Despite winning 10 games last season, the Chicago Bears have some major holes in their roster—specifically along the offensive line—but there are some moves they can make in free agency to get one step closer to the Lombardi Trophy.
If ever there was an offseason to be in need of linemen, this is it. While the draft is always unpredictable with who you can get and who will turn out, there are a number of solid veterans available who could start for the Bears.
Obviously every team wants to add a player like Ryan Clady, but that isn't realistic. There are several other good options for the Bears and they could easily come out of the free-agency period with two or three new starters along the offensive line without breaking the bank.
While that is their major need area, there are a couple other players worthy of a look who could be immediate upgrades.
While I still think the Bears may be best off trying to get the most they can out of their current tight end group, Fasano is the exception. If the Dolphins unexpectedly let him go, the Bears should pounce.
Fasano isn't the type of big-play tight end most fans have in mind, but he is perfect for what they need. Unlike Brandon Meyer, Jared Cook and Dustin Keller, Fasano not only blocks, but he's dominant in that area. He also has some of the most reliable hands in the league, dropping a total of just three passes in the last three seasons.
He had a down year in 2012, but graded out as one of the 10 best tight ends in each of the previous four seasons on Pro Football Focus.
Since he became a starter he's averaged a little over 35 catches and nearly five touchdowns per season, those numbers would likely improve on a team with a better quarterback.
Fasano doesn't bring big statistics and will probably never catch a lot of passes, but he does the little things that help and rarely hurts his team. If their receivers play up to their potential, the Bears have enough guys to catch passes; they need a player like Fasano to do the dirty work.
Smith is one of the most underrated linebackers in the NFL. Since 2009, Smith has rated as one of the three best 4-3 outside linebackers twice on Pro Football Focus. In 2010 he was 11th and he missed most of last season due to a groin injury.
Smith played the strong side linebacker for new Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker the past four seasons and would be a nice compliment to Lance Briggs. He also played middle linebacker in the past and could possibly move there should the Bears elect not to re-sign Brian Urlacher.
A linebacker of Smith's caliber would typically be priced out of the Bears range, but there are several reasons why they could get a nice bargain on him. The most notable are the fact that he's already turned 30 and he's coming off of a major injury, but there's also the Tucker connection. Smith not only played for him, but is a fan of Tucker.
It wouldn't be the first time a veteran player took less money to play in a scheme and for a coach he's familiar with, while also contending for a Super Bowl.
Smith excels in all facets as he's most noted for his run defense, but has also been effective blitzing, an area the Bears linebackers struggled in.
While one Buffalo guard—Andy Levitre—gets a lot of attention as one of the top-rated guards, his teammate could be perfect for the Bears.
Rinehart was a reserve for the Bills last season, playing just 170 snaps, but he was very good in limited action. In 2011, he started 11 games without giving up a sack and allowing just eight hurries, according to Pro Football Focus. He could play either left or right guard and would be a huge upgrade at either for the Bears.
Rinehart should also be a great value for the Bears. Top free-agent guard Jahari Evans signed for $50 million over seven years last season and Levitre is likely to get the same kind of deal. The Bears could get a near-equal player for far less.
Schwartz is another terrific option for the Bears, who would provide them with some versatility. He rotated in some games for the Vikings this past season and did fairly well, allowing just three quarterback hurries in 181 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. He also more than held his own in the run game, where he graded out as the third-best Vikings lineman.
He would also give the Bears some versatility. In 2010, he started five games at right tackle and 11 at right guard for the Carolina Panthers, giving up just four sacks and 13 hurries, according to PFF.
Schwartz's downfall is his injury history. He missed the entire 2011 season with a hip injury and suffered a sports hernia last season. If he can stay healthy, he could be a great find for the Bears next season.
There are a couple solid options out there this year for left tackle, but Denver's Ryan Clady is likely to get the franchise tag and Cherilus is simply a better lineman than the others. Although he plays right tackle, the Bears aren't in a position to be picky, they just need to accumulate good linemen at this point.
Cherilus has quietly been very good for a long time and was better than Kansas City's Branden Albert last year, giving up a hurry just one out of every 30 pass attempts compared to Albert's rate of one every 24, according to Pro Football Focus.
The fact that he plays right tackle may also make him a much greater value. Last offseason, right tackle Eric Winston signed for $22 over four years. Compare that to the reported $10 million annual salary Jake Long reportedly wants. Guys like Albert and New Orleans' Jermon Bushrod are likely to get big contracts as well simply because they play on the left side.
While many don't think the Bears need a right tackle, left tackle was actually their strongest position along the offensive line last year. Contrary to popular belief, J'Marcus Webb is a better pass-blocker than he is a run-blocker and graded out better in that area than Bushrod on Pro Football Focus.
The Bears could certainly survive with a combination of Webb and Cherilus, but if a left tackle were to fall in the draft, they could go that route too.