With the playoffs in full swing and the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine still more than a month away, it’s time for teams like the Chicago Bears to look forward to free agency.
The Bears have multiple holes on the roster to fill and could have well more than $70 million in cap space following a few choice roster cuts. As such, GM Ryan Pace’s promise of aggression in the free agent market should come to fruition.
While it can be argued the Bears have more question marks on the offensive side of the ball -- namely at quarterback, tight end and receiver -- the defense is in need of a serious facelift in the secondary. Other needs include bolstering their defensive line and adding another pass rusher, assuming they cut OLB Lamarr Houston in the coming months.
The unrestricted free agent market will be very fluid leading up to March 9, the official start of the 2017 NFL season. That makes it impossible to project who will truly hit the open market but let’s take a look at the top names that are currently slated to become UFAs in early March.
S Eric Berry (Kansas City Chiefs)
There should be a nice crop of top-end defensive talent available once free agency begins and 28-year-old Eric Berry will likely be the most sought-after player on the market.
Why is this so important for the Bears? In the team’s season-ending press conference, Pace spoke directly about the need for playmakers in the secondary.
"Obviously that's a major issue," Pace said. "We need to add more playmakers to our secondary. That's on me."
If Pace is true to his word, that makes Berry an obvious and very sexy pick to fix this massive hole.
The other notable issue sits within this year’s free agent market: There aren’t many quality free safeties, which is something many teams, including the Bears, desperately need.
In seven seasons, Berry has had two or more interceptions four times and has been widely regarded as one of the best all-around safeties in the game.
Multiple teams will be vying for his services and, even with the Chiefs being tight against the salary cap, the feeling is they’ll do everything in their power to keep Berry around. They also have the option of using the franchise tag if they can’t get a deal hammered out before the deadline, so he could very well end up back in Kansas City next year. But if Berry becomes available, Pace may pursue him aggressively.
DL Kawann Short (Carolina Panthers)
Kawaan Short has been highly impressive over his last two seasons with the Panthers, racking up 17 sacks, including 11 in 2015.
Short will be 28 when the season starts but with just four years under his belt, an argument can be made that he is just now hitting his prime. At 6-3, 310, he possesses enough size to play inside at nose tackle or five-technique in a 3-4 front like Chicago's.
There have already been reports the Panthers will tag Short if they cannot reach a long-term deal soon but as we’ve seen in years past, things can change quickly (see Norman, Josh).
If Short does hit the market, expect him to command a contract close to the same yearly value as what Malik Jackson received last off-season from the Jacksonville Jaguars (six years, $90 million). While that’s a hefty price to pay, the Bears and multiple other teams could use a dominant interior pass-rushing presence like Short.
OLB Chandler Jones (Arizona Cardinals)
Chandler Jones is due for his first big payout in the NFL. After being traded from the New England Patriots to the Arizona Cardinals during this past off-season, the soon to be 27-year-old had another stellar year, racking up 11 sacks and 49 tackles in 16 games at outside linebacker.
Selected just two picks after former Bears GM Phil Emery took Shea McClellin in the 2012 draft, Jones has proved to be the much more valuable player and, pending a franchise tag, the team who missed on him just five years ago will have another chance to add the impact edge rusher.
The Bears currently have a good four-man rotation at OLB with Leonard Floyd, Pernell McPhee, Willie Young and Lamarr Houston. Yet after Houston’s second ACL tear the past three years and a hefty cap hit due next season, it would not be a surprise to see Houston cut in the coming months.
Like the other two top defensive talents listed above, if Jones does hit the open market, not only will he be in high demand but he’ll command a big contract. If the Bears are serious about adding playmakers to a rising defense, an investment in Jones would be a smart one.
CB A.J. Bouye (Houston Texans)
The 25-year-old A.J. Bouye had a breakout season during his 2016 contract year and is looking at a sizable payday come March.
Bouye graded out as Pro Football Focus’ second best cornerback during the regular season, with the highest coverage grade at his position.
At 6-0, he possesses good height and looks to be hitting his prime at the youngest age of any top cornerback hitting the market.
It’s also worth noting the Bears pursued Bouye last off-season as a restricted free agent but the former UCF product opted to stay with the Texans, which proved to be a smart move.
While Bouye isn’t as established as other top names on the market, like Trumaine Johnson and Stephon Gilmore, he has arguably the biggest upside and may not cost as much as the top names.
This move has Pace written all over it, acquiring a high-upside player with a slightly cheaper contract, similar to Akiem Hicks and Pernell McPhee that past two years.
DL Calais Campbell (Arizona Cardinals)
A few years ago, Campbell would have been the hottest name on the free agent market but the nine-year veteran will turn 31 before the start of Week 1, making him a risky grab for a young, rebuilding team like the Bears.
Campbell has some impressive career numbers, racking up seven or more sacks in five out of his nine years in the league.
Most believe the veteran will still receive a lucrative contract in what will likely be his final big payday but the fit will be key, especially with his age.
- OLB Melvin Ingram (San Diego Chargers)
Ingram is yet another edge rusher Emery passed on in the 2012 draft and while he’s not an elite pass rusher, he’s another name that could add a lot to be the Bears’ front seven.
- CB Trumaine Johnson (Los Angeles Rams)
Johnson was given the franchise tag last year after the Rams let Janorise Jenkins hit free agency. Johnson is a reliable corner with good size but is expect to command close to $10 million a year on the open market.
- S Tony Jefferson (Arizona Cardinals)
Jefferson is a former undrafted free agent out of Oklahoma who started 14 games for the Cardinals in 2016. At just 25-years-old and improving rapidly, Jefferson could be in high demand amidst a mild free agent market.
- CB Stephon Gilmore (Buffalo Bills)
Yet another franchised tagged corner is set to hit the market. Gilmore is still young (26) and outside of a somewhat-down year in 2016, he’s been a top cover corner since coming into the league in 2012.
- DL Dontari Poe (Kansas City Chiefs)
The Chiefs are currently against the cap and two of their top defenders will soon become free agents. The big contract will likely go to be Berry, which would make Poe available to the rest of the NFL. Poe has good value but with minimal pass rushing upside, his market won’t be as robust as some of the other marquee defensive linemen.