Defensive end (Priority: Very High)
Israel Idonije is a free agent. He's decent against the run but his 5.0 sacks last season, with Julius Peppers receiving all the attention on the other side, is sub-par. The Bears will want to see if they can upgrade the position before offering the 31-year-old a new contract. Chicago is going to look hard at defensive end, as pass rush from the front four is crucial for the Cover 2 to succeed.
Top five options:
1) Mario Williams – He's the biggest free agent prize on the market, outside of Peyton Manning, and some team is going to make him the highest paid defender in the league. He'll command $40 million-$50 million guaranteed. The Bears would eat up a ton of cap space if they signed Williams but if they did, the team could forego the cornerback position until the draft. Williams and Peppers wouldn't allow opposing quarterbacks enough time to eat up the secondary. He's the big fish that could take Chicago's defense over the top but he may just be too expensive.
2) Jeremy Mincey – He broke out last season, his first as a full-time starter, with 8.0 sacks – giving him 13.0 combined the past two years. He also forced four fumbles in 2011. He's only 28 and appears to be hitting his prime. Mincey would make a great option.
3) Andre Carter – He's 33-years-old and finished last year in IR, but when on the field, Carter was dominant. New England's switch to a 4-3 brought new life into the edge rusher. He finished 2011 with 10.0 sacks. As a short-term option, Carter is as good as it gets.
4) John Abraham – He's 34 years old but Abraham has a lot left in the tank. He racked up 9.0 sacks last year, giving him 22.5 the past two seasons combined. He's a savvy vet that can still get after the quarterback. Like Carter, he would be a great fit on a one- or two-year deal.
5) Mark Anderson – The former Bear revived his career in New England last year, picking up 10.0 sacks, which is just a few less than he'd earned his previous six seasons combined. He still has enough ability off the edge to be effective, and he's only 28.
Sleeper option: Kamerion Wimbley. The Raiders will cut Wimbley today, after signing him to a five-year, $48 million deal last offseason. The Bears tried to sign him last year but were beat out by Oakland. Word out of Halas Hall is the team is still interested. If the Bears can't land Williams, expect them to make a run at Wimbley.
Other options: Matt Roth, Jonathan Fanene, James Hall, William Hayes, Wallace Gilberry, Frostee Rucker, Antwan Applewhite, Jarvis Moss, Quentin Groves, Juqua Thomas-Parker, Dave Ball, Raheem Brock, Bryan Thomas, Tyler Brayton, Jamaal Anderson.
Defensive tackle (Priority: Low)
If the Bears re-sign Amobi Okoye, there will be no need for the team to sign a free agent defensive tackle. If Okoye walks, the Bears will need to decide what to do with Stephen Paea. Is he a nose tackle or a under tackle? From what he showed last season, he can play both positions. So if Chicago ends up in the market for a DT, they should consider both NT and 3-technique players.
Top five options:
1) Brodrick Bunkley – He was absolutely dominant against the run last year. His size (6-2, 306) makes him a good fit in a 4-3. If the Bears want a run stuffer, Bunkley is the guy.
2) Red Bryant – Bryant has experience at both tackle and end. He's a durable, high-effort run stopper who is only 28. He's not much of a pass rusher but he could still be plenty valuable at any of three positions along Chicago's defensive line.
3) Jason Jones – He has experience at both DT and DE but he's best suited for 3-technique in a 4-3. His quickness and versatility would make him a solid replacement if Okoye leaves. Plus, he's only 25.
4) Luis Castillo – He can play numerous positions along the defensive line and can get after the QB. He is a huge injury risk, so he'll come cheap. An incentive-laden contract would make him a good option in Chicago.
5) Shaun Rogers – Rogers is a huge body that is still very difficult to move. He only has a good year or two left but could work well as a situational run stuffer in Chicago.
Sleeper option: Antonio Garay. Garay broke out in 2010 at the age of 30, after two very injury filled seasons in Chicago. He has 8.0 sacks the past two years and has shown well against the run. Of all the free agent nose tackles, Garay offers the most as a pass rusher. At the right price, he would fit nicely in a rotation with Matt Toeaina.
Other options: Paul Soliai (too expensive), Kendall Langford, Cory Redding, Albert Haynesworth, Derek Landri, Marcus Thomas, Justin Bannan, Kelly Gregg, Letroy Guion, Fred Robbins, Gerard Warren, Adam Carriker, Phillip Merling, Casey Hampton.
Outside linebacker (Priority: Medium)
The Bears have two Pro Bowlers at linebacker, Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, but both are on the wrong side of 30. On the strong side, Nick Roach is solid but unspectacular. Chicago needs to start looking at long-term options and prepare for the time when Urlacher and Briggs begin to decline in production.
1) David Hawthorne – The Bears are reportedly very interested in Hawthorne, whom they believe can play all three linebacker positions in the team's 4-3 scheme. The plan would be for him to take over at SAM and then eventually replace Briggs or Urlacher down the line. He's a quality player whose versatility and experience in a 4-3 makes him a very attractive option.
2) Erin Henderson – A young, improving player with a bright future ahead of him. Henderson played the weak side in Minnesota but should be able to switch to SAM with the Bears.
3) Manny Lawson – He thrived in Cincinnati's 4-3 system at SAM. He would be an upgrade over Roach and he's only 28. A very solid player.
4) Leroy Hill – Hill is a three-down linebacker with no liabilities, save for health. He's injury-prone but made it through unscathed in 2011.
5) Rocky McIntosh – McIntosh is a Briggs clone that is tailor made for the 4-3. He struggled in Washington's 3-4, so he'll likely be willing to take a pay cut to come play in a system that fits him. He's better suited at WILL but could easily switch to SAM.
Sleeper option: Chris Chamberlain. He's a two-down linebacker who has experience on the strong side. He's tough against the run but gets lost in coverage. He'd be a perfect complement to Briggs and Urlacher, and he's only 26. On top of that, he's a special teams ace, something Bears coaches love out of their linebackers.
Inside linebacker (Priority: Low)
Urlacher is 32 and his contract is up after this season, so the team needs to consider his long-term replacement. That said, he's still playing at a very high level and shows no signs of slowing down. There are a number of premiere middle linebackers available – including Stephen Tulloch, Curtis Lofton, Dan Connor and London Fletcher – but it's highly doubtful the team will pursue them, and spend top dollar, for as long as Urlacher is around.
Cornerback (Priority: Very high) <>Word out of Halas Hall was the Bears were looking to make upgrades at the cornerback position. Yet they just signed CB Tim Jennings to a two-year contract extension, so it's not as big of a priority as we were made to believe. Still, the team could lose Corey Graham, and Zack Bowman is an afterthought. If they want to add depth, they could go after one of the following players.
Top five options:
1) Brandon Carr – He's a top-tier cornerback who can cover the best receivers in the game. On top of that, he's only 26. If the Bears want to solidify the cornerback position for years to come, Carr is the way to go.
2) Cortland Finnegan – There has reportedly been interest in Finnegan by the Bears. He's a quality cover corner that can matchup with bigger receiver despite his small frame. He brings attitude as well.
3) Carlos Rogers – He was great for the 49ers last year, picking off six passes and limiting receivers to a 52.6 completion percentage. The only concern is his age (31), which may prevent Chicago from offering him a big deal.
4) Richard Marshall – He was great in the second half last year at cornerback and also played well in relief duty at free safety. His age (27) and versatility makes him very attractive.
5) Tracy Porter – He struggled last year and needs a consistent pass rush to be successful. He's not an ideal solution but the Bears could do worse.
Sleeper option: William Middleton. He doesn't have a lot of NFL experience, but he handled himself really well in relief of Derek Cox and Rashean Mathis in 2011. He is still young (26) and has a ton of upside. He'd be a sneaky pick up for the Bears – one that could pay big dividends.
Safety (Priority: Medium)
Coach Lovie Smith said he's very happy with the young duo of Chris Conte and Major Wright, yet both are inexperienced and injury prone. I expect the team to re-sign Craig Steltz, who played very well at SS last year and is outstanding in special teams. Yet they will still likely pursue a veteran that can provide stability and depth in case Conte or Wright falter.
Top five options:
1) LaRon Landry – He's one of the better safeties in the league but he just can't stay healthy. Landry has played in just 17 games the past two seasons and is coming off an Achilles injury. Still, the Bears appear interested in the 27-year-old. Expect Chicago to make a run at him.
2) Dwight Lowery – He's still young (26) and has a lot of potential. He's been up and down so far in his career. He's an unproven free safety but could be worth the risk given his upside.
3) Mike Adams – Adams is nothing special but he's an experienced free safety that could teach Conte a few things. A solid yet unspectacular option.
4) A.J. Otagwe – The Redskins cut the free safety yesterday. He is a ball hawk that is very good when healthy, yet he's had a hard time staying on the field. If he can avoid injury, Otagwe would be a bargain.
5) Reggie Nelson – He's only 28 and looked very good early on last year, but he struggled mightily down the stretch. The potential is there but he lacks consistency.
Sleeper option: Jim Leonhard. He's a very good strong safety with experience. Many NFL teams would like to have him. Yet he tore his patellar tendon in December and won't be ready to start the 2012 campaign. As such, he'd be a cheap mid-season pickup that could pay off late in the season. A crafty option.
Other options: Melvin Bullitt, Deon Grant, Brodney Pool, Sean Jones, Tom Zbikowski, Haruki Nakamura, Jordan Babineaux, Chris Hope, Steve Gregory, Reggie Smith, Abram Elam, Tyrell Johnson, Courtney Greene, Atari Bigby.
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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.