Chicago Bears fans should be very excited about free agency this year. The official signing period begins Tuesday at 3 p.m. CDT. This team has a number of holes to plug and it's anyone's guess how new GM Phil Emery will attack free agency.
The team has plenty of money to spend under the salary cap, around $22.6 million according to Pro Football Talk. It's expected that Chicago will be a big player this year, looking to use that money to fill some glaring needs. Multiple sources have stated the Bears plan to move quickly this offseason. So whatever happens, expect it to go down in the next few days.
Emery has never been a GM before, and has not said a word about the team's strategy heading into free agency, so he could go a number of different routes. He could make strong runs at the biggest names in this class – WR Vincent Jackson, DE Mario Williams or G Carl Nicks. Considering the club's needs at all three positions, it's likely he'll make at least one big splash.
Other than that, we really can't predict what Chicago's roster will look like once the smoke clears.
What we can do is look at the available options, compare those players to the ones currently on the roster, take into consideration potential salaries and decipher a plan the Bears might follow.
The first step is to decide who to re-sign out of the 12 free agents on the current roster. They include: DE Israel Idonije, CB Tim Jennings, S Craig Steltz, RB Kahlil Bell (RFA), QB Caleb Hanie, TE Kellen Davis, CB Corey Graham, QB Josh McCown, WR Roy Williams, CB Zack Bowman, S Brandon Meriweather and LS Chris Massey.
The Bears could have signed any of these players to keep them from hitting the open market, but as of this writing, all but Bell are expected to become free agents. This doesn't mean the team isn't interested in re-signing them, it just means that Emery is going to be thorough and will be looking at all the available options.
Consider, if the Bears are able to land Mario Williams, they team would likely let Idonije walk. If they sign John Carlson or Joel Dreesen, then Davis becomes expendable. It's a prudent way for a new GM, who has no ties to the players on the current roster, to go about building his roster.
One thing is for sure, don't expect Roy Williams, Hanie, Massey, Bowman or Meriweather back next season. We'll discuss the rest of Chicago's free agents in our positional analysis below.
BEARS FREE AGENCY PRIMER
Quarterback (Priority: High)
The failed Caleb Hanie experiment last season showed the value of a competent backup. McCown looked good in late-season relief and would likely make a solid No. 2. But there are some comparable players on the open market.
Top five options:
1) Shaun Hill – Experienced backup that has always performed well when called into action.
2) Josh Johnson – Young, inexperienced signal caller that still has upside.
3) Dennis Dixon – Athletic young QB with good wheels. Would add an extra dimension to Chicago's offense.
4) Chad Henne – Although lacking in production, Henne has a lot of experience as a starter, which would come in handy if Cutler were to go down.
5) Drew Stanton – Lacking in experience but still young enough to improve.
Sleeper option: Rex Grossman. He's still turnover prone but he can carry a team in short bursts. Too risky to be a full-time starter but Grossman experience makes him a quality backup.
Other options: Donovan McNabb, Charlie Batch, Vince Young, Byron Leftwich, Brady Quinn, Kellen Clemens, Sage Rosenfels, David Carr, A.J. Feeley, Derek Anderson, Charlie Whitehurst, J.P. Losman, Kyle Boller, Luke McCown, Jake Delhomme, Curtis Painter.
Running back (Priority: Low)
Matt Forte was franchised and isn't going anywhere. The team tendered Kahlil Bell today, but only with a qualifying offer, meaning other teams are likely to try and snatch him up. Sources say Marion Barber will not be returning. Here are some quality players that could take the place of Barber and/or serve as competition for Bell in training camp.
Top five options:
1) Mike Tolbert – A pure power runner that is outstanding in short-yardage situations. Also has good hands.
2) Kevin Smith – Extremely talented player but very injury prone. When healthy, he's starter material.
3) Tim Hightower – Experienced back who can catch the ball out of the backfield. Good third-down player.
4) BenJarvus Green-Ellis – Not an every down back but very good near the goal line.
5) Justin Forsett – Only 26 years old, Forsett does everything good but nothing great.
Sleeper option: LaDainian Tomlinson. He's in the twilight of his career but Tomlinson can still be a threat as a pass catcher and would bring veteran leadership to the locker room – something Barber lacked.
Wide receiver (Priority: Very High)
This is arguably the biggest position of need. It's unlikely Roy Williams will be brought back, Johnny Knox is still recovering from a brutal spine injury, Devin Hester's time as a receiver is up and Dane Sanzenbacher isn't the answer. Earl Bennett is a quality slot option but at this point, he's the only reliable receiver on the roster. The Bears need to be very aggressive in free agency to make sure they land at least one of the top available players.
Top five options:
1) Vincent Jackson – He brings ideal size (6-5, 230), speed and production, and would instantly be the team's No. 1. He's looking for roughly $12 million per season and will likely be courted by at least 10 NFL teams. He's the best wideout on the market. If the organization thinks he's the answer to what ails this team, they have to do everything in their power to make it happen.
2) Marques Colston – He has great size (6-4, 225) and strength, and is a beast in the end zone. He doesn't possess ideal speed but overcomes that with his physical play and good body usage. A quality pickup if the Bears can't land Jackson.
3) Robert Meachem – He has good size (6-2, 210), speed and hands. He's dropped just 11 passes the past four seasons. He's a quality deep threat who has never averaged less than 14.5 yards per catch in any season.
4) Pierre Garcon – Another big-time deep threat, Garcon proved last year that he's not just a product of playing with Peyton Manning.
5) Mario Manningham – Anyone who watched last year's Super Bowl knows what Manningham is capable of. He would instantly become the best receiver on Chicago's roster.
Sleeper option: Laurent Robinson. Robinson broke out last season filling in for the injured starters in Dallas. He has a nice blend of size (6-2, 194) and speed. He's injury prone but was healthy all of last year and caught 11 touchdown passes.
Other options: Brandon Lloyd, Braylon Edwards, Plaxico Burress, Eddie Royal, Ted Ginn, Eric Weems, Deion Branch, Josh Morgan, Jerome Simpson, Harry Douglas, Jerricho Cotchery, Early Doucet, Lee Evans, Legedu Naanee, Donte Stallworth, Devin Aromashodu.
Tight End (Priority: Medium)
Is Kellen Davis a viable pass-catching tight end? That's the question Bears brass must answer. If not, here are some more experienced players for the team to consider.
Top five options:
1) John Carlson – Carlson is a weapon down the seam with plenty of experience and production. He missed all of last year with a torn labrum. If healthy, he'd make a great target for Cutler over the middle.
2) Joel Dreesen – He has spent much of his career in the shadow of Owen Daniels, yet Dreesen has been very good when called upon. He doesn't have a lot of wear and tear, and is a quality blocker as well.
3) Martellus Bennett – He's an outstanding blocker whom many believe can be a quality contributor in the passing game if given the opportunity.
4) Dallas Clark – He's old and struggled last year without Peyton Manning. Still, his body of work cannot be ignored.
5) Visanthe Shiancoe – A savvy vet who still has a good year or two left in him.
Sleeper option: Jeremy Shockey. The 32-year-old is on his last leg, yet when healthy, he's still a good pass catcher. On a one-year deal, the Bears could do worse.
Offensive Tackle (Priority: High)
The Bears need serious help at left tackle. J'Marcus Webb allowed the most sacks of any tackle in the league last year, according to Pro Football Focus. Yet coordinator Mike Tice may stick with him going forward, since lat year was Webb's first on the left edge. On the other side, Gabe Carimi is still recovering from a dislocated knee that required three surgeries. His timetable for a return is still unclear. It would not hurt the club to bring in a veteran that can provide some stability at the position.
Top five options:
1) Jared Gaither – By far the best option on the market, Gaither performed very well late last season at LT. His recurring back injury is worrisome but when he's healthy, he's as good as they come.
2) Demetrius Bell – Bell has dealt with knee injuries throughout his four-year career. Yet when he's on the field, he's very good. In six starts last season, he gave up just one sack, which is light years ahead of Webb.
3) Anthony Collins – He's been a backup for most of his career but has performed well when on the field. He has experience on both sides of the line. He's a cheap veteran option that who would make an ideal swing tackle.
4) Jeff Backus – He's 34 and struggles at times in pass protection. He's a quality run blocker though.
5) Max Starks – He suffered a torn ACL in the playoffs last year, so he likely won't be ready come training camp. If he can recover, he'd make a nice in-season pickup for the Bears.
Sleeper option: Levi Brown. Technically, he's still a member of the Arizona Cardinals but it's only a matter of time before he's released. He's not outstanding on the edge but he's durable and experienced.
Guard (Priority: Medium)
Chicago's guards were arguably the best performers along the offensive line last year, but that's not saying much. Chris Williams is finally turning into a quality player at left guard while Chris Spencer was serviceable. Lance Louis was so bad at right tackle he'll likely challenge Spencer in training camp. Edwin Williams is an intriguing option, as he showed well filling in late in the season. That said, this is not a strong group and there are some very good players on the market.
Top five options:
1) Carl Nick – He's one of the best guards in the game and will command a huge contract. Yet with Nicks mauling inside, more holes would open for Forte and Cutler would have much less pressure in his face. If the Bears are going to break the bank on a lineman, it needs to be for Nicks.
2) Evan Mathis – An absolute beast as a run blocker, Mathis also did not allow a sack last season. If Chicago can't land Nicks, Mathis is an ideal Plan B.
3) Ben Grubbs – A quality guard with plenty of experience, Grubbs is a grinder inside. He's a better run blocker than pass protector and could play either side.
4) Mike Brisel – A solid guard who is a very good pass protector.
5) Jake Scott – A quality pass protector, although he struggles opening run lanes.
Sleeper options: Steve Hutchinson. The Vikings just released Hutchinson as a salary cap casualty. By no means is he the Pro Bowl player he once was but he still has a good year or two left in him.
Center (Priority: Very Low)
The Bears signed Roberto Garza to a two-year extension last season and have Chris Spencer as his backup. The club will not be in the market for a center.
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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.