When the Chicago Bears headed into free agency last year, they knew they needed to fix the offense. The team brass did just that by revamping the offensive line and adding an established tight end.
The focus now shifts to a defense that gave up over 6,300 total yards last year. As the Bears put together their list of top free-agent targets, every name will be on defense.
Who are the guys? There are 10 names that will be on the list. Three are their own players, and the rest are guys you want to go after if you are looking to make headlines on Day 1.
The Bears figure to grab one or two of the seven outside options. Read along to find out who they are, along with the team's odds of landing them.
Not much has been said about Devin Hester this offseason, but it's hard to believe the Bears wouldn't want him back.
Hester is north of 30 years old and is on the decline, but he remains a very valuable and feared return man. It will be hard to put a price on Hester's skills, but it certainly will be far less than what he has received over the last few seasons.
A few teams will show some interest in Hester, but he will always be a perfect fit for the Bears—and vice versa. The Bears have the inside track to bring back one of the most prolific return men in NFL history.
Charles Tillman made news a few weeks ago on 670 The Score (via NFL.com's Kevin Patra) when he guaranteed he will "retire as a Bear." The question now becomes: Will he play next season, or will he pull a Brian Urlacher and retire do to lackluster offers?
Tillman will turn 33 years old very soon, and there's a lot of miles on the 11-year veteran. Injuries finally caught up to him last season. Tillman played in only eight games after not missing a game three straight seasons before.
It makes all the sense in the world for the Bears to bring back Tillman. He can be the perfect bridge to a younger corner for a season or two. Tillman will find out early that there won't be too many times lining up to take an aging star.
If Tillman can swallow his pride, learn from Urlacher's mistake and accept a not so flattering deal, then the two sides should have no problem getting this deal done. Tillman will likely be the anti-Ed Reed and finish his career in Chicago.
The Bears rolled the dice last year when they decided to put the franchise tag on Henry Melton. The gamble paid off as the Pro Bowl defensive tackle tore his ACL early last season and missed most of the year.
Now, the Bears have to decide if they want to bring him back—and at what cost? Given the team's putrid performance on defense last year, they can ill afford to let Melton walk.
Even with Melton back in the fold, this defense needs a major overhaul. Bringing him back allows the reconstruction on defense to go smoother and more cost effective.
Melton will be forced to take a pay cut coming off an injury. The Bears need to jump on the bargain and re-sign him for two or three more seasons before he hits the open market.
One person who has lobbied hard for Michael Bennett on the Bears is his brother and current starting tight end for the team, Martellus Bennett.
Martellus talked up the idea in the past of playing with and living close to his brother. All sounds great, and Michael would be a great addition, but at what cost?
Michael has said he wants to re-sign in Seattle, but he also wants to get paid. The only chance the Bears have is if Seattle allows this to go all the way to the open negotiating period in early March.
If Seattle doesn't lock him up before March 11, then expect the Bears to bring Martellus to his brother's home. Like Martellus, Michael will likely buy what the Bears are selling and come back to Chicago with his brother.
Major Wright and Chris Conte had subpar seasons last year. Conte might be given a chance again next season, but Wright is an unrestricted free agent and will likely be out of Chicago.
The Bears could use an in-the-box safety to support the run defense. T.J. Ward fits the role perfectly. Ward is coming off his first Pro Bowl season right in time to get paid.
Last year, general manager Phil Emery recognized glaring holes at left tackle and tight end. He made a big splash on Day 1 of free agency to fill those holes. Ward is the kind of player Emery can make another big splash with.
Ward will have his fair share of suitors, but a player used to living in Cleveland will listen long and hard to what a team from Chicago has to say. The Bears have a solid and realistic shot in bringing him in.
Not enough people are talking about Alterraun Verner. He's an up-and-coming corner in the mold of Tim Jennings and is starting to come into the prime of his career.
Last season, Verner made the Pro Bowl after posting a career-high five interceptions. The Bears could let Charles Tillman walk, target a safety in the first round of the draft and decide they want to match up better with the receivers in their division.
A combo of Verner and Jennings would be a ball-hawking unit that would take pressure off the pass rush. Don't ever underestimate the mind of Phil Emery and what he might have in store.
Yes, Michael Johnson had a down season in terms of sacks last year, but he's still a very good pass-rusher. Johnson had only 3.5 sacks in 2013 compared to 11.5 the year before.
Johnson did have a career-high 56 tackles and added eight batted passes. The Bengals will likely let Johnson go after hitting him with the franchise tag last year. They have too many players to pay to put a big chunk into Johnson.
Now, are the Bears interested? The low sack number has to be a concern, but Johnson sets the edge as good as anybody in the league. He would be perfect in Chicago's defense, as they look to stop the run and rattle the quarterback.
As of now, Johnson is considered at the low end of the five best free-agent pass-rushers. The Bears could turn their attention to him if they strike out on Michael Bennett.
When healthy, Jairus Byrd is about as good as it gets in the back end of a defense. The three-time Pro Bowl free safety has 22 interceptions in his five-year career.
Byrd played in only 11 games last season but remains a valuable player and big-name free agent. He no longer fits in the Bills' plans but could get some big interest from a team like the Bears.
It's simple: Randall Cobb's touchdown to knock the Bears out of the playoffs doesn't happen if it's Byrd instead of Chris Conte. The problem is Byrd will command a staggering amount of money for a safety.
Right now, it's hard to believe the Bears will want to unload a big contract on Byrd. They would likely be more comfortable with a free-agent strong safety and draft a player to protect over the top.
Greg Hardy, like Jairus Byrd and Michael Bennett, is hitting free agency at the right time. Hardy's 15 sacks and 25-year-old age make him second only to tight end Jimmy Graham as the most valuable free agents on the market.
Hardy could get the franchise tag from Carolina, or he could hit the open market. If he hits the open market, the Bears would have to get in line with a plethora of other teams that will want his services.
It's hard to imagine the Bears will win the Hardy sweepstakes. There will be too much competition and money involved. Lovie Smith down in Tampa Bay has as good a shot as anybody to land him.
New Bears position coaches Reggie Herring and Paul Pasqualoni both have extensive experience coaching a 3-4 style defense. Herring was the linebackers coach for the Houston Texans, and Pasqualoni was the head coach at the University of Connecticut.
The writing might be on the wall for either one of these guys to take over for Mel Tucker after the 2014 season.
The Bears could really tip their hand by bringing in Brian Orakpo. He is the quintessential 3-4 edge-rusher who has 39.5 sacks in his five-year career.
Picture a defense that signs Orakpo, allows Shea McClellin to move to his natural edge-rushing position and draft anchoring defensive tackle.
Jon Bostic and D.J. Williams—if he returns—could handle the inside linebacker spots together. You now have a framework for a new style of defense. Again, it's a long shot, but don't ever dismiss what Phil Emery might have in store.