The good news is that the Bears have the most money to spend under the cap of any team in their division. The bad news is that it may only be enough to sign one free-agent starter.
The $20 million or so that the Bears are projected to have under the cap will be used as follows: around $8 million for Matt Forte (assuming the franchise tag), $2 million for draft choices and another $3 million or so for their own free agents.
They will get some additional space by releasing vets like Roy Williams, but there won't be the pile of cash to throw around like some fans seem to believe.
That leaves about $7 million left, and that may only be enough to sign on free agent. So, despite needing multiple receivers, the Bears are now more likely to draft a WR like Michael Floyd and not sign a free agent.
So you can forget studs like Cliff Avril or Carl Nicks. I'm not saying all this to ruin your weekend, just to point out why you will see some familiar names in this list of projected starters for the 2012 season.
Now don't get me wrong—the Bears can sign some lower tier free agents and spread the wealth around. But guys like Vincent Jackson, even if available, likely won't be coming to Soldier Field, unfortunately.
Here's one man's prediction of your 2012 starting Chicago Bears.
This is a no-brainer, with the only question being can he stay healthy for a full season? The Bears need to keep him upright by protecting him better, of course, and he needs to refrain from trying to make tackles.
Cutler was having a good season at the time of his injury, and the offense was really rolling. All this despite a questionable line and a lack of talent at the WR position.
With better talent around him, there's no telling how good Cutler can be. He started to display better leadership skills last season as well, so he's becoming the total package.
Yes, the Bears need a more capable backup than Caleb Hanie, but in reality, the Bears go as Cutler goes.
If he gets hurt again, all bets are off. If he stays healthy, the Bears have a chance to be a championship team in 2012.
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.
I know we'd all prefer a true No. 1 wideout, like Vincent Jackson, but I am dealing in realism here.
Meachem would instantly become the No. 1 WR on this Bears team by default. He has good speed and is a good downfield threat with nice instincts in the red zone.
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.
In this scenario, the Bears not only sign a free agent (Meachem), they also spend their first-round draft pick on one. Enter Floyd, who is the Bears other starting wideout although I certainly have some questions about him and I understand that as a rookie, he will have some growing pains.
But the only other option to start here is Earl Bennett. Devin Hester is not a real wide receiver, and Johnny Knox may not be 100 percent. Dane Sanzenbacher was a nice find as an undrafted free agent, but he's not a starter.
Roy Williams should be gone, so Floyd gets the job. With Floyd and Meachem lining up together, Cutler has some good size to throw to for a change.
Kendall Wright is actually a better receiver than Floyd, and I think he will have the better career, with his blazing speed and advanced route running skills, but I see the Bears taking the Notre Dame prospect because they want size at the position.
Floyd is 6'3" and has had some off-field incidents involving alcohol while in South Bend. But his combination of size and agility make him tough to press at the line of scrimmage, despite his lack of explosiveness off the ball.
With Mike Tice taking over the play-calling duties from Mike Martz, you can expect more use of the tight end as a receiving threat. But can Kellen Davis be that guy?
He has optimal size, listed at 6'7" and 267 pounds, but his hands are questionable. Only time will tell, however, and in fairness, he really hasn't had a lot of opportunity.
Despite limited contributions last year, Davis had five touchdowns among his 18 receptions.
If you look at the free-agent tight ends, one name jumps out at everyone, and that's Jermichael Finley. But I can't see Green Bay letting him go or the Bears having enough money to spend on a tight end.
The draft could produce a guy like Orson Charles (Georgia), but he's expected to be taken in the second round, possibly the third, and the Bears won't likely spend one of their early draft picks on the position.
Anyway, Lovie Smith certainly has faith in Davis, so let's give him a chance and see what he can do.
Left tackle is another place where I can see the Bears going the free-agent route if Bell is truly available and doesn't break the bank.
Bell is not great, but he's an upgrade over J'Marcus Webb, who gave up lots of sacks and made many mistakes when the Bears weren't in max coverage last season.
I realize Webb is just 23, but this Bears team needs to win now and doesn't have time to develop Web any longer.
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.
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's 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.
Unfortunately, there's not much in the draft that interests me at LT, except early in the first round.
Before Carimi was out for the the season, he had been playing adequately for a rookie. I really liked the selection at the time of the draft, but injuries are a real concern for Carimi's future going forward.
2012 is a pivotal year for Gabe, even though it's only his second season. He has to prove that he is healthy and can stay that way. Otherwise, I can see Webb taking the position from him, assuming the Bears listen to me and sign Bell.
But I don't agree with those that suggest the Bears move Carimi to left tackle, he is having enough problems staying on the field where he is, and his footwork just doesn't cut it for the more athletic requirements of the left side.
Carimi is young but has already had multiple knee surgeries so there is no guarantee that he will make it.
Laugh all you want, but Williams may have finally found a home at left guard. He was actually playing well there at the time of his injury, and he's perhaps the most physically gifted of the Bears linemen.
The Bears just don't have the cash to sign a free agent like Carl Nicks, and with Williams having been a first-round draft choice, the Bears will want to give him another opportunity before declaring him a bust.
If he is not fully recovered from wrist surgery, Edwin Williams could step in. The Bears signed Edwin to a two-year extension near the end of last December, which indicates that the Bears like him.
Edwin wasn't as athletic as Chris, but the Bears believe he is more powerful and a better pass-protector.
The only other way the Bears change things up is in the improbable case they draft center Peter Konz (Wisconsin) in the first round and move Roberto Garza back to guard. But that is very unlikely.
Before the injury, Williams excelled at blocking in space and was easily the team's best at pulling as the lead blocker for Matt Forte.
This is the last season on his rookie contract so expect Williams to be motivated to prove he can start in the NFL.
Spencer was brought in during training camp to replace Kreutz, but by the time he signed and was ready to play, Garza had already shown that he could do the job, and Spencer didn't impress at center anyway.
Spencer eventually started 14 games for the Bears at right guard. Despite a reputation for being soft, he played with a hard-nosed style that impressed Tice. Spencer could easily emerge in the offseason as one of the top contenders for one of the starting guard spots.
If the Bears can draft Wisonsin's Kevin Zeitler with one of their third-round picks (he may be gone by then, however), then he could battle Spencer for the job.
If Spencer doesn't cut it, I can see Lance Louis taking this job. It is his natural position, although he moved to right tackle to replace the injured Carimi. He had mixed results at RT.
Like Chris Williams, Louis is entering the final year of his rookie contract.
After spending most of his career at guard, Garza —a 12-year veteran—was moved to center to replace Olin Kreutz and handled the switch very well.
Garza continued to improve as the year went on. Although he will never be an All-Pro at the position, it goes to show that you can teach old dogs new tricks.
With a full offseason to work with Cutler, the situation is expected to get even better, with the QB and center working together to make critical protection adjustments.
Meanwhile, Garza is 32, but with the Bears going for it in 2012, this is no time to break in anyone else. The position is his for at least one more year and probably two, as the Bears gave him a two-year extension worth $6.55 million, including $2.6 million guaranteed.
The 27-year-old Clutts was primarily a blocker in Martz's scheme and was doing a good job of opening holes for Forte, who was having his best season until he got hurt.
Clutts is a punishing lead blocker who can also be a threat out of the backfield (eight catches for 48 yards in 2011), and in Tice's system, could contribute a bit more in 2012.
The lone fullback on the roster, Clutts also contributed on special teams in 2011, making three stops on coverage teams. It's his job to lose.
Forte was having a career year before he got hurt, but he came back to play briefly in the Pro Bowl, and all indications are that he will be fully ready to go for 2012.
Despite somewhat contentious contract discussions between the Bears and Forte, to his credit he never let that get in the way of his production on the field and he never held out.
The Bears will likely tag Forte if they cannot come to an agreement on an extension. Despite missing more than a month, Forte finished the season ranked 10th in the NFL—at all positions—in total yards from scrimmage.
Forte was leading in that category at the time of his knee injury.
Of course, he will be the starter again in 2012, the only question is whether the Bears will release or hang onto Marion Barber. Kahlil Bell demonstrated that he is capable to be the No. 2, and he is younger and less expensive.
Barber is set to receive a $100,000 workout bonus this offseason and is scheduled to earn $1.9 million in base salary for the 2012 season.
Urlacher returns for his 13th season in 2012. Although he turns 34 in May, he's still playing well. His playmaking production decreased as the season went on—a possible sign of an impending slowdown, but Urlacher is still the most valuable member of the Bears defense.
But time is running out, for Urlacher as well as other core players on this defense who are also 30 years old or older, so the time to win is now.
Urlacher's total tackles were down from 2010, and his sacks went from four to zero. He also had two forced fumbles the year before, but none in 2011. He did, however, have three interceptions.
It will soon be time for Chicago to start looking to the draft for an eventual replacement for this future Hall of Famer, but for now, the Bears need to enter 2012 with a sense of urgency as the window is closing.
Although I suggested that trading Briggs might make sense in a recent article, I do not expect that to happen.
We all know Briggs is unhappy about his contract, but he doesn't really have any leverage.
Although Briggs was inconsistent last season, and the advanced metrics say he misses a lot of tackles, Briggs still led the Bears in tackles in 2011, partly a function of the Cover 2 defense.
The Bears should look for a linebacker depth in this year's draft.
Last year's sixth-round selection, J.T. Thomas, spent 2011 on injured reserve and pay ending up with a settlement.
When the Bears play an opponent who pass a lot, Roach is generally on the field for about 20 snaps. However, his playing time was elevated to about 40 plays in some games last season.
But in three receiver sets, Roach comes off the field for a nickelback, but the Bears like to keep an extra LB on the field when they play good rushing teams or teams with good running QBs like Denver's Tim Tebow.
Roach signed a two-year extension prior to last season because they like his versatility. The Bears would prefer to sign someone and have Roach be a backup, but since that hasn't happened, it's his spot if he can stay healthy.
Roach finished with 38 tackles in 2011. He showed some development this year, and while he made mistakes in coverage, he played decently for much of the season.
Tillman made his first Pro Bowl in 2011 and was generally solid all season although he did get burned badly in one game.
Overall, "Peanut" Tillman is the Bears only stellar corner entering 2012.
Tim Jennings who, despite his lack of size, is a hard hitter and fearless competitor who got into Smith's doghouse last season.
But Jennings is an unrestricted free agent, so they need help opposite Tillman. Tillman forced four fumbles as he continues to be one of the league's best ball strippers.
Tillman started all 16 games, had three picks, two returned for TDs and posted a career-high 99 tackles.
Left corner could be Jennings, if he re-signs with the Bears. The nickel position belongs to D.J. Moore. But Zack Bowman is likely gone.
Corey Graham is valuable to the Bears for two reasons. One, he played surprisingly well at the nickle when given the opportunity. And two, he is so valuable on special teams. But he wants starter money, and if he finds it on the open market, could be gone.
So, while Moore is the starting nickel, who will lineup alongside Tillman in 2012? It could possibly be a draft choice, although perhaps not on opening day. A player like Trumaine Johnson (Montana) in the second round or Shaun Prater (Iowa) in the middle rounds.
But if they re-sign Jennings, who started 15 games and made a career-high 77 tackles with two picks and a forced fumble, look for him to be the opening day starter for the Bears.
Jennings briefly got into Smith's doghouse after a miserable third-quarter performance against the Seattle Seahawks after failing to tackle Golden Tate on a 33-yard reception, was beaten by Ben Obomanu on a 43-yard pass play and was flagged for pass interference, all in that one quarter.
He was benched for the next game in favor of Bowman but seemed to redeem himself by the end of the season.
I could nitpick and say that he doesn't get the number of sacks like he used to or that he sometimes is invisible for an entire game, but those would be secondary to the fact that Peppers is a beast who gets double teamed a lot.
Peppers had 25 sacks in his final two seasons with Carolina, while he has 19 in his first two with the Bears.
But Peppers is a truly great player and a game changer when he wants to be, though he can't generate a pass rush all by himself all the time.
This team could use an upgrade at the opposite side of Peppers, though it may be Idonije's job to lose once again. Peppers has an even 100 sacks for his career.
In 2010, Israel Idonije benefited from Pepper's presence as he recorded eight sacks. But last year, Idonije's production slipped to the point where I would be looking for a replacement.
But unless the Bears spend all their cap money on one player, that immediate help is not likely. They could draft a pass-rusher like Melvin Ingram in the first round if they bypass a wide receiver.
That said, it looks like Idonije again by default, that is, if they re-sign him as he is an unrestricted free agent too.
Will this be the year that Corey Wootton finally breaks out? For that he would need to stay healthy for once.
Melton had an impressive breakout season for the Bears in 2011, although he had spells where he disappeared. He had two sacks on opening Sunday, another one in Week 3, then did not register a sack until Week 9.
Overall, Melton had seven sacks and could be a integral part of the team if he can improve on generating an inside pass rush in 2012, especially if the team is forced to once again go with Israel Idonije at the other DE position.
Amobi Okoye is no threat to take his job, although he would be a decent keeper for at least one more season. The nose tackle is the position where there should be lots more competition in the spring.
Nose tackle is a position which should be interesting to watch as the battle unfolds this spring. Unless they bring in some competition, Paea will be going up against current start Matt Toeaina and Anthony Adams.
Health will likely play an important role in determining who starts on opening day in 2012. I like what I saw at times by Paea—the Bears second-round draft choice in 2011. He is strong and plays with intensity.
Meanwhile, Adams saw his playing time drop sharply from 2010. According to the Chicago Tribune's Brad Biggs, "Adams was on the field for 280 snaps—302 fewer than he had in 2010 when he played 56.1 percent of the time."
If Paea impresses the coaches in camp and is healthy, I expect him to be the starter in 2012.
Conte played deep which hid a lot of his growing pains last season, but even when tested, he was generally up to the task. He played well enough to earn the starting job at free safety in 2012.
The Cover 2 Bears actually used quiet a bit man-to-man coverage (roughly 50 percent of the time) since Chris Conte took over at safety.
He played deep, but he played well. I wouldn't jump the shark on him just yet, but he looks much more promising than I thought he would be when drafted by the Bears.
Conte was injured late in the year but should be the team's starting free safety in 2012, while DJ Moore should return as the nickelback.
Major Wright has yet to prove that he's a dependable starter, though with youth on his side, he will likely get another chance next season. If he doesn't and Steltz looks good in camp, I can see him stealing the job away.
Meriweather was a $3.5 million mistake and is not expected back. Steltz is an unrestricted free agent but should be back.
Steltz played surprisingly well in late season action, and I can see him taking the job away from Wright.
Mannelly's season ended early due to injury, and at his age, it's a valid question as to whether he will return. If he does, he will be the snapper, and the team will have to say goodbye to Chris Massey, who did fine as his replacement.
He turns 37 in April and suffered a knee injury in his 215th career game. Since joining in the Bears as a sixth-round pick in 1998, Mannelly has played the most games in franchise history.
Mannelly has undertaken long-snapping duties in all but three games of his career, handling 2,017 of 2,037 Bears snaps since 1998 coming into Sunday's game.
What other long snapper has his own web site?
Robbie Gould's leg actually seemed to have gotten stronger as he has gotten older, something that is quite unusual. Gould hit a surprising six field goals from 50-plus in 2011.
Add to that his always fine accuracy and you have one of the best kickers in the game.
Gould connected on 28-of-32 field goals and 37-of-37 extra points in 2011. He returns as the Bears kicker in 2012.
Podlesh quietly had a good season for the Bears in 2011. In fact, he had the best year since 1966 for a Bears punter in terms of net average (40.9).
While he only tied for 20th in punts inside the 20 (21) and his average of 43.9 ranked just 21st, his net average ranked sixth among all punters.
He had good hang time too, although his being tied for third among all punters with 27 fair catches was also the result of good coverage by Bears special teamers.
He will return as Bears punter in 2012.
It's awfully difficult to think only of Hester the return man and not the receiver, but in this case, there should be no question he has this job nailed down and perhaps might even be better if he plays less as a WR.
Hester was historically great at his position early in 2011, and yet, was such a non-factor for the last six games of the season. He was severely limited by nagging injuries the second half of the year, making him almost a non-factor on special teams.
Still, he had 1,177 return yards with three touchdowns and recorded his NFL-record 11th punt return for a touchdown.
Hester also extended his NFL record for combined touchdowns on kick returns with his 16th when he ran a kickoff back 98 yards against the Vikings.