Bears general manager Jerry Angelo has spoken of utilizing free agency along with the draft to improve the team in the offseason.
But with free agency hinging on a new collective bargaining agreement, which isn't imminent, there's a good chance it won't start on time March 4, or anytime soon if there is a lockout.
Whenever free agency happens, the Bears will not duplicate the spending spree of last year that brought Julius Peppers, Chester Taylor and Brandon Manumaleuna. Angelo recognizes there is room for improvement.
"I'm not sitting here saying that we can't get better," he said. "We can get better, and we will get better. We've got a full complement of draft picks. I feel we're going to do business as usual. We'll have a plan for free agency, and I'm sure we will be able to get a few players in free agency. We'll want to bring some of our own back, and I'm confident we will be able to do that."
The Bears do not have a strong history of getting immediate contributions from their draft choices, so any quick fixes would probably have to come via free agency.
Last year, only seventh-round pick J'Marcus Webb made more than a nominal contribution, although his improvement while starting 12 games at right tackle was a revelation and a source of hope for the offensive line, which has been a weakness for several years.
The 2009 draft class, likewise, has yet to have much of an impact aside from fifth-round sleeper Johnny Knox, who is arguably the go-to guy in a mediocre group of wide receivers. Fourth-round pick D.J. Moore showed promise as a nickel back in 2010 after accomplishing nothing as a rookie, and defensive lineman Henry Melton proved to be effective as a nickel pass rusher.
But keeping their own free agents might be just as important for the Bears. Without center Olin Kreutz's leadership and experience in the middle, the Bears' offensive line would have been a complete disaster in 2010. So, even though he'll be 34 before training camp starts -- whenever that might be -- and has 13 years of wear and tear, the Bears need him back for at least one more year to help guide a group in transition. That, and the fact that there's no heir apparent waiting in the wings at Halas Hall, makes Kreutz indispensable.
Defensively, there are three starters who will be unrestricted free agents: nose tackle Anthony Adams, linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa and strong safety Danieal Manning. Adams was the most productive this season, starting all 16 games and leading the interior linemen in tackles with 36.
Tinoisamoa, an eight-year veteran, missed 14 games in 2009 and four this season plus parts of a couple others with knee problems. He'll be 30 before training camp starts. Nick Roach, a four-year veteran who may or may not be unrestricted depending on the language in a new CBA, has played well in place of Tinoisamoa in the past and might be a better way to go.
Manning started 16 games and has been a full-time starter in four of his five seasons, but it seems like the Bears are always looking for an upgrade. Still, Manning is valuable on special teams as a kickoff returner and has played both safety spots and nickel back. But with last year's third-round draft pick, Major Wright, waiting in the wings, the Bears won't set the market for Manning.
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