On March 10, 20 Chicago Bears players will become unrestricted free agents. Here’s the full list, along with their age at the start of next season:
DT Stephen Paea, 27
LB Lance Briggs, 34
CB Charles Tillman, 34
C Brian de la Puente, 30
S Chris Conte, 26
CB Sherrick McManis, 27
LB D.J. Williams, 33
QB Jimmy Clausen, 27
S Danny McCray, 27
TE Dante Rosario, 30
OL Eben Britton, 27
LB Darryl Sharpton, 27
WR Josh Morgan, 30
DE Trevor Scott, 31
DE Austen Lane, 27
LS Jeremy Cain, 35
K Jay Feely, 39
FB Montell Owens, 31
TE Zach Miller, 30
S Anthony Walters, 26
Most believe the top priority is Stephen Paea, who finished with a career-high 6.0 sacks last season. Paea was disruptive in the backfield and is just now entering his prime.
Yet Paea is a hybrid player whose size (6-1, 300) and inconsistencies against the run may make him a poor fit for new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s defense. Fangio doesn’t necessarily rely on huge, space-eating defensive linemen but they typically excel at occupying two gaps, which is an area of weakness for Paea.
When you add in his potential price tag, the Bears may be better off letting Paea walk.
Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman have been defensive stalwarts since 2003, yet both are 34 and neither has played a full season since 2012. Their age, regression in production and recent injury history makes them serious liabilities going forward. The new regime has no ties to either player, both of whom will soon likely begin their post-football careers.
There is a vocal contingent of fans that believe Brian de la Puente could anchor Chicago’s offensive line and provide an upgrade over 36-year-old Roberto Garza. Based on the grades handed out by the off-the-street interns at a certain high-profile analytics company – who in 2014 gave de la Puente the only positive overall grade of any Bears O-lineman other than Kyle Long – that might make sense.
Yet on film, those grades just don’t stack up. In reality, de la Puente is an often-off-balanced, un-athletic lineman who is an outright liability at the second level. If de la Puente were the future, the Bears would have re-signed him – and not Garza, who is six years older – at the end of last season.
Chris Conte has been a pariah in Chicago since he missed the on-field audible that allowed Randall Cobb to roam free in the waning seconds of the 2013 season finale, which knocked the Bears out of the playoffs. He played well last year but dealt with numerous injuries, including multiple concussions. In addition, after being treated like a scapegoat by every Bears fan from here to Timbuktu, Conte would likely rather have a paper cut on his eye than return to the Windy City.
Sherrick McManis was outstanding in training camp last year but a leg injury suffered in Week 2 put him on the shelf for a month, during which time Demontre Hurst leapfrogged him on the depth chart. Yet McManis is still just 27 and appeared to be coming into his own as a defender last offseason. In addition, he’s stellar on special teams. If there was any Bears UFA worth re-signing, it’s McManis.
D.J. Williams has some game left in him but he can’t stay healthy. He’s 32 and played just 18 contests for the Bears the last two years combined. The Bears need to get younger and healthier at linebacker.
In 2010, Jimmy Clausen led the Carolina Panthers to a 2-14 record, which resulted in John Fox’s firing. You think Chicago’s new head coach wants to go down that road again?
Danny McCray was decent as a part-time safety but he’s little more than a high-end special-teams player, one who made a few egregious errors in the third phase last season. As special-teams depth on a veteran-minimum contract, McCray might be worth re-signing.
Darryl Sharpton started in Week 6 against the Atlanta Falcons and made plays all over the field. Sharpton, who led the Houston Texans in tackles in 2013, showed off his speed and range, and at just 27-year-old, he still has plenty of good football left in him. His problem is staying healthy, something he’s done just once during his five-year career. Sharpton played just five games for the Bears in 2014 and then missed the rest of the season due to a hamstring injury. He’s a baller worth a small investment but his injury history is too substantial to ignore.
Eben Britton was slated to once again serve as the club’s sixth offensive lineman last year but he suffered a significant hamstring injury in training camp that cost him all of the preseason. In his absence, Michael Ola took over as the first lineman off the bench and Britton became an afterthought until late in the season when injuries piled up. He’s a very good run blocker and may be worth signing to a one-year, veteran-minimum deal.
Zach Miller, Anthony Walters, Josh Morgan, Trevor Scott, Austen Lane, Jeremy Cain, Montell Owens and Jay Feely are all “just guys”: over the hill and/or easily replaced.
So of the 20 UFAs about to hit the open market, a case could be made that none are worth re-signing. McManis, Sharpton and Britton might be worth small investments as depth players but other than that, the Bears’ new regime will likely wipe the slate clean and start fresh.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fifth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter.