While the Bears finished 8-8 last season and disappointed many fans across Chicago, I would say the fans have many things to be thankful for so far this offseason.
First, Mike Martz has been fired. Fans have been clamoring for that ever since Caleb Hanie started his first game last year. With Martz out of the way, the Bears can look to Mike Tice to maybe jump-start this offense next season.
Second, Jerry Angelo was also fired. Jerry Angelo was not a good GM, and Bears fan everywhere have to be excited about Phil Emery as the Bears' new GM and what kind of moves he will make.
Finally, the Bears got beat by the injury bug last year. Almost every good player on their offense got hurt, which led to dismal performance after dismal performance. With the injured players returning next season, the Bears can look forward to seeing the 7-3 team and not the 1-5 team.
Chicago has a lot of decisions to be made this offseason. Player cuts, player re-signings, free-agent acquisitions and the draft are all looming this offseason, and the Bears have several areas where they could use some help.
This article will assume the writer (that's me) is the new GM (Phil Emery) of the Bears. The writer will make decisions like whom the Bears should re-sign, let go, and pick up. This piece will be just one of the millions of ways the Bears' offseason could turn out, and since one decision leads to the next, many fans might have different ideas.
That's the hard part of these articles, though. Only one person can make these decisions, so let's hope Phil Emery knows what he's getting himself into.
In late October of last year, the Bears were reported to have $18 million in cap space left for 2011. They never used that money to ink a deal with Matt Forte, but they did sign Roberto Garza, Earl Bennett and Edwin Williams.
We all know the story of Matt Forte's contract negotiations, or lack thereof. But why did the Bears re-sign a 33-year-old center and a reserve guard on an offensive line that many fans had nightmares over?
Earl Bennett is a fan favorite and a good player, though, so the Bears did get that re-signing right. This offseason, however, the Bears need to decide whether they are going to want to shell all of their money out on re-signing their own guys or going out and signing free agents. The Bears have a lot of areas to address so they need to use their money wisely.
With an $8 million rollover in cap from 2011, the Bears will have $30 million in cap space for 2012. This does not include any current Bears free agents, for they are not under contract for 2012 yet.
Matt Forte was unhappy throughout the entire season because he was not signed to a long-term contract. He obviously deserves a deal, but the Bears are worried he will turn into a Chris Johnson or get hurt (like he did this year) while under contract.
While getting hurt in the next couple years is always a possibility, I still never liked the way Angelo handled the Forte contract situation. Forte is one of the best players on the Bears and he deserves to be paid.
Also, if Chicago franchised him, there's no guarantee he would show up to camp. I'm not necessarily saying he wouldn't, but he has said numerous times he does not want to be franchised. If the Bears go ahead and do that anyway, Forte might be so upset that he decides to hold out.
The bottom line is this: He deserves to be paid, so pay him. A $26 million deal over three years is most likely what Forte deserves, and he would almost definitely sign that right now if the Bears were to offer it to him.
If I were the Bear's GM, this would be the first thing on my to-do list.
Corey Graham is a Pro Bowl caliber special teams contributor, so the Bears would love to have him back next year. Special teams is something the Bears pride themselves on, so losing Graham is almost something they can't afford to do.
Graham doesn't play a lot of defense, but this deal is paying him to continue making the Bears' special teams one of the better units in the league. Paying him $2.5 million over two years is a good deal for both sides, and it would ideally happen sooner rather than later.
Israel Idonije had five sacks last year for the Bears opposite Julius Peppers. Peppers is still one of the better pass-rushing defensive ends in the league, so having a complement on the other side of him is vital.
Of course, there are other options out there for the Bears to consider at defensive end, but Idonije would be a good fit himself and he's already played for the Bears. Re-signing Idonije is a smart move and one that many fans are expecting to have happen.
Locking him up for five years would work for both sides here, and a little over $4 million per year would likely work for Idonije.
Tim Jennings might not be the best cornerback, but I think he's a better player than Zach Bowman. Since I only see the Bears keeping one of these players, Tim Jennings is the man to re-sign.
With other moves this offseason, fans should hope the Bears address the cornerback position because they really need to upgrade. However, Tim Jennings is a quality re-signing that's not going to cost them a whole lot.
Josh McCown played a hundred times better than Caleb Hanie did last season, and he should be given a hard look to return to Chicago in 2012.
McCown would be a really strong third-string quarterback for the Bears next year and could even be a suitable backup. While the Bears should try and draft a quarterback in this year's draft that can handle, or at least compete for, the backup spot, signing McCown would be a smart move by the Bears.
This is just a contract for depth.
Okoye, when he played last year, was very solid for the Bears' defensive line. Chicago would love to have him back, and paying $1.5 million for a quality defensive tackle is a good move for any GM.
This is the last player I have re-signing with the Bears, and that leaves Chicago with $13.2 million in cap space remaining.
There aren't a lot of surprises here, besides maybe letting both tight ends walk. Roy Williams was bad last year and most Bears fans would hate it if he returned next year. Kahlil Bell did have a solid year for the Bears last season, but there's a different move I have planned that would negate the need for Bell's services.
Now, not re-signing either tight end is questionable, but neither of these players is an above average pass-catcher. Trading Greg Olsen is still being questioned by many fans, and for good reason. But Mike Martz did not use tight ends to catch the ball that much, which is why Olsen was traded.
However, now that Martz "retired" the Bears can finally go after a play-making tight end who could really help Jay Cutler and this Bears offense. That player will be revealed later, though, for there are still more players the Bears have to let walk.
This slide shouldn't really shock anyone, especially Caleb Hanie. Hanie proved last year that he shouldn't be on an NFL roster, much less as a backup. Bringing him back to Chicago would be almost ridiculous, and it will not happen.
The only potential question mark here might be letting Steltz walk. But Steltz really wasn't a good safety for the Bears last season. Chicago rotated a ton of players at both safety spots last year, and fixing that position will be crucial for the Bears in the draft and free agency.
Keeping Steltz will not help the two safety positions long term, so they might as well let him walk.
Cutting some players that are under contract for 2012 is necessary for the majority of the things I will suggest later in this article. The Bears need some extra cap room, and cutting players that the Bears could live without would help the team in the future.
Just keep that in mind as we get into these next two slides.
Barber, to me, is an obvious cut. He's making $1.9 million in base salary next year and the Bears are not going to want to pay that. Barber did not have a bad year for the Bears, but his salary could help the Bears out in other areas.
As for Spencer and Williams, they are making $3.25 million in base salary combined. Williams especially needs to get cut because of his salary and the fact that the Bears will be looking to upgrade at his position. Spencer is simply a cut to dump salary. For the Bears to accomplish what I think they can this offseason, they are going to need to acquire enough cap space. Unfortunately, for the purposes of this article, that means the Bears will part ways with one big name in particular, which you will see on the following slide.
This is where I lose most of you. Seventy percent of you have already jumped to the comments section to bash me. Ten percent of you have already exited this article altogether, and another ten percent of you will exit after reading this slide.
So thanks to the ten percent of you that will stick with me until the end of this article.
Look, Brian Urlacher is still a good middle linebacker, but sometimes business decisions need to be made. And frankly, this isn't even really a business decision. This is more of a decision to help this team long term by cutting salary to use on other players.
It would be really surprising if Phil Emery had the courage to cut Urlacher in his first year with the Bears, but if his goals are as lofty as the ones in this article, then cutting Urlacher is necessary.
Urlacher is 33 years old and sprained his MCL in a Week 17 win against the Vikings. While he should be good to go in 2012, any injury to the legs of a 33-year-old linebacker is obviously not a good thing.
He's also getting paid a lot of money next year—over $7 million in base salary—which could be used to make splashes elsewhere this offseason. While losing your Pro Bowl middle linebacker is obviously not a good thing for any defense, it does allow for upgrades at other positions of need to help the Bears contend long term.
Also, Urlacher's last year of his contract is next year. Unless the Bears plan to re-sign him after next season (which I'm not saying is unlikely), then Urlacher's last season with the Bears could be 2012 anyway. They might as well part ways with him now so they can make other moves.
The decisions in this article are made so the Bears can contend for a championship in 2012 and a long time after that. After cutting Urlacher, the Bears are going to have to spend their first-round pick on something that probably no fan saw coming: the replacement for Brian Urlacher.
If the Bears cut Brian Urlacher, they could spend their first-round pick on a player who can step right in and replace him, hopefully for many years.
There are three players that the Bears could take to fill their middle linebacker void: Luke Kuechly, Dont'a Hightower and Vontaze Burfict. One of these players should be available to the Bears when they pick in the first round, and the one they pick would be Urlacher's replacement.
Obviously, the pick of a linebacker in the first round is assuming they cut Urlacher. Everything that happens in this article is assuming everything before it has already happened or will happen in the offseason. The Bears need a first-round talent to replace Urlacher, so they would need to start scouting the three guys previously mentioned right away.
In the later rounds, the Bears should look at offensive guard, cornerback, backup quarterback, and maybe defensive line help. After picking a linebacker in the first round, I would see if there's a quality guard available in the second round. If there is, I would draft him and see if he can replace Chris Williams.
In the third round I would draft a cornerback. After that, the Bears should just draft the best talent available, with backup quarterback, defensive line and safety positions in mind.
Now we get to the fun stuff: Who will the Bears sign as free agents this off season?
After signing Matt Forte to an extension, the Bears might want to think about a quality running back to come in and complement Matt Forte. A low-risk, high-reward option might be Tim Hightower.
Hightower is coming off an ACL injury that sidelined him for the majority of last season. However, he is still a quality back that can catch the ball out of the back field. If he is showing signs of a full recovery, then the Bears could take a hard look at Hightower to come in and be a guy that spells Forte.
If he doesn't work out, it's no big deal because he's only worth about $1 million next year after his ACL injury. If he does work out, though, then the Bears have themselves quite a steal to help out their offense.
Alan Ball would not come to Chicago to save their defense. He would just be brought in to provide solid depth to a team lacking many good corners.
Charles Tillman is really the only guy on the Bears that can be counted on every week. After him you have Tim Jennings and D.J. Moore, two guys that really shouldn't be second and third on a cornerback depth chart.
Alan Ball is a solid cornerback who can come in to Chicago and compete with Jennings and Moore for their roster spots. If nothing else, it gives the Bears someone they can plug in at corner without holding their breath.
Fred Davis got suspended last season for four games because he was caught using marijuana. With that aside, Davis is still a young tight end with a lot of talent. He could come in to Chicago and give Cutler a nice weapon to throw to at the tight end position.
The Bears currently don't throw the ball to a lot of people on offense besides Bennett and Forte. Adding a pass-catching tight end to their roster should be a goal this offseason, and with Davis being a free agent, he seems like he would be a good fit.
The only way this signing doesn't work for Chicago is if Bowe cannot be lured away from Kansas City. If he can, then this signing makes all the sense in the world for Chicago.
First of all, I think Bowe is a better option than Vincent Jackson and DeSean Jackson. While DeSean Jackson might be one of the best deep threats in the game—something the Bears would love to have—he was too inconsistent last year and dropped too many balls. VJax would be a good fit, but I honestly think Bowe is just a better fit than him.
Bowe is a beast and would help the Bears' offense tremendously. For the Bears to have Bowe, Fred Davis, Matt Forte and Earl Bennett all on the same offense, they would be a lot harder to stop. Bowe can provide a deep threat as well as solid yards after the catch on short throws, making him a complete package at wide receiver.
The Bears have been waiting for a receiver for a long time, and there's no reason to keep drafting players in the third and fourth rounds when Dwayne Bowe is a free agent. The Bears have to jump at this opportunity or, at the very least, grab DeSean or Vincent Jackson, Robert Meachem or Steve Smith (Eagles).
After signing Bowe, the Bears offense would be set to be really dangerous in 2012. All the Bears have to do now is see who's available on defense that they can sign. If they looked hard enough, they would find a lot of players that can come in and play for them next year.
Tyvon Branch has had 100 or more tackles at the strong safety position for three years in a row, and he's only been in the league for four years.
That's pretty darn impressive.
The Bears really need help at the safety position next year, and signing Tyvon Branch will fill their strong safety position for the foreseeable future. They will have to get him out of Oakland, but if the Bears really want him then they will pay him accordingly.
Branch would provide a lot of physicality to this Bears secondary and he can support the run defense well. He's an instant boost to this entire Bears team and would help an inconsistent defense become more consistent.
Terrell Thomas is one of the players that went on IR for the Giants before the season even began. He obviously won't be playing in the Super Bowl for the Giants next week, but he also could never play another game for the Giants at all.
Thomas is a free agent this offseason and he is only 27 years old. In the last two seasons he's played in, he had five interceptions in each of them and also recorded at least 85 tackles. He defended 21 passes in 2010 and also forced four fumbles.
Thomas is a very good cornerback that could come to the Bears and start immediately beside Charles Tillman. It would make the Bears' secondary instantly very good (on paper) with Tillman, Thomas, Ball and Jennings at CB and Branch at SS. The FS position could be addressed in the draft, or it could be given to Major Wright to see if he can finally take control of that position with all this new help around him.
Thomas is also a guy who can support against the run and provide physical man-to-man defense. There is some risk in this signing because of the fact that Thomas missed the entire 2011 season, but the Bears will make sure he's recovered from that injury before they sign him.
This deal would make the Bears' defense a lot scarier in 2012 and beyond, and it would help a lot in trying to stop both Green Bay's and Detroit's offenses.
Phil Emery has a lot of decisions to make this offseason. Who does he re-sign? Who does he cut? Who does he sign as a free agent? Which position is most important in the draft?
In a few months a lot of these questions will be answered, so now is the time for all of the speculation and predictions. If the Bears have a good offseason this year, they can contend for a Super Bowl as early as next year.
They still have to get by Green Bay, but a few moves here and there can get them by Detroit for next year's playoff push.
The Bears made a big splash in 2010 when they signed Julius Peppers. Now, can they make three big splashes?