For the past three seasons, D.J. Moore has broke camp as the starting nickelback for the Chicago Bears. For two years he was stellar in that role, racking up eight interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns, out of the slot. His four picks in 2011 led the team.
Yet his fallout with former head coach Lovie Smith over Moore's derogatory comments regarding Jay Cutler sent the four-year veteran tumbling to the bottom of the depth chart. By midseason in 2012, Moore had been replaced by Kelvin Hayden and was even a healthy scratch in Weeks 11 and 13.
Both Moore and Hayden will become free agents on March 12. Hayden wasn't impressive in the nickelback role last year and Moore will likely be looking for a fresh start elsewhere. Beyond those two, the Bears have little depth, with Zack Bowman and Sherrick McManis the next guys down on the depth chart.
Here then are a handful of veteran free agents that could fill Chicago's nickelback role in 2013 (unrestricted free agents only).
**For our purposes, we will exclude free agents that will be looking for starting roles, and paychecks to match, such as Aqib Talib, Keenan Lewis, Sam Shields, Sean Smith, Chris Houston and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.**
Derek Cox (6-1, 195), Jacksonville Jaguars, Age: 26
Cox is a very talented young player who has ideal size for a zone corner in Chicago's 4-3 system. In 12 games last season, he allowed just one touchdown and picked off four passes. His opposing QB rating of 69.0 when thrown at is very good. Yet Cox just cannot stay healthy. He missed 10 games in 2011 and four last year. He's also inconsistent as a tackler, missing 17 tackles in 2012. Still, if he stays on the field, he would be perfect in the slot for Chicago. Bears coordinator Mel Tucker has coached Cox that last four years and knows better than anyone his talent level. Don't be surprised if the club makes a run at him in free agency.
CB Leodis McKelvin
Leodis McKelvin (5-10, 185), Buffalo Bills, Age: 27
McKelvin started three games for Buffalo last year, spending the rest of the season in the slot for the Bills. Pro Football Focus (PFF) graded him highest of all Buffalo corners last year. He's not a great playmaker in coverage but he's smart and stout against the run – he missed just two tackles last year. He would be a nice fit in the slot for Chicago but his biggest value would come on special teams, where McKelvin is an experienced kick and punt returner. Last year, his 18.7 punt return average was the best in the league. With Devin Hester unlikely to return, McKelvin could fit a dual role for the Bears as nickelback and return man.
Cary Williams (6-1, 190), Baltimore Ravens, Age: 28
His childlike behavior aside, Williams showed big-time playmaking ability in this year's Super Bowl. He's a freelance player who will take risks on the field. This results in big plays, as we saw in the championship game, but it also leads to some rough outings, evidenced by his six TDs allowed last year. Williams has his warts but he would bring experience, attitude and aggressiveness to Chicago's defense.
Tony Carter (5-9, 175), Denver Broncos, Age: 27
Carter was a special teams player his first three years in the league yet saw significant playing time last year for the Broncos. Playing 512 snaps, he finished the year with a 49.2 catch percentage against and seven passes defended, both tops for Denver corners last year. Carter is a breakout player that, due to his relative inexperience, will come cheaply and can challenge for the nickelback role in Chicago. He would be a sneaky, but wise, free agent pick up.
Greg Toler (6-0, 192), Arizona Cardinals, Age: 28
Toler played very well out of the slot last year for the Cardinals. His 41.5 catch percentage against and 51.5 opposing QB rating are both outstanding. Toler defended six passes in 2012, while giving up just one touchdown and did not miss a single tackle. Here is an under-the-radar player that will come cheap and could turn into a steal. The Bears should aggressively pursue Toler and plug him right in at nickelback.
Jacob Lacey (5-10, 177), Detroit Lions, Age: 26
Lacey's numbers from last season don't look good – 68.0 completion percentage against, 111.7 opposing QB rating and four TDs allowed – yet most of his struggles came early in the campaign. Once the Lions moved Lacey to the slot, he excelled. Prior to last year, Lacey spent three seasons in Indianapolis, playing a similar 4-3 defense to Chicago's. He'll come at a discount, and he's young and his room to improve. He'd make a solid addition in the slot for the Bears.
Adam Jones (5-10, 185), Cincinnati Bengals, Age: 29
Pacman finally stayed healthy, and off the police blotter, last year and served very well as nickelback for the Bengals. According to PFF, Jones graded the highest in 2012 of any free agent cornerback set to hit the open market. He'll turn 30 in September but he has relatively fresh legs, sitting out two full seasons since 2005. He'd also add another dimension as a kick returner in Chicago. For the Bears, Jones would be worth the risk.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.