Chicago Bears' Blueprint for Winning Free Agency
If the Chicago Bears want to move on from their disappointing 2014 season, they will need to make a statement in free agency this offseason.
For the Bears to essentially "win" the offseason, they will need to have a solid blueprint in place to help them attack free agency when it officially begins on March 10.
In order to be prepared to attack once free agency begins, general manager Ryan Pace and head coach John Fox have been evaluating their roster and determining how to fix it.
The biggest priorities for Pace and Fox in free agency will be to add depth, youth and players with upside at key positions like safety and inside linebacker and along the defensive line. Even though the team's biggest struggles were on defense the last two seasons, there are still some needs on the offensive side of the football.
There is no guarantee the Bears will be able to address all their needs via free agency, but with a good blueprint in place, they may be able to come away from the free-agency period as one of the league's "winners."
Here is the Chicago Bears' blueprint for winning free agency this offseason.
Sign an Experienced Safety
Ever since Mike Brown left Chicago after the 2008 season, the Bears have struggled to find a reliable starter at free safety.
The team used draft picks on guys like Craig Steltz, Al Afalava, Major Wright and Chris Conte to fill the void, but none of them were able to take control of the position.
The team traded back into the fourth round last year to take Minnesota's Brock Vereen, but he was underwhelming at best in his limited snaps last season.
If the Bears want to make a splash this offseason and solidify the free safety position, they need to add a proven player via free agency.
The biggest name set to become a free agent this offseason is New England's Devin McCourty.
He was drafted in the first round in 2010 and became a jack-of-all-trades for the Patriots, spending time at nickelback and cornerback before making the switch to free safety in 2012.
He finished the 2014 season as Pro Football Focus' eighth-best safety with a plus-11.6 grade. He logged 68 tackles, one forced fumble and two interceptions, and quarterbacks registered just an 84.7 quarterback rating when throwing in his direction.
Despite the potential to become one of the league's highest-paid safeties this offseason if he explores free agency, he has stated his desire to stay in New England, even if that involves the organization using the franchise tag.
“I guess the worst-case scenario would be I’d be franchised and I’d come back to play for another year. For me, that’s no reason to stress. I love it here,” said McCourty, via Karen Guregian of the Boston Herald.
With McCourty likely out of the picture if New England decides to franchise him, Oakland's Tyvon Branch becomes the next best option after it was announced late last week that the Raiders will release him, via Ian Rapoport of NFL.com:
The #Raiders will release starting S Tyvon Branch, who battled injuries and played just 5 games in the last 2 season, source said.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) February 27, 2015
Branch has had his share of struggles with injuries, but he has proven to be an effective safety when healthy. He has experience playing both free and strong safety and is at his best when allowed to roam in the secondary.
Another option for the Bears could be former Bronco Rahim Moore. He had 49 tackles, two forced fumbles and four interceptions last season playing for Fox. He has had his share of struggles, but he is just 25 years old and still has plenty of upside.
McCourty is likely the top target for the Bears at the position, but it seems unlikely New England will be willing to let him go. If McCourty is off the market, Branch and Moore both have upside and the potential to develop into stars if put in the right situation.
Build the Defensive Line from the Inside Out
Now that the Bears have announced they will be transitioning to a 3-4 defense in 2015, they need to start improving their defensive line.
Tackles Jeremiah Ratliff and Ego Ferguson are both good fits in Vic Fangio's defense at the nose tackle position, but Ratliff will turn 34 in August, while Ferguson is still an unknown after a lackluster rookie season.
Will Sutton was drafted in the third round last May, but he might not be a fit because he is better suited to play the 3-technique in a 4-3 defense.
While the Bears do have two potential options for nose tackle in Ratliff and Ferguson, the organization would be wise to add more depth along the defensive line.
Luckily for the Bears, there should be a wealth of talented defensive linemen available when free agency begins next week.
Williams is the best fit at the position and is one of the few pure nose tackles in the game. He has registered 156 tackles and just two sacks in five seasons, but his ability to clog up gaps versus the run helps open up lanes for his linebackers to make plays.
The demand for a guy like Williams on the open market will be high considering he will be turning just 28 in June. Signing Williams could help solidify Chicago's defensive line, but if he falls out of its price range, Cofield could be an intriguing option.
Cofield was selected in the fourth round of the 2006 draft by the Giants and played five seasons in New York before signing with the Redskins in 2011. He has registered 310 tackles, 19.5 sacks and 26 pass deflections in 135 career games and was released by the Redskins last week.
The benefit to bringing in a guy like Cofield is he has the ability to play both the 0-technique nose tackle position and the 5-technique defensive end position. He is likely best suited inside at nose tackle, but he could be moved outside to help set the edge versus the run.
If the Bears can solidify the interior of the defensive line by signing a proven nose tackle like Williams or Cofield, they could then look to add depth and experience to the defensive end position via the draft.
Sign Jake Locker
"I don't think there's any question there's ability and talent there, but a lot more goes into it and we're evaluating that as we speak," Fox said of Cutler, via David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune.
Pace echoed Fox's sentiments about Cutler.
"Cutler has outstanding physical talent, there's no denying that," Pace said, via Haugh. "It's just getting to know the individual and all the other intangibles that make a great quarterback. That's what we're doing now."
Regardless of whether Pace and Fox decide to keep Cutler or move on, the team still has a need at the position.
While drafting a quarterback certainly could be an option for the Bears, they may be able to find a better option in free agency.
A former eighth overall pick of the Titans back in 2011, Jake Locker struggled with injuries over the past two seasons. However, he has thrown for 4,967 yards, 27 touchdowns and 22 interceptions with 644 rushing yards and five touchdowns in 23 career starts.
His numbers do not jump off the page, but he is athletic, has a strong arm and is mobile outside the pocket. He struggled with accuracy while in Tennessee, but he is a competitor and could benefit from a change of scenery.
Chicago could offer Locker a chance to reinvent himself, and he has a connection to Chicago's quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains, who was his quarterbacks coach in Tennessee in 2011 before he was promoted to offensive coordinator in 2012.
Locker is set to turn 27 in June and would immediately be an upgrade over last year's backup, Jimmy Clausen, and 2014 sixth-round pick David Fales.
He would not be expected to compete with Cutler for the starting job right out of the gate, but he could help push the nine-year veteran in training camp, or he could end up being the starter in 2015 if the team opts to move on from Cutler.
If nothing else, Locker would be a solid No. 2 quarterback with plenty of upside in Chicago.
Add Experience at Inside Linebacker
One of the biggest areas of weakness for the Bears over the last two seasons has been the linebacker position.
The Bears drafted Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene in 2013 and signed undrafted rookie Christian Jones last offseason, but they still need to find someone who can solidify the interior in Fangio's new defense.
Bostic will likely get the nod at one of the inside linebacker positions, but the team will need to find someone who can stop the run.
New York's David Harris, Tampa Bay's Mason Foster and Buffalo's Brandon Spikes all fit the mold of who the Bears are looking for, and Harris has already been linked to the Bears this offseason, via ESPN.com's Vaughn McClure:
Falcons definitely will have an interest in LB David Harris if he reaches free agency, I'm told. So will the Chicago Bears.— vaughn mcclure (@vxmcclure23) February 20, 2015
Bleacher Report's Matt Miller is high on both Harris and Foster's abilities.
David Harris and Mason Foster are really intriguing FA MIKE 'backers. Both could anchor a defense.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) February 6, 2015
Harris is the oldest of the three, but he has been one of the best run-stopping inside linebackers in the NFL since he was taken in the second round of the 2007 draft by the Jets.
While Harris would be considered more of a safe pick, there is no guarantee he could hold down the position for more than one or two seasons. In order to solidify the position for the future, Foster and Spikes could end up being better options.
Foster struggled at times last season playing middle linebacker in Lovie Smith's Cover 2 defense and is best suited to play inside linebacker in a 3-4. He is a good pursuit tackler but struggled at times to shed blockers while in Tampa Bay. He would likely benefit from playing behind a two-gap nose tackle in a 3-4 defense.
If the team does not want to invest in an unproven guy like Foster, Spikes could likely be had for a slightly cheaper price.
Spikes was used mostly as a two-down run-stopper last season for the Bills and finished with a plus-7.1 grade versus the run in 2014, via Pro Football Focus. He will probably become a free agent this offseason after Buffalo general manager Doug Whaley said Spikes would likely only be a part-time player in 2015.
“So that one’s going to be more of, ‘Hey, do you want to come back and be a one-, two-down player, or do you want to try to go out there and see if you can [be] an every-down player?’” Whaley said of Spikes in an interview with The John Murphy Show, via Mike Wilkening of ProFootballTalk.com.
He has his limitations in pass coverage, but he registered 54 tackles last season in 10 starts and was a force against the run all season long. There is no guarantee he would have an opportunity to be a three-down player under Fangio, but he would have better odds of doing so in Chicago than he would in Buffalo.
Regardless of who they decide to pursue, the Bears will need to sign an inside linebacker who can be aggressive against the run and can solidify the position alongside Bostic.
Sign Brian Orakpo
In order for Fangio's 3-4 defense to work in Chicago, the Bears are going to need to get after the quarterback.
The team announced at the combine that Willie Young and Jared Allen will be making the transition from 4-3 defensive ends to 3-4 outside linebackers this offseason, but the organization still has a need for a dominating edge-rusher.
The Bears should have a bevy of edge-rushers to choose from when the draft rolls around at the end of April, but they could put themselves in the position to draft the best player available if they are able to sign someone in free agency who can rush the quarterback.
Kansas City's Justin Houston will be one of the most sought-after edge-rushers on the market, but if Chicago decides to go a slightly cheaper route, Baltimore's Pernell McPhee or Washington's Brian Orakpo could be solid options.
A bit of a tweener, McPhee has played defensive tackle, defensive end and outside linebacker for the Ravens in four seasons.
Pro Football Focus lists McPhee as the 19th-best free agent on the market, and its staff believes he needs to be paired up with a creative defensive coordinator.
"Will need a creative coordinator to get the best out of him, but his ability to win from various techniques is invaluable," Pro Football Focus wrote about McPhee.
The biggest question surrounding McPhee is whether he can still be productive when used as an every-down player.
He has only made six starts in four seasons and played in just 616 snaps last season. He did register 7.5 sacks and 27 tackles in 2014 and finished the year as Pro Football Focus' second-best 3-4 outside linebacker with a plus-26.0 grade. His 21 quarterback hits were the most by any 3-4 outside linebacker.
The Bears could be scared off by his lack of starting experience, making Orakpo an intriguing option. A former three-time Pro Bowler, Orakpo suffered season-ending injuries two out of the last three seasons.
He played in just seven games in 2014 before he tore his pectoral muscle and was placed on injured reserve. In six seasons, he has registered 254 tackles, 40 sacks, 17 pass deflections and forced six fumbles. When healthy, he is one of the league's best 3-4 outside linebackers.
Because of his injury history, Orakpo may come at a reasonable price this offseason.
Out of every position on defense, the outside linebacker spot is going to be Chicago's biggest area of need this offseason. While there will be some solid options available in the draft, signing Orakpo could help take the pressure off any rookie the Bears decide to draft.
Statistical information courtesy of NFL.com unless otherwise noted.
Matt Eurich is a Chicago Bears Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America.