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Different does not necessarily make better

Published: Monday, March 17, 2014 11:40 p.m. CDT

OK Bears fans, let’s all take a deep breath and see if we can figure out what has just happened.

With an incredibly frenzied first week of free agency now in the books, most of the big names either have found new homes or decided to stay home, and there isn’t much left that’s going to move the needle between now and the NFL draft.

Sure, Jared Allen still is out there. Knowshon Moreno would look really nice behind Matt Forte, but something tells me general manager Phil Emery isn’t looking to spend what’s left in the bank that way. Chris Clemons still would be an upgrade at safety, so we can keep our eyes on him. And there’s plenty of depth still available on the offensive line, but who really cares about the backup big uglies?

Unless Allen decides to become a Bear, what we see is what we’ve got to start planning around.

The Bears did a great job of taking care of their own. Jay Cutler, Matt Slauson, Roberto Garza, Robbie Gould, Charles Tillman, Tim Jennings, D.J. Williams and Jeremiah Ratliff are exactly the veterans the Bears needed to keep to avoid taking a step backward. If Kelvin Hayden and Nate Collins are healthy, they also have got much better depth than they had last year, although I’ll be very surprised if Hayden doesn’t reclaim his nickel spot from Isaiah Frey.

The real keys are Tillman and Williams. As awful as the Bears’ defense was last year, it didn’t go completely down the tubes until those two went down for the season with injuries at roughly the same time. Lance Briggs had to sit down for almost half the season.

If those three can start 14 to 16 games, it’s possible what the Bears are trying to fix isn’t as disastrous as we think it is.

I am disappointed Julius Peppers is gone. That he couldn’t come back on his existing, salary cap-strangling contract was a given, and restructuring again was a bad idea because it just would have created a bigger problem in a year or two.

But I believe if the Bears had sent him off with a promise something like, “We have to cut you, but go shop, get your best deal and we’ll match it,” they could have avoided not only weakening themselves but strengthening the team they’re chasing.

The new kids are OK. I have no problem with the signings of Lamarr Houston, Ryan Mundy, Jordan Senn, Domenik Hixon and Willie Young. But there are a few issues.

I think Houston could be the best three-technique in the league over the next few years, but he doesn’t project as a right end, and the trade of Peppers for Houston does not improve the defense.

Has anyone noticed the Bears under Emery might have a tendency to bring in decent talent and use it at the wrong position?

Houston and Peppers together on the same line, that would have been exciting.

Mundy is better than what you have – so, good move – but is he a starting-caliber safety? We’ll see.

Senn and Hixon should be good special teams contributors, and make more sense than Eric Weems and Blake Costanzo.

Then there is Willie Young. I called several Lions games on the radio from the sideline last year and Young stuck out. I like his athleticism and he’s very quick off the ball. But for 15 starts, his production was minimal.

Here is the key question: Is there any real evidence that after four years in the league for each, Young is a better player than Corey Wootton? In 46 games, Young has 72 tackles, six sacks, zero fumbles forced, two fumbles recovered and seven passes defensed. In 45 games, Wootton has 70 tackles, 11 sacks, three fumbles forced, two fumbles recovered and six passes defensed, and he proved this year he can play inside or outside, which Young won’t, and Wootton is two years younger.

Clearly Houston has a ton more upside than Peppers, but will he ever get just to where Peppers is now at the end of his career? Can anyone argue Young has more upside than Wootton? I suppose you can, but it’s a tough argument to make.

So here’s what matters: The Packers are better with Peppers. The Lions would appear to be better with Golden Tate. Are the Bears better with Houston and Young?

• Hub Arkush covers the Bears and the NFL for Shaw Media and ChicagoFootball.com. Write to him at harkush@chicagofootball.com.

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