Picking the Ideal Free Agent to Fill Each of the Bears' Holes
When it comes to the Chicago Bears defense, the cupboard is nearly bare, and the team is going to have to find ways to fill it if it wants to compete for a Super Bowl next season.
The Bears do still have six players who were opening-day starters in 2013 under contract, but it's possible that four of them won't be starters—at least not in the same position—or won't make the team in 2014.
The bottom line is that the Bears need players, and free agency is the first avenue in which they're going to try to find them.
At this point, we don't even know what kind of scheme the Bears will be running in 2014, much less the players they're going to target. Considering the most recent defensive hirings all have 3-4 backgrounds and defensive coordinator Mel Tucker has worked with both 3-4 and 4-3 fronts, it seems to be a good bet that the Bears will be running some sort of hybrid defense next year.
Regardless of the scheme, they need good players. They didn't have enough good players in 2013, and that was the biggest reason why their defense failed.
Last week, I did a wish list for the Bears to fill their defensive needs in either the draft or free agency. For that, I did not include the Bears' own free agents. This week, those will be included, but I will take out players who are likely to return to their current teams, such as Redskins linebacker Brian Orakpo and Bills safety Jairus Byrd.
Keep in mind, ideal fits also take price into consideration.
Here are some realistic options that the Bears could use to fill their holes on the defensive side of the ball in hopes of drastically improving there next season.
Cornerback: Charles Tillman
Tillman is set to hit the open market for the first time in his career, but it's hard to say how much interest there will be in him.
Typically, the market for aging defensive backs coming off injury-plagued seasons isn't very good. The most recent example came just last year when Charles Woodson didn't sign until May when he went back to Oakland.
Tillman might be a different story, but only time will tell. Nearly every NFL team will want to bring in the NFL's Man of the Year as a good locker-room influence, but he isn't going to play for free, and he has roots in Chicago.
According to ESPN's Adam Schefter (h/t Tampa Bay Times), there has been talk about Tillman going to Tampa Bay where former Bears head coach Lovie Smith has taken over; however, the Bucs have already invested a lot in that position. They traded their first-round pick in 2014 for Darrelle Revis—the highest-paid cornerback in the league—and then used their second-round pick on Johnthan Banks.
Ultimately, a return to Chicago would be best for both Tillman and the Bears.
He struggled last season as he never seemed to be healthy. He still made some big plays and showed the ability to hold up in man coverage, but a nagging knee injury, among other ailments, held him back.
The Bears gave Tim Jennings a good-sized contract, so they're not likely going to spend a lot on a player opposite him. Given his age, recent injury situation and the fact that he's played his entire career with the Bears, it's possible Tillman stays for the right price.
Inside Linebacker: Joe Mays
Joe Mays isn't a household name, and he's not the player I had pegged in last week's wish list, but he could be a good stopgap solution for the Bears.
The 28-year-old veteran started 13 games last season with Houston with current Bears linebackers coach Reggie Herring. While he lacks ideal size at 5'11" and 245 pounds, he's considered a good run defender, where he has graded out positively on Pro Football Focus (subscription required) each of the last four seasons.
Prior to joining Houston, Mays started for the Broncos in 2011 and 2012 before breaking his leg early in the 2012 season.
There are a few things that may make him ideal for the Bears, the first being price. As a veteran who has bounced around the league a bit, he's unlikely to demand top dollar. With as many holes as the Bears have up front and in their secondary, they won't have much money to spend at linebacker.
Another is that with Lance Briggs, Khaseem Greene and Shea McClellin also on the roster, the best fit for Jon Bostic may still be in the middle. Mays would give the Bears insurance in case Bostic hasn't learned to play in the middle at a higher level than he did a year ago, and they wouldn't have a lot invested if they ended up going with Bostic there.
Mays is also still young enough that he could prove to be a more long-term answer at the position than some of the other available options.
When you combine his age, price tag, familiarity with the coaching staff and proven production, Mays may be an ideal fit for the Bears.
Nose Tackle: Linval Joseph
Regardless of the scheme or anything else they're planning in free agency, Linval Joseph should be one of the Bears' top options.
Stephen Paea has had three years to prove he can hold down the nose tackle position and hasn't shown he can be relied on. He was pretty good for the Bears early this season, but then injuries hit, and he couldn't even beat out Landon Cohen for snaps. This makes two out of three years that Paea struggled with injuries.
Even when he was healthy, there was no evidence that he could be the anchor for the Bears defensive line, especially their run defense. That's exactly what they'd get with Joseph.
He is big at 6'4", 323 pounds and holds his ground in the run. He's had more than 45 tackles in each of the last three years and has been a big part of the reason why the Giants have been able to employ so many pass-rush specialists.
He isn't just a big guy, however. He can get down the line to get after running backs and collapses the pocket on passing downs.
The best part about him is that he won't turn 26 until next October.
If the Bears can get a player like Joseph in the middle of the defense, it will give them a lot of flexibility elsewhere.
Edge Defender: Jason Worilds
This is another change from the wish list because the Bears may have a hard time finding an edge defender through free agency.
When teams get good pass-rushers, they tend to hold onto them, which means players like Greg Hardy, Brian Orakpo and Lamarr Houston are likely to get the franchise tag.
Jason Worilds had a tough time in getting on the field playing behind Pittsburgh star LaMarr Woodley and will be an unrestricted free agent after a breakout 2013 campaign.
With Woodley battling an injury for most of the season, Worilds took advantage of his opportunity, finishing with a team-best eight sacks. With Woodley set to return next season and 2013 first-round pick Jarvis Jones also in the mix, the Steelers are likely to let Worilds hit free agency.
While he stood up in the Steelers' 3-4 scheme, he's big enough—at 6'2", 262 pounds—to occasionally put his hand in the dirt, although the Bears may not ask him to.
Despite his limited playing time, he has 18 sacks in four seasons and would give the Bears an immediate upgrade to their pass rush.
Interior Pass Rush: Michael Bennett
This was really close, but I went with Michael Bennett over former starting 3-technique Henry Melton because Bennett is stronger at the point of attack.
Coming off a major knee injury, Melton is likely going to be much cheaper than Bennett. I also don't doubt that he could play defensive end at times in a hybrid or 3-4 scheme. That said, even at his best, Melton was subpar against the run, while Bennett has been dominant.
Some consider him an edge defender because he is technically a defensive end, but he moved inside on passing downs. Even when that happened, he still wasn't lining up over the center, so he was close enough to be considered an interior pass-rusher.
In addition to superior run defense and the ability to get to the quarterback, Bennett would give the defense some attitude and swagger. The Bears lacked those ingredients last season.
As far as Melton goes, it will be interesting to see what the market for him is coming off a major knee injury. If he's cheap, the Bears could bring him back and team him with Bennett inside on passing downs.
Safety: T.J. Ward
It doesn't sound like Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd will ever hit the open market, which makes T.J. Ward the best option.
When it comes to Byrd, Buffalo general manager Doug Whaley told The Buffalo News that they will "leave all options on the table", which might be code for they'll use the franchise tag if they have to. Whereas ESPN's Pat McManamon said it would be a "surprise" if the Browns use the tag on Ward.
Ward might be a better fit for what the Bears need anyway.
While he doesn't have the reputation of Byrd, Ward has quietly been a productive player in Cleveland for quite some time.
He has more experience playing in the box, something that the Bears could ask their strong safety to do quite a bit next year if they can't fix their front seven. He has topped 100 tackles in two of his four seasons with the Browns and has proved to be an effective blitzer at times with 3.5 sacks.
He's not quite at the level of Byrd in coverage, but very few are. If the Bears can't get Byrd, Ward would be a nice consolation prize, but the free-agent safety class is quite deep.