The moment that the final whistle blows on an NFL season, teams are already consumed with how to improve themselves for the next year. The rumor mill starts working daily at a feverish pace with new speculation on where a prospective free agent might land, leaving many to either buy in or disregard such rumors.
The Chicago Bears have already been busy in the early stages of the offseason, having fired Lovie Smith and hiring Marc Trestman as the team's new head coach.
Trestman brings a bigger emphasis on offense than Smith did, likely bringing forth more additions on that side of the football. The organization will look towards both the draft and free agency to improve a team that finished the 2012 seasons with a 10-6 record.
Feb. 18 marked the beginning of the league's new calendar year, allowing teams the ability to place franchise tags on their impending free agents.
Free agency officially beings on March 12 but the rumors have already begun swirling. And here are five free agents who have been linked to the Bears and whether the Bears should buy or sell on these players.
While the left tackle has been an area of concern for years, the guard position has also been a revolving door during Jay Cutler's tenure under center in Chicago.
Last season saw Lance Louis, Chris Spencer, Chilo Rachal, Edwin Williams, James Brown, and Gabe Carimi all see time at guard. Louis' season ended in November following a knee injury, but he is expected to be re-signed and be the probable starter at right guard next season.
Brown filled in nicely at the end of last season at left guard, but the team still needs to find a solid, athletic young guard to help protect Cutler's blindside.
The guard free agency market at the guard position is expected to feature a variety of different types of players, but Buffalo Bills Andy Levitre may be the best fit for the Bears' new West Coast offense.
Michael Renner at Pro Football Focus said of Levitre:
What Levitre would bring is a dominant pass-blocking presence that Chicago certainly lacks. Theguard was second among all guards in Pass Blocking Efficiency. Re-signing Louis as well would give the Bears plus pass blockers at the three interior positions and keep QB from consistent pressure in his face.
The Bills have greater needs all around and may be forced to use their franchise tag on safety Jairus Byrd, opening up the possibility for Levitre to try the open market.
The idea of Levitre joining the Bears offseason is one that fans should be buying into.
It has been no secret that one of the Bears' biggest weaknesses during the Jay Cutler era has been the offense line, particularly at the left tackle position.
The left tackle position has the chance to be one of the strongest groupings in this year's free agency. But with the likelihood of a guys such as Ryan Clady getting the franchise tag and others (Brandon Albert and Jermon Bushrod) re-signing with their current teams, the group may not be as strong as initially believed.
In 2008, Jake Long was the first overall pick for the Miami Dolphins and earned Pro Bowl nods from 2009-2011. Long struggled at times in 2012, until an injury shortened his season. He is expected to hit the free-agent market, and many have speculated that he'd be a great fit in Chicago.
Kevin Seifert of ESPN.com wrote, "I can't count how many people have suggested the Chicago Bears pursue him in free agency, even if it is to play right tackle."
His reputation will make him an A player, but he is an injury and age concern to me. He is turning only 28 to start next season, but he already has played 74 games, making a long-term deal a risk.
Though he'll be just 28 at the start of next season, Long has a recent history of injuries. That couple with his poor performance last season should be reasons for concern. According to Barry Jackson of The Miami Herald, Long has reportedly indicated that he would be seeking a contract around $10 million a year.
With deteriorating health and what looks to be a hefty price tag it looks to be the time to sell on the idea of Jake Long protecting Jay Cutler in 2013.
Since the trade of Greg Olsen prior to the 2011 season that sent Olsen to the Carolina Panthers in exchange for a third round pick, the Bears have struggled to find production at the tight end position.
Former offensive coordinator Mike Martz desired his tight ends to be more blocker than receiver, opposite of the trend that the NFL has been moving towards. Last season saw an inexperienced play-caller, Mike Tice, struggle to get the tight end involved and when he did, Kellen Davis little to nothing while on the field.
The Bears new coaching staff has made it a point that they need to address the tight end position sometime this offseason. Last week, new tight end coach, Andy Bischoff, said (h/t ESPN Chicago):
We need a tight end that can threaten the defense. We need a tight end that can create stress in the middle of the field or wherever we place him because we're gonna line him up next to the tackle, we're gonna line him up outside the numbers. We're gonna line up in the backfield, and we're gonna expect the defense to figure it out. So we need a receiver who can catch the ball, and we need a receiver who can block enough to be lined up in the backfield if we put him there.
The tight end free-agent market for 2013 looks to be one of the deepest the league has seen in years and Michael C. Wright of ESPN Chicago lists Martellus Bennett at the top of his list for the Bears.
Bennett finished the 2012 season with 55 catches for 625 yards and five touchdowns and will likely be a high priority for the New York Giants to re-sign.
If he does become a free agent, he possesses all the traits that Bischoff wants in a tight end as he has the ability to not only stretch the field but has shown the ability to be an effective blocker.
He should be a guy that Bear fans should buy into.
In 2012, for the first time in years, the Chicago Bears had go-to number one wide receiver in Brandon Marshall. Marshall came to Chicago in a trade with the Miami Dolphins, and he immediately went on to break the team's single-season receptions and receiving yards records.
Marshall was quarterback Jay Cutler's primary target for much of the season with injuries and poor performances plaguing the rest of their receiving corps. Alshon Jeffery and Earl Bennett are both expected to be fighting for playing time in 2013, while Johnny Knox was released and later retired earlier this month and Devin Hester has been up in the air on whether or not he wants to stay in Chicago.
Jennings suffered through injuries for most of the 2012 season and finished with just 36 catches for 366 yards and four touchdowns. Given the young talent the Packers have at the position, it is likely that he will be moving on.
The Chicago Tribune's Dan Pompei was asked what the Packers were going to do with Jennings and responded, "(Jennings) will be an intriguing possibility for a number of teams. If his price dips low enough, maybe even the Bears."
Given his injury concerns and the fact that he will be turning 30 in September, it would be best for the Bears to be looking in a different direction for help at the wide receiver position.
In 2012, Henry Melton proved his worth in a contract year, registering 43 tackles, two forced fumbles, and six sacks en route to his first career Pro Bowl. His strong 2012 season continued a pattern of improvement that has catapulted him towards the top of the list of impending free agents this offseason.
The organization has the option of placing the franchise tag on Melton, which is expected to be worth roughly $8.3 million but the team is expected to only be roughly $11 million under the salary cap (h/t Chicago Tribune) but that cap hit alone will leave little money left to spend in free agency. The team could free up more money by trying to restructure some of their larger deals (i.e. Julius Peppers, Brandon Marshall) but that is a lot easier said than done.
According to Pro Football Talk, new defensive coordinator Mel Tucker has stated that he'd like to implement an “attacking, penetrating front” and given Melton's ability as an inside pass-rusher, he seems to perfectly fit the bill.
NFL.com's Chris Wesseling said of Melton, "NFL teams rarely let talented young, impact starters reach the open market when the franchise tag is a viable option. As one of the few defensive stars under the age-32 barrier, Melton has even greater value to the Bears."
The team continues to get older on the defensive side of the football; other than the starting safety combination of Chris Conte and Major Wright, Melton is one of the few young productive players on defense.
Despite the large salary cap hit it would not be a surprise if the team uses the franchise tag on Melton, even if it is used as a temporary way to keep him on the team until a long-term deal can get worked out.