Chicago Bears' Blueprint for Winning Free Agency
We are just days away from the free-agent signing period. The new league year begins March 11 at 4 p.m. ET, allowing teams to officially announce free-agent signings.
Teams can begin negotiating with players' agents March 8.
The Chicago Bears have made big splashes the last two seasons and will look to do the same this year. What's their plan for this free-agent period? How do they get this defense back on track and get back into the playoffs? Here's the guide to the Bears winning this free-agency period.
Release Julius Peppers
Last season, everybody was a witness to the epic decline of Julius Peppers. He's been productive for the Bears since signing with the team back in 2010, but his price tag is too heavy to carry.
Peppers carries a 2014 cap hit of $18.1 million. The 34-year-old veteran just isn't worth that kind of money anymore. He had only 7.5 sacks last season and broke his streak of five straight Pro Bowl appearances.
The Bears have already restructured Peppers' contact in the past, but they cannot avoid his inflating salary. He is scheduled to make over $16 million in 2015 along with his annual $4.1 million signing bonus.
Cutting Peppers will free up nearly $10 million in cap savings but leaves the team with $8.4 million in dead money. Should the Bears designate him as a June 1st cut, then the dead money can be spread evenly over two years.
With so many holes on defense, the Bears can use the money saved on Peppers to bring in a younger pass-rusher or impact safety and re-sign some of their own free agents.
Pursue Michael Bennett
Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy was the best pass-rusher on the market. The Panthers didn't want to see him hit the open market so they slapped him with the franchise tag. This now makes Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett the next best option.
Bennett is a five-year veteran and brother to Bears tight end Martellus Bennett. He was instrumental in Seattle's dominating run to the Super Bowl. He had 8.5 sacks last season, all while playing in a rotational role on the talented Seahawks defense.
At 28 years old, Bennett would give the Bears a younger but still established option on the end. He's the perfect piece to rebuild the defense around. His high motor, outstanding production and relentless attitude are exactly what the unit needs.
Bennett has said he would like to re-sign with Seattle, but he's also said the team won't get a discount. Seattle won't hit him with the franchise tag, meaning he's fair game come the free agent negotiating period.
Bennett can follow a similar path as his brother. Martellus Bennett spent one season with the New York Giants before coming to Chicago on a four-year deal. Michael can do the same after spending only one season in Seattle.
Let Charles Tillman Test the Market
It would be wise for the Bears to bring back Charles Tillman. He's been a highly productive player and was fairly durable up until last season. What the team shouldn't do is overpay for a player who's well into his thirties and who has played in over 150 games.
This comes down to a smart business decision. Last season, free-agent corners were paid about $4.5 million annually. Is Tillman worth that for a season or two?
Like Brian Urlacher last year, Tillman might be in for a rude awakening. Teams won't be willing to shell out money for a player who has a few seasons left in him. The smart thing for the Bears to do is let him find that out and save some money in the process.
If the two sides can agree on a two-year, $7 million deal, then it's a win for both sides. If Tillman is able to find $4.5 million from another team, then the Bears need to let him walk. There are plenty of other corners on the market and in the draft who can fill his shoes.
There's just too many holes on this defense and too many depth issues for the Bears to squander an extra $1 million-$1.5 million. Tillman might see the harsh reality of the league and decide to retire rather than sign a low deal.
Do Not Overpay for Henry Melton
Last year, the Bears couldn't work out a long-term deal with Henry Melton. It seemed as if the team just wasn't fully committed to what he could bring year in and year out.
The Bears put the franchise tag on him, only to see Melton tear his ACL early in the season. Now, one year later, the two sides must see if they can iron out a new deal.
Melton will be a sought-after free agent. He's still only 27 years old and is one of the better interior defensive lineman on the market.
Every season, there's always a bad football team willing to overpay a player to make a big splash. Last year, the Cleveland Browns signed former Baltimore Ravens pass-rusher Paul Kruger to a five-year, $40 million contract. Kruger then went out and had 4.5 sacks for the Browns in 2013.
The point of the Kruger story is to show that the Bears shouldn't overpay for a player they don't love. They can certainly use Melton as they reshape this defense, but it would be a huge mistake to give him big bucks or long years.
Even with the ACL tear, Melton might receive a long-term deal from a team. The Bears shouldn't go any more than two or three years, though. They sit in a perfect spot in the first round of the draft to find a defensive tackle who is just as good as Melton is.
Find the Right Safety at Any Cost
The Chris Conte and Major Wright safety combination last season was dreadful. Wright is a free agent who is unlikely to return, but Conte will be given a shot to compete for a starting role in 2014.
Even though much of the fanbase has written him off, the Bears still believe Conte can be a productive player—and why not? He had a solid 2012 season and is still only 25 years old.
What can help Conte is a decent pass rush, better play from the linebackers and a partner who plays better in the box. The Bears need to find an impact strong safety who fits their system.
Cost shouldn't matter here. The Bears will have plenty of cap room if they let Peppers go to pursue a safety.
There are some quality safeties on the market. Buffalo Bills free safety Jairus Byrd is the best, but he plays a more center field style. Browns strong safety T.J. Ward is the next best on the market and fits the Bears' needs perfectly.
It could run the team $8 million a season to bring in Ward, but it's well worth it. The 27-year-old just made his first Pro Bowl last year and is quickly emerging as one of the league's best young defensive backs.
Donte Whitner and Antoine Bethea are intriguing options after Ward but don't carry the same impact. Last season, the Bears sent a message to the offense when they brought in Jermon Bushrod and Martellus Bennett. They need to do the same with Ward.
Bring Back Josh McCown
Jay Cutler hasn't played a full 16-game season since 2009. The Bears need to bring back Josh McCown as reliable insurance for Cutler.
McCown proved he can play at a high level and keep the team afloat if Cutler goes down. He won three games in five starts in 2013, all while throwing 13 touchdowns and just one interception.
The Bears got a bargain with McCown last year with his $865,000 salary. The number is sure to go up, but it's still well worth the price.
This is not unfamiliar territory for Chicago. The Bears gave $3.5 million to Jason Campbell back in 2012 to be the backup. McCown is better than Campbell and should be compensated.
If the team doesn't pony up some money to McCown, somebody else will. He's proven to be a valuable team player in a league that rarely sees a quarterback last a full season.
Let Devin Hester Walk
This is a sad and painful move, but it's ultimately a necessary one. The Bears can ill-afford to spend money or waste a roster spot on a player who only has the football in his hands 70 times last year.
Chicago has had a love affair with Devin Hester since 2006 for good reason, but all good things most come to an end. Facts are the facts: Hester just isn't as productive as he used to be, and his skill set is only declining.
Yes, he still has some impact on the game, but there are many other return men in the league who do the same, if not better. He just isn't the special player he once was, and the Bears can't spend any more money on him.
The bigger issue with Hester is his inability to provide any value outside of the return game. Cordarrelle Patterson is an impact receiver with the Minnesota Vikings, Quintin Demps started six games for the Kansas City Chiefs at safety last year and Julian Edelman caught 105 receptions for the New England Patriots. All three players were better return men than Hester was last season.
Backup running back Michael Ford can return kicks. The Bears can draft a defensive back who can provide some depth and be the primary return man, or they can sign a guy who provides value in multiple spots. The Hester era in Chicago needs to come to a close.
Re-Sign the Under-the-Radar Veterans
Everybody wants to focus on the big-name players in free agency, but the real wins come with finding value and creating depth. The Bears have some high-value players of their own they can't afford to let go of.
Cornerback Zack Bowman has been a very solid veteran, and he filled in nicely when Charles Tillman got hurt. Sherrick McManis is a quality special teams player, Nate Collins is a good rotational defensive tackle, Patrick Mannelly is a team leader and D.J. Williams can be the kind of player the Bears rely on if Jon Bostic or Shea McClellin can't emerge as starting middle linebacker.
Over the course of the season, it's the complementary players who can make or break a season. The NFL has always been a league predicated on the next man up, and those next men need to be reliable.
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