5 Free Agents the Bears Should Target After Day 1 of Free Agency
Day one of free agency has come and gone, but the Bears still have more needs to address. After one of the busiest, most frenetic starts to free agency in recent memory, one which saw the Bears sign both Lamarr Houston and Ryan Mundy, the more subtle work can begin. Day one of free agency exists for splashy signings and so that big name players can tantalize fans across the league. The next few days are when elite rosters are built.
The Bears addressed two of their biggest needs on day one, signing Lamarr Houston to replace Julius Peppers (who was always going to be cut), and Ryan Mundy to replace free agent Major Wright. Houston, though perhaps not quite the best defensive end on the market, was a great fit for Chicago as he excels against the run, ranking 5th last year among 4-3 defensive ends according to Pro Football Focus (PFF). This makes sense as a reactionary move for the Bears after finishing with a historically bad run defense in 2013.
The rationale behind the Mundy signing is a little more opaque. Like Wright, Mundy works best as a box safety, playing close to the line against the run and smacking receivers coming across the middle. Albeit, Mundy represents a considerable upgrade over PFF's worst-ranked safety in 2013, but he doesn't make a world of difference in coverage, which is what the Bears need in their deep secondary right now.
Still, for Bears' fans day one should be considered a relative success. Upgrades were signed that addressed specific weaknesses from the 2013 roster, and considerable cap has been saved by cutting overpaid and under-effective players like Peppers and Michael Bush. Thinking optimistically (which is valid in the Emery/Trestman era of more liberal free agent signings), here are five free agents the Bears' should still be targeting.
5. Shaun Phillips, DE
Though he is getting up there in age (he'll be 33 in May), Shaun Phillips had a solid year for the Broncos in 2013 and helped compensate for Von Miller's absence from the field. Phillips would pair well with newly-signed Lamarr Houston, offering solid pass-rushing ability to compliment Houston's run-stuffing game. Surprisingly, Phillips was also solid against the run in 2013, ranking fourth among 4-3 defensive ends according to PFF.
With the Bears likely targeting a young defensive end in the draft this year, Phillips would be a low-risk, short-term signing. He is past the age of getting lucrative long-term contracts, but with some newly-acquired cap space (thanks to the aforementioned recent cuts), he could be a nice stop-gap while the Bears develop younger pass-rushers.
4. Jason Hatcher, DT
Like Phillips, Hatcher is of an age where big money should not be liberally given to him. That said, Hatcher had an All-Pro year, ranking fourth among defensive tackles in pass-rushing and eighth overall at the position according to PFF. If the Bears plan to let Henry Melton sign elsewhere, they will need a contingency plan.
Popular speculation would suggest that said plan may involve drafting a 3-technique defensive tackle (such as Aaron Donald or Timmy Jernigan) in the first round of the upcoming NFL Draft. If that's the case, having a veteran around for a few years couldn't hurt. However, a Hatcher signing would have to come at the right price. As a veteran relegated to relatively middling contracts for most of his career, Hatcher may be looking to cash in on his career-best season before it's too late. If a team is willing to overpay for him, the Bears should bow out of the hunt.
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, CB
With Charles Tillman likely gone, the Bears have limited options at cornerback currently on roster. Tim Jennings was resigned shortly after free agency started, but the other starting corner position is looking pretty bare at present. Isaiah Frey showed improvement last season, but is best-suited in the nickel. Meanwhile, Kelvin Hayden is coming off a serious injury and is far past the prime of his career—the Bears can't be counting on him to contribute anything more than backup minutes.
Like the defensive line and safety position, cornerback will likely be a position the Bears target in the draft. However, finding first-year starters at cornerback in the draft is a tricky business, and the Bears should be looking to bring in a proven veteran for the interim. Touting experience with both man and zone defenses, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie could be a nice filler.
After the Broncos' signing of Aqib Talib, the odds of Rodgers-Cromartie returning are questionable. Despite turning in a very solid year for the Broncos (ranked fifth at the position according to PFF), questions of motivation and effort have dogged Rodgers-Cromartie for years and could deflate his asking price. Compound that with his worrying talk of retirement (which he attempted to equivocate his way out of), and teams may be wary of overpaying or over-committing. If the Bears can sign him for the right price, he would be worth it.
2. Willie Young, DE
Willie Young was a breakout player in 2013, admirably stepping up to the plate following Cliff Avril's departure and the release of Kyle Vanden Bosch. Young finished as the 16th-ranked 4-3 defensive end according to Pro Football Focus, ranking 10th at the position as a pass-rusher.
This is more attractive than the Phillips possibility in that Young is a young up-and-comer and, arguably, would allow the Bears do address other positions high in the draft. Young is best as a pass-rusher and would be a nice complimentary bookend to Lamarr Houston. His price might be steep, and for a player with only one year of starting experience under his belt that may be a concern. His upside, however, has to be tantalizing for Bears' brass.
1. Henry Melton, DT
Though it seems unlikely that the Bears will retain Melton, it can't be an easy decision to make. After franchising him last year, Melton suffered a devastating knee injury that robbed him of his season (and heavily contributed to the Bears' defensive collapse in 2013). Bill Polian recently suggested that Melton may not fit what Phil Emery and Marc Trestman want to do on defense, but this logic may cost them a perennial Pro Bowler in the long run.
Melton is going to demand less money on the market this offseason due to his knee injury, and for a cash-strapped team like the Bears, the opportunity to lock-up a potential franchise player for less has to be considered. Particularly noting Houston's signing as a run stuffer on the end, getting pressure from the interior of the line is going to be even more crucial for the Bears' defense. Few do this better than Melton. A healthy Melton would have been a top-five free agent this offseason. For the Bears, the immense reward should be worth the considerable risk.