Hey y’all! It’s almost time for Free Agency to begin in the NFL! If you haven’t been paying attention lately, your Chicago Bears have made a few moves to avoid losing all of their impending free agents, but there’s still plenty to debate before the craziness being on March 11th at 4PM ET. General Manager Phil Emery will go into the period with about $6.8 million in cap space according to most recent reports (as of Tuesday morning), so he doesn’t have a lot of wiggle room… yet. First I’m going to discuss the players the Bears have cut or won’t be re-signing, then go through the names that will be coming back. After that I’ll touch on a few players the Bears probably should/will release, then get into their areas of need and the players they might target. I’m all in. Are you? Good. Now let’s kick this pig.
Devin Hester, KR/PR
Last week Devin appeared on NFL Network and thanked the fans of Chicago for their support during his tenure, signaling that he knew the organization would go in another direction, which was later confirmed. And honestly. I’m fine with it. Most returners actually have some other position they play on the team aside from returning kicks/punts. Usually they’re also a corner or a wide receiver. In Hester’s case, he hasn’t played corner for us since his rookie season. And Trestman gave up on him trying to learn any offensive routes whatsoever. Devin’s kinda dumb out there and we all knew it. So Hester was taking up an entire roster spot to only return kicks and punts. And he was probably going to ask for too much money. Was he a great returner? Absolutely. The best. But that doesn’t mean that at 31 years old I have to overpay him and waste a roster slot.
But he’ll be okay. I expect to see him in Tampa Bay within four days. Good old Lovie Smith will sign him.
Adam Podlesh, P
When your punter is mediocre and making too much money, this is what happens. Moving on!
Michael Bush, RB
Yeah. I still hate him. He also hasn’t produced like the Bears expected when they brought him in two years ago. Now that the front-loaded portion of his contract is mostly clear, cutting Bush saved cap space for more important transactions. You can always draft a “bruising” running back in the later rounds.
Kelvin Hayden, CB
Emery signed Hayden to a 1-year, $840,000 deal. For a team without a lot of corner depth, that’s an easy decision to make. Hayden didn’t appear in any games in 2013 after tearing his hamstring during training camp. But the ten year veteran will provide some competition for the nickel corner slot with Isaiah Frey.
Jeremiah Ratliff, DT
Ratliff was signed mid-season and took time to recover from sports hernia surgery before joining the Bears d-line rotation in week thirteen. As bad as the defense was, Ratliff did make a difference with his play. That earned him a shot at another contract with the Bears. But it was the Bears’ atmosphere, defensive scheme and coaches (new addition Paul Pasqualoni was his position coach in Dallas for a time) that led to Jeremiah giving the Bears a discount. His 2-year, $4 million deal leaves Phil Emery with space to get other deals done.
Roberto Garza, C
As much as I believe Garza is the weak link on an otherwise solid offensive line, re-signing him to a 1-year, $1.5 million contract was a smart move. It keeps the continuity of the unit going if Emery doesn’t find a suitable upgrade at the position. Don’t be surprised if there’s a later-round draft pick spent on a swing guard or center that could step in next season.
Nate Collins (RFA), DT
Instead of letting Nate ink a restricted free agent offer sheet, they announced Sunday night that he’s re-signed with the team. Collins has been a dependable body in the middle of the d-line, but an ACL injury cost him most of 2013. He’ll be in “prove it” mode.
Free Agent to Be’s:
Josh McCown, QB
There’s been some rumblings of interest in McCown, whose showing was surprisingly effective in his 2013 stint. Now it’s time for him to take advantage of some shitty team’s need for a “veteran presence” at the position. Looking at you Oakland. Or Cleveland. Like I said, shitty teams. There’s almost no way McCown comes back to Chicago unless he takes substantially less money.
Earl Bennett, WR
For a while Earl here was the most dependable receiver the Bears had. Those were dark days. Before Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery were busy getting beastly on the outside. Now that Bennett’s contract is up, the Vanderbilt connection he has with Cutler probably won’t be enough to keep him around unless it’s at a reduced rate. You can get similar production for less on the free agent market.
Henry Melton, DT
Melton is a fascinating dilemma. Aside from Charles Tillman (who we’ll get to below), Melton represents to toughest decision for the Bears in free agency. He’s already drawn interest from several teams during the league’s “legal tampering” window. (Early talks before free agency begins. No actual offers can be made,) But the low cost of the Ratliff and Collins deals means Chicago still has a budget to use at defensive tackle. Melton was a Pro Bowl DT and had a dominant 2012. If his ACL is fine (and there’s no reason to think it won’t be), he could have the biggest impact of any defensive free agent on the market. He can be that good. It’ll take at least seven or eight million a year to get this done I’d imagine. If Emery makes a few other cost-cutting moves, it could work.
Corey Wootton, DE
Mr. Wootton was a fourth round pick in 2010, having fallen in the draft due to an injury in his senior year of college. He took some time to develop, but his seven-sack effort in 2012 made many believe he had turned the corner. With half the sacks in 2013, that projection doesn’t seem to be as certain. He won’t command top-dollar on the free agent market, but the Bears’ staff should know what they’d get in Wootton and how much he’s really worth. And they’re already invested too heavily in the defensive end position as it stands.
D.J. Williams, MLB; James Anderson, SLB
Williams and Anderson were both signed to be temporary veteran solutions at the linebacker position. Williams ended up missing most of the season with a pectoral injury while Anderson was a mainstay at the strong-side position. While the Bears should be undergoing a youth movement at linebacker over the next season or so, one of these guys could be brought back to help ease the transition. But that would require anyone having a clue what the Bears are doing with their linebackers. Are Jonathan Bostic and Khaseem Greene ready to start filling in?
Charles Tillman, CB
Tillman is one of the more interesting quagmires Phil Emery faces this off-season. Does he expect the Pro Bowl corner to recover enough from his many nagging injuries to play at a high level again? And does that merit using up precious cap space? Or does he think that Tillman’s best days at corner are behind him and that unless he wants a shot at playing safety, he can peddle his corner wares elsewhere? I fall somewhere in between. I’m fairly certain that Tillman will be bothered by slight injuries the rest of his career. But when “healthy” he can perform well enough to be a starting corner. But this is why I don’t make the big bucks and Emery does. He gets to make this call.
Zack Bowman, CB
Bowman’s an average corner with above average tackling skills (for a corner). The injury to Tillman propelled him into the line-up more often than the coaching staff would have liked. While Bowman knows the system and is well-suited to play zone out on the outside, he doesn’t have a high ceiling. His role can be filled by someone cheaper and/or younger.
Major Wright, S; Craig Steltz. S
Wright has been an average at-best safety during his time in Chicago. Yes, he’s made a few memorable plays, but the cover-two shell the defense has employed during his time lends itself to inflating safety stats. His pass coverage is adequate and his run defense angles are inconsistent. He’s replaceable. Period.
A veteran back-up at this point (7 years in the league), Steltz is smart but slow. On the field that translates to: he knows where he’s supposed to be but he’s not fast enough to get there. He’s good on special teams, but that doesn’t necessitate a new contract.
Blake Costanzo, LB
Costanzo has been a key special teamer for the Bears for a few years now since the departure of Brendan Ayanbadejo. But he’s replaceable. It’s called the draft. Deal with it.
Patrick Mannelly, LS
Another longtime Bear (he’s actually the longest-tenured member of the team), Pat Manly (which has been my name for him this whole time) has a legitimate NFL skill: long-snapping. Not everyone can do it. If he’s amenable to a veteran minimum type of deal, I’m all for it. Otherwise we’re going to undrafted free agents.
Players I wish the Bears would cut:
Julius Peppers, DE
While I enjoy Pep as a person and as a player, his contract is too exhorbitant to keep on the books, especially since his production is sloughing off. Cutting him creates about $10 million in cap space as well. It’s almost a no-brainer. If he wants to take a pay cut, I’m all for it. But otherwise it’s time to cut ties. The Bears are reportedly looking to trade Peppers. When that news gets out it usually means the team is five minutes away from releasing him.
Michael Bennett has been the name most linked with Chicago’s free agency plans, with a report over at ProFootballTalk that the Bears “expected” to strike a deal with the pass-rusher. That was not to be, as a contract with Seattle was reported Monday afternoon. Signing Bennett would have almost certainly signified the end of Julius Peppers’ tenure in Chicago, at least on that gaudy contract. Since the Bears whiffed on Bennett, they could look to make quick moves on guys like Cincy end Michael Johnson, the Giants’ Justin Tuck, or the Raiders’ Lamarr Houston.
Even after extending Tim Jennings and inking the aforementioned Hayden, the Bears need corners and plenty of them. Sure, selecting one when they come on the board in May’s Draft would be great, but you don’t want to be drafting for need there. That’s why another solid corner pick-up (when the bargain shopping begins a week or so after FA starts on Tuesday) would be ideal. The recently-released Antonio Cromartie would be looking for more money than the Bears would have to offer. A guy like Brandon Browner (who I don’t particularly like) could come cheap enough to be worth the risk. Other names to consider further down the line of significance are Oakland’s Tracy Porter and Mike Jenkins.
The name on everyone’s mind when it comes to the safety position is Jairus Byrd. But Chicago’s limited cap space combined with Byrd’s hope for $9 million a season means the Bears won’t be bringing him in. But it doesn’t prevent them from chasing the Saints’ Malcolm Jenkins or Cleveland’s T.J. Ward. Or even the 49ers’ Donte Whitner, who PFT has linked to the Bears, among other teams. Jenkins or Ward could play free safety in Chicago’s scheme and allow them to not rely on Chris Conte for another season.
Do the Bears have more needs than the positions I’ve listed above? Surely. But I expect them to be defense-heavy in the draft because their offense is pretty stacked aside from a few depth concerns. So their free agency check list doesn’t have to be that lengthy. A few key signings are all the Bears should need (and can afford).
Yep. That was just 2,000 words on the Bears’ free agency prospects. I’ll be recapping any big news tomorrow, so stay tuned!