Rewarding your own

Henry Melton and Brian Urlacher top the list of Chicago players whose contracts are set to expire after this year. We run down the list of priorities for Bears brass this offseason.

Chicago Bears GM Phil Emery has made it clear he likes to stay away from contract negotiations during the season. He prefers to wait until football is over before he starts re-signing current players and coaches.

"My preference is to do these things at the end of the year," said Emery. "There may be a situation where it's to the club's advantage and the player's advantage to do something during the season, but my preference and most often that's better to wait until the end of the year until you have a full evaluation in moving forward with that. That applies not only to our players but to our head coach and our coaching staff."

Let's take a look at the players on Chicago's roster whose contracts are set to expire at the end of this season. Who should be brought back? Who should be cut? And who needs to be signed immediately, lest the club risk losing him in free agency?

LB Brian Urlacher

Emery decided not to re-sign Urlacher this offseason, choosing instead to wait and see how his knee recovered from the sprain he suffered in last year's season finale. Urlacher missed almost all of the offseason, undergoing minor arthroscopic surgery in the process, and was slow out of the gates this year.

He is ponderously re-gaining his form but it's obvious he'll never again have the same explosiveness that will one day land him in the Hall of Fame. Yet 75 percent of Urlacher is better than 100 percent of most other NFL linebackers.

He'll turn 35 this upcoming offseason, so a long-term deal is out of the question, yet the club can't just let him walk. Most Bears fans can't stomach the thought of him wearing another uniform to finish out his career. Urlacher wants to stay in Chicago, so a short-term, incentive-laden deal would allow him go out as a Bear. He's still the leader of the defense and the face of the organization and can be very valuable for another year or two.

Verdict: Re-sign to short-term deal after the season

DT Henry Melton

Melton just turned 26 in October and has an extremely bright NFL future ahead of him. In just his second full season as a defensive tackle – he played running back and defensive end in college – Melton is truly coming into his own. As the team's 3-technique under tackle – whose job it is to one-gap penetrate in the face of the quarterback – Melton has excelled.

Last season, his 7.0 sacks were second most of all NFL defensive tackles and he's been in the top three in DT sacks throughout 2012. In today's pass-happy NFL, pass rush is at a premium. Defensive tackles like Melton who can pressure the quarterback and collapse the middle of the pocket are hard to come by.

He finishes his four-year rookie contract this year, making just less than $700,000. On the open market, he could command more than seven times that salary. Teams across the NFL would love to have a player of Melton's age and skill set. As a result, Emery would be wise to make an exception to his rule and get Melton signed before the season ends and the bidding begins.

Verdict: Re-sign immediately

CB D.J. Moore

Moore has made a place for himself as Chicago's slot cornerback. He led the team in interceptions in 2011, despite playing far fewer snaps than starters Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings. Moore is a quick cover corner with speed enough to keep up with any NFL wideout. He is also an outstanding blitzer out of the slot.

Moore is only 25 and has more than two years experience as the club's starting nickelback. He doesn't have the physicality to play out wide, which is why he's a perfect nickelback, but that will hurt his value on the open market. As such, the Bears could wait until after the season to re-sign him to a mid-level, multi-year deal.

Verdict: Re-sign to multi-year deal after 2012

OL Chris Spencer

Spencer was signed to a two-year, $6 million dollar deal in the 2011 offseason. A career center, he made a seamless transition to right guard last year. Coordinator Mike Tice said Spencer was the team's most consistent offensive lineman last season.

Yet his move to left guard this year did not go as smoothly. Spencer struggled mightily on the left side and was replaced by Chilo Rachal in Week 3. Spencer has value as a player with experience at three positions but his price tag is just too much to justify for a backup. He'll likely look for opportunities to start elsewhere.

Verdict: Waive

DE Israel Idonije

After a sub-par 2011, in which he was hampered by a knee injury, Idonije was signed to a one-year deal this offseason. Emery was unable to commit to the 31-year-old Idonije beyond one season, and even drafted his eventually replacement, Shea McClellin, in the first round of the 2012 draft.

Yet Idonije stormed out of the gate this season, proving his knee is fully healthy. Always a solid player against the run, Idonije has regained his explosiveness and has also been a force as a pass rusher. He's the perfect complement opposite Julius Peppers and appears to have a couple of good seasons left in him.

Verdict: Re-sign to a short-term deal

G Lance Louis

Due to the injury to Gabe Carimi, Louis was forced to play out of position at right tackle in 2011, where he struggled. Back at his traditional right guard position this season, Louis has been outstanding. As both a run and pass blocker, Louis has proven to be the club's most consistent offensive lineman.

At only 27 years of age, Louis has a nice career ahead of him. A former collegiate tight end at San Diego State, Louis has great quickness and power. He can maul in the run game and shows solid balance in pass protection. He has truly evolved as an NFL player this year and could anchor the inside of Chicago's offensive line for years to come.

Verdict: Re-sign to a long-term deal

LB Nick Roach

Roach leaves the field during passing downs and doesn't get nearly the same amount of reps as Urlacher and Lance Briggs. Nonetheless, he's an important piece to Chicago's defensive puzzle. As the strong-side linebacker, Roach is a consistent role player that has played in the Bears' system his entire six-year career.

Roach also has experience at middle linebacker and could be Urlachr's long-term successor. He's not flashy but Roach is solid player who is only 27 years old.

Verdict: Re-sign for a mid-level deal

G Chilo Rachal

Rachal took over for Spencer at left guard in Week 2 and provided a spark to Chicago's running game. As a run blocker, Rachal can maul and packs a punch when leading into the hole. On more than one occasion, Rachal has flattened a defender as Matt Forte's lead blocker.

Rachal, 26 years old, brings needed nastiness up front and is a great locker-room presence. If the team can re-sign him and Louis, they would have two solid guards around which to build going forward. By locking them up, Emery can then focus on finding the team's center of the future in this year's draft.

Verdict: Re-sign to a long-term deal

QB Jason Campbell

Campbell was signed to a one-year deal as a free agent this past offseason. With his $3.5 million contract, Campbell is an expensive insurance policy in case Jay Cutler again goes down with injury.

In his career prior to Chicago, Campbell was always a starter, a role to which he'd like to return going forward. He's one of the best backups in the league for 2012 but he's far too expensive to re-sign going forward.

Verdict: Waive

CB Kelvin Hayden

Like Campbell, Hayden was also signed for one year as an unrestricted free agent this past offseason. He has served as the club's fourth cornerback this year and has the ability to play at either wide spot, as well as at nickel. He's an eight-year veteran who has played his entire career in Cover 2 systems like Chicago's.

Hayden is a tremendous reserve and would likely fare just fine if thrown into full-time duty. If the Bears can once again sign him at a veteran minimum contract, they should pursue it. The contracts of both Tillman and Jennings expire after 2013, so Hayden could fill either role if one decides to leave via free agency.

Verdict: Re-sign to short-term deal at veteran minimum

LB Geno Hayes

Like Hayden, Hayes is a high quality backup that can play multiple positions in Chicago's defense. He played in a similar system in Tampa Bay early in his career and has experience at both strong- and weak-side linebacker. If he's willing to stay on board for a few more years at the veteran minimum, the Bears would be wise to lock up this priority reserve.

Verdict: Re-sign to a short-term deal at veteran minimum

LS Patrick Mannelly

Chicago's longest-tenured player, Mannelly has been the team's long snapper since 1998. There are few better in the league at what he does. He tore his ACL last season but has since recovered. If he's willing to play for a few more years, I'm sure the Bears would have no problem inking him.

Verdict: Re-sign the stalwart DT Amobi Okoye

Okoye has been a disappointment this year, after signing a one-year deal to return to Chicago. He hasn't been able to provide consistent pass rush and he's a liability against the run.

Verdict: Waive

OT Jonathan Scott

Scott was signed early in the season, making Chris Williams expendable. Yet Scott is nothing more than your run-of-the-mill NFL offensive tackle. The Bears would be better off taking a chance on a rookie offensive tackle with upside.

Verdict: Waive

CB Zack Bowman

Bowman has value as a special teams player but is a liability as a cornerback.

Verdict: Waive

DT Nate Collins

Collins still has potential as an NFL defensive lineman. He'll come cheap and is worth another look next year.

Verdict: Re-sign to one-year deal

DE Cheta Ozougwu

Ozougwu is a speed rusher who hasn't been active all season.

Verdict: Waive

S Anthony Walters

Walters is a special teams player that can easily be replaced.

Verdict: Waive

LOOKING AHEAD

Re-signing these Bears players before their contracts expire after 2013 should be a priority

QB Jay Cutler

This is a no brainer. Say what you will about Cutler's inconsistencies and penchant for turnovers, but he's by far the most skilled quarterback Chicago has seen Since Luckman. He is far from perfect but those dissatisfied with his play need only look back at the past 20 or so Bears quarterbacks to realize the upgrade in talent Cutler provides. Warts and all, the market for Cutler would be big. Better to get him locked up now then risk another era of mediocrity.

CB Tim Jennings

Jennings' maturation this season has been nothing short of remarkable. He has led the league in interceptions for most of the season and is making a strong case for his first Pro Bowl at age 29. Despite his size (5-8, 185), Jennings is a physical player who fits well in Chicago's system.

S Major Wright

Wright is an athletically gifted safety that has turned the corner this season. His read and recognition skills, his tackling and his understanding of the Bears' system have all improved immensely in his third year. Wright (24), alongside fellow youngster Chris Conte (23) could serve as the club's starting safeties for years to come.

K Robbie Gould

The most accurate kicker in the NFL just keeps getting better with age. Gould has been consistent for so long, Bears fans often take him for granted. He's a key component to Chicago's ability to score points.

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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.

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