The drop off in production can be partially blamed on injuries that decimated the club's defensive tackle and linebacker positions. The maladies forced starter Corey Wootton to shift inside and propelled Shea McClellin into an every-down role. The results were less than ideal.
On the other side of the defensive line, future Hall of Famer Julius Peppers began showing his age. He's due more than $18 million in 2014 and more than $20 million in 2015. If the Bears were to cut him at the start of free agency, March 11, the team would add roughly $10 million in much-needed cap space.
By taking that route, GM Phil Emery could create enough wiggle room to be active in free agency. Peppers could be gone, Wootton is a free agent and McClellin is moving to linebacker, so it's safe to assume Emery will be taking a hard look at the veteran defensive ends in this year's open market.
Let's break down the players who can fill the Bears' needs at a cap-friendly price.
Greg Hardy (6-4, 279) Age: 26
"The Kraken" finished third in the league last year with 15.0 sacks and has 26.0 sacks the last two years combined. He's also a very strong run stopper. The former sixth rounder out of Ole Miss has completed his rookie contract and is looking for a big payday. While Hardy would be a perfect fit for the Bears, his price tag will be far too expensive.
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Brian Orakpo (6-3, 255) Age: 28
Orakpo is a three-time Pro Bowl defensive end. Minus his injury-shortened 2012 season, Orakpo has tallied between 8.5 and 11.0 sacks in each of his four full NFL seasons. He can also stuff the run and drop into coverage. Orakpo would fit well in Chicago but the Redskins want to keep him and will likely place the franchise tag on him if a long-term deal isn't reached.
Michael Bennett (6-4, 271) Age: 28
Michael is the brother of Bears tight end Martellus Bennett. Michael has said publicly he wants to play with his brother but he's also stated he hates the cold, so he's sending mixed signals. One thing is for sure: Bennett is one of the top all-around defensive ends in the NFL. The Seahawks had the best defensive line in the league in 2013 and Bennett led the team in both QB hits (17) and QB hurries (39), according to Pro Football Focus (PFF). He has 17.5 sacks and seven forced fumbles the last two years combined. If Martellus can convince his older brother to come to the Windy City, Michael would be an ideal fit along the Bears' defensive line.
Lamarr Houston (6-3, 302) Age: 27
Houston's stats don't jump off the page (just 10.5 sacks the last two years combined) but make no mistake, he's a quality edge rusher. Per PFF, he was Top 10 in the league in 2013 amongst 4-3 defensive ends in QB hurries (41) and QB hits (16). Houston is even better against the run and would provide a big boost to Chicago's 32nd-ranked rush defense. He'll be in high demand this offseason and may be too expensive for the Bears but if Emery has the option to splurge, Houston would be money well spent.
Michael Johnson (6-7, 270) Age: 27
Johnson had 11.5 sacks in 2012 but just 3.5 sacks in 2013. Obviously, the loss of Geno Atkins had a negative affect on Johnson as a pass rusher but he was still extremely stout against the run. He's a very inconsistent player but when he's on, Johnson can dominate. His low sack total last season will likely reduce his asking price this offseason, which could land him right in the Bears' range.
Willie Young (6-4, 251) Age: 28
In his first year as a full-time starter last season, Young tallied just 3.0 sacks. Yet he still applied serious pressure, recording 48 QB hurries, third most amongst 4-3 defensive ends, per PFF. Young is also strong against the run and will be just 28 this season. The Lions have an egregious amount of money already locked up in their defensive line, so Young should be plenty available. At the right price, Young could end up the steal of free agency.
Tyson Jackson (6-4, 296) Age: 28
Jackson is a 3-4 defensive end but the Bears have left the door open to a schematic shift away from their standard 4-3. If they want to improve the run defense, Jackson would make an ideal candidate. He won't offer anything as a pass rusher but if Chicago wants some meat up front to plug holes against the run, Jackson should be a top target.
Everson Griffen (6-3, 273) Age: 26
Griffen is a nickel pass rusher who has 13.5 sacks the past two years combined. In limited snaps last season he posted 39 QB hurries, per PFF, which was second most on Minnesota's roster and four more than Jared Allen (in 355 fewer snaps). Griffen isn't stout against the run but he's not a pushover. Griffen will come at a cap-friendly price and could provide the Bears the pressure they need off the edge.
Robert Ayers (6-3, 274) Age: 27
The former 18th overall selection in the 2009 draft, Ayers never lived up to expectations in Denver. Yet he set a career high in sacks last season (5.5) and is very strong against the run. His lack of overall production with the Broncos (12.0 total sacks in five seasons) means he won't cost an arm and a leg. At just 27 years old, Ayers still has room for improvement and may be worth a multi-year investment.
Jared Allen (6-6, 265) Age: 32
Allen has been one of the best pass-rush defensive ends in the league the past 10 years. He had 11.5 sacks last season and most considered it a down year. Like Peppers, Allen may be starting to show signs of age but he hasn't broken down completely. If he's willing to accept a short-term deal, he'd add a lot to Chicago's defense but at 32 years old, the Bears might be better off finding a cheaper rental option.
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Justin Tuck (6-5, 268) Age: 31
As a pass rusher, Tuck was very inconsistent last year, yet he still ended the campaign with 11.0 sacks. He's strong against the run and has already expressed his desire to test free agency this offseason. At 31, he's unlikely to get a huge contract, meaning he could land in Chicago's price range. Tuck is no longer the player he once was but he still has a good year or two left in him.
Antonio Smith (6-4, 289) Age: 33
Throughout his career, Smith has always been able to get after the quarterback. He's as consistent a pass rusher as there is on the open market. He's probably best fit in a 3-4 but he could play multiple positions in a 4-3 system. At 33 years old, he's only worth a short-term investment but he'd be a quality situational pass rusher for the Bears next season.
Shaun Phillips (6-3, 260) Age: 33
Phillips led the Broncos in sacks (10.0) and QB hurries (32) in 2013. Since turning 29, he has logged 9.5 sacks or more in all but one season, and has tallied 7.0 or more sacks in all but two of his 10 NFL campaigns. He'll be 33 next year, so his window of production will soon close, but Phillips has shown he still has plenty left in the tank.
Mike Neal (6-3, 285) Age: 27
Neal became a full-time member of Green Bay's defensive line rotation in 2012 and has racked up 9.5 sacks the last two years combined. He's a one-dimensional pass rusher with good power. Due to injuries, the Packers asked Neal to play outside linebacker last season, where he struggled overall. He still posted a career high 5.0 sacks and in Chicago's 4-3, he could give the Bears help on nickel downs. He hasn't proven himself yet, so he might worth a look on a cheap, short-term deal.
Israel Idonije (6-6, 275) Age: 33
After nine years in Chicago, the Bears chose to part ways with Idonije last offseason. Once the injuries began piling up, his presence on the edge would have been a huge boost, particularly against the run. Idonije was used in a part-time role in Detroit, logging just 347 snaps last year and 0.5 sacks. His best days are behind him but Idonije can still hold his own against the run, an area in which the Bears desperately need help. He'll come at the veteran minimum and he's an outstanding locker-room presence. As a fourth defensive end, used on first and second down, Idonije would be a great candidate to re-sign for one more year.
The Bennett brothers like to talk and each often says the first thing that pops into his head, so it's tough to take Michael's comments about Chicago's weather too seriously. If the money is right, Michael can be persuaded to move to the Midwest for the chance at playing with his younger brother. Surely Martellus will be in his ear from now until the start of free agency, so if the Bears cut Peppers and pony up some cash, they should be able to land Michael, who would fit Chicago's defensive needs in a number of ways.
If Emery fails to land Bennett, Willie Young and Emerson Griffen are strong long-term candidates. Both are relatively young and each can apply pressure off the edge. With the possibility of having to fill four defensive end spots this offseason, the Bears also need to give Idonije consideration as the fourth edge player. He'll come dirt cheap and would provide a big boost against the run.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is entering his fourth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. 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.