The Chicago Bears are going to look very different next year, as they have 25 players set to hit free agency and a few more who could become cap casualties.
The Bears made a big dent in their own unrestricted free agents last week when they resigned quarterback Jay Cutler, offensive guard Matt Slauson and cornerback Tim Jennings to new deals, but they have a lot of work to do.
During his press conference last Thursday, general manager Phil Emery guaranteed the Bears defense would be younger. That could mean the end for a few Bears who have been with the team for a long time; some are free agents and some may be released.
This is a crucial offseason for the Bears. While their offense will likely remain mostly the same, their defense will look very different next season.
In the following slides, you'll get a look at some of the Bears players who may or may not be on the team in 2014. I have included both players under contract and unrestricted free agents, the latter of which should be considered to be on the outside looking in for the time being.
The Bears will have a lot of interesting calls this offseason. I'll go through several of them and come to a verdict on whether the player should stay or go. There could be some popular names and faces leaving Chicago in the coming months.
The argument that Bush could be a starter elsewhere took a serious hit this season.
While he had the seventh-highest cap hit on the team, his only major impact came in games that were already decided.
Bush was brought in to be a short-yardage specialist, but starter Matt Forte proved better in those situations this season. Bush averaged just 3.1 yards per carry, although he had long touchdowns—one rushing, one receiving—late in the season.
The problem with releasing Bush is that it may do more harm than good. According to Spotrac, it would cost the Bears $2 million to release Bush, and they'd save $1.85 million. They also would have to find a replacement as a backup running back, as there's little evidence they currently have one on the roster.
Bush appears likely to remain a Bear for this season. If they get the player they had in the last four games, that's a good thing. If they get the other player who appeared allergic to the line of scrimmage, it'll be a big rip off.
One of the biggest problems the Bears defense had this season was safety play, as both Wright and free safety Chris Conte struggled in coverage and against the run.
Conte is still playing on his rookie contract, so he'll almost certainly be allowed to return and at least compete for a roster spot. Wright is no sure thing.
Early in the season, he was part of what the Bears were doing right on defense. He had two forced fumbles and two interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown. As the Bears defense got worse, he was part of the reason why, as he failed to produce a turnover in his final 11 games.
At 25, Wright is still very young and has shown potential. He figured to be among the team's better defenders entering 2013 after a very strong 2012 campaign, but that didn't happen.
Other teams will see his youth and potential as a positive and likely offer him a sizable contract.
The Green Bay Packers extended safety Morgan Burnett's contract in July, making him the 14th-highest paid safety on average. Wright has three more career interceptions and three returned for touchdowns in his career, something Burnett has yet to do.
You can bet Wright will get a contract at or above what Burnett signed, possibly much more if he hits the open market, which Burnett didn't get the chance to do.
Wright is capable of playing much better than he did in 2013, but with so many holes on defense, the Bears can't possibly invest that much in a player who was a large part of the problem.
While it went without a lot of fanfare, Garza had one of the best seasons of his career and certainly the best since he moved to center in 2011.
They say you can't teach an old dog new tricks, but Garza adapted quite well to the Bears' new coaching staff and blocking scheme. He also gets a lot of credit for his leadership and helping teach rookie Kyle Long.
That said, he'll be 35 before the start of next season, and he doesn't have a lot left in his tank. As good as he was this season, it appears just as likely that he'll revert to his previous form than he'll repeat his 2013 performance.
Even though he was good this season, he still struggled in short-yardage situations and with shotgun snaps.
The Bears seem to want to keep continuity on the offensive side of the ball. Garza was in charge of blitz calls and helped keep the Bears' quarterbacks clean. With Long still developing at guard, the Bears need a veteran center to help him adjust.
It appears likely that the Bears will try to add young talent at the position, but the star of this commercial should be the starter until someone beats him out.
It was a tough year for Peanut, and it's hard to factor that into deciding his future with the team.
Tillman missed eight games last season. His first game was rough, as he was dealing with dehydration. Later in the season, he was playing on a bad knee, and then he tore his triceps in Week 10 and did not return.
Were his injuries a fluke or a sign of things to come for the soon-to-be 33-year-old? That will be hard to project going forward.
Also hard to project is the market for aging defensive backs.
Both of those players are a bit older than Tillman, but that may not matter, given his injury troubles this past season.
What also doesn't help Tillman is that he wasn't as effective in coverage as he has been in past seasons. Although, the injuries may have played into that.
Tillman has spent his entire career with the Bears, but he could feel slighted by the fact that they chose to sign Tim Jennings first. Tampa Bay also has to look appealing, with Lovie Smith taking the head gig there.
One thing Tillman showed this season is that he can still make plays. Despite his limited action, he had three interceptions and three forced fumbles. The question is if he can hold up for a 16-game season anymore. I believe he can, but he'd be better in a more limited role, perhaps as a slot corner, depending on the scheme.
The Bears should try to keep Tillman, but the price has to be right. They shouldn't give him over $5 million, but it appears likely someone else will.
Originally thought to be nothing more than an extra training camp body, Britton proved to be a key player for the Bears this season.
The former second-round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars was originally competing for a roster spot, but he ended up playing much of this season as the Bears' second tight end, essentially a sixth offensive lineman.
While the Bears may want to add more versatility to their offense by getting a second tight end who can go out on pass routes at least occasionally, Britton played well in that role.
In the Bears' Week 17 loss to the Packers, he moved into the starting offensive line at right tackle after Jordan Mills was injured and played very well, receiving a grade of positive-3.1 from Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
While he may get opportunities to start elsewhere next season, the Bears should offer him the same opportunity. They stuck with Mills in hopes that he will develop into a very good right tackle. He might do just that, but Britton would be a great fallback plan.
Britton should return with a chance to compete with Mills for the starting job, but if he falls short, the Bears will have a reserve who can play all five positions along the offensive line, as well as tight end.
Melton was playing this season under the franchise tag, but he tore his ACL in the third game, which adds questions to his status with the team in 2014.
The Bears almost certainly aren't going to use the franchise tag on Melton again and shouldn't have to. He wasn't playing well before his injury, and there are questions about what the Bears want to do in terms of their defensive scheme going forward.
As good as Melton has been, he isn't a fit for every defense. He's an elite interior pass-rusher but struggles when teams run right at him.
He wouldn't fit well in a 3-4 scheme, if that's the direction the Bears chose to go. He could be useful in a hybrid 3-4/4-3 scheme, switching from tackle to end or even standing up occasionally should he regain his athleticism. His best position still appears to be as a 3-technique in a base Cover 2 defense.
Given his unique skill set, it's almost certain another team would give Melton a big contract if the Bears were to let him hit the open market. A desperate team may be willing to take the gamble that he'll return to his pre-injury form. The Bears, however, can't afford to take that risk while they're trying to find players to build their defense around.
Much like Tillman, the only way Melton should be back is if he's willing to take less money upfront with the chance to earn it through incentives. Even before his injury, Melton didn't seem like the kind of player the Bears should or could build around, so he shouldn't be paid like one.
Hester had a good season returning kicks for the Bears, but it wasn't great and certainly not worth what they paid him.
Hester had a salary cap hit of nearly $3 million this past season, which means he made roughly $43,000 for every kick or punt return he had in 2013. Although he had a number of good returns, he only had one touchdown.
Among players with 15 or more punt returns, Hester was fourth with an average of 14.2 yards. He was also fifth in the league with a kickoff return average of 27.7 yards. He was the only player in the top five in both categories, but he also made more money than any of the other return specialists. The only possible exception is Baltimore's Jacoby Jones, but he also contributed as a receiver.
Like so many free agents, the biggest question with Hester is money. The Bears can bring him back, but at a heavily reduced salary.
The other issue they have is roster space. With Hester and Eric Weems being primarily special teams players, the Bears were limited on what they could keep at other positions. Going forward, would they be better off with two special teams players over a third tight end, extra lineman or a fourth capable receiver?
Hester will be a tough call for the Bears. Unless he's willing to cut his salary in half and do more on kick-coverage units, I don't see how they can keep him with so many needs elsewhere.
When the Bears needed a good punt, Podlesh was sure to let them down.
Podlesh did have 27 punts land inside the 20 with just two touchbacks, but that isn't nearly enough to make up for his inability to get off a big punt.
What's worse is that Podlesh has the 12th-highest average salary for his position.
Podlesh left Bears fans longing for the days of Brad Maynard.
The Bears need an upgrade. With their needs on defense, they probably won't look past the undrafted free-agent market, but they may not have to improve at this position.
McCown exceeded all expectations when he replaced an injured Jay Cutler this season, and that could lead to a big contract offer from someone else. It doesn't seem McCown is looking to go elsewhere, however.
The 34-year-old more than did his part this season. He finished with a passer rating of 109, good for third-best in the league, as he threw 13 touchdowns and just one interception.
There's little doubt that McCown could have earned a starting job and big contract elsewhere, if that's what he wants. During an interview on ESPN Radio's SVP & Russillo, McCown didn't sound like someone who is interested in going elsewhere, however.
"Hopefully, there's space to be able to come back here to Chicago because I love this city and this team and working with Jay, Marc (Trestman), Matt (Cavanaugh) and the guys," McCown said. "If not, I can start up a side job, maybe."
McCown also spoke of retirement in the interview, although he said he intends on playing next season.
While many fans and casual followers may not have realized it, it seems McCown knows he's a backup quarterback, and Chicago is the perfect place for him.
It's well known that McCown and Cutler are good friends. He also seems to appreciate what working with Trestman and the Bears offense was tailored to his strength's when he was on the field.
The big question is going to be salary-cap space. The main reason the Bears entered this season with McCown as their only backup was because he was cheap. They spent big money on Jason Campbell the year before and got little for their investment.
All things being equal, McCown would likely return to Chicago, but he's earned the right to pursue a bigger contract.
My hunch is that he'll be Cutler's backup again next season, but it's always hard to predict what kind of contract a desperate team will throw at a backup quarterback who has had success.
Peppers wasn't as bad as he was perceived to have been, but he was nowhere near the amount of money he was paid.
He finished 2013 with 7.5 sacks, a low total, but considering the Bears terrible run defense and the fact that they rarely had big leads, he didn't get many opportunities to tee off on opposing quarterbacks.
Peppers made some huge plays for the Bears this season. He intercepted a pass in their first game against the Packers and forced a fumble in the second game. That fumble ended up being a touchdown for the Packers, but he can't be blamed for that.
Still, he was a large part of that terrible run defense, and his biggest issue appeared to be consistency. Some games he would dominate an offensive tackle, and the next he'd get pushed around by a fullback.
Some thought he was going through physical decline at 33 years old; to me, it seemed more like an issue with effort. It isn't a coincidence that he had the best years of his career with defensive line gurus Mike Trgovac and Rod Marinelli coaching the defenses. Great coaches knew how to get the most out of the immensely talented end.
The Bears will save over $9 million if they were to cut Peppers, although it would still cost them over $8 million. It would be hard for them to justify paying him what he's slated to make when they don't know what kind of effort they're going to get.
I think Peppers can still play and help a team, but I don't think he's worth anywhere near what the Bears would have to pay him to keep him. He might be willing to renegotiate his contract, but unless he were to cut it in half, I don't think it would be enough.
Peppers has likely played his last down with the Bears. He was well worth the money they already paid him, but he isn't worth what they'll have to pay him to keep him.