With both a new general manager and offensive coordinator, an era of change has been ushered in to the Bears organization.
The good news is that the Bears have a quarterback they can win with. The bad news is that their division is among the toughest in football, and keeping up with two elite offenses within the division has to be a priority.
In this free agency tracker, you will be able to find all of the information you need to keep an eye on the Bears' offseason moves. We'll look at free agents, including who should be kept and who should be shown the door. We'll go in-depth into the Bears cap situation, break down team needs and speculate potential offseason signings.
Finally, we'll take an in-depth look at a draft strategy the Bears should employ in April.
This is a brilliant move by Chicago - it saves them cap room and allow them to pursue other agendas - perhaps prized DE Mario Williams.
March 13, 2012: The Bears and CB Tim Jennings have agreed to a 2-year contract. Details have yet to be released.
March 2, 2012: The Bears announced they would place the franchise tag on star running back Matt Forte, and he will play for a base salary of $7.7 million. This buys the Bears time to strike a long-term deal with him.
March 2, 2012: OT Frank Omiyale and DT Frank Adams were released by the team, saving $3.15 million in cap space, giving the Bears about $28 million in cap space as free agency approaches. Bottom line, neither player was playing up to their pay grade, and were likely to be replaced either way.
According to spotrac.com, here is how the Bears' cap situation shakes out:
2012 NFL Estimated NFL Salary Cap Limit: $120,375,000
Current Bears Total: $95,388,348
Estimated Cap Space: $24,986,652
Despite their large market and trend of winning over the past two seasons, the Bears have one of the cheapest payrolls in the NFL. With over $30 million left in cap room, there is plenty of room for the Bears to either keep key free agents or add big names.
The biggest question is whether or not the Bears will re-sign Matt Forte to a long-term deal or if they will make him play for the franchise tag number.
Problematic Cap Hits
Honestly, looking at the Bears' cap numbers, they are distributing money to the players who deserve it. The three biggest earners are Julius Peppers, Jay Cutler and Brian Urlacher—the cornerstones of the team.
Maybe Jerry Angelo was doing a good job after all.
Perhaps the Charles Tillman contract (seven-years, $41 million) is a bit much, but he is still a good player. Other than that, I have a hard time finding players who are holding this team back because of their bloated contracts.
The Bears are getting a ton of value out of their contract with Johnny Knox, who has averaged around $500K a season for the last four years. He is due for a major pay raise, especially if he turns in a solid 2012 season.
J'Marcus is not a good starting left tackle, but at least the Bears are not overpaying him. He is also making roughly half a million per season, which is incredibly low for a player who plays such a premium position.
Matt Forte Situation
To me, it is baffling that Forte has not been signed long-term. The Bears need him, Forte wants to be a Bear, and he deserves the money.
I almost felt bad for Forte after he was franchised, because he knows that he is one awkward tackle from missing out on the biggest payday of his life. Running backs need to cash in when they can, which is why you saw the nasty Chris Johnson holdout last year.
My gut is that the situation gets resolved sooner than later, but if it isn't, we could be in for a training camp holdout.
Unsurprisingly, most of the needs for Chicago come on the offensive side of the ball. Offensive line and receiver issues have plagued this team for far too long; upgrading Jay Cutler's supporting cast is the top priority this offseason.
Frankly, the Bears really do not have a lot of needs. But their few holes are massive and need major upgrades.
J'Marcus Webb is clearly the weakest link on one of the worst pass protecting lines in football. If the Bears plan on keeping Jay Cutler upright, they need to find a long-term starter at the position sooner than later.
If the Bears think they can land such a player in the draft, they need to pull the trigger and fix this line once and for all.
The Roy Williams experiment yielded limited success, and the Bears are expected to move on. They have a lot of solid "No. 2" receivers, but the Bears have lacked a true downfield threat to take advantage of Jay Cutler's throwing abilities.
With a deep free agent class and a draft filled with talent at the position, expect the Bears to add a few bodies to their roster.
Now that Mike Martz is out of the picture, the Bears will actually use the tight end in the passing game under Jeremy Bates. With two of their tight ends from 2011 entering free agency, including Kellen Davis, this is a position the Bears must address in one way or another.
This is listed as a need simply because Chicago could lose two safeties to free agency. The Bears have also been utilizing more Cover-1, man-based schemes, in which a safety with great range is necessary.
There are not a ton of options in the draft and free agency, but there are role-players that can be worked into the Bears' system without breaking the bank. More on that later.
The Bears are set at two of the linebacker spots, but lack a dynamic presence opposite Briggs. The incumbent Nick Roach is solid, but replaceable.
With the increased use of tight ends across the NFL, finding athletic linebackers is becoming more and more necessary for every team.
To be honest, since the franchising of Matt Forte, the Bears don't have many key free agents to retain. Most of the players on this list are average starters at best.
At the same time, with their substantial cap room, the Bears can decide who they want to keep based solely on their ability to play football, as opposed to being slaves to a cap number.
Nonetheless, here is the value of every free agent on the Bears roster, should they hit the open market.
Roy Williams: $1.3 million (estimated)
Williams made a few plays for the Bears this season, but he has never quite lived up to the hype of his draft status.
Perhaps he would be more effective with better playmakers around him. Also, the injury to Jay Cutler did not help his numbers, but he is not going to see a lot of action on the open market.
If anyone offers Williams anything slightly above the veteran's minimum, he should take it.
Amobi Okoye: $2.8 million (estimated)
Okoye enjoyed a bit of a resurgence with his move to Chicago. Okoye, the youngest player to ever enter the NFL draft, never quite panned out while playing for the Texans.
Chicago explored locking him up in the middle of the season, and would figure to attempt to retain him, and Okoye should get a significant pay raise.
Brandon Meriweather: $2 million (estimated)
After bringing in Williams, Meriweather, Amobi Okoye and Vernon Gholston, the Bears' training camp looked like a draft-bust convention this past August.
After a bitter ending with the Patriots, Meriweather proved himself to be at least a competent player. With such a demand for safeties, Meriweather will get a healthy offer from a safety-needy team.
Caleb Hanie: $600K (estimated)
Once regarded as one of the better backups in the league after an inspired performance in the NFC championship game, Hanie's play in relief of Jay Cutler may have cost him a career in the NFL.
At this point, the most he can ask for is a chance to compete for a No. 3 job in training camp—other than that, Hanie's NFL career may be over.
Israel Idonije: $2.4 million (estimated)
Peppers gets a lot of the credit for the success of the Bear's defensive line, but Idonije is one the more unheralded cornerstones of one of the best run defenses in football. He also brings some value as a pass rusher from the three technique.
He earned $2.5 million a season ago, and I expect that number to stay about the same, though it may perhaps take a bit of a dip because of age.
Tim Jennings: $1.7 million (estimated)
Jennings started his career as a core special teams player, but he has elevated his play to earn time in specific defensive packages and has proven his worth.
Jennings is a real fluid guy with great quickness to make up for his lack of size. He fits well as a zone defender in the Bears' system and deserves a considerable pay raise.
Matt Spaeth: $2.2 million (estimated)
An above-average blocking tight end, Spaeth should make somewhere close to the amount he made last year. He is not much a receiving threat, caching only seven passes for 50 yards last year, so there will always be a ceiling on how much he is going to make.
Craig Setlz: $900K (estimated)
Seltz is a nice special teams player who provides depth at safety. Such players usually make somewhere near the minimum.
Being with the Bears for four years, Seltz is comfortable with the system and is likely to stay in Chicago.
Josh McCown: $1 million (estimated)
McCown was an emergency replacement for the inept Calib Hanie, and proved himself to be at least competent, earning himself another year or so in the NFL as a backup.
With a shortage of backup quarterbacks in the NFL, McCown's value is more than his actual talent, and should get a bump in pay after his performance.
Kahlil Bell: $1.1 million (estimated)
After Matt Forte went down toward the end of the season, Bell came in and did some nice things in his place, especially in the Christmas night game against the Packers.
He is not going to be a prized free agent, but he earned himself a pay raise with his play at the end of the season.
Kellen Davis: $1.5 million (estimated)
Davis took over as the starter at tight end, but because Mike Martz's offense does to utilize tight ends in the passing game, his impact was limited. In a new offense under Jeremy Bates, he could produce at a much higher level, but that must be proven before giving Davis a lot of money.
Zack Bowman: $800K (estimated)
Bowman has developed into a solid player for the Bears and earned himself a starting job just two seasons ago, but his play has since dipped, killing his chances of making starter-level money in the NFL.
He won't generate a lot of interest in the open market.
Corey Graham: $1.7 million (estimated)
Graham fills a lot of roles for the Bears, both as a great special teams player and as a nickel corner. He is going to want a significant pay raise and a bigger role in the defense.
Whether or not he returns to the Bears depends on if the Bears are willing to give Graham what he wants.
Here are the Bears' unrestricted free agents, meaning they are free to sign with any team.
The Bears have just one restricted free agent. This player can negotiate with any team, but the Bears have the ability to match any offer. The Bears can also place a tender on these players.
Now that Matt Forte has been secured for at least one more season (assuming he does not stage a hold out in training camp), the checklist for the Bears becomes much easier, especially with all of their cap room.
When looking at the Bears' needs, I expect most of these free agents to come back to Chicago, or at least be offered a chance to do so.
Roy Williams: Released
Williams made a few plays for the Bears, but they need a more imposing presence at the receiver position who can really put a threat into a defense.
Williams will find another job somewhere in the league, but not as a No. 1. Unless the Bears are extremely desperate for someone before training camp, I don't see a scenario where Roy Williams is a Bear in 2012.
Amobi Okoye: Re-signed for 4 years, $8 million
At this point, Okoye would enjoy some stability during his somewhat tumultuous NFL career. He is not going to break the bank, but he is making a salary that is reflective of his role on the team.
Okoye is a good fit for the Bears defense. He still a young player and has some potential, and such players should be kept around if possible.
Brandon Meriweather: Released
I am not personally a big fan of Meriweather's as a football player. Simply put, the Bears can do better at the position.
Unless the Bears desperately need a body to fill the roster in camp, I would prefer to spend my time and resources to find an upgrade at the position rather than to fill it with mediocre play.
Caleb Hanie: Released
Just a year ago, Hanie looked like he was the long-term answer for the Bears as a backup to Jay Cutler. But his horrific performance in Cutler's relief may have cost him a future in the NFL.
Not only do the Bears cut ties with Hanie, I'm not sure know how he gets a shot from anyone else.
Israel Idonije: Re-signed for 3 years, $8.5 million
Idonije is one of the overlooked parts of a very good Bears defense, and you can bet that the Bears will try to retain him. He made about $2.5 million last year, so he will get a significant pay raise.
However, having the term for just three years keeps the Bears off the hook for committing to a 31-year-old player long-term.
Tim Jennings: Re-signed for 4 years, $10 million
Jennings has been a good find for the Bears, and I see no reason why they should not make a considerable effort to retain him. Jennings is not going to demand a lot of money, but some long-term security should make a former special teams player more than happy.
The Bears should not hesitate to overpay just a tad, because Jennings is going to get looks from around the league. Paying over $2.5 million is a bit much for a zone nickel corner, but he is a great fit for the Bears for all of the roles he fills.
Matt Spaeth: Re-signed for 2 Years, $4.2 million
Blocking tight ends are not jersey-sellers, but they are becoming much more difficult to find in today's pass-happy NFL. Spaeth is still a young player and deserves a pay raise, especially since going into the offseason, the Bears may lose two tight ends.
If it were up to me, I would secure the blocker and find my receiving tight end in the draft or through free agency, where they are more abundant.
Craig Setlz: Re-signed for 2 years, $2 million
He's not Ed Reed, but Seltz is a good special teams player who can add depth for a thin safety group. He should be kept around in case the Bears choose not to retain Brandon Meriweather. He is still young player at age 25 and has the potential to eventually start.
Josh McCown: Re-signed for $2 Years, 2 million
After spending most of the 2011 season on the couch, McCown proved that he at least a competent enough of a quarterback to give you a chance to win a game or two.
McCown's performances at the end of the season should secure him a backup quarterback job somewhere in the league.
Kahlil Bell: 1 Year, $1.26 million
Bell is a restricted free agent, and has a good chance of getting the lowest possible tender, valued at $1.26 million. Bell proved to be competent in Matt Forte's absence, and the Bears may look to utilize him more to help avoid more injuries to Matt Forte.
With another year of experience under his belt, the Bears could make a more educated decision on how much to offer him a year from now.
Kellen Davis: Released
The Bears are going to make some serious changes to their tight ends with a new offensive system in place. Kellen Davis did not produce as a starter, but a lot of that can be contributed to Mike Martz's offense not utilizing the tight end in the passing game.
Still, the Bears need to catch up with the rest of the league and get themselves a dynamic presence at the tight end position.
Zack Bowman: Released
Once a promising young player, Bowman's performance over the past two years may have cost him a chance of ever getting long-term security in the NFL. He is not going to generate a lot of interest on the open market, and it would be an upset if the Bears were to hang on to him.
Corey Graham: 4 Years, $8 million
Graham is an important role player on the Bears who they will want to retain. However, Graham may generate significant interest on the open market and the Bears may have to pay more than they would like in order to keep him.
Whether or not he remains in Chicago depends on how highly the Bears think of him as a long-term answer as a nickel corner.
Before re-signings, the Bears had an estimated $24,986,652 in cap space. Should the Bears make the moves that were projected on the previous slide, they would have an additional $11.59 million on their cap.
This leaves the Bears with $13,396,652 to spend in free agency.
Over $21 million should be plenty to solve the Bears needs. With that kind of cap space, they should be able to secure one of the top free agent receivers and find themselves a new tackle or tight end.
Since landing Julius Peppers in the 2010 offseason, the Bears can be very active in the open market once again.
To be honest, the Bears' needs hardly change after re-signings—if anything, they exacerbate them because there are fewer depth players.
Now that Roy Williams is officially out of the picture, the Bears will be forced to add another receiver in the offseason. Their cap room will allow them to be in the running for players like Vincent Jackson and Brandon Lloyd.
When looking for new pass catchers, finding players with size and separation ability should be the first priority.
The Bears have no free agent offensive lineman, so this need remains paramount. It is only a matter of time before Jay Cutler suffers a serious injury because of poor pass protection.
Tackles are expensive, but luckily for the Bears, they should have the dough to get themselves a replacement for J'Marcus Webb.
With a shift in offensive philosophy and the departure of last year's starting tight end, finding a security blanket for Jay Cutler is now a top priority. Unfortunately, this year's draft is a bit thin for tight ends, so free agency may be the better route to go for filling this need.
The departure of Brandon Meriweather leaves an open spot at safety. With the Bears using more man, Cover-1 concepts as opposed to the Cover-2 schemes they have become so famous for, the Bears would have needed an upgrade at safety either way.
Unfortunately, this safety class is thin both in terms of free agency and draft prospects. With so many other teams having issues at the position, this will be one of the more difficult holes to fill.
Nick Roach is a solid player, but he is not as dynamic a player as Brian Urlacher or Lance Briggs. There are a lot of of solid linebackers available in free agency. I can also see them using a later pick on a developmental player to learn under Urlacher and Briggs.
Either way, should the Bears want to upgrade this position, it should be relatively easy to do.
As previously mentioned, the Bears are going to have an opportunity to make a lot of moves in free agency. Let's take a look at some of the top players who could wind up in Chicago this spring:
The Bears need to be thinking big here—in other words, getting a player who can win size match-ups must be a priority.
There are a lot of receivers who fit the bill, but to me, Vincent Jackson is the best fit. He should avoid the franchise tag and hit the open market, so the Bears will have their shot.
Dwayne Bowe and Reggie Wayne are also viable options here. Getting another short speedster like DeSean Jackson is not what they are looking for.
There are not a lot of options in the free agency market for the Bears to upgrade their tackle position. The best player on the market may be Jared Gaither, who will have a lot of teams hunting him for his services after his late-season performance in emergency duty with the Chargers.
Filling this need through the draft may be a better option.
There are two marquee names who would be goof fits in Chicago—John Carlson and Fred Davis. Davis is by far the better player, but he will have a lot of suitors and is facing a one-year suspension if he is caught with drugs again.
If the Bears want to spend a lot of money on a linebacker, Dan Connor would be the best fit. However, with all of the money going elsewhere, they would rather save a little on a position that does not need much upgrading.
Perhaps a player like David Hawthorne from Seattle would be a better value.
There are not a ton of safeties out there, but the draft is so poor for safeties that finding one in free agency is vital. Two Falcons, Thomas DeCoud and Kelvin Hayden would be great fits.
Both are used to playing in zone concepts. DeCoud would be a little expensive, but Hayden would provide excellent value as a rotational player.
John Carlson: 2 Years, $5 million
Carlson missed the entire 2011 season, which is going to kill his value in free agency. But the Bears could gamble on an injured, but talented player and could strike gold. Carlson is an excellent receiver and a solid blocker in the run game.
Giving Carlson a short-term contract will allow the Bears to fully assess if they want to extend Carlson long-term.
Vincent Jackson: 5 Years, $52 million
Jackson will be allowed to test the market, where he will strike gold. The Jets gave Santonio Holmes as 5-year, $50 million contract last summer, so expect Jackson to make a smudge above what Holmes got.
This is a big-time deal, and both sides will be committed long-term. But the Bears' need at receiver is so big that such risks will need to be made.
Kelvin Hayden: 3 Years, $8 million
I believe Hayden could provide a lot of value to the Bears. His roots come from the Cover-2 dominant Colts, where he was controversially cut and scooped up by the Falcons.
The Bears are getting an underrated player who will adapt to the system with ease. Even if he disappoints, he is an upgrade over Brandon Meriweather.
Jared Gaither: 2 Years, $10 million
This is a high number for such an inconsistent player, but if Gaither can play up to his potential, it will be a steal for the Bears. Gaither will have a lot of competition for his services, so the Bears will have to overpay one way or the other.
With Carimi on the opposite side, the Bears will finally have some quality protection for Cutler.
To me, in the first round, the Bears will either go for a wide receiver or an offensive tackle, depending on how the board plays out.
A lot of mocks have the Bears taking Michael Floyd, a talented receiver out of Notre Dame. He helped his stock out a lot after a stellar performance at the combine, so if the Bears are interested, they may want to consider trading up.
However, if the Bears make a big signing in free agency to fill their receiver need, they would probably rather wait to the middle rounds to get good value for a developmental receiver.
Another option is to nab one of the top offensive tackle prospects early, as there are several guys who could slip to the second half of the first round. Mike Adams of Ohio State had a miserable combine, and as a result, should be available when the Bears pick.
The other picks should be value picks, filling depth before they become holes in the future. Perhaps adding another running back to take the load off of Matt Forte will be a priority, or adding more man-to-man cornerbacks to help their evolution from a strict Cover-2 team go much smoother.
No matter who the Bears pick, it is always important to not value need so much to the point where you begin to dilute the talent of your team. Talent comes as a priority over need.
Adams came into the combine out of shape, which will push his draft stock to the bottom of the first round, or perhaps into the second. Either way, he will be available when the Bears pick.
As bad as he was at the combine, he was dominant at the Senior Bowl against some of the top rushers in the country. Maybe all of the praise got to his head, but if the Bears are able to throw away the combine results as an anomaly, there is a good chance that Adams winds up in Chicago.
Almost every mock draft I see had Michael Floyd going to Chicago, and it certainly makes sense. However, unlike Adams, Floyd's combine performance is going to push him up draft boards and perhaps out of the Bears' reach. If the Bears want Floyd, they will have to trade up.
The issue with Floyd is that he had some character issues at Notre Dame, but he claims to be a changed man; he lived in a freshman dorm in his final year to stay out of trouble.
Other names like Alshon Jeffery and Kendall Wright also make sense for the Bears, but Floyd is the best fit.
There are not a lot of safeties in this draft, except for Mark Barron. He would be a great fit for the Bears as a physical safety with great range. His injury concerns would easily allow him to slide to the Bears.
If Chicago is able to fill its needs before the draft, taking Barron may be the best move if he is the best available player.