The Chicago Bears, as the roster currently exists, is built to win now. With this aging group, there is not time for rebuilding. If the club can't win a championship within the next few seasons, the window will close and the roster turnover will be mighty.
The front office knows this very well. So well, in fact, that only three veterans – Julius Peppers, Michael Bush and Adam Podlesh – are signed through the 2015 season. The rookie contracts if this year's six draft picks run through 2015 as well, yet not a single player on the current roster is signed to play with the club five seasons from now, in 2016.
In today's game of free agency and high roster turnover, it isn't atypical for an NFL organization to have the vast majority of its players signed for just a few seasons. Yet most teams have at least one franchise player, if not two or three, on the ledger for the long haul – the players the team plans to build around going forward.
The Bears will soon make a push to make quarterback Jay Cutler that franchise player. But the rest of the team's All Pro stalwarts – Peppers, Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman – are all on the wrong side of 30. Even the face of the organization, linebacker Brian Urlacher, is 34 and coming off a knee injury.
Brian Urlacher & Lance Briggs
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Which is why the club told Urlacher, whose contract is up after this season, that he'll have to prove he's healthy in 2012 before the team will re-sign him. Freakishly athletic players like Urlacher tend to ward off Father Time better than the average NFL player but few linebackers in this league produce at a high level after age 34.
Despite what he's accomplished throughout his career (eight Pro Bowls, five All Pros, NFL Defensive Player of the Year, NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year) Urlacher still must prove he deserves an extension. That's the way things work in today's NFL.
Yet he's not the only player GM Phil Emery should consider extending. The contracts for a number of key Chicago players are due after the 2012 campaign. To help solidify the team's foundation going forward, Emery needs to keep these players in mind as the money gets tossed around.
**Editor's note: For our discussion, we'll omit Matt Forte, whose situation we've covered ad nauseam.**
DT Henry Melton
In Chicago's version of the Tampa 2, Melton plays the 3-technique, the position that provides pressure up the middle, which coach Lovie Smith once called the most important position in his defense. Melton picked up 7.0 sacks last year, his first at 3-tech full time. The club lost his partner, Amobi Okoye, in free agency and haven't yet found his replacement. If Melton walks after this season, the gap in the middle of the defensive line will be enormous. Of all the players on this list, he's definitely the priority.
Williams is a former first-round pick that was expected to be the left tackle of the future in 2008. He has yet to live up to that billing. After spending the last two years at guard, he's currently in a competition with J'Marcus Webb for the left tackle job. If he wins out and shows he can be a consistent blindside protector, then he will have earned an extension. But if he loses out to Webb or can't handle the job on the left edge, he'll be playing for another club in 2013.
Spencer, 30 years old, enters his eighth season in the NFL this year. He's shown versatility in his ability to play center and both guard spots. He's not a mauler but he's technically sound. He provides flexibility and experience and can be Roberto Garza's successor at center. The club would be wise to lock him up for a few more seasons.
LB Nick Roach
Roach was named the full-time starter last year on the strong side. He was good but not great and is currently in a camp battle with Geno Hayes for the starting job. Roach has shown an ability to play MLB as well, so if he can improve his game this season, the 28-year-old could earn a few more years in the Navy and orange.
CB D.J. Moore
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CB D.J. Moore
On a per-play basis, no other member of the Bears' secondary is as productive as Moore. Playing out of the slot as the team's nickelback, Moore has been stout in coverage and a force as a blitzer. He's a critical component to Smith's defense. The 25-year-old deserves four more years in Chicago.
At 32 years old, and in the twilight of his career, it's unlikely the Bears, who were only wiling to re-sign him to a one-year deal this offseason, will give Idonije a long-term deal. He's been a great team leader and solid player on the edge but his game is limited and he's fading. This is likely his last season in Chicago.
WR Johnny Knox
Knox is recovering from spinal surgery and is still a long way away from returning to action. He'll need to make a full recovery, in a relatively short amount of time, if the Bears are to feel comfortable handing him a boatload of cash. If he's close to 100 percent following this season, the club could re-sign him to a one-year deal but anything beyond that is far too risky at this point.
OL Lance Louis
Louis is a versatile lineman with good quickness and agility. Yet he lacks pure power and has not looked great at either guard or tackle so far. He's only 27, so there's still room for improvement, but he'll need to make big strides this year if he's to earn a long-term extension.
Other players whose contracts are up after 2012:
DE Chauncey Davis; QB Jason Campbell; LS Patrick Mannelly; RB Kahlil Bell; QB Josh McCown; CB Kelvin Hayden; LB Geno Hayes; G Chilo Rachal; WR Devin Thomas; DT John McCargo; CB Jonathan Wilhite; OL Mansfield Wrotto; LB Patrick Trahan; CB Donovan Warren; TE Draylen Ross; S Anthony Walters; DE Cheta Ozougwu; DT DeMario Pressley; DT Nate Collins.
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of 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.