Prior to this past Monday's deadline, the Chicago Bears placed the franchise tag on defensive tackle Henry Melton, guaranteeing him $8.45 million this season if they are not able to get a long-term deal done.
At this time, that franchise tag takes up the majority of the Bears' cap space, leaving them right now with roughly $4.5 million under the salary cap.
It is expected that the team will likely make some cuts to free up some cap space as well as try to restructure some of their larger contracts to give themselves more flexibility moving forward.
On March 12th, the NFL's new league year begins and teams will officially be able to sign free agents. The Bears, despite going 10-6 last season, have plenty of holes that will need to fixed, and free agency may be their best way of improving this offseason..
New head coach Marc Trestman will work closely with second-year general manager Phil Emery to find the perfect pieces for their new offense and aging defense.
Here are five projected free-agent targets for the Bears this offseason:
Currently the Chicago Bears have just two quarterbacks under contract for the 2013 season, Jay Cutler and Matt Blanchard.
Cutler is clearly the team's top choice and has an important year ahead of him with his contract set to expire at the end of the 2013 season. Blanchard went undrafted in 2012 and impressed the coaching staff enough in rookie minicamps to be offered a contract. He spent the majority of the 2012 season on the Bears' practice squad before being cut in December, but he re-signed in early January.
Jason Campbell and Josh McCown both spent time last season backing up Cutler, with Campbell getting an opportunity to start against the San Francisco 49ers following a concussion to Cutler. He was less than impressive when on the field in 2012, but considering the other options available on the free-agency market, he could be the team's best choice.
Despite his poor performances last year, there still could be a market for Campbell, who is still just 31 years old and has a bevy of experience as a starter. If he does not return, the Saints' Chase Daniel may be a good fit.
Daniel spent the last four seasons in New Orleans with the Bears' new offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer, and his familiarity with Kromer could help land him in Chicago.
He went undrafted in the 2009 draft after an impressive college career, as he was tabbed by many as being too short and not experienced enough in a pro-style offense after running the spread throughout his time at Missouri. He does have good speed and footwork outside of the pocket and was very accurate in the short-to-intermediate passing game, which would translate well into the Bears' plans to run a West Coast offense.
It is no secret that an area the Bears need to address this offseason is the offense line, particularly the left tackle position. While not as terrible as some may have thought last season, J'Marcus Webb is not a long-term answer for the team at left tackle, and that will likely force the team to look for an upgrade via free agency and/or the draft.
Jermon Bushrod seemed to be the logical choice for the Bears, with his former offensive line coach Aaron Kromer taking over as offensive coordinator in Chicago, but according to the Times-Picayune's Larry Holder, the two sides are expected to start contract negotiations soon. If the Saints and Bushrod are able to get a deal worked out, the tackle free-agency market will become even thinner.
The Bears could always look to reel in Jake Long, but given his injury history and his desire to make upwards of $11 million a year (h/t NFL.com's Ian Rapoport), he may simply be out of their price range.
One player who has experience at the position and could come at relatively low price is the Falcons' Sam Baker.
Baker was a first-round pick of the Falcons back in 2008 and has started 57 games in his career. Considered by some as a bust prior to this season, he finally seemed to shake a back injury that had plagued him throughout much of his early career. Not as athletic as the top-level left tackles, he has all the tools to be a solid contributor at the position.
If the Bears were able to sign him to a cap-friendly deal, the team could still look to draft a tackle in April to develop into a long-term solution.
Despite boasting a roster with two Pro Bowl cornerbacks, the Bears lack depth behind Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings.
Kelvin Hayden and D.J. Moore both spent time last season at nickelback, with Hayden getting the majority of the reps following poor performances and comments made about quarterback Jay Cutler by Moore. Neither are currently under contract for the 2013 season, and with only young, unproven cornerbacks like Sherrick McManis, Isiah Frey, and LeQuan Lewis signed for 2013, the team will likely be looking to add depth at the position.
The team could certainly look to the draft to find help, but with both Hayden and Moore likely gone, the need for a proven nickelback becomes important.
A former first-round pick of the Arizona Cardinals and Pro Bowler in 2009, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has been less than spectacular in Philadelphia after being traded with a second-round pick in 2011 to the Eagles in exchange for quarterback Kevin Kolb.
He struggled throughout his tenure in Philadelphia but did finish the 2012 season with three interceptions after not having any in 2011. Despite his athleticism and ability, he has been wildly inconsistent and needs to improve his tackling.
Despite all of his flaws, at just 26 years old, he is now entering his prime. If the Bears were able to get sign him to a reasonable contract, he could be used at the nickelback position and could eventually move into a starting cornerback spot when Charles Tillman retires.
In a somewhat surprising move, the Tennessee Titans decided to not franchise tag tight end Jared Cook before the NFL deadline on Monday afternoon.
Cook has all of the athleticism and ability to be one of the top tight ends in the league, but poor quarterback play and the poor play of the Titans as a whole has left some wondering if he is just a wasted talent.
The Bears have made it known this offseason that they want to add a pass-catching tight end who can help spread the field, and Cook would seem like the most logical choice.
He has terrific size (6'5") and speed, and at just 25 years of age, he is just now entering the prime of his career. He is not the best blocking tight end available, but he is considered by many as an above-average blocker, and considering what the team wants to do offensively, his blocking abilities likely will not be used very often.
His speed affords him the ability to move into the slot position, where he can use his size to beat defenders.
His asking price will likely be the highest of all those on this list, but if the team is able to make some room by restructuring some contracts, he may be at the top of the Bears' list.
Despite having a Pro Bowl wide receiver in Brandon Marshall, using a second-round pick on Alshon Jeffery in 2012, and having Earl Bennett and Devin Hester signed to lucrative contracts, the Bears will likely be looking for some help at the wide receiver position.
A former sixth-round pick of the Philadelphia Eagles in the 2009 draft, Brandon Gibson had one of his most productive NFL seasons in 2012, when he hauled in 51 catches for 691 yards and a career-high five touchdowns.
His production rose after an injury to Rams receiver Danny Amendola earlier in the season, and in some ways he could be looked at as a cheaper version of Amendola in the free-agent market.
He has above-average speed and much like Amendola, plays well in the slot and works well running slants and crosses (two routes that likely will be important in Trestman's new offense).
He has often been cast aside because of the ineptitude of the Rams' offense at times, but for the right price, Gibson could be a solid addition and help push Earl Bennett for the slot position in 2013.