There also is never an easy way to say goodbye to a declining veteran who still wants to play for his current franchise. The most opportune time usually comes when a new head coach is hired. That’s the case in Chicago with Marc Trestman. He never met face-to-face with Urlacher, which is a telling sign of just how much interest the Bears truly had in keeping him. The same goes for offering a contract they knew would be rejected.
As for the Broncos, Dumervil is a better fit as a pass-rushing outside linebacker in Baltimore than serving as an undersized end in Denver’s 4-3 defense. Even if Freeney or Abraham is signed, Denver will have the chance to address the position in the draft the same way it adroitly did in 2012 with the first-round selection of immediate starter Derek Wolf.
Elway also deserves the benefit of the doubt for what he has accomplished in his two seasons running the team.
“We did give (Dumervil) a good offer and he wound up going with Baltimore,” Elway told the Denver Post. “In the long run, I always believe that things happen for a reason. I think the best thing happened.
“We’ve got a plan. We’ll move on and we’ll be just fine.”
We’ll know for sure about the Broncos and Bears soon enough.