Chicago Bears Veterans Who Have Been Put on Notice This Offseason
General manager Phil Emery spent much of free agency retooling a defense that struggled mightily in 2013. The team agreed to terms with such big-name free agents like Jared Allen and Lamarr Houston but also made deals with young players believed to be on the upswing of their careers. Willie Young and Ryan Mundy are examples of the latter.
The team's overhaul of its defense was not limited to free agency, as the Bears drafted four defensive players with their eight draft picks in the 2014 NFL draft.
The addition of these new players via free agency and the draft will force some veterans to head into training camp on the hot seat, unsure of whether they will be in Chicago in 2014.
Here are five Chicago Bear veterans who have been put on notice this offseason.
After agreeing to take a pay cut earlier this offseason, veteran Eric Weems will likely have a tough time keeping a spot on the roster in 2014.
One motivating factor for Eric Weems remaining with #Bears is he believes he will have good chance to make impact in return game.— Brad Biggs (@BradBiggs) April 11, 2014
A Pro Bowl selection as a kick returner in 2010, Weems has had limited opportunities with the Bears as a return man in the previous two seasons and will have to prove his worth this offseason to keep his job.
After letting Devin Hester walk in free agency, Weems will likely battle with second-year man Michael Ford and veterans Domenik Hixon and Chris Williams for returning duties in 2014.
Ford showed flashes as a returner during the 2013 preseason and while Hixon has not returned kicks regularly since the 2009 season, he has proven in the past that he has the ability.
Hixon had his most impressive year as a return man in 2009, returning 57 kickoffs for 1,291 yards with a 22.6 yard return average. In 80 career returns he has averaged 24.6 yards per return and has one touchdown.
Williams is a speedy return man that dominated the CFL from 2010 to 2012.
Ford, Hixon and Williams both give the Bears players that can not only contribute on special teams, but have the ability to make an impact at their positions.
Weems has just 28 catches in eight seasons and does not posses the potential of Ford nor the prior production of Hixon.
Unless he has a stellar training camp and preseason, it appears unlikely that he will return in 2014.
After not appearing in a game during his rookie season in 2012, former sixth-round pick Isaiah Frey played in all 16 games, including six starts, at the nickelback position last season.
Frey was expected to add depth behind Kelvin Hayden at nickelback and be a key contributor on special teams before Hayden was lost for the season after tearing a hamstring in training camp.
He finished the season with 47 tackles, one pass deflection and was on the field for nearly 50 percent of all defensive snaps, according to ProFootballFocus.com (subscription required).
Frey was set to battle with Hayden this offseason for the nickelback role but with the team drafting Kyle Fuller in the first round, Frey may go from starter in 2013 to off the team in 2014.
Bears head coach Marc Trestman and defensive coordinator Mel Tucker both had nothing but high praise for Fuller during the rookie minicamp this past weekend.
#Bears coach Marc Trestman: "I just have a lot of confidence in Kyle Fuller."— Adam Jahns (@adamjahns) May 16, 2014
Tucker on Bears 1st-rd CB Kyle Fuller: "A very intelligent player." Good size, speed. High% tackler. Excellent ball skills. Great awareness— Rich Campbell (@Rich_Campbell) May 16, 2014
Fuller is expected to claim the nickelback job out of training camp, leaving Frey to battle with Hayden for a backup role.
It may be an uphill battle for Frey to maintain a spot on the roster considering Hayden has experience playing both inside and outside as a cornerback, along with his extensive experience playing special teams.
If Frey wants to stay on the roster in 2014, he will have to prove he can be a consistent contributor on special teams and will likely have to battle Sherrick McManis for the team's final cornerback spot.
A key figure along the Bears offensive line for the better part of the past nine seasons, Roberto Garza may have found a challenger at the center position from recently signed veteran Brian de la Puente.
While Garza has entrenched himself as not only a starter but a leader along the Bears offensive line, he has had his struggles in recent years and may be pushed by de la Puente.
According to Pro Football Focus, de la Puente has graded out as the better center in two of the last three seasons.
It is unknown if it will be an open competition at the center position, but if Garza struggles in training camp, de la Puente has a good shot of overtaking Garza in 2014.
At age 36, Garza is reaching the time that a player starts to break down in his career. If he has any sort of injury this offseason, it may be too difficult for him to reclaim that spot away from de la Puente.
At worst, Garza would fall to No. 2 on the depth chart at the center position and be able to provide depth at both guard positions in 2014.
Few players received more flak for the Bears' struggles on defense in 2013 than free safety Chris Conte.
While the defensive line and linebacker positions were decimated by injuries last season, Conte and Major Wright started all 16 games at safety and struggled on a week-to-week basis.
The team allowed Wright to walk in free agency and signed veterans Ryan Mundy and M.D. Jennings to compete with Conte this offseason. In addition to their free agent signings, the team also drafted safety Brock Vereen in the fourth round of the draft earlier this month.
It was already going to be an uphill battle for Conte this offseason, but after requiring shoulder surgery this offseason, he may end up missing the majority of training camp.
Emery says safety Chris Conte is targeting first preseason game for return from recent shoulder surgery. #Bears— Jeff Joniak (@JeffJoniak) May 1, 2014
Conte may end up making the roster regardless next season, but the additions of Mundy, Jennings, Vereen, as well as re-signing veteran Craig Steltz, may all lead to him being off of the roster once the 2014 season starts.
If he can get healthy enough to return for the preseason he still has a chance but spending that much time off of the field this offseason will greatly improve Vereen and Jennings' chances of making the roster over him this season.
A second-round pick of the Bears in 2011, Stephen Paea was expected to become a dominate presence at the nose tackle position.
Despite missing time due to injuries in his rookie season, he showed flashes and appeared to be the team's front-runner to start at nose tackle in 2012.
He started 14 games for the Bears in 2012, finishing with 24 tackles and 2.5 sacks.
Paea injured his ankle in training camp last offseason and struggled with injuries throughout the 2013 season. He played in 13 games, starting 10, but was overshadowed by the play of veteran Jeremiah Ratliff at the end of the season.
He appeared to be the front-runner for the starting nose tackle role again in 2014, but the team drafted defensive tackles Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton in the draft earlier this month.
While Sutton is viewed as more of a 3-technique, Ferguson has the ability to play the nose tackle position and may make Paea expendable this offseason.
#Bears won't say but suspect DT Ego Ferguson's 1st work may be at NT - Stephen Paea should be hearing footsteps— John Mullin (@CSNMoonMullin) May 10, 2014
Despite his struggles with consistency last season, general manager Phil Emery believes Paea's struggles were due to his injuries.
Emery still has faith in DT Stephen Paea. Believes injuries played key role in Paea's average 2013 season.— Jeff Dickerson (@ESPNChiBears) May 15, 2014
Emery still appears to have faith in Paea, but this offseason will be critical for him if he wants to remain with the team in 2014 and beyond.
Ferguson is still very much a raw prospect, but he has the ability to develop into a nose tackle. Combine Ferguson's potential with Ratliff's flexibility to play both the 3-technique and nose tackle position and that may make Paea expendable.
If he can shake the injury bug that has plagued him during his first three seasons, Paea still has the ability to impact this defense in 2014. But, if he is again sidelined with injuries and Ferguson develops more quickly than expected, he may be looking for another team for next season.