It's getting close to the time of year when Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery makes a big splash and does what most Bears fans thought wasn't possible.
Emery won over Bears fans in his first season by trading for wide receiver Brandon Marshall. Since then, Marshall has 218 catches and 23 touchdowns as he has become a fan favorite.
Last season, the Bears had huge holes along the offensive line and tight end, but not a lot of salary cap space to fill them. Still, Emery came away with one of the top offensive linemen and tight ends in Jermon Bushrod and Martellus Bennett.
Like last year, this free agency period appears to be rich where the Bears are weak. There are a number of defensive linemen, linebackers and defensive backs who would be huge upgrades. For the sake of this list, I tried to focus on the players who would provide the biggest "wow" factor.
The salary cap is always an issue, but the Bears have shown they can manipulate it. The work they did to bring in Bushrod and Bennett last year was shocking to everyone and don't be surprised if Emery and Cliff Stein have more tricks up their sleeves.
I wouldn't count on the Bears looking to do much through the trade market. There may be some star players moved this offseason, but the Bears have a lot of holes and need to keep as many draft picks as they can.
That includes draft day trades. While a player like South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney would fit a need, the Bears have too many needs to move up and get him.
So, what does Emery have up his sleeve this year? Well, in the following slides you'll see a few ideas.
The Bears signed one Bennett brother last year, now they can bring the other one.
Michael is a little over a year older than Martellus, but he's been in the NFL one fewer season. He started his career with Tampa Bay in 2009 and—like Martellus—it took him a while to get going. He had just six sacks in his first three seasons, but has broken out the last couple of years.
He had 8.5 sacks in the regular season for Seattle and 1.5 more in the playoffs as he's proven to be more than a one-year wonder. He'll likely want to cash in and the Bears can offer him a chance to play with his brother.
There are still questions as to whether Bennett can be "the man" along the defensive line. He has played on a stacked defense in Seattle and next to Gerald McCoy—widely regarded as one of the best defensive tackles in the league—in 2012.
Still, if the Bears were to bring in the other Bennett brother, it would be a home run amongst the fans and a big upgrade to their defensive line.
Spikes ended 2013 on a bit of a sour note, but he's been a solid player throughout his career and would be a big upgrade in the middle of the Bears defense.
The Florida product has spent his entire career with the Patriots, but appears to have fallen out of favor with coach Bill Belichick. He was placed on Injured Reserve before the team's playoff game, a move that reportedly happened only because he was late for a practice.
While he's not a speedster, like general manager Phil Emery typically likes, Spikes has proven to be a solid player. Spikes has been among the 20 highest-rated linebackers on Pro Football Focus (subscription required) every year of his career and was sixth this year.
It's widely thought that the Bears will be switching to a hybrid 3-4/4-3 defense next year, much like the Patriots play. Signing Spikes would not only give the Bears a good player to plug into their front seven, but one who is also familiar with the style of defense they want to be.
Of course, it's buyer beware when it comes to free agents from New England. Belichick usually knows what he's doing when he lets a player go. Emery usually does his homework and could find that Spikes fits what they're looking for going forward.
The hesitation with Orakpo is that he has been primarily a 3-4 outside linebacker in his career, but that may not stop the Bears from going after him.
General manager Phil Emery often talks about players who transcend schemes and that's what Orakpo appears to be.
The Bears appear set at outside linebacker with Lance Briggs at one side and young players like Jon Bostic, Khaseem Greene and Shea McClellin competing for the other spot, but it isn't often that players with Orakpo's talent his the open market.
Although he missed 14 games in 2012, Orakpo has 39.5 career sacks in five seasons. He has lined up with his hand in the dirt, a two-point stance and has shown the ability to drop back in coverage.
Teams can never have enough pass rushers and if the Bears do convert to a 3-4 defense or some sort of hybrid, they could use someone with Orakpo's skills. Unlike most of the other pass rushers entering free agency, Orakpo has shown he can be the best pass rusher on a team and still get double-digit sacks.
It's important to note that Orakpo isn't just a pass rusher. He's considered a good run defender and—as the Bears saw last year—capable of making plays in pass defense.
Signing Orakpo would give the Bears a number of things they could do defensively, none of them favorable to the opposing quarterbacks.
Sticking with the theme of players who can transcend schemes, Hardy will be a highly sought after free agent that could transform the Bears front seven.
Listed at 6'4" and 290 pounds, Hardy isn't just a pass rusher. He more than holds his own in run defense and if the Bears do run a hybrid defense could possibly rush from a two-point stance.
Still, it's his ability to get to the quarterback that is going to get him a big pay check this offseason.
Hardy had 15 sacks in 2013 to lead one of the best pass rushes in the league. He also had 11 in 2012, second behind Charles Johnson's 12.5.
The best part about Hardy might be his age as he hasn't reached his prime yet. Although he's been in the league for four years, he won't turn 26 until July. He's also played 62 out of a possible 64 games in his career, so any team that signs him should look forward to having a good player on the field for years to come.
Like with Michael Bennett, there are questions on is Hardy is as good as he seems or if he benefits from playing on a stacked defense.
Johnson is an established star with 44 sacks over the last four seasons while Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei are very talented high draft picks who have had a major impact on the Panthers defensive line.
That said, it's hard not to be impressed with Hardy. He looks the part as he's big, athletic and has long arms that make him even more difficult to deal with.
Byrd may be the best overall player entering free agency, assuming the Bills let him hit the open market.
The kind of deal that Byrd wants could be a sticking point for whoever tries to ink him.
There's little doubt that Byrd is among the best in the league at his position. He's finished each of the last three seasons ranked in the top 10 safeties on Pro Football Focus (subscription required), but it's debatable how much impact a great safety can have.
Despite being among the best at his position, his team has only ranked in the top half of the league in scoring defense once, his rookie season when they were 16th. Since then, they've finished 28th, 30th, 26th and 20th.
One could argue that if a player is worth the kind of change Byrd is demanding, he should have a greater overall impact on the performance of his unit.
That said, Byrd is very talented and still young as he won't turn 28 until November. The Bears had some of the worst safety play in the league as both Major Wright and Chris Conte ranked in the bottom five on PFF (subscription required).
With as bad as their safety play was and as good as Byrd has been, it would be hard to argue if the Bears acquired Byrd and built the rest of their defense through the draft or bargain free agents.