Chicago Bears: A Position-by-Position Primer to Free Agency
After already spending money to re-sign Jay Cutler, Robbie Gould, Matt Slauson and Tim Jennings, the Bears will need to be creative in trying to free up some money this offseason to spend in free agency.
The Bears could look to release guys like Julius Peppers, Earl Bennett and Michael Bush to free up money and offer themselves more flexibility when trying to court free agents.
According to CBSChicago.com's Dan Durkin, the Bears currently have an estimated $6.3 million in cap space.
General manager Phil Emery had some success last offseason by finding players willing to take one-year "prove it" deals and could be looking to do the same again this year.
Here is our position-by-position primer to free agency for the Chicago Bears.
During a brief stretch of the 2013 season, few in the NFL were hotter than the Bears' backup quarterback Josh McCown.
In five starts and eight total appearances filling in for Jay Cutler, McCown threw for 1,829 yards and 13 touchdowns to one interception and was named NFC Player of the Week for his performance against the Dallas Cowboys on Monday Night Football.
Late last season there was speculation that McCown could retire instead of playing in 2014, according to Adam Jahns of the Chicago Sun-Times, but Adam Schefter of ESPN.com reported that McCown has no plans of retiring.
The Bears would be wise to bring him back in 2014 if the money is right, but considering how well he played in his spot starts this past season, he may find bigger offers out there.
If the team decides to move on from McCown, they could look to keep Jordan Palmer. Palmer was with the team in training camp but was released before the season began. He was eventually re-signed following Cutler's injury against the Washington Redskins in late October.
The team may ultimately look to the draft to find a young, cheap backup for the future but could wind up choosing from a list of guys like Matt Cassel, Colt McCoy or Shaun Hill if the team is unable to bring back McCown or Palmer.
2013 was a career year for running back Matt Forte as he finished second in the league in rushing yards with 1,339. He had nine touchdowns to go along with his 74 catches for 594 yards and three touchdowns en route to his second career Pro Bowl.
Michael Bush was brought in during the 2012 offseason with the intention of being the pound-it-out between the tackles runner the Bears had been lacking, but he's failed to have much of an impact during his time in Chicago.
According to Sportrac.com, Bush is slated to have a cap hit of $3.85 million in 2014, and given his production (or lack thereof), he could be cut to help save the team money this offseason.
The team has been looking for a solid No. 2 running back behind Matt Forte for years, signing guys like Chester Taylor, Marion Barber and Bush with little to no good results. Forte has proven that he can carry the load and pound the football outside of the tackles, but the team still lacks someone that can pick up the tough yards in short-yardage situations.
The San Francisco 49ers' Anthony Dixon has had limited carries during his four-year career. But considering his size and frame, he could be a solid short-yardage option if given the opportunities. He has been forced into playing fullback after an injury to Bruce Miller but could be a cheap option for the Bears this offseason.
Other notable free agents that could be considered are Peyton Hillis, who somewhat revived his career in New York this season, or someone like Jonathan Dwyer, who might benefit from a change in scenery.
Since the departure of Greg Olsen, the Bears had been searching for a top receiving tight end and finally found one in Martellus Bennett.
Bennett had a career year in 2013, notching career highs in catches (65), yards (759) and tying his career high in touchdowns with five.
His productivity led to little or no playing time for the backup tight ends. Steve Maneri started the season as the No. 2 behind Bennett but was released in October and his position was then occupied by Dante Rosario.
Rosario played just 186 snaps on offense and had one reception for 13 yards. The Bears mainly used Rosario as a blocking tight end in 2013.
The team could bring him back in 2014 but they could also explore their options and maybe pursue former University of Illinois tight end Jeff Cumberland.
Cumberland is a solid blocker and has shown in flashes that he can be productive as a receiver. He had 26 catches for 398 yards and four touchdowns in 2013 and could easily assimilate himself as the team's No. 2 tight end.
Other available options on the market this offseason are: Bear Pascoe, Clay Harbor and Michael Hoomanawanui.
Considering how productive Bennett was in 2013, the tight end position is low on the needs list this offseason.
2013 was a breakout year for Alshon Jeffery as he finished the season sixth in the league with 1,421 yards receiving en route to his first career Pro Bowl. Not to be forgotten, Brandon Marshall finished with 1,295 yards receiving and made his fifth career Pro Bowl.
For possibly the first time ever, the Bears had two legitimate star receiving targets lined up to the right or left of the quarterback. Those two wide receivers, combined with Matt Forte and Martellus Bennett, led to the third wide receiver (Earl Bennett) to not have much of an impact.
Bennett finished with 32 catches for 243 yards in 2013 but, according to Sportrac.com, he is due to have a cap hit of $2.45 million in 2014 and could be one of the players cut to free up cap space.
If the team decides to move on from Bennett, second-year man Marquess Wilson likely would get first crack at the position. But the team could instead look to the free agency market to add to the position.
Having two towering wide receivers on the outside with Marshall and Jeffery is a great luxury for Jay Cutler, but he could use a speedy wide receiver that can help stretch the field.
Kansas City's Dexter McCluster has the speed and vision that can be vital for a slot wide receiver, has the versatility to play running back and he provides the added benefit of being an above average return man, something the team will need if they decide not to re-sign Devin Hester.
If the team wants to go a more tradition route, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Kenny Britt or Robert Meachem could all be interesting possibilities and can perhaps be signed to one-year "prove it" deals.
Since Jay Cutler arrived in Chicago, his offensive line has been one of the worst in the league until 2013. The team signed veterans Jermon Bushrod and Matt Slauson to play left tackle and left guard while drafting Kyle Long and Jordan Mills to play right guard and right tackle.
Following the re-signing of Slauson earlier this season, all four will be returning next season and likely all will remain the starters at their position. One player that has struggled in recent years has been veteran center Roberto Garza.
Garza is set to become a free agent. And while the team could still bring him back in 2014, they may look to the free-agent market to improve the middle of their offensive line.
The Green Bay Packers' Evan Dietrich-Smith and the New Orleans Saints' Brian De La Puente will likely be near the top of many teams' lists at center and the Bears could make a splash by signing one of these veterans.
De La Puente makes the most sense considering his background with Bears' offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer in New Orleans, but he may be a bit out of their price range. Dietrich-Smith's future is uncertain according to Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and he could test the free agency market.
The team may look to bring back Eben Britton who had a nice season as a situational tackle/extra tight end. Or they could look to add veteran guys—like a Danny Watkins, David Diehl or a Dan Koppen type player that has experience in the league but may be out to prove that they still have it, similar to what Slauson did last season with the Bears.
There is little to no doubt that the Bears' defense will be the biggest priority this offseason and the defensive line will be at the top of the "most needed" list.
The Bears were dead last against the run in 2013 and finished 30th in total yards. One big reason for their collapse on defense was injuries, particularly to the defensive line.
Henry Melton and Nate Collins were both lost for the season, forcing relative unknowns like Christian Tupou, Zach Minter and Landon Cohen to all find time in the defensive-line rotation.
It would not be surprising if the team attempted to re-sign both Melton and Collins, but they will need to look for some help at the defensive end position in the free agent market.
Michael Bennett makes the most sense, given his versatility to play both inside and outside and that his brother Martellus Bennett has been trying to recruit his brother, telling the Boers & Bernstein Show, according to Fred Mitchell of the Chicago Tribune, "Next year I am trying to get him to come here because he will be a free agent again. So I am selling him already."
Jeremiah Ratliff could be a candidate to return in 2014 after starting the final four games for the Bears and showing he still had something left in his tank. Defensive ends Everson Griffen and Lamarr Houston may be upgrades with a change of scenery at Chicago and could both help in adding some youth to an aging defense at a reasonable cost.
2013 was a tough year for Bears' linebackers as D.J. Williams was placed on injured reserve and missed the majority of the season and Lance Briggs was injured in October against the Washington Redskins and did not return until Week 15 against the Philadelphia Eagles.
The team was forced to start rookies Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene, both struggling at times in acclimating to their new roles. The plan for 2013 was not for the two to see any significant playing time, but the team may still look to add proven veterans ahead of them on the depth chart.
Williams and strong-side linebacker James Anderson are both set to become free agents this offseason. If the team decides to move on from one or both, they will likely look to the free-agent market to add depth.
Brandon Spikes had an up-and-down year for the New England Patriots before being placed on injured reserve prior to the playoffs. If the team does not re-sign him, he could be an option for the Bears as he has the versatility to play in both a 3-4 and a 4-3 defense. He has struggled in the past in pass coverage but has been terrific against the run.
Another option at middle linebacker is Jon Beason. Beason was traded from the Carolina Panthers to the New York Giants midseason and helped bolster the struggling Giants defense. His strong second-half of the season may put him out of the Bears' price range, but he's a three-time Pro Bowl linebacker who has experience playing both inside and outside at linebacker.
If the Bears look to add to their roster with cheaper options, guys like Pat Angerer, Dan Connor or O'Brien Schofield could be stopgaps for Bostic and/or Greene or depth behind a highly drafted rookie.
Charles Tillman was hoping to return to the Pro Bowl for a third straight season in 2013 but injuries got the best of him as he was placed on the injured reserved list with a torn triceps.
Tillman was unsure of his return to the Bears in 2014 at seasons end, telling Dan Wiederer of the Chicago Tribune, “I've got some decisions that I have to make here in the next couple of weeks, couple of months and I don't know. I'm just going to see what happens.”
Tillman has arguably been the best cornerback in team history. But at the age of 32 (33 in February) it may be time for the Bears to move on, unless he is willing to take a hometown discount.
If the team and Tillman go separate ways, Chicago could look to former Tennessee Titan Alterraun Verner. In his fourth season, Verner tied for fifth in the league with five interceptions and deflected a league-leading 28 passes. Considering the Bears already signed Tim Jennings to a long-term deal this offseason, Verner may be too expensive for them.
The team could always bring back Zackary Bowman and Kelvin Hayden to compete to be the No. 2 cornerback, or the team could look to add veterans like Captain Munnerlyn, Rashean Mathis or Tracy Porter to add depth if the team decides to draft a cornerback early in the draft.
2013 was a dismal year for the Bears defense, but no one seemed to catch the blame more than the starting safety duo of Major Wright and Chris Conte.
Wright is set to be a free agent this offseason and it would be a surprise if he returns in 2014. Conte is still under contract for the upcoming season but the team will be looking to find starters at the position via the draft and free agency.
One of the biggest names to potentially hit the free-agent market will be Cleveland Browns safety T.J. Ward.
According to Pro Football Talk, Ward wants to return to Cleveland next season, but it would not be a complete shock if he tests the free-agent market. If the Bears were to make one big splash in free agency, Ward could be it.
If Ward elects to stay in Cleveland, the team could look to Donte Whitner, who—despite his reputation as solely a run-stopper—had a nice season in pass coverage in 2013.
The Colts veteran safety Antoine Bethea may hit the market. He is an extremely durable player (96 straight starts) and is one of the league's best inside-the-box tacklers.
While a pass-rusher is likely the team's biggest need this offseason, safety will not be far behind. Signing a competent veteran would allow the Bears to draft a safety early and let him develop on the field, or the Bears could make a splash and try and sign two starters at safety via free agency.