The kickoff of NFL free agency coincides with the official start of the 2013 season, this upcoming Tuesday, March 12, at 4 p.m. ET. In the Midwest, three o'clock will signal the moment in which second-year GM Phil Emery will begin in earnest, with his handpicked coach in tow, laying the Chicago Bears' foundation for the future.
There is a lot of talent in this year's free-agent crop, particularly at some of the Bears' most-crucial positions of need. The team is strapped in terms of salary cap space, so Emery may not have the fiscal wiggle room to be as active in free agency as he was last offseason.
But before he starts signing outside players, he must first reward his own, a concept in which Emery believes.
"We want to raise our own," Emery said in his introductory speech as the club's general manager last offseason. "We want people to have passion for the Bears; that came into our home and were raised and developed in our home; that have the passion not only for the Bears, but for this city and our fans."
The Bears have 19 current players set to hit free agency. Bear Report identifies six players that fall under that criteria outlined by Emery: productive players that must be priorities when the re-signing period hits full swing next week. Once Emery locks up these players, then he'll be able to build with outside pieces.
DE Israel Idonije
Idonije lost his starting job defensive end to Corey Wootton midway through last season. Yet that wasn't due to Idonije's poor play. It was due more to the fact that Wootton, a younger player, broke out in 2012. Also, injuries forced the Bears to use Idonije at defensive tackle in second half of the year.
Pro Football Focus (PFF) graded Idonije as the top overall defensive end on the team last year, higher than Pro Bowler Julius Peppers. At tackle, Idonije was also very productive. Even though he's 32, he has a lot of good years ahead of him, as he was mostly a special teams player the first half of his career. He's playing at a very high level, is positionally versatile and is a locker-room leader. Locking him up solidifies Chicago's defensive line for the next few years.
LB Nick Roach
Three of Chicago's top four linebackers from last season – Nick Roach, Brian Urlacher and Geno Hayes – are set to hit free agency. The crux of this situation is Roach, who has experience as both a strong-side and middle linebacker in Chicago's 4-3 defense. If he stays, the Bears could conceivably let Urlacher walk, sliding Roach inside and picking up a strong-side linebacker in either free agency or the draft. It would also give the team leverage in case Urlacher, a 35-year-old coming off knee and hamstring injuries, is asking for too much money.
Roach isn't a dynamic playmaker but he's solid and can help a unit that is transitioning under a new coaching staff. Like Idonije, Roach's versatility and experience will go a long way toward keeping Chicago's defense intact.
UPDATE: According to the Chicago Tribune, six teams other than the Bears have expressed interest in Roach. It sounds like Emery and the front office will have to pony up if they want to keep Roach.
G Lance Louis
Before his season-ending ACL tear in Week 10 last year, Louis was outperforming the rest of Chicago's offensive line. In particular, his pass protection was outstanding. The former collegiate tight end, who has great quickness for an interior offensive lineman, could thrive in new offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer's zone-blocking scheme.
The biggest question for Louis is the health of his knee, which could force him to miss a portion of the 2013 season. And even then, there's no guarantee he'll again reach his previous high level of play. Still, he's worth the risk, as he's a quality guard that has shown positional flexibility in the past. Even if he's not ready to play by Week 1, Louis is a long-term investment worth making.
OT Jonathan Scott
Personally, I'm not that high on Scott. After assuming the starting right-tackle role in Week 11 last season, Scott allowed just one total sack in six starts. Yet he gave up 14 hurries in just 341 snaps played. Extrapolate that out to a full season and Scott would have given up 42 hurries, which would have been fourth most in the league amongst offensive tackles in 2012.
Still, he's a serviceable veteran at a sketchy position for the Bears. With Gabe Carimi struggling and J'Marcus Webb busy getting high, depth at offensive tackle will be crucial for the team going forward. Scott isn't ideal but he's a veteran with playoff experience who, at the least, could serve as a quality swing tackle.
Like Scott, Hayden wasn't all that impressive last season. He served time both as an injury replacement starter and took over the nickelback role in the second half. His flexibility and experience in Cover 2 schemes gives him value and the team liked what he did last year on the field.
Hayden, who will enter free agency for the third time in as many offseasons, will again be looking for a starting gig somewhere in the NFL. Yet the market is saturated with quality cornerback talent and the 29-year-old may have a hard time getting what he wants. D.J. Moore's departure is imminent and the team could do a lot worse than re-signing Hayden.
UPDATE: The Chicago Tribune is reporting that two teams have expressed interest in Hayden.
LB Brian Urlacher
In all honesty, I believe the Bears should move on from Urlacher, who graded as one of the worst linebackers in the league last season, per PFF. His knee injuries have sapped him of his speed and athleticism, and he's now nothing more than another mediocre NFL linebacker.
Yet if the club can't get Roach re-signed, they may have no other choice than to bring back Urlacher for one more season. If he can regain some strength in the knee, his swan song won't hurt the team and will allow the face of the franchise to go out with his head held high.
Bonus: DT Nate Collins
Collins is a restricted free agent. If the Bears tender him, which is likely, other NFL teams will have to compensate Chicago to sign Collins. That scenario, for a player who has started just one game during his career, seems improbable.
With Henry Melton playing under the franchise tag, and Stephen Paea coming into his own at nose tackle, the Bears can get Collins, who can play both the nose and 3-technique, at a bargain price. He would provide needed depth on the interior of the defensive line and has shown the potential to be an impact player. He's a no-brainer.
UPDATE: The Bears will not tender Collins, according to ESPNChicago.com. The low-level tender is $1.32 million, which is more than the club wants to give him. Collins said there is still a chance he'll be back, obviously at a lower salary.
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.