Running back Matt Forte is the only Bears player getting much publicity as free agency approaches, but half of the team's 14 free agents are on the other side of the ball.
Next up after Forte, in terms of importance, is defensive end Israel Idonije. He has developed into a solid two-way performer - strong against the run and OK as a pass rusher. But the Bears would like more from the left end spot than the five sacks they got from Idonije last season. Considering he'll turn 32 next season, his arrow may no longer be pointing up. If the Bears decide to goose their pass rush with someone else's free agent, they may not be able to afford to hold on to Idonije.
Amobi Okoye signed a one-year deal a year ago as a free agent and contributed as a backup in the defensive tackle rotation. He also can play left end, and even though Okoye has five years experience, he's still just 24.
For the Bears' defense to perform well, it's imperative that it can pressure the quarterback with just the front four, and that didn't happen on a consistent basis last season.
Despite all the positive talk regarding the Bears' defense in 2011 - most of it coming from players and coaches at Halas Hall - Lovie Smith's team wasn't very impressive on that side of the ball.
The Bears were a respectable 14th in points and 17th in yards allowed, and they were stout against the run, finishing fifth in yards and 10th in average gain allowed.
But only four teams permitted more passing yards than the Bears, and only three had fewer sacks per pass play. Those numbers may be OK for teams like the Packers and Patriots, which have state-of-the-art offenses to compensate, but they're not OK for Smith or for Bears defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli.
The Packers' Aaron Rodgers threw for 4,643 yards and 45 touchdowns last year, and the Lions' Matthew Stafford threw for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns, so the Bears face two of the NFL's five most prolific quarterbacks twice every season.
"To say that we got enough (pass-rush pressure) the entire time, I can't say that," Smith said at the end of the season. "That's an area that we're going to look at. We always look to improve our defensive line."
Julius Peppers can't do it all himself, and even his 11 sacks were nowhere near the league leaders. Eight players had 12 or more sacks last season. The Bears got some inside pressure from Henry Melton, who had a career-best seven sacks (only two NFL tackles had more), but no other player had more than Idonije's five.
It's not that the Bears can't get pass-rush help in the draft, but it's unlikely they'll luck into someone like 49ers rookie Aldon Smith (14 sacks in 2011) with the 19th overall pick.
If the Bears decide they want immediate help, their best bets would be the Lions' Cliff Avril or the Cardinals' Calais Campbell, both four-year veterans with a lot of tread still on the tires. The 6-3, 260-pound Avril is undersized for the Bears' scheme, but that's not a concern with the 6-8, 300-pound Campbell, who is an ideal fit in Arizona's 3-4 defense.
Avril had 11 sacks last season, the most among all free-agent defensive ends, while Campbell had 8.0. Some other interesting players scheduled to hit the market on March 13 are the Falcons' John Abraham and the Colts' undersized Robert Mathis, who both had 9.5 sacks.
Abraham will be entering his 13th season and Mathis his 10th. But last season was the eighth time Abraham has had at least 9.5 sacks in a season, including 13 in 2010. The 6-2, 245-pound Mathis would have to be a situational rusher in the Bears' scheme, but he has had 9.5 or more sacks in seven seasons, including each of the past four.
The AFC champion Patriots have four defensive ends scheduled to become free agents, including two - 11-year veteran Andre Carter and former Bear Mark Anderson - who had 10 sacks last season.
After being cut in 2010 by the Bears, four years after his 12-sack rookie season, Anderson resurrected his languishing NFL career with the Patriots. Was that a fluke or a sign of a player who has recaptured the magic?
The stronger the Bears' pass rush, the more it will hide a secondary that isn't much better than mediocre.
Other than cornerback Charles Tillman, who was voted to his first Pro Bowl in his ninth season, no one in the Bears' secondary stood out, so it's debatable how much effort the team will put into re-signing a large group of its defensive back free agents.
Five players who have started games in the Bears' secondary are unrestricted this year.
Cornerback Corey Graham may be the most valuable of the bunch given his prowess on special teams, which earned him a trip to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl last month. The five-year veteran has just one start since starting nine times at cornerback in 2008, but he picked off passes in three straight games last season while subbing at nickel back when D.J. Moore was injured.
Tim Jennings started the first 14 games at cornerback last season but was benched for a week in favor of Zack Bowman. Then Jennings started the season finale after Bowman, who is also a free agent, was benched. Bowman had started the first three games in 2010 but was benched in favor of Jennings, who started the final 13 games. Clearly the Bears have confidence issues with both players.
Safety Brandon Meriweather was signed to a one-year deal just before the start of the 2011 season after he was cut by the DB-challenged Patriots, who had the second-worst pass defense in the NFL. The Bears found out why he was available as Meriweather played himself out of the lineup after four weeks as the starter at free safety.
Craig Steltz, another special teams stalwart, started the final four games last season at strong safety and played well enough to at least be in the mix again.
The Lions' defense gradually collapsed over the last eight games of the season. They gave up 45 points in each of the last two games - to the Packers and Saints. They gave up an average of 31 points over the last eight games, including the playoffs.
Yet, after the dust settled and emotions were allowed to simmer, general manager Martin Mayhew came away feeling better about his defense than most.
"I like our defense," he said. "We didn't finish the season the way we would have liked, but our defense did a lot of good things this year."
He ticked off the accomplishments:
"We made a ton of plays," he said. "Obviously, we didn't finish off well, but I think injuries were a factor in that," Mayhew said. "By no means do I think we need an overhaul on defense. We have a lot of good defensive players and a good defensive coaching staff. We need to healthy-up a little bit."
Specifically, Mayhew tied the decline of the defense to safety Louis Delmas' knee injury on Thanksgiving Day. He called Delmas a "vacuum cleaner," because he cleans up so many mistakes.
But Delmas has battled through injuries the last two seasons. Mayhew was asked if he was worried about Delmas' ability to stay on the field moving forward.
"You worry about everybody's durability, but no, he's a young guy and he's not getting shoulder or neck injuries," Mayhew said. "He had a groin in 2010 and a knee injury this year. He's a good player and he makes a difference."
Still, Mayhew knows he has some work to do on the defensive side. It will be vital to re-sign defensive end Cliff Avril and middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch. Cornerback Eric Wright is also unrestricted. The Lions have no cornerback signed beyond the 2012 season.
"Interestingly, if you look at our team; we have eight starters (under contract) on defense and 10 on offense," Mayhew said. "But the positions where we have free agents are the most critical positions on our football team - pass rusher, mike (middle) linebacker, cornerback -- those are hard to find."
Unlike the past few years, the Lions don't have a top five draft pick and it looks doubtful, barring a trade to move up, they will be able to fill any of those holes with the 23rd overall pick.
ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper, Jr., has the Lions taking North Alabama cornerback Janoris Jenkins in his latest mock draft. NFL Network's Mike Mayock offered two choices for the Lions at No. 23.
"What they really need is to get better on defense and maybe look at corners and linebackers," he said.
At cornerback, he said the top prospects - LSU's Morris Claiborne and Alabama's Dre Kirkpatrick - will be gone by No. 23, but Jenkins from North Alabama could be there.
"He's one of the ultimate boom or bust guys in this draft," Mayock said. "He has great ability but he's slid a little because of off the field stuff. But he's a logical guy."
As for an outside linebacker, he suggested Ronnell Lewis out of Oklahoma.
"He's an intriguing prospect," Mayock said. "You see his size (6-2, 244) and he's a tweener. But you can't deny his movement skills and ability to rush the passer. In the NFL, you will make a living and maybe be a high draft pick if you have those skills. He does have some durability issues, but he would be a logical guy there."
If the Lions don't re-sign Tulloch, they would probably move DeAndre Levy back to the middle, thus creating an opening on the outside. That is clearly not the best-case scenario for Mayhew.
"Stephen Tulloch did a great job for us," Mayhew said. "He was the quarterback of our defense. He understands our defense and we feel very confident with him in there. He's a good leader, he's good in the locker room and we would really like to have him back."
Green Bay Packers
About the only news coming out of Green Bay regarding the Packers in recent weeks has been what head coach Mike McCarthy has done to tweak his coaching staff on the offensive side of the ball.
The Packers have a new coordinator with Tom Clements, who had been their longtime quarterbacks coach, and also had some other veteran assistants given new coaching assignments.
Yet, while little else needs to be done on offense after league MVP Aaron Rodgers put a bigger stamp on directing a young and explosive unit in his fourth season as a starter, the fallout from Green Bay's disappointing end to an otherwise magical season has yet to be addressed.
"We hope we can get what we need to get back to where we were playing and get back to that aggressive style," cornerback Tramon Williams said. "I felt that we just didn't play the style that we play. We mixed up a lot of different things, but at the same time we had a lot of holes in the defense."
Williams made those comments matter-of-factly after the Packers were bounced in a hurry from the playoffs.
Their 37-20 loss to the New York Giants in the divisional round Jan. 15 took the starch out of Green Bay's near-flawless accomplishment of going 15-1 in the regular season. The stunning nature of the defeat with Green Bay as the NFC's No. 1 seed playing at Lambeau Field served as a final reminder - a sobering one, at that - of how awful the Packers defense played in the 2011 season.
The 420 yards produced by the Giants, the 330 yards thrown by Eli Manning and only one sack of the quarterback were par for the rocky course by coordinator Dom Capers' underachieving group. Allowing a 37-yard touchdown pass from Manning to Hakeem Nicks on a Hail Mary throw at the end of the first half - a momentum-changing play in what was a closely contested game at the time - encapsulated so much for a defense that imploded far too often.
"I think about one play, and I think about that Hail Mary," veteran cornerback Charles Woodson said two weeks later at the Pro Bowl in Hawaii. "I go over it in my head and see the clips on ESPN and different sports shows and see the lack of effort from our team to get that ball intercepted or knock it down."
Green Bay went from having a dynamic defense under Capers that ranked second in 2009 and fifth in 2010 to being the league's worst at No. 32. Furthermore, the Packers allowed 4,796 net passing yards, a league record.
How and why things went so terribly wrong with that phase of the team when everything else flourished more often than not can be greatly attributed to an insufficient pass rush.
The Packers mustered all of 29 sacks, led by just six from All-Pro outside linebacker Clay Matthews.
"Obviously, the first two years we felt pretty good that our pass rush had improved," said Capers, whose units in 2009 and '10 had 37 and 47 sacks, respectively. "I think we were second behind the (Pittsburgh) Steelers in sacks the first two years. That area fell off. A big part of our philosophy is trying to disrupt the quarterback."
As such, Ted Thompson for one of the few times in his eight-year tenure as general manager will have to put need above going for the best player available when the Packers start picking in the draft in late April. Green Bay has the 28th selection in the first round.
Outside linebacker Erik Walden, who didn't provide much lined up opposite Matthews last season, is the only starter on defense who is headed toward free agency in March. Even if Walden was signed and returning to the team, that position must be bolstered for the sake of giving a boost to the pass rush in Green Bay's scheme.
"It's kind of the premise of the 3-4 defense," Capers said. "Those two guys outside set the tone, and you see us do some of the inside-rush stuff. The effectiveness of those two outside guys makes the inside-rush game much more effective because they have to account for those two guys."
The Packers also could be in the market for a defensive end since they got next to nothing out of injury-plagued Mike Neal, who was supposed to ease the loss of Cullen Jenkins in free agency last year.
Thompson also figures to add a player or two in the secondary, given the uncertainty of Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins' playing future after he suffered a severe neck injury in September and having Woodson in the twilight of his career at age 35.