After coming away with a 26-24 victory over the Detroit Lions on Sunday to improve to 10-6 on the season, the Chicago Bears lost out on an opportunity to make the playoffs when the Minnesota Vikings defeated the Green Bay Packers.
Despite the 10-6 season, head coach Lovie Smith was fired on Monday for various reasons—primarily the team only making the playoffs once in the last six seasons and the lack of an effective offense throughout his tenure.
General Manager Phil Emery will have a tough task at hand with not only hiring a new head coach but with trying to improve their current roster. There are holes on both sides of the football and this may be Emery's most important offseason.
Being a former scout, the draft is supposed to be Emery's strong suit, but he will still need to find some pieces through free agency to strengthen this team's depth.
Here is a list of six free agents the Bears must target.
Once considered the best return man in the game, WR Devin Hester has been relegated to average at best. He returning abilities decreased as role in the offense increased but he was never able to take the next step as receiver, and had just 23 catches for 242 yards and one touchdown this season.
It could be very plausible that Hester could be released or traded before next season given the amount of money he is owed, opening up yet another need for this Bears team.
General Manager Phil Emery made a point during his press conference on Tuesday to mention the lack of plays in regards to the middle of the field (via Chicago Sun-Times):
''When I look at our team in the past, and the team that I watched on tape and the team that I'm watching this fall, we've got to get better at the midfield area of making plays''
Julian Edelman is not the flashiest wide receiver name that will likely hit the market this offseason (i.e. Wes Welker, Dwayne Bowe) but he could add a nice dimension to a team that sorely lacks a consistent slot receiver.
Hester and Earl Bennett both spent time in the slot this season when healthy, but neither made the sort of impact that many thought they would.
Edelman is known more for his special teams ability not only as a return man but as an open field tackler. He has three career punt returns for touchdowns and has been solid in limited action as a kick returner.
He had 21 catches for 235 yards and three touchdowns prior to a foot injury that put him on injured reserve earlier this month.
Edelman likely will not command a large contract. He could come in and push Bennett for playing time in the slot and provide some consistency to the return game if they decide to let go of Hester.
Tight end Kellen Davis was believed to be able to take the next steps this season, but he struggled in many areas this season and Emery noted that during his press conference on Tuesday (via Chicago Sun-Times):
"[Kellen Davis] has shown the ability. Just for whatever reason, hasn't been able to be consistent. I know that's an area that he's gonna work on. He's capable of improving, and I know he wants to improve.''
Davis struggled in the passing game, often dropping passes or finding himself out of position on well thrown balls. He still has the frame of a guy who should be able to dominate in this league but clearly needs more time to develop, making it that much more important for the Bears to find a suitable replacement.
Davis hauled in 24 catches for 325 yards until tearing his Achilles tendon in week seven, ending his 2012 season.
Prior to this year, Davis was often overshadowed by Cooley, but he finished the 2011 season with a career high 59 catches and 796 yards in a season in which he was suspended four games for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy.
He is a solid blocker and has great hands and speed for a guy of his size and could ultimately give Cutler a weapon that can consistently get open in the middle of the field.
Given his injury and his prior substance abuse problems, it could be possible for the Redskins to let him walk after the season and he could come on the cheap for a Bears team desperately needing help at the tight end position.
The biggest weakness of this Bears team heading into this season was talent along the offensive line. Very little was done in the offseason other than signing guard Chilo Rachal who, after losing his starting position, left the team.
The Bears have trotted out Rachal, Chris Spencer, Edwin Williams, and James Brown at left guard, all with little success.
Brown still has a chance to grow into the position given how raw he is, but this Bears team is built to win now, and an improvement at left guard could greatly improve both the running game and pass protection.
At just 26 years old, Buffalo Bills guard Andy Levitre is quietly becoming one of the best left guards in the league. This past Sunday he started his 64th straight game for the Bills but the team has yet to offer him a contract extension.
His quickness and athleticism are ideal for a pulling left guard and given his age, he could be a building block along the offensive line for years to come. He has excelled in the screen game and may be one of the best pass blocking guards in the game.
He will likely come at a steep price, but given the struggles along the offensive line for the past few years, he would be worth every penny.
Throughout Lovie Smith's tenure in Chicago, the safety position was a revolving door. They felt like they had found some stability with the combination of Major Wright and Chris Conte, but injuries once again forced a change in the lineup.
Even though both safeties had solid season's, there has been a lack of big plays being made at the position for years. Both Wright and Conte have been solid against the run and both have tremendous athleticism, but neither have made the big plays that some of the league's elite safeties have.
If the Bears want to improve their secondary and to help make it younger, Jairus Byrd may be the answer.
Byrd has flown under the radar playing in the Buffalo but he has been stellar in his four seasons in the league, hauling in 18 interceptions including five this season.
It is unknown what sort of defense the new head coach will be implementing, but Byrd's skill set would allow him to be effective in either a 4-3 or 3-4 defense.
With Pro Bowler Henry Melton and veteran Israel Idonije set to become free agents this offseason, the Bears will likely try and bring both back, but will still need to add depth at the position.
Melton was stellar this season, earning his first career Pro Bowl nod as he finished the regular season with 42 tackles, two forced fumbles, and six sacks. He is likely their number one priority this offseason but he will likely come with a hefty price tag.
Last offseason the Bears tried to upgrade their pass rush, going after veteran defensive end Jeremy Mincey who decided to re-sign with the Jaguars. GM Phil Emery selected Shea McClellin in the first round, but injuries slowed down his rookie campaign.
It is hard to determine which the direction the Bears will go with their new head coach, but considering the pieces already in place, sticking with a 4-3 defense seems the most logical. Melton's return would help bolster the inside pass rush, but they would still need to find something opposite of Julius Peppers at the left defensive end spot. Idonije's return is up in the air and the move towards a younger play may be on the horizon.
Johnson excelled this season with all the attention given to one of the best defensive tackles in the game, Geno Atkins. He has great speed, size, and athleticism, but has been known to be undisciplined at times. His sack numbers may escalate his asking price this offseason, but combining him with a re-signed Melton and playing opposite of Peppers, his numbers could have the potential to jump even higher.
Since Jay Cutler's arrival prior to the 2009 season, no position other than left tackle has been in a great need for improvement.
The Bears' have tried to convince their fans that former seventh round pick J'Marcus Webb was a capable left tackle, but after his last two seasons there is no way they can bring him back as a starter.
Good left tackles may be one of the most difficult players to find in the NFL, meaning few teams are willing to let one go.
The Broncos' Ryan Clady and the Chiefs' Brandon Albert are viewed as two of the best young left tackles in the league and both are set to become free agents this offseason, but given their age and abilities, it is likely a long term deal will be signed by both, or they could be hit with the franchise tag.
Once considered the best left tackle in the league, Jake Long has struggled with injuries since the 2010 season, and was placed on the season ending injured reserve for the second year in a row on December 4th.
The Dolphins likely have far greater needs on their team, including wide receiver and running back, meaning they may not be able to afford the big contract Long will likely be asking for.
At just 27 years old there is still plenty of good years left in him as long as he can stay healthy. A change of scenery and being on a team that has been consistently in the hunt for the playoffs may help rejuvenate him.