Arguably the biggest decision facing the front office of the Chicago Bears is whether or not to re-sign Israel Idonije. The nine-year veteran played well at times last year but his inconsistency was maddening. By all accounts, Idonije reached his peak as a defensive lineman in 2010, when he racked up 8.0 sacks, forced three fumbles and deflected three passes. In 2011, he earned just 5.0 sacks, forced one fumble and did not knock down a single pass.
The drop off in sacks is especially worrisome, as Julius Peppers was once again a force off the opposite edge, while Henry Melton and Amobi Okoye combined for 11.0 sacks from the defensive tackle spot. With the attention those three received, Idonije was offered one-on-one matchups virtually all season. Yet his sack total dropped to a mediocre 5.0.
When you consider he'll turn 32 in November, one has to consider Idonije's best years behind him.
That said, he still has value as an all-around defensive end. At times last year, he was very strong against the run – although he was dominated on numerous occasions by opposing tight ends. He's also a great locker-room presence and veteran leader.
Chicago's coaches praised Idonije late in the year last season and my sources tell me the team wants to bring him back in 2012. He cost the club $2.5 million against the cap in 2011, according to Spotrac.com. The Bears will be hard pressed to offer him anything more. It wouldn't be surprising if they ask him to take a pay cut.
For my money, there are better options in free agency than Idonije. The team doesn't have much depth at the position, with just Corey Wootton and Chauncey Davis as the backups – two players that combined to play just 172 snaps for the team last year. Wootton has potential if he stays healthy, but at this point, that's a huge "if". Davis is strong against the run but doesn't offer much as a pass rusher.
Which means the Bears should consider signing one of these seven free agent defensive ends this offseason. Even if the club does re-sign Idonije, adding one of these players would provide needed depth for Chicago's defensive end rotation.
Mario Williams, HOU (6-6, 283) Age: 27
The former first-overall pick in 2006 has established himself as a force against the run and as a pass rusher. He has 53 sacks in his six NFL seasons and that includes an injury shortened 2011, in which he played just five games yet still earned 5.0 sacks. He's played in a 3-4 system for most of his career but switching to the Bears' 4-3 would be no problem for a player of his caliber. The Texans made the playoffs last season without Williams and have two emerging young edge rushers in Brooks Reed and J.J. Watt, making Williams expendable. He will command a ridiculous contract, possibly the richest in the league, which will likely force the Bears to shy away from signing him. But if the team is able to fit him under the cap, pairing him with Peppers would create the most-dominant defensive end duo in the league.
DE Cliff Avril
Cliff Avril, DET (6-3, 260) Age: 26
Avril is one of the best 4-3 pass rushers in the game. He had 8.5 sacks in 2010, then broke out last season, earning 11.0 sacks, fours passes defended, one interception and six forced fumbles. The Lions would like to keep him and are considering franchising him but they don't have much room under the cap. With the money they have invested in Ndamukong Suh, Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson, it's unlikely Detroit will be able to afford Avril. He can be a liability against the run but the pressure he provides off the edge on passing downs would mitigate a lot of the deficiencies in Chicago's secondary.
Jeremy Mincey, JAX (6-3, 270) Age: 28
Mincey broke out last year with 8.0 sacks, after earning just 7.0 total in his six years previous. He also picked up an interception and four forced fumbles. He has said he won't give Jacksonville a hometown discount, so he'll likely hit the open market. Chicago could do worse than a player on the rise like Mincey.
Michael Bennett, TB (6-4, 275) Age: 26
Bennett is a younger version of Idonije. He doesn't provide consistent pressure as a pass rusher but he's stout against the run. If the Bears are happy with Idonije, they might as well sign a younger, cheaper version in Bennett.
Anthony Spencer, DAL (6-3, 257) Age: 28
Spencer has played in a 3-4 in Dallas his entire career, yet has never reached his full potential in that system. A switch to Chicago's 4-3 may be just what he needs. Inconsistency has plagued him his entire career, yet when he's on, he's dominant. He has immense talent and could break out with the Bears.
Robert Mathis, IND (6-2, 245) Age: 31
Mathis has had a great career in Indianapolis' Cover 2 system, racking up 9.5 sacks or more in all but two of his nine NFL seasons. He was named to the Pro Bowl each year from 2008-2011. He's undersized and getting up in age, but he should still have a couple of good years left in him. As a rental, he could provide the pressure off the edge Chicago needs.
Andre Carter, NE (6-4, 255) Age: 34
Carter is on his last leg, yet after New England switched to a 4-3 last year, he picked up 10.0 sacks. He may have one more good year left in him. If all else fails, the Bears should consider Carter as a one-year rental.
Bear Report Pick
Cliff Avril is the choice here. He's young and is just getting better. He won't cost as much as Williams and could give Chicago similar production. If he hits the open market, the Bears should be first in line to snatch him up.
If they can't afford Avril, a solid short-term option would be Mathis. The team could then draft a younger player and develop him under two Pro Bowl defensive ends.
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of Bear Report magazine and BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.