The Chicago Bears are entering a critical free-agent period where they're going to try and add pieces to take the next step toward contending for a Super Bowl, but they have some interesting decisions to make on their own free agents.
Much of the discussion this offseason has been about how the Bears can improve their offense, but they have to maintain their success on defense. In order to do that, they're going to have to try and retain several of their own free agents and try to get younger through the draft.
One decision the Bears no longer have to make is on defensive tackle Henry Melton, as they placed the franchise tag on him last week.
While that move solved one problem, it created another. If they are unable to come to a long-term agreement, Melton will make $8,450,000 next season, leave the Bears with around $4 million to spend and 17 of their own free agents set to hit the market.
Bears fans shouldn't panic too much. As the Chicago Sun-Times Sean Jensen pointed out, there are quite a few moves they can make to free up some cap room, but they still have to be smart with their own free agents.
The Bears have an interesting balance to strike. They can't spend a lot of money, but can't be cheap if they're going to contend next season. Here is how they should handle their own free agents.
Olindo Mare was brought in for the last three games after starting kicker Robbie Gould was placed on injured reserve with a calf injury.
Mare was decent for the Bears, making six of his eight field-goal attempts and all seven extra points. He was also solid on kickoffs, as 10 of his 16 attempts went for touchbacks, according to Pro Football Focus.
With Gould coming back, the Bears won't have a roster spot for the soon-to-be 40-year-old. After his time with the Bears, he could land elsewhere in 2012 should someone need an emergency fill-in as the Bears did in 2012.
After showing promise in 2011, Kahlil Bell had an interesting 2012 season, but it didn't include much production on the field.
The 26-year-old UCLA product ran for 337 yards on 79 carries in 2011, including a 121-yard performance against the Green Bay Packers.
In 2012, he had two separate stints with the Bears, which sandwiched a few games with the New York Jets. He ran for just 76 yards on 29 carries and lost a fumble.
Fumbling was an issue for him in 2011 as well, as he fumbled three times, losing one. Bell also hasn't been much of a contributor on special teams.
With Matt Forte, Michael Bush and Armando Allen on the roster, there isn't a spot for Bell.
Israel Idonije might be the most underrated player on the Bears' entire team. According to PFF, he was their highest-rated defensive lineman in 2012, grading out as their best run defender and most productive pass-rusher.
In addition to PFF rating Idonije as the Bears' top lineman, he was the 12th-highest-rated 4-3 defensive end in the league, despite playing the second-fewest snaps among those in the top 15. He gives the Bears versatility, as he also received a positive grade on PFF at defensive tackle, where he played 212 snaps.
Idonije received a positive 7.5 grade for his run defense, six points higher than the next highest-graded player—Amobi Okoye. He also averaged a hurry every 12.6 snaps, the second-best rate on the team behind pass-rush specialist Shea McClellin, who averaged one every 12.1 snaps.
Idonije is not the team's best defensive linemen; he certainly took advantage of the extra attention given to Julius Peppers and Melton. However, the other defensive linemen on the roster got the same matchups Idonije did and weren't nearly as effective.
It's become a popular thought that the Bears should allow Idonije to walk with McClellin and Corey Wootton on the roster, but neither of them have shown the ability to perform consistently. In Wootton's case, he struggled with injuries in his first two seasons, and McClellin still has to show he can defend the run at the NFL level.
Although he's on the wrong side of 30, the Bears should offer Idonije a multiyear deal loaded with incentives. He cost the Bears $2.5 million against the cap on a year-year contract in 2012; if they give him a longer contract, he should be cheaper next season.
Defensive line is among the most important units in the NFL, especially with the Cover 2 defense. If they have to spend a little extra money there, it would be worth it.
The Chicago Tribune reported the Bears are likely to tender Nate Collins, which would pay him $1.33 million, but that is a steep price for someone who gave them just 247 snaps a year ago.
Collins was solid in limited action, giving the Bears some burst with nine quarterback hurries according to PFF, but if they're going to bring back Idonije and Melton, he would be their third-string three-technique tackle, possibly fourth-string should they bring Amobi Okoye back.
While defensive line is one of the spots where money should be spent, this is a case where they have to be smart. In addition to having Melton and Idonije playing the same position, the Bears want to get McClellin more snaps, which could mean Julius Peppers playing inside more.
If the Bears could get Collins to sign a more cap-friendly deal, it would be worth it, but it seems like they wouldn't be getting much bang for their buck unless they moved other players around.
Amobi Okoye is in a similar situation as Collins, but he is at least as good and comes cheaper.
Okoye was brought in to the Bears two years ago and was productive as the backup to Melton in 2011. He gave the Bears a boost when he saw the field, registering 27 tackles and four sacks that season.
He went back to the Bears and struggled with the injury, playing just 235 snaps, according to PFF.
The big difference between Okoye and Collins is price. Okoye had a base salary of $700,000 last year. While he'd likely be looking for a little raise, Okoye should still be had for under or around $1 million. If he were able to stay healthy and repeat his 2011 performance, he'd be a steal.
D.J. Moore seemed to be an up-and-coming star when he had four interceptions—including one returned for a touchdown—in both 2010 and 2011, but he hasn't been able to duplicate that kind of performance since.
In 2012, opposing passers had a quarterback rating of 101.1 when throwing to whomever Moore was covering. It's hard to forget his Week 15 performance when Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers completed five out of six passes for 80 yards and a touchdown for a perfect 158.3 passer rating when throwing in Moore's direction.
Moore wasn't much better in the first meeting between the teams. Rodgers had a rating of 149.3 when throwing in Moore's direction. The Packers are still the team to beat in the NFC North, and it's clear Moore does not help the Bears' cause.
Further hurting his chances to stay with the team, Moore isn't known as a great tackler and does not play special teams.
What Lovie Smith saw in Kelvin Hayden is a mystery.
The former second-round pick of the Indianapolis Colts is a solid tackler, but provides little else to the team.
According to PFF, opponents had a rating of 93.2 when throwing toward Hayden, a number helped significantly by his game against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 16 when Arizona's duo of John Skelton and Brian Hoyer had a combined rating of 11.3 against him.
Opponents had ratings above 95 when throwing at Hayden seven times in 2012, according to PFF, as he finished the season with just one interception and two passes defensed despite being thrown at 54 times.
Like Moore, the veteran also provides little to nothing on special teams. The Bears would be better off bringing in younger players who can help in that phase of the game and can't possibly be much worse in coverage.
Zackary Bowman never developed into the star many expected after he intercepted six passes in 2009, but he has become a valuable special teams player and provides solid veteran depth at cornerback.
Bowman has not intercepted a pass since his sophomore campaign in which he got his hands on six, but he helps the Bears on special teams. In just eight games, he recorded a team-best nine special teams tackles, according to PFF.
In addition to his work on special teams, the Nebraska product is capable of playing on the outside or as a slot cornerback for the team.
Bowman is likely going to cost under $1 million and brings a lot to the team for that price.
Jason Campbell is a solid player and a good backup quarterback, but the Bears did not have the talent at the skill positions or offensive line to be successful with his check-down playing style.
Campbell could start for more than a few teams in the league, but the Bears aren't in a position where they can afford the luxury of paying a backup $3.5 million as they did with Campbell last year.
The former first-round pick out of Auburn has a career passer rating of 82.5, but averages just 6.73 yards per attempt. He doesn't make mistakes, but he doesn't make plays.
If Campbell is willing to take a huge pay cut, the Bears would be able to consider keeping him, but it's probably best for both sides if he moves on.
“There are so many different aspects to what he brings to this team, especially for me,” Cutler said. “He’s been in a lot of different situations, and he’s been in the league a long time. He’s had success, he’s had down years, and he’s just a positive guy."
The Bears shouldn't completely cater to Cutler, but having someone he gets along with certainly wouldn't hurt.
McCown wasn't great when he played three games for the team in 2011, but he wasn't the train wreck Caleb Hanie was and wasn't much worse than Campbell was this past season. With 55 passing attempts—and no Matt Forte in the backfield—McCown had a rating of 68.3. Campbell had a rating of 72.8 on 51 passing attempts with Forte in his backfield in 2012.
At a time when the team needs to focus on spending money at other positions, McCown is capable of being the backup quarterback entering next season.
Lance Louis ended the 2012 season on injured reserve after tearing his ACL in the team's Week 12 win over the Vikings, so a short-term, incentive-loaded deal seems likely.
The 2009 seventh-round pick has developed into a decent starter for the Bears. He graded out as the team's best pass protector on PFF, allowing just seven hurries in 712 snaps. However, he struggled with run-blocking last season, where he graded out as their second-worst lineman behind center Roberto Garza.
Louis should benefit from Aaron Kromer being hired as the offensive coordinator. While with New Orleans, Kromer coached both Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans to the Pro Bowl.
With his injury, Louis will likely come cheap for the Bears, especially since it's impossible to know when he'll be ready to play.
Signing Chris Spencer was among the worst moves former general manager Jerry Angelo made, and it's time for him to be sent packing.
It isn't that Spencer is a terrible player, but he certainly hasn't been worth the two-year, $6 million deal the Bears gave him in 2011.
According to PFF, Spencer was a solid run-blocker but terrible pass-blocker in 2012. He graded out as the Bears' second-worst pass-blocker behind only Gabe Carimi.
Despite pass-blocking on just 186 snaps, Spencer gave up three sacks, four quarterback hits and six hurries last season according to PFF.
The veteran was signed to replace Olin Kreutz at center, but moved to guard. He lost his starting left guard spot to Chilo Rachal after Week 2 before regaining it after Rachal left the team.
Spencer graded out positively on PFF in his last two games—in which he played every snap—but the Bears shouldn't have trouble finding a better and cheaper option.
Chilo Rachal didn't spend much time with the Bears, but it became memorable.
The Bears signed Rachal as a free agent from the San Francisco 49ers, and, coincidentally, his last game with the Bears came against his former team. He left the Bears for "personal reasons" after he lost his starting job to Spencer.
While with Chicago, he graded out as the team's worst lineman on PFF, despite playing just 528 snaps. Despite limited action, he managed to commit eight penalties and give up 10 hurries—an average of one every 28.9 pass plays.
Rachel was a solid player for the 49ers, but he gave the Bears no reason to bring him back.
Part of this one depends on what the Bears plan to do with Gabe Carimi.
If the Bears are going to keep Carimi at tackle and bring in another player via either free agency or the draft to compete with him, they won't have a spot for Jonathan Scott.
However, should they decide to move Carimi to guard or don't see a need to bring in competition for him at tackle, Scott could be valuable as a swing tackle.
Scott wasn't terrible in his five starts with the Bears, but he wasn't good.
He only graded out positively in one of those games on PFF. Although he only gave up one sack, he gave up 14 hurries—an average of one every 13.6 pass plays, a rate that was actually worse than Carimi's, according to PFF.
What Scott didn't do was make mental mistakes. In his 342 snaps, he was flagged for just one penalty, according to PFF.
He has experience at both tackle spots and started at left tackle for the Steelers in Super Bowl XLV.
Nick Roach was better in the middle than he was on the outside for the Bears last season, but probably isn't an ideal starter for either and was paid to much for a third linebacker.
In the modern-day NFL, teams play nickel defenses a majority of the time, especially considering the Bears play in a division with pass-happy teams Green Bay and Detroit.
Roach cost the Bears nearly $3 million against the cap last season, but played less than half of their snaps in five of their 12 games before he replaced Brian Urlacher at middle linebacker, according to PFF.
In 12 games as the starting strong-side linebacker, Roach received a negative 2.7 grade from PFF. In four games as the starting middle linebacker, he received a positive 0.2. Neither are terrible; neither are ideal.
The Bears are looking to get younger at linebacker, and that could mean drafting a linebacker early. It's hard to say where Roach fits in the Bears' future plans, but it's hard to see him as a starter in the future.
Geno Hayes didn't play much with the Bears last season, but was solid when he did.
He became the starting strong-side linebacker when Roach slid over to replace Urlacher in the middle and received a positive 1.9 grade on PFF in three games in that spot. He was solid in coverage and a good tackler—missing just two last season.
Hayes showed the ability to be a decent starter, picking up 98 tackles in 2009 and 82 in 2010 with Tampa Bay, but the Bears paid him just $750,000 last season.
Given his limited role on the defense, the Bears should be able to get Hayes back for a similar deal with the possibility of playing more.
If the Bears are going to convince players like Julius Peppers and Lance Briggs to renegotiate their contracts, the promise of bringing back Brian Urlacher could be what gets them to do it.
Briggs is already on record as saying he wants Urlacher to return, but it will be a difficult decision for the Bears.
According to PFF, Urlacher was the Bears' worst linebacker in 2012, but it's hard to tell how much of that was due to injury and how much was age. He received a minus-11.2 grade in 727 snaps last season, particularly struggling against the run, where he missed a team-worst 10 tackles. He was solid in pass coverage, where he graded out with a plus-6.7.
Urlacher's PFF grade improved as the season went on and he got healthier. Over his first six games, he had a grade of minus-9.9, but was at minus-1.3 over his final six games. His last six also came against tougher competition, including Houston, San Francisco, Minnesota and Seattle.
In 2011, the Bears star received an overall grade of plus-8.8 on PFF; it's hard to believe he could've declined that much in just one season.
He has already spoken of giving the Bears a hometown discount (via ESPN 1000's Waddle & Silvy Show):
"When you look at my age and everything, it's going to be hard to not give them a discount. I'm not going to make what I was making in the past, how about that? Does that make sense? That's fair."
There is evidence that Urlacher can still contribute to the Bears, and if he's willing to do so at a much lower price, the Bears should give him the opportunity to help lead them to the top.