Weighing the Pros and Cons of the Chicago Bears' Top Free Agent Targets
The Bears' biggest needs are obviously on the defensive side of the ball where they were bad in just about every category last season, with the worst run defense and third-worst scoring defense in the league. A far cry from two years ago when they were near the top of the league in every category.
Chicago has holes nearly everywhere on defense, with only linebacker Lance Briggs and cornerback Tim Jennings the only returning starters set in stone. General manager Phil Emery has been very aggressive in the past, which has led to a lot of speculation that he'll find a way to make a splash in free agency this season.
There is not a perfect free agent, available. Every one of these players will be available for a reason, but they also bring a lot to the table.
For the players on this list, I used the top 100 players and speculation on where they may sign by Monday Morning Quarterback's Greg A. Bedard as a guide. I also used players who have been speculated by fans and other media outlets.
With this list, I'll be going through both the positive and negatives for many of the players suggested for the Bears. While none of them are perfect, the risk is worth the reward for many of them.
All advanced stats courtesy of Pro Football Focus unless otherwise indicated.
B.J. Raji, DT, Green Bay
Pros: Greg Bedard seems to think Raji would be better in a 4-3 scheme as he'd be allowed to use his athleticism to attack more.
Raji certainly has the ability to get after the quarterback. He had 6.5 sacks in 2010, arguably his best season as a pro. In 2012, the Packers moved him out to defensive end, asking him to take on blockers instead of shooting into the backfield. Something he explained in a story that appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel earlier this year.
He has the talent to be an impact player and has been that in the past. A change of scenery may help get the most out of him.
Cons: There is a reason the Packers have been decreasing his snaps, especially in nickel and dime packages. He simply hasn't been an effective player.
Raji was alright in 2012, but he was dominated in the team's playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers. That carried over to 2013 when he didn't do much of anything, totaling just 17 tackles. He has not had a sack in the last two full seasons.
The next issue is money. Raji reportedly did not accept an offer averaging $8 million per season, per Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. That's a large chunk of change for a defensive lineman who hasn't done much recently.
He was supposed to be a cornerstone of the Packers defense, but he's been part of the problem for them. It isn't just that he doesn't rush the passer, he doesn't get any push in the ground game. Maybe that's part of the scheme, asking him to take on multiple blockers but $8 million per season is a lot to pay for an uncertainty.
Clinton McDonald, DT, Seattle
Pros: Maybe the most underrated player on the Super Bowl champs' defense. McDonald is a 3-technique who may prove to be more affordable than many of the players on the market.
McDonald has played on Seattle's defensive line regularly for the last three years after being a seventh-round pick by the Bengals. At 6'2" and just under 300 pounds, McDonald doesn't have great size, but he's been disruptive.
Over the last two seasons, he has averaged a quarterback disruption (hit, hurry or sack) every 10.8 pass-rushing snaps.
Cons: Can he do it on a full-time basis? While his per-snap pressure numbers are pretty good, he hasn't had a ton of snaps over the last two seasons, playing in a strict rotation with Seattle.
He has also benefited from playing next to some very good defensive linemen, taking pressure off of him. He only has 5.5 sacks, all of which came last season after the team added Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril. Can he generate pressure by himself?
While he may be cheaper than a lot of guys on the market, he's still going to be more expensive than he should be now that he has a ring.
Everson Griffen, DE/DT, Minnesota
Pros: The Bears want versatility on defense and Griffen is the master of that. His primary position is defensive end, but he can play defensive tackle on passing downs and is athletic enough to rush from a two-point stance.
The Vikings defensive lineman has been a rotational player the last three seasons and is prime for a full-time spot. He has 17.5 sacks over the last three seasons as they've been trying to find the best way to utilize him.
He won't turn 27 until December and, of course, stealing a player of Griffen's caliber from a division rival is always a plus.
Cons: The Bears aren't going to be the only team in the market for a young, productive, versatile defender and the Vikings certainly don't want to lose him.
New head coach Mike Zimmer understands the value of having a deep defensive line and a player who can play anywhere, even if he doesn't start.
Griffen is a jack of all trades but a master of none. He can't play defensive tackle full-time and, while nobody expected him to beat out Jared Allen, it's a little concerning that he wasn't able to beat out Brian Robison. Robison is a fine player, but Griffen is going to be paid like a starter even though he hasn't been one regularly.
Donte Whitner, SS, San Francisco
Pros: A big-time hitter would give the Bears an immediate culture change on defense.
Whitner would give the Bears attitude on the back end and is a player who excels at playing in the box and plugging gaps. When the Bears need to stack the box, Whitner would serve as a fourth linebacker with more range and coverage ability.
While he's known mostly for his hitting and tackling, he graded out fifth on Pro Football Focus (subscription required) amongst all safeties in the league in pass coverage.
Cons: While he graded out well on PFF this season, he's not a guy who can cover slot receivers by himself. His overall rating may have had a lot to do with the players around him.
The 49ers have a front-seven that limits the exposure of their safeties in coverage as they're rarely left on an island. They lost Dashon Goldson in free agency last offseason and didn't seem to miss him.
He'll turn 29 in July and has already played eight seasons, how many more hits does he have in his body? A long-term deal would be risky.
Linval Joseph, DT, New York Giants
Pros: At 6'4" and 323 pounds, Joseph is much more than just a space eater.
He played nose tackle in the Giants' one-gap defense, so there are no questions about his ability to transfer to the Bears.
He has averaged nearly 56 tackles over the last three seasons, but he does more than stuff the run. He has averaged a quarterback disruption (hit, hurry or sack) every 13.1 snaps. He has nine sacks over the last three seasons, but he excels at collapsing the pocket.
He won't turn 26 until next season already begins.
Cons: While he was productive and was a big piece of the puzzle, he wasn't the centerpiece. The Giants have a talented defensive line and Joseph was the player who benefited from the extra attention given to others.
Although he's been under the radar with the Giants, big, young and productive defensive players are always in high demand and he'll almost certainly go to the highest bidder.
Is he capable of being the centerpiece of the Bears' rebuilding project?
T.J. Ward, S, Cleveland
Pros: A big hitter with great range in coverage.
Ward was a key to a very good Browns defense this past season as he excelled in nearly all areas. He finished with 112 tackles, 1.5 sacks and two interceptions in Cleveland's chaotic defense.
He won't turn 28 until next December.
Cons: While he's topped 100 tackles twice in four seasons, he only has five interceptions and five forced fumbles in his career. If the Bears are going to invest a lot in a safety, they're going to want it to be one who makes a lot of big plays.
He'll likely seek to be among the highest-paid safeties in the league, a number that's almost certainly going to go up this offseason. With all of their problems in the front seven, can the Bears afford to pay big money to a safety?
Michael Johnson, DE, Cincinnati
Pros: A dominant run defender with great length and a key to one of the best defensive lines in the league.
Johnson more than holds his own against the run as he is annually one of the top-graded run defenders on Pro Football Focus (subscription required). His combination of power and length make him hard for opposing offensive tackles to block.
At 6'7" with long arms, Johnson disrupts the passing game by batting passes at the line. He has 25 passes defensed in his career, including nine last season.
He caused an interception against the Bears by bull-rushing Jermon Bushrod and grabbing the inside of Jay Cutler's pads just as he released the pass. He dominated Green Bay with seven tackles and 1.5 sacks in their game last season.
Cons: While he's great against the run and causes disruption by tipping passes, he isn't a dominant pass-rusher.
He has only had over six sacks once in his career and finished with just 3.5 last season. That's despite playing with other players who get more attention from opposing offensive lines.
As Bleacher Report's Murf Baldwin wrote, consistency has always been an issue for Johnson. The fact that the Bengals chose to give Carlos Dunlap a big contract instead of Johnson is a clear indication that they feel he is replaceable.
Jairus Byrd, S, Buffalo
Pros: Arguably the best safety in the league, Byrd doesn't have any major flaws.
He has intercepted 22 passes and forced 11 fumbles during his five-year career and he won't turn 28 until October. He was one of the three highest-graded safeties on Pro Football Focus (subscription required) two of the last three years with 2013 being the exception as he missed five games.
Byrd is a coach's son with great range. He patrols the center of the field as well as anyone and is capable of delivering big hits, although maybe not at the level of T.J. Ward or Donte Whitner. He's the complete package.
Cons: It's rare for a player like Byrd to hit the open market, especially at that age. It's a safe bet that he's going to become the highest-paid safety in the league.
As with Ward, can the Bears afford to pay a safety that much when they have so many other question marks? As good as he has been, Byrd has only played on two defenses that ranked in the top 25 in scoring. They had 57 sacks last season, yet finished 20th in scoring defense in 2013.
He's not going to help the Bears run defense much as the Bills finished 28th in that category last season.
Michael Bennett, DE, Seattle
Pros: The dude is a beast, what else can be said?
The fact that Bennett had a hard time finding work last offseason is almost laughable now as he looked like one of the best defensive ends in the league for the Superbowl champs.
Bennett has 17.5 sacks the past two regular seasons and was especially dominant in the playoffs where he had 1.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in three games.
The brother of current Bears tight end Martellus Bennett, he is also known as one of the best run defenders in the league at his position. He can play either end spot or inside on passing downs.
He won't turn 29 until next season.
Cons: Can he be "the man?"
Bennett played on a stacked defense in Seattle and teams were rarely able to give extra attention to one player. Their terrific secondary gives defensive linemen extra time to get to the quarterback. In Tampa Bay, Bennett played with one of the premier defensive tackles in the league in Gerald McCoy.
He's not necessarily a premier pass-rusher. Despite playing alongside so many talented defensive linemen, he's never had more than nine sacks.
Sacks are only part of the story—he ranked third in pass rush productivity on Pro Football Focus (subscription required)—but they're a big part. He only had six sacks in his first three years in the league and never had more than three in a season in college.
He has made it known that he's looking to get paid and he will, can the Bears win a bidding war? Should they even try to with such a deep free agent class and so many other needs?