The Bears have a lot of needs to satisfy this offseason, so new GM Phil Emery will need to use a combination of the draft, free agency and possibly even trades to get the job done.
The biggest need is at wide receiver. Fortunately for Chicago, there are college players and free agents for the taking. However, since the Bears need to win now, I want to see them sign a veteran free-agent wideout in addition to anything they might do in the draft.
But in this slideshow, I will try and be realistic, so you may be surprised to see who I am suggesting they go after at WR. Sure, I would love Vincent Jackson, but I just don't know if he will actually become truly available.
The offensive line is next, and the pickings are slim, both in the draft and free agency. But I have some ideas. The defensive backfield and pass rush should be addressed as well, so I'll analyze those positions too.
Keep in mind that the Bears have their own free agents to consider also—most notably Matt Forte.
So let's get down to business and examine some free-agent signings that could put the Bears over the top in 2012. Boy, I love spending other people's money.
Avril may get tagged by the Detroit Lions, but if he doesn't, he would look terrific on the opposite side from Julius Peppers.
The Bears pass rush was inconsistent last season, and Israel Idonije did not build upon his fine 2010 performance. Still, I think the Bears will re-sign the unrestricted free agent. But that won't be enough.
One way they could shore up the pass rush is by drafting Melvin Ingram in the first round. But a quicker, more sure-fire method would be to sign Avril.
Not only would they be weakening a division rival, they would be signing an immediate impact player. But they would have to attack Avril like they did Peppers, with a huge offer one minute past midnight on the start of free agency, and I don't know if the Bears want to spend that kind of money.
If I only could sign one free agent, it would be this guy. Avril turns 26 in April and had 11 sacks in 2011.
Honorable mention: Robert Mathis, Colts. With a huge bonus due to Peyton Manning, do the Colts have enough money to sign him to an extension, or will they franchise him? Calais Campbell of the Cardinals will likely be retained, but if he hits the market, he would be a solid choice as well.
Meachem is not my first choice, but he may be the most available. He is one of the younger receivers that could be a nice pick-up for an offense with a larger workload to offer, like the Bears.
He has good speed and is a good downfield threat with nice instincts in the red zone. Meanwhile, the Saints have Drew Brees, Marques Colston and Carl Nicks as free agents, so they may be hard-pressed to also bring back Meachem.
Of course, if they'd rather give us Colston, that would be even better, but I don't see him going on the free market.
Meachem is 27 and coming off of a season where he caught 40 balls for 620 yards and six touchdowns. But keep in mind he played alongside Colston, who caught 80 passes.
Honorable mentions: The aforementioned Colston, Vincent Jackson (who I would LOVE), Wes Welker and Dwayne Bowe (this could be where new GM Phil Emery's connection to KC could help).
It's not that Bell is a great player like Avril, it's just that he's one of the only free-agent left tackles out there and the Bears could really use an upgrade at the position.
I know that J'Marcus Webb is young (23), but he just didn't show signs of improvement all year. Even his coach, Mike Tice, damned him with faint praise.
Tice claimed that Webb's consistency grade was solid, but what was bad were the critical errors, the sacks and the penalties. In other words, he was consistent—consistently bad.
Pro Football Focus graded Webb 67th among 76 NFL offensive tackles in 2011. Anyway, the Bears don't have time to wait for Webb to develop; they need to win now.
Bell is an under-the-radar player capable of protecting Jay Cutler's blindside. He suffered a season-ending injury midway through the year, but if he's healthy, he would be an improvement over Webb for Chicago.
The Bills want him back, however, because he is solid and dependable in all facets of the game. He is capable of pass protection, and he is even better in blocking for the running game. With the Bills having a lot of work to do, he could slip through the cracks.
Honorable mention: Jared Gaither, San Diego, though I am not that interested. He joined the Chargers in Week 13 from Kansas City and started five games, playing surprisingly well as a pass protector for Philip Rivers.
There is no question that Nicks would instantly become the Bears best offensive lineman if he signed here. But he will want a boatload of money, and the Bears have so many more pressing needs.
Still, Nicks is one of the premier guards in football, and the Saints will be hard-pressed to re-sign him, even though he has said he wants to come back to San Diego. They signed Jahri Evans to a seven-year, $56.7 million deal in 2010.
Forte led the team in pass receptions and was leading the league in all-purpose yards at the time of his injury. He is such a huge part of the Bears offense that he will either be signed to a long-term extension or get the franchise tag.
Either way, he is under team control for 2012 and 2013, when he can be tagged again if the Bears want. And by paying him year to year, the Bears protect themselves against injury.
Meanwhile, will the Bears retain Marion Barber, or will they go with the cheaper, younger Kahlil Bell as the back-up, change-of-pace back?
Honorable mention: None. The Bears will bring Forte back, one way or the other.
With the lesson of the Caleb Hanie experiment still fresh in our minds, the Bears had better go into the 2012 season with a veteran backup QB who is capable of stepping in and performing capably in the event something bad happens to Cutler again.
Nathan Enderle is not ready to step in as a starter, so he cannot be the No. 2. Meanwhile, Orton would be perfect since he knows some of the players and coaches and the city.
Orton can be a capable QB, but Kansas City knows this too, so he may re-sign with the Chiefs. Like other decent veteran backups, Orton would rather go someplace where he has a chance to compete for the starting job.
But if he is interested in being Cutler's caddy, I'd love to see him return to Chicago. And no, Bears fans, Matt Flynn may be a free agent, but he is not an option for the Bears.
Honorable mentions: Josh McCown, Jason Campbell, Shaun Hill, David Carr. Oh, and Drew Brees (just kidding, of course).
Safety is not a position of importance like wide receiver, and I'd actually prefer finding one in the draft. But Branch, who is strong vs. the run and is young, would be a good acquisition.
Like Major Wright, Branch has some issues in coverage, but should be solid at strong safety. With back-to-back strong seasons at strong safety for the Raiders, I expect they will make a strong pitch to keep him.
He fills down hard and is effective near the line of scrimmage. Though he doesn't have the versatility to play much man coverage, he's dependable and consistent in zones.
I would also like to see the Bears bring back their own guy, Craig Steltz, who was surprisingly effective.
The Bears have one proven, solid corner in Charles Tillman, and he is on the wrong side of 30. With Tim Jennings an unrestricted free agent, there is a need to upgrade here.
Cortland Finnegan is an interesting name. Though he's been accused of being a dirty player, he's strong in run support and solid in coverage. Finnegan is said to be displeased with the titans for contract reasons, so he may test the market.
As for their own guys, Zack Bowman, Corey Graham and Tim Jennings are all free agents. They desperately need Graham back for special teams, though he may be seeking starting corner money. Bowman will be gone, and I would consider bringing Jennings back.
Honorable mentions: Brent Grimes, Atlanta, Carlos Rodgers, Niners, Tracy Porter, Saints, Marcus Trufant, Seattle.
This one is probably just as unrealistic as Avril, but if the Bears could nab Finley in free agency, they would not only be weakening the Packers, but also acquiring the tight end receiver they need so badly.
Now that Mike Martz is gone, the Bears can join the modern era and start using the TE position as an offensive weapon instead of just a blocker. Oh, why did we trade Greg Olson?
I just don't know if Kellen Davis, who is also a free agent, is the answer, so signing Finley would greatly improve the Bears offense and give Cutler another target to throw to.
The Packers will attempt to keep him, whether it's through the tag or a long-term extension. If he hits free agency, he will have lots of potential suitors.
He turns 25 in March, and the 6'5" Finley caught 55 balls for 767 yards and eight TDs in 2011 for Green Bay.
Honorable mentions: Fred Davis, Washington, John Carlson, Seattle