All teams in the NFL wish that they could completely build their roster through the NFL draft and rely on their homegrown talent, often getting them at a cheaper price for the long term. Unfortunately, the league does not always work that way, and teams need to use free agency to bolster their lineups and push them towards a championship.
The Chicago Bears will do their best to address the team's needs in the upcoming draft, but considering how many holes they have on the defensive side of the football, free agency will be a key component to improving their roster in 2014. Though, many things will factor in how they go about their business.
Earlier in the week, I touched on the Bears' salary-cap situation after the announcement of the increased salary cap in 2014.
The increase is around $10 million, and as it currently stands, Sportrac.com lists the Bears with having roughly $9.68 million available under the cap.
This offseason, the team has already re-signed veterans Jay Cutler, Roberto Garza, Tim Jennings, Matt Slauson, Dante Rosario and Kelvin Hayden. The team also announced Jeremiah Ratliff's new contract on Wednesday. The Bears still have plenty of needs along the defensive line and secondary that they will need to address at some point during free agency.
The increase in salary-cap space is a benefit for the Bears, who were pressed up against the cap. Considering the cost of draft picks as well as carryover costs of dead money, the team will still need to clear some room if they want to be players in free agency.
On Wednesday, the team announced that it would part ways with punter Adam Podlesh. As I touched on in my piece earlier this week, if the team opts to part ways with Julius Peppers, Earl Bennett, Michael Bush and Eric Weems, combined with the Podlesh release, the money saved, combined with the projected current cap space, would equal out to nearly $26 million under the salary cap.
Players to Re-Sign
The Bears currently have 19 players set to become free agents on March 11, and it seems likely that many will not be returning in 2014.
Devin Hester's name surfaced earlier this week, with NFL Network's Ian Rapoport tweeting:
Devin Hester has been with the #Bears since 2006. But with no attempt to re-sign him, looks like he’ll hit the FA market. End of an era.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) March 4, 2014
It does not come as that much of a surprise that the team is willing to part ways with Hester considering his decline in play and the fact that he does not provide the team with much value considering he is only a return man.
Charles Tillman's return is also in question, as he told The Mac and Spiegs Show on 760 The Score, "I don't think that they don't want me back ... It's a matter of finances working out."
Despite his injury last season, Tillman has been one of the team's most consistent players for the past decade and has played some of his best football in the past three seasons. Money will be the ultimate deciding factor, but he could help bring stability to a rebuilding defense in 2014.
Henry Melton's future with the team still remains in question, but despite Phil Emery commenting at the NFL Scouting Combine that the team wants to bring him back, there has been very little said about his return since. The team lacks depth along the defensive line, and re-signing Melton could help solidify what direction they want to go in the draft.
While securing two key defensive contributors like Tillman and Melton may be a priority, re-signing backup quarterback Josh McCown has become a hot topic not only in Chicago, but across the NFL.
Per Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News, the New York Jets are rumored to be a potential suitor for McCown. He stated in an interview with the Chicago Tribune's Dan Wiederer that, "I have to be willing to go somewhere else, if that's how it breaks."
McCown noted that the relationships he had in Chicago in 2013 had a lot to do with his success, but after signing Jay Cutler to a seven-year, $126 million deal, it may not be financially viable to re-sign him for 2014.
Possible Free-Agent Targets
In 2013, if the Bears were not getting gashed for long runs by opposing offenses, they were struggling to get pressure on the quarterback. Injuries depleted the defensive line, and Julius Peppers was a shell of his former self.
The team will likely spend some money this offseason to upgrade that defensive line, and lucky for them, one of the strongest areas in this year's free-agency crop is at both defensive tackle and defensive end.
The Seattle Seahawks' Michael Bennett seems like the most logical choice considering he is the brother of tight end Martellus Bennett. Michael had a strong 2013 campaign, finishing with 31 tackles and 8.5 sacks for the eventual Super Bowl champions. Some believed he was going to get franchise tagged, but according to Pro Football Talk, the Seahawks are willing to let him hit the open market.
His versatility lends well to the Bears desire to use multiple fronts as he has the ability to line up both inside and outside, but considering that he is one of the top names in this year's free agency market, the Bears may simply not be able to afford him.
Another defensive lineman with the versatility to play multiple positions along the line is the Oakland Raiders's Lamarr Houston. He avoided the franchise tag from Oakland, and at just 26 years old, he is in the prime of his career. He plays well against the run at defensive end and can cause havoc rushing from the inside on passing situations.
If the team is looking to solidify their run defense, Linval Joseph may be the perfect fit. He is stout against the run and has the ability to collapse the pocket, and at 25 years old, he fits the mold of the type of young player the Bears defense needs.
Beyond the struggles of the defensive line in 2013, the play of the safety duo of Chris Conte and Major Wright was one of the team's weakest links.
The team will likely address both the free and strong safety positions in free agency, even with Conte returning with one year left on his rookie deal.
NFL.com's Chris Wesseling and Gregg Rosenthal list Buffalo Bills' safety Jairus Byrd as their No. 1 free agent on their Top 101 list, saying, "A natural playmaker with plus ball skills, Byrd is Earl Thomas' chief rival as the game's top cover safety."
After not being franchise tagged by the Buffalo Bills, Byrd may become one of the Bears' biggest targets. He fills the need at a position that the team has struggled to find consistency and would instantly improve the Bears defense.
Another big-name safety on the market is the Cleveland Browns' T.J. Ward. Excellent against the run, Ward, much like Byrd, would help stabilize the back half of the secondary and become an instant upgrade on defense.
While nothing is for sure, expect the team to be in on a combination of these five players considering how vital their signings would be for a defense that struggled mightily in 2013.
Phil Emery struck quickly in free agency in 2013, signing Jermon Bushrod and Martellus Bennett to long-term deals right out of the gate. While cap space and money will still be an issue, do not be surprised to see the Bears strike quickly again in 2014.