Chicago Bears Free Agency and Draft Wish List
The Chicago Bears are entering this offseason with a bunch of needs on the defensive side of the ball.
The Bears only have five opening-day defensive starters under contract for next season and there's a good chance three of them either won't be on the team or won't be starting next season. The only definite pieces in place are linebacker Lance Briggs and cornerback Tim Jennings.
A bare cupboard means the Bears can fill it with whatever they like. There has been a lot of talk about switching to a hybrid defense this season, something that may not have been possible in the past.
Throughout the following slides, I will go through the Bears needs and some players who could fill them either through the draft or free agency.
While the Bears do have plenty of their own free agents who may return, I'm only focusing on players from other teams for the sake of this slide show.
I'm also trying to keep the draft options realistic. While it's certainly possible for anyone to drop or rise, I'm going to try to stick to current projections.
Obviously, the Bears won't be able to get all of these players. They have options on how they want to rebuild their defense and it will be interesting to see what directions they go in.
While much of the focus of the Bears offseason has been on their need to fix their front seven, particularly their run defense, they'll also need to improve their cornerback play.
Charles Tillman is a free agent and will be 33 at the start of next season. He struggled with consistency and injuries in 2013, although he still showed a knack for taking the ball away.
While he made headlines last week saying he'll "retire a Bear", there's no guarantee he'll be back next season.
The Bears have Jennings on the other side and Isaiah Frey did a solid job as a nickel corner. Zackary Bowman—who filled in while Tillman was injured—did an admirable job, but had quite a few struggles against even decent receivers.
Free Agency: Corey Graham
Lovie Smith never wanted to give Graham a shot on defense and he's proven that was a mistake in his two years in Baltimore.
Graham was a fifth-round pick by the Bears and was with them for the first five years of his career. He started in 2008, picking up 91 tackles, an interception and a forced fumble, but was replaced the next season.
While the Bears went through a number of players—including Bowman—opposite Tillman, Graham was never given another shot.
He broke the starting lineup early last season in Baltimore and has been a solid player ever since, playing both in the slot and out wide. Over the last two seasons, he's combined for 134 tackles, three forced fumbles and six interceptions, not counting the two he got on Peyton Manning in the 2012 playoffs.
Unlike some of the other free agent corners, Graham will likely come at a reasonable price. The Bears are already paying Jennings top dollar, so it's unlikely they'll want to put a lot more money in the position with so many needs elsewhere.
NFL Draft: Justin Gilbert
If Gilbert is available, don't be surprised if the Bears pull the trigger.
Some project Gilbert to go in the top 10, but others aren't as high on him. It's entirely possible that he's available at 14 when the Bears pick and, if he's rated higher than anyone else they have on their board, he could be their guy.
Unlike adding a high-priced cornerback in free agency, Gilbert will be reasonably cheap with the rookie wage scale. He could develop as a shutdown corner opposite Jennings and then replace Jennings as the team's top cornerback when the time comes. Jennings is 30, the Bears have to be mindful of how long he can continue to play at a high level.
Gilbert is big and fast, a necessity in a division with "Megatron." Plus, it's well known how much general manager Phil Emery likes measurables.
Should the Bears choose to wait and draft a cornerback later, there are some good options like Stanley Jean-Baptiste of Nebraska and Pierre Desir of Lindenwood.
The Bears don't have a good answer for what they're going to do in the middle of their defense at any level, including linebacker.
The team spent a second-round pick on Jon Bostic last season, but he struggled more than anyone expected and there has been talk of him moving outside.
Last season's opening day starter D.J. Williams is a free agent who could return, but he is a less-than-ideal option. He'll be 32 and has played just 13 games the past two seasons.
It should be noted that Bostic showed some good things last season and a change in defensive scheme could help him be a more productive inside linebacker. If the Bears put two-gap defenders ahead of him and let him use his speed more—as they did early in Brian Urlacher's career—he should be much more productive.
That said, great linebackers rarely struggle like Bostic did. At the very least, the Bears will bring in some competition and probably someone who starts.
Free Agency: Brandon Spikes
I touched on Spikes a bit last week as he appears unlikely to return to New England.
He was a very good player for the Patriots, manning the middle of their hybrid scheme and would help the Bears' transition.
Spikes isn't the kind of star the Bears have had in the past, but he holds his own against the run and has been adequate in coverage. He only has one career sack and all five of his forced fumbles came in 2011.
He may not be a piece that they build around, but he could play a major role in turning their defense around.
NFL Draft: C.J. Mosley
A lot will depend on what Mosley weighs in at, but he could end up being a perfect fit for the Bears.
There are some concerns that he may be too light to play in the inside at the NFL level, but if he checks in at even 235 pounds, there shouldn't be an issue.
He plays fast and has great instincts as a sideline-to-sideline defender. As with Bostic, if the Bears can get players to eat up blocks in front of him, he should be able to shoot into the backfield and make plays behind the line of scrimmage.
In addition to being able to attack in the running game, Mosley is ranked as "exceptional" in "3rd down capabilities" by Scouts Inc. (subscription required), complimenting both his coverage and blitzing skills.
Regardless of what scheme the Bears play, they need a defensive tackle who can hold his ground.
Jeremiah Ratliff was adequate when he arrived last year and Stephen Paea was decent when he was healthy, but neither were ideal or even good.
Say what you will about the injury to Henry Melton, but Melton was never known as a great run defender. Even if he hadn't been injured, the Bears run defense still would've been awful.
At this point, we still don't know if the Bears are switching to a two-gap attack, but there are several players who would be huge upgrades regardless.
Free Agency: Linval Joseph
Joseph isn't a household name, but he would be a perfect fit.
The former second-round pick has come on strong the last three seasons, during which he's averaged 56 tackles per season. A high number for any defensive tackle, especially one who played under 60 percent of his team's snaps, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
With a roster full of pass rushers, the Giants subbed Joseph out on passing downs, but he still picked up nine sacks the past three years.
He's listed at 6'4", 323 pounds and won't turn 26 until next October.
NFL Draft: Louis Nix III
If the Bears decide to add a nose tackle in the draft, Nix appears to be the best option.
At 6'3", 340 pounds, many have determined Nix is a 0-technique, best fit for a traditional 3-4 defense, but he's shown the ability to shoot through gaps and make plays in the backfield. He's more athletic than many give him credit for.
As B/R Featured Columnist Dan Hope said, Nix can play in either a 3-4 or 4-3 alignment, which may make him perfect for a hybrid defense. Some even think he could play defensive end in a 3-4 scheme, much like B.J. Raji does for the Packers.
To get Nix, the Bears would likely have to use their first-round pick, but he could be worth it if he proves to be a quick fix for their run defense.
This is where things could get tricky for the Bears.
Pass rushers are highly sought after, they're expensive as free agents and usually go very early in the draft.
If the Bears are going to try to upgrade their pass rush via free agency, it's not going to be cheap. If they wait and try to get one in the draft, they may miss out.
Regardless of how they do it, the Bears need to upgrade their pass rush. The common thought is that moving Shea McClellin to linebacker should help his productivity, but he wasn't able to beat offensive tackles before and the Bears shouldn't count on that suddenly changing.
As of right now, there are a number of productive pass rushers set to hit the open market, although they could get hit with the franchise tag before they become free agents. For the sake of this, I'm pretending the franchise tag doesn't exist. After all, it is a wish list.
Free Agency: Brian Orakpo
Everyone seems to have their own personal preferences, but I like Orakpo's versatility.
While he'll never be confused for Brian Urlacher, he has shown the ability to drop back in pass defense and is considered a very good run defender.
What also gives him the edge over players is the fact that he's been "the man" in the front seven of his defense for a few years and has still been productive. Some of the other players have played on stacked defensive lines where other players have gotten most of the attention, that's not so with Orakpo.
NFL Draft: Kony Ealy
It's hard to get a consensus on Ealy.
B/R's Matt Miller refers to Ealy as a top-10 prospect, but others such as Rob Rang and Dane Brugler have him being drafted after the Bears pick. He's ranked as the 26th-best prospect in the draft by Scouts Inc. (subscription required).
A lot could depend on his performance in individual workouts. If he proves to be as big and athletic as he looks, he may be long gone by the time the Bears pick.
Ealy is listed at 6'5" and 275 pounds and played mostly defensive end, but some seem to think he can line up in a two-point stance as well as Miller compared him to San Francisco's Aldon Smith.
Interior Pass Rush
Regardless of what kind of defense the Bears run next season, they have to be able to get pressure up the middle.
There are a few ways they could go about this. It seems highly likely that they won't be sticking to a standard base 4-3, but that doesn't necessarily mean the end of the 3-technique defensive tackle.
As Grantland's Chris Brown explained, the Seattle Seahawks run a hybrid defense with two two-gap defensive linemen, Red Bryant and Brandon Mebane on one side, along with one-gap linemen on the other side. The Patriots run a very similar system.
Another way the Bears could get an interior pass rusher is if they were to get a 5-technique defensive end and move him inside on passing downs. Players like Arthur Jones in Baltimore and Justin Smith in San Francisco have mastered that in recent years.
As I said in an earlier slide, the best part of the Bears completely changing their defense is they have a lot of options.
Free Agency: Michael Bennett
After a one-year run in Seattle that ended in a Super Bowl Championship, Bennett—the brother of current Bears tight end Martellus—is set to hit free agency and would give the Bears a big boost as a defensive end and interior pass rusher.
The jury is still out on if Bennett is the kind of player a team can build their defense around, but there's no doubt he's a solid player who would start for just about any team.
In Seattle's hybrid defense he lines up at defensive end, but shifts inside on passing downs. He terrorized New Orleans' guard Jahri Evans, got a sack in the NFC Championship game and was regularly in Peyton Manning's face during the Super Bowl.
Bennett would be a prize if the Bears can land him and he's likely very high on their wish list.
NFL Draft: Aaron Donald
Sometimes there are players who are just too good to pass up and that may be the case with Donald.
He's not a traditional fit for a hybrid defense, but there's no doubt he's a very disruptive player. In the video above, B/R's Matt Miller referred to Donald as "the most explosive pass rusher in this class" and the tape backs that up.
He's short at under 6'1" and is under 290 pounds, but he's quick and has long arms. He might not be a great run defender right away, but if the Bears were to put him next to a two-gap defensive tackle, that wouldn't be a problem.
He may play some 5-technique at times—like the Packers do with Mike Daniels—but when teams are forced to pass, he'll line up over the guard and use his quickness to get into the backfield.
One could argue that the Bears had the worst safety play in the entire league last year, and they'll need major improvements this season.
The Bears were the only team in the league to have two safeties ranked in the bottom five on Pro Football Focus (subscription required) and it wouldn't be a surprise to see both Major Wright and Chris Conte in different uniforms next season.
Wright will be an unrestricted free agent who'll likely use his tape from 2012 to convince a team to give him a decent contract. Conte is entering the last year of his rookie deal as 2013 was by far his worst as a pro.
The reality of the situation is that the Bears defense wouldn't have been good even if they had the best safeties in the league. Their safety play was also a huge part of the problem in 2013 and they need to fix that as soon as possible.
Free Agency: Jairus Byrd
The Bears really couldn't go wrong with Byrd, T.J. Ward or Donte Whitner, but I'll go with the player who has been the best for the longest period of time.
One could argue that Byrd is the best safety in the league and it would be hard to come up with a counter argument.
He's terrific in run support and has range in coverage that very few can match. He's a big hitter and a turnover machine with 22 career interceptions and 11 forced fumbles.
His contract demands are well known and it's debatable if any safety is worth that much. If the Bears have answers to their problems in the front seven, it would be hard to argue against signing Byrd.
NFL Draft: Calvin Pryor
A long time ago it was determined that Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was the best in this year's draft, but I'm not sold that Pryor won't be a better fit for the Bears, especially.
Clinton-Dix's tape is impressive and there's no doubt that he's worthy of a first-round pick. It wouldn't be shocking to see him go before the Bears draft. Alabama defenders are usually sure bets to succeed in the NFL, but Pryor looks quite good himself.
Pryor is a little bigger than Clinton-Dix and considered to be significantly more physical. Pryor's NFL.com draft profile says he "might be the most physical player in this entire draft" and you won't see many hits harder than his shot on Central Florida's J.J. Worton.
Clinton-Dix seems to be more of a free safety. Perhaps better in coverage than Pryor, but not the kind of player a team would put in the box. The Bears desperately need to get more physical, which is why they may lean toward the more physical safety.