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Bears respond to 'win-now' edict with bold Peppers, Taylor signings

There are any number of ways you can look at the Bears' start to free agency.

Aggressive? Perhaps.

Foolish? Maybe.

Desperate? Absolutely.

With no picks in the first or second rounds of this year's draft, a head coach and a general manager who are on the hot seat and a fan base whose emotional needle is threatening to swing past anger and into disgust, you do as the Bears did -- and respond with the biggest free-agent splash in franchise history.

While other teams were showing restraint in the league's first uncapped offseason since 1993, the Bears stepped on the gas pedal and signed three of the top available players at their positions: Defensive end Julius Peppers, running back Chester Taylor and run-blocking tight end Brandon Manumaleuna.

That's not just a lot of potential bang, but also mega-guaranteed bucks (reportedly $40 million in the first three seasons).

It's the second consecutive year the Bears have stepped out on a limb. In 2009, they traded for Broncos QB Jay Cutler and soon after awarded him a contract extension that included $20 million in guarantees. He responded by throwing for a league-high 26 interceptions.

The current branch they're sitting on could be even more flimsy. Peppers' 81 sacks are the third-most in the league since 2002, but personnel people are split on him. Some view him as a dominant player, but others see him as a guy who disappears at times. He'll have to show up for the Bears to be successful because they play in a division that features Minnesota's Brett Favre (for the moment) and Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, QBs who ranked second and fourth respectively in touchdown passes last season.

Taylor is a safer gamble. Despite turning 31 in September, he lacks the wear and tear of other veteran backs. He has started only one full season during his eight-year career and was a backup to Adrian Peterson the past three seasons. Taylor, who cost the Bears $7 million in virtual guarantees, is hoping to follow the script of running backs such as Priest Holmes and Michael Turner. They spent the first four and five years of their respective careers as understudies before moving on as free agents to have big years as starters. Taylor spent his first four seasons as a backup in Baltimore before running for 1,216 yards in 2006 with Minnesota, his only season as a full-time starter. The Vikings drafted Peterson the following year, forcing Taylor into a complementary role.

Sadly for the Bears, the risk of making a big splash in free agency might actually be safer than relying on the draft, where they've had issues on defense in recent years. Chicago has drafted 27 defensive players dating back to 2004, and none is currently viewed as an impact performer. Tackle Tommie Harris used to be, but injuries have taken a toll. Tackle Tank Johnson had the ability, but off-field issues led to his release. Cornerback Zack Bowman had eight picks last season, but his overall play was inconsistent.

The lack of returns from the draft is one reason general manager Jerry Angelo and coach Lovie Smith are under pressure to win now. The Bears went to the Super Bowl in 2006, but have had losing seasons two of the past three years. CEO Ted Phillips did an extensive evaluation of the organization earlier this offseason, then announced that Smith and Angelo would return. But he offered this caveat: We expect to win now -- prompting the biggest splash to the start of free agency.

Aggressive? Foolish? Desperate? How about all of the above.

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