Top 10 Players the Bears Should Target in Free Agency
Despite winning 10 games last season, the Bears have a lot of work to do this offseason if they're going to take the next step. Tuesday begins the first day in which they can make major moves and here is a peek at what their shopping list should look like.
The Bears' need areas are obvious. Their offensive line makes its annual appearance on the list. Once again they got Jay Cutler battered and put him in bad situations as they were ranked 30th overall by Pro Football Focus.
Of course, there have been some indications that the Bears are going to try to make the best out of what they already have in that area.
In addition to a struggling offensive line, the Bears got almost nowhere near enough production out of their tight ends and didn't have a single receiver rank among the 30 best deep threats in the NFL on PFF.
Not taken into account for this list are the Bears' own free agents. Obviously, if they lose a player, they will need to replace him, but that has yet to happen and is impossible to predict.
The Bears don't have a lot of space in the salary cap, but, as the Chicago Sun-Times' Sean Jensen pointed out, there is a lot they can do to create more space.
With all that being said, here is a list of the top 10 players the Bears should target in free agency this offseason.
10. Evan Dietrich-Smith
The Packers surprised many on Monday by submitting the lowest possible tender on the restricted free-agent center, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Tom Silverstein. That means the Bears could grab Dietrich-Smith and would not have to give the Packers any compensation.
Dietrich-Smith started the Packers' last four games—including two playoff games—at center, allowing just two hurries in those games, according to PFF. He also started four games at left guard and fared reasonably well, allowing just five hurries in that span. For the season, he allowed one hurry every 49.2 passing attempts.
In just 155 snaps at center, Dietrich-Smith graded out as the 27th-best center in the league on PFF. Not ideal, but compared to Roberto Garza—who ranked 62nd—it would be a huge upgrade. New offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer has a history of developing interior linemen and Dietrich-Smith could be his next project.
Furthermore, if the Packers were to lose Dietrich-Smith, they'd be in a bind at the position with Jeff Saturday's retirement. If the Bears can improve their team and make life hard for the Packers, they should do it.
9. Chad Rinehart
Rinehart was a reserve for the Bills last season but was very good in limited action.
In 97 drop backs, Rinehart gave up just two quarterback hurries, no sacks and did not commit a penalty, according to PFF.
He saw more action in 2011 when he started 11 games without giving up a sack and allowed just eight hurries—an average of one every 71.1 pass attempts, according to PFF.
While he was certainly helped by Buffalo's quick passing attack, Rinehart was also a good run-blocker, carrying a positive 4.9 grade on PFF in 2011 and positive 1.3 in 2012 on just 73 running plays.
The Northern Iowa product has had some injury history, as he broke his fibula in 2009 and was placed on Injured Reserve with an ankle injury in 2012, but has no previous issues.
He would be an instant starter and upgrade for the Bears.
8. Jared Cook
Cook is a one-dimensional player whose production has never matched his talent but who could entice the Bears this offseason.
It's hard to judge how much interest the Bears will have in Cook. Although the Chicago Sun-Times Sean Jensen reported the Bears might be interested, Kromer suggested otherwise when he said the Bears want a tight end who can block in his first media interview.
Cook's run blocking hasn't graded out poorly on PFF, but that's because the Titans haven't asked him to do it often. According to PFF, Cook was on the field for just 91 running plays last season and just 99 the year before. He has never played over 60 percent of the Titans' snaps.
It isn't as if Cook has ever been a great receiver either. In four seasons he's never caught over 49 passes or more than four touchdowns, but his physical abilities make him an interesting player. At 6'5" and 246 pounds, Cook ran 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds and had a 41-inch vertical jump at the 2009 NFL Draft Scouting Combine.
Although he hasn't had major production, Cook has caught 65.4 percent of the passes thrown his way over the last two seasons and averaged 5.1 yards after the catch in that time span, according to PFF.
Ultimately, whether or not the Bears decide to pursue Cook will depend on if they think they can tap into his potential more than the Titans could.
7. Martellus Bennett
In his first real opportunity, Bennett broke out as a receiver with 55 catches and five touchdowns for the Giants last season, but it's hard to know if he's capable of consistent production.
Bennett was always viewed as a blocking tight end in his first four years with the Cowboys, never catching more than 33 passes and going three full seasons without a touchdown reception.
After what was essentially a "prove it" deal, Bennett will likely look to cash in, but when you look at his entire career, it's hard to know what to pay him.
Even with Jason Witten on the team, the Cowboys spent a second-round draft pick on Bennett in 2008, but he was never the kind of impact player they expected.
Who gets the blame for the first four years of his career is debatable, but what is interesting is that the Cowboys actually pursued current Bear Kellen Davis instead of trying to re-sign Bennett at the end of last season.
Were the Cowboys coaches and scouts that far off? It's hard to say. Obviously they recognize a talented tight end with Witten on the roster. It's entirely possible Bennett was motivated by getting revenge on Dallas and getting a big pay day, which would make giving him a long-term deal risky.
6. Anthony Fasano
Fasano isn't the kind of play-making tight end many fans are hoping for this offseason, but he could be exactly what the Bears need from that position.
The former Dallas Cowboy and Miami Dolphin has graded out as one of the 10 best run-blocking tight ends on PFF in four of the last five seasons and was in the top three twice.
Fasano also brings incredibly reliable hands. According to PFF, Fasano has dropped a total of three passes the last three years as he's averaged a little over 37 catches and has a total of 14 touchdowns.
I rank Fasano higher than Bennett because of his reliability as a receiver. Although he's a couple inches shorter and had inconsistent quarterback play last season, Fasano still brought in 66.1 percent of the passes thrown in his direction last season, according to PFF. Bennett was able to haul in just 62.5 percent, a relatively low number for a tight end.
Even though he isn't viewed as a big play guy, he has still averaged 11.6 yards per catch in his career, over an entire yard better than Bennett's average of 10.5.
He may never be the kind of player who makes big plays down the field, but there's something to be said about reliability, and that is exactly what Fasano would provide for the Bears.
5. Brandon Gibson
With many reports having Mike Wallace going to Miami, Gibson becomes the Bears' best bet to stretch the field.
With Wallace, Greg Jennings, Wes Welker and St. Louis teammate Danny Amendola also on the market, Gibson has flown under the radar but could be the best fit for the Bears.
Although Amendola is the bigger name, it's arguable that Gibson was the Rams' best receiver last season. According to PFF, St. Louis quarterbacks had a passer rating of 108.3 when throwing Gibson's way last season, compared to Amendola's rating of 88.3. Overall, St. Louis passers had a rating of 82.7 last season.
The Bears did not do a particularly good job
Despite inconsistent quarterback play, Gibson hauled in 51 of his 75 targets for 691 yards and five touchdowns. What could make him even more attractive to the Bears is his ability to make plays down the field.
According to PFF, Gibson caught 47.1 percent of his passes that were thrown beyond 20 yards, the 13th-best rate in the league amongst players who received at least 25 percent of their team's targets. Only two players ahead of him had a higher percentage of their passes thrown that far down the field.
Gibson would be much higher on this list if his skill set weren't more of a luxury than a necessity for the Bears. With Brandon Marshall already on the team, Earl Bennett set to make $2.25 million next season and Alshon Jeffery entering his second season after the Bears traded up to draft him in the second round, it's hard to tell how many more assets they can spend on the position. However, if the Bears are in the market for a receiver, they should get a deep threat and Gibson could be the best fit.
4. Gosder Cherilus
Cherilus isn't a player who is thought of as a top offensive tackle, but he's been very good for the Lions and would solidify the right side of the Bears' line.
In 2012, Cherilus graded out as the eighth-best overall and second-best right tackle in the league on PFF, earning a grade of 23.4. Although the Bengals' Andre Smith graded higher than Cherilus overall, the former Lions first-round pick was the best pass-blocking right tackle with a grade of 21.0 to Smith's 11.7. Cherilus gave up a hurry every 30 pass attempts, compared to Smith's rate of one every 26.7.
Although this was the best season in his career, Cherilus has graded out positively on PFF every season since his rookie year.
Cherilus' value is hurt by the fact that he is strictly a right tackle, but that is one of the spots the Bears need the most help at. Gabe Carimi and Jonathan Scott had a combined PFF grade of negative 18.2 as they committed 13 penalties, gave up eight sacks and a combined 46 hurries—one every 12.9 passing attempts.
Because he has not played left tackle in the past, Cherilus will likely get a lower contract. Last season Eric Winston signed for $22 million over four years, a bargain compared to the $10 million annual salary Jake Long is reportedly seeking.
If the Bears go after Cherilus it will be a clear sign that they're either giving up on Carimi or moving him inside.
3. Donald Thomas
Thomas got extensive action at both guard spots last season and has graded out pretty well at both in the past.
Last season, he started six games at left guard, posting a rating of 12.5 on PFF in those starts. He also started one game at right guard and received playing time in that spot in five others.
In 616 total snaps, he had a PFF grade of 10.2, allowed just one sack and gave up one hurry every 36.4 drop backs. He also committed just three penalties all season.
Despite his limited snaps, Thomas received PFF's 10th-highest run-blocking grade.
Although he's coming off a stint as a reserve for the Patriots, the 27-year-old is a full-time starter in 2009 for the Miami Dolphins. That season, he played all 16 games at right guard and received a PFF grade of 5.3, allowing a hurry one every 48.4 snaps.
His ability to play both sides would allow the Bears to create competition at both guard spots with Lance Louis and possibly Gabe Carimi, should they move him inside.
2. Geoff Schwartz
Schwartz would give the Bears versatility on the offensive line and should come at a good price.
In five starts at right tackle in 2010, Schwartz received a grade of 8.2 from PFF. Calculated over a 16-game period it adds up to 26.24, which would've been seventh best amongst all tackles that year and sixth best last season.
Schwartz missed the entire 2011 season with a hip injury and suffered a sports hernia last season but did not miss any time. That is the extent of his injury history going back to his collegiate career at Oregon.
He rotated in 160 snaps for the Vikings in 2012, receiving a grade of 5.8. That grade calculated over the entire 1,116 snaps the Vikings had last season adds up to 40.56. That would've been the second-highest grade of any guard this past season. Why he rotated is a little bit of a mystery, but there is significant evidence suggesting he is one of the better guards in the NFL.
Although he's graded out as a better run-blocker than pass-blocker, Schwartz has allowed one hurry every 41 snaps over his time with the Panthers and Vikings.
While Levitre will likely seek a big-money deal like Carl Nicks got from Tampa Bay last year and 32-year-old Jets guard Brandon Moore may want a deal with a lot of money upfront, Schwartz could be had for cheap. He cost the Vikings just $1.5 million against the cap last season and likely could be had for around that total again this offseason.
1. Sebastian Vollmer
Vollmer is viewed by many as strictly a right tackle, which will likely lower his price, but he does have quality experience at left tackle.
In 2009, he had five starts on the left side, earning a total grade of 17.5 on PFF. Averaged out and extended over a 16-game period, Vollmer's grade that season would've been a 56, the highest of any tackle since PFF started tracking performances in 2008.
While keeping up that kind of performance over a full season may be unrealistic, Vollmer almost certainly would've still ended with a high grade since he rarely has poor performances. He graded out negatively on PFF in just 11 games over the last four seasons. During that time, he's allowed one hurry every 25.7 drop backs.
In 2012, Vollmer graded out as the 13th-best right tackle on PFF, allowing just seven sacks and one hurry every 29 snaps.
He missed some time due to injury in 2011, but played over 1,000 snaps in two of the past three seasons.
Signing Vollmer would allow the Bears to keep J'Marcus Webb at left tackle, have him compete with Carimi at right tackle or move Carimi in to guard. Essentially, they'd be able to make sure they have their five best linemen on the field.