Chicago Bears' Final Free-Agency Outlook and Predictions
Now that the NFL Scouting Combine has come and gone, the Chicago Bears can look toward improving their team via free agency.
Free agency officially begins on March 10, but NFL teams are allowed to contact free agents and begin contract negotiations between March 7 and March 10, though no official contracts can be signed prior to 4 p.m. ET on March 10.
General manager Ryan Pace has already stated he feels comfortable with where the team currently stands in regards to the salary cap.
"We're healthy with our (salary) cap right now," Pace said, via Bob LeGere of the Daily Herald. "So, if we want to be (aggressive), we can. It's just measuring what positions are strong in free agency vs. what positions are strong in the draft."
The team has needs on both sides of the football, but even though the Bears may have ample salary-cap space, that does not mean they will be able to sign every free agent they want.
Here are our final free-agency outlook and predictions for the Chicago Bears as they approach free agency.
Monday the NFL informed all teams the salary cap would be increasing to over $143 million for 2015, via NFL.com's Albert Breer:
Teams were informed that the salary cap will be $143.28 million for 2015.— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) March 2, 2015
Adam Jahns of the Chicago Sun-Times broke down what the new cap number means for the Bears:
The #Bears carry over $1,545,934 from 2014. Their adjusted salary cap for 2015 is $145,168,434. So they have around $30 million in space.— Adam Jahns (@adamjahns) March 2, 2015
According to Over the Cap, the Bears have $28,827,772 of cap space available, the 12th-most in the NFL.
The Bears do not have an overabundance of money to spend in free agency, but they are better off than most teams in the NFL. If they want to free up even more money, there are a few players they could cut.
According to Over the Cap, safety Ryan Mundy is set to make $1.5 million in 2015. The Bears could wipe his salary completely off the books if they decide to cut him this offseason. He did not play poorly last season, but the team may be able to find a better option at strong safety in free agency.
After signing a four-year, $15 million extension in December of 2013, kicker Robbie Gould struggled to live up to his big contract last season. He completed only nine of his 12 field-goal attempts and missed the final four games of the year with a hamstring injury.
He has a cap hit of $3.6 million in 2015, and the Bears could save $1.8 million by cutting him this offseason, via Over the Cap.
Departing Free Agents
Two of the biggest names on Chicago's list of departing free agents are linebacker Lance Briggs and cornerback Charles Tillman. Both were drafted by the organization in 2003.
Pace spoke about the duo at the NFL Scouting Combine last month, but he was noncommittal about either of them returning to Chicago next season.
"We've talked to those guys," Pace said, via Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com. "They are great Chicago Bears. We are still going through those [evaluations] as with the other guys. It's a slow process but we recognize they [have been] great Chicago Bears and those are going to be big decisions for us."
Three other starters from last season, safety Chris Conte, linebacker D.J. Williams and defensive tackle Stephen Paea, are all slated to hit the open market unless the Bears make a move sometime this week.
Prediction: The No. 3 Wide Receiver Position Will Be Addressed
Rumors have been swirling this offseason regarding Brandon Marshall's future in Chicago, and the latest rumor, via Bleacher Report's Jason Cole, suggests the Indianapolis Colts are interested in trading for the much-maligned receiver.
Regardless of whether or not the Bears decide to move on from Marshall, they still have a need at the position.
Marshall and Alshon Jeffery have shown flashes of dominance over the last couple of seasons because of their size, but the Bears have lacked a speedy wide receiver who can stretch the field vertically and has the ability to line up in the slot.
The position is stacked at the top in free agency with guys like Green Bay's Randall Cobb and Philadelphia's Jeremy Maclin, but the Bears will likely set their sights on someone a bit more reasonably priced.
A fourth-round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars back in 2011, Cecil Shorts played sparingly in his first season in the NFL before bursting onto the scene the next season. Shorts hauled in 55 catches for 979 yards with seven touchdowns in 2012 but has not gone over the 800-yard mark since.
He did register 777 receiving yards in 2013 but recorded just 557 yards last season. Despite his decline, Shorts still has the ability to pick up yards after the catch and can be a deep threat down the field.
If the Bears want to go with a more polished route-runner, Brian Hartline could be an option.
After a lackluster 2014 season, Hartline was released by the Miami Dolphins last week, via ESPN's Adam Schefter:
Two more veteran WRs released this am: Brian Hartline and Harry Douglas. Free-agent WR group grows.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) February 27, 2015
Hartline put up back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in 2012 and 2013 but only hauled in 39 catches for 474 yards in 2014. The Dolphins went to a spread offense last season and Hartline's lack of production can be attributed to his lack of targets, via Pro Football Focus:
What a difference a year made for Brian Hartline: pic.twitter.com/nNwiwK9yu9— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) February 27, 2015
He is not a speedy receiver who can take the top off opposing defenses, but he is a polished route-runner who is not afraid to go over the middle and can pick up yards in the slot.
Assuming the Bears decide to stick with Marshall for at least one more year, expect them to be in the market for a guy like Shorts who can pick up big yards after the catch or someone like Hartline who can excel in the slot.
Prediction: A Young—but Experienced—Backup Quarterback Will Be Signed
Pace has been noncommittal about Jay Cutler's future in Chicago but recognizes how difficult it is to find a good quarterback.
“[Quarterback is] the hardest position to find and I recognize that,” Pace said, via Mark Potash of the Chicago Sun-Times. “But that’s what we do and that’s my challenge."
The Bears could look to the draft to find a quarterback to develop for down the road, but they could also look to add a young quarterback who has experience in the league via free agency.
This year's quarterback crop in free agency does not have any big names, but guys like Tennessee's Jake Locker and Houston's Ryan Mallett may be worth taking a look at.
Neither Locker nor Mallett would be expected to compete with Cutler for the starting job—assuming Cutler is still the quarterback—but they are both young and have upside.
Locker was selected eighth overall by the Titans back in 2011, but injuries sidelined him throughout much of his first four years in the league.
In 23 career starts he has amassed 4,967 passing yards with 27 touchdowns and 22 interceptions. He has also rushed 95 times for 644 yards with five touchdowns.
He was having his best season in 2013—throwing for 1,256 yards with eight touchdowns and four interceptions in seven games—before a Lisfranc injury to his right foot ended his season.
His durability is certainly an issue, but he has shown in the past he can be an NFL starter. He would not be expected to beat out Cutler in training camp, but he has familiarity with Bears quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains because of their time spent together in Tennessee when Loggains was Locker's quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator. If nothing else, he could be a solid backup who could step in as a starter if need be.
Mallett may be a bit more intriguing than Locker because he is still an unknown.
In two starts last season, Mallett threw for 400 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions before he tore his pectoral muscle versus the Bengals in late November.
According to John McClain of the Houston Chronicle, Mallett wants to return to Houston:
Ryan Mallett on his contract situation "I'd like to b back. Hopefully, we can get something worked out."— John McClain (@McClain_on_NFL) February 25, 2015
If Mallett and the Texans are unable to reach an agreement, the Bears could be in play for the soon-to-be-27-year-old. He possess a strong arm, great size and good mechanics, but he will need to improve his decision-making when in the pocket.
Neither Locker nor Mallett would be long-term solutions at quarterback, but they are both young enough and have enough upside to intrigue the Bears as a backup quarterback in 2015.
Prediction: Improving the Defensive Line Will Be a Priority
With the Bears making the move from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 defense, they will need to make some changes along the defensive line.
Jeremiah Ratliff and Ego Ferguson will likely hold down the nose tackle position with Lamarr Houston at one of the 5-technique defensive end spots, but the Bears will still need to focus on improving their defensive line once free agency begins.
They could go all out and spend big money on someone like Ndamukong Suh, but it makes more sense for them to spread their money so they can sign multiple free agents.
Denver's Terrance Knighton and Arizona's Dan Williams both could be options to play nose tackle, but the team may be able to get more value out of guys like Arizona's Darnell Dockett or Jacksonville's Tyson Alualu.
Dockett has proven how effective he can be when healthy, but he missed all of 2014 with an ACL injury. He tweeted last week that he is motivated to play in 2015:
No matter the logo Im gonna win that comeback player of the year....— DARNELL DOCKETT (@ddockett) February 23, 2015
In 10 seasons in Arizona he registered 459 tackles, 40.5 sacks, 15 pass deflections, four interceptions and forced seven fumbles.
If the team wants to go in a younger direction, Alualu is an intriguing option.
A former first-round pick of the Jaguars, Alualu failed to live up to high expectations. In five seasons in Jacksonville, he registered 195 tackles and just 13 sacks. He spent the majority of his time inside at defensive tackle but also spent time at defensive end.
At 6'3" and 295 pounds, he has good size and could benefit from a move outside to the 5-technique spot. He proved in Jacksonville he can play well against the run, and he could possibly benefit from a change of scenery.
Neither Dockett nor Alualu will likely break the bank, meaning the Bears could sign one or both and use them in a rotation in 2015 until a draft pick is ready to contribute.
Prediction: They Will Miss out on Devin McCourty but Land Rahim Moore
There is no debate New England's Devin McCourty will be the best free-agent safety available if he hits the open market next week.
In a somewhat surprising move, the Patriots decided to use their franchise tag on kicker Stephen Gostkowski on Monday afternoon instead of McCourty, via ESPN's Adam Schefter:
Patriots placed their franchise tag on kicker Stephen Gostkowski, per a league source.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) March 2, 2015
If the Patriots are unable to sign McCourty to a new deal before March 10, he will be one of the hottest names on the market.
Unless Patriots re-sign him before next week, Devin McCourty is going to be one hotly-pursued free agent.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) March 2, 2015
McCourty would make perfect sense in Chicago's new defense, as he would be able to roam the back half of the field and allow Chicago's cornerbacks to play aggressive at the line of scrimmage.
Despite how good of a fit he would be in Chicago, McCourty will likely have a bevy of suitors to choose from.
His brother Jason McCourty, a cornerback with Tennessee, has already said he will lobby to get his brother to sign with the Titans, but he knows it will be hard to pry Devin away from New England.
"I'll see what I can do," Jason said about recruiting his brother, via Dan Duggan of NJ.com.
It's going to be hard to get him out of New England. You know how the business side of it goes. We'll see. If he becomes a free agent, I'll be doing everything in my power to try to get him to Tennessee.
Unfortunately for the Bears, the safety market has a steep drop off after McCourty.
While they could entertain the idea of going after someone like Oakland's Tyvon Branch, New York's Antrel Rolle or Miami's Louis Delmas if they miss out on McCourty, Denver's Rahim Moore appears to be a perfect fit.
Moore was picked in the second round out of UCLA in 2011 and started 48 games in Denver under John Fox. In his four-year career, he has registered 196 tackles, one sack, 20 pass deflections and eight interceptions, including four last season.
He is well-known for giving up a deep ball in the playoffs against the Ravens back in January of 2013, but Fox praised him for bouncing back in 2014.
"He's done a tremendous job," Fox said about Moore prior to Denver's playoff loss to Indianapolis this past January, via Patrick Saunders of The Denver Post. "You bring up (his bouncing back) from that particular play (against Baltimore) and it speaks a lot for the kind of young man and human being he is, as well as a football player. He's had a very good season."
Moore has good range, is unafraid to step up against the run and is a solid tackler. He does not possess the same flash and stability that McCourty has, but his experience with Fox makes him an ideal fit in Chicago.
Prediction: They Will Spend Big Money on an Edge-Rusher
At the scouting combine late last month, Pace made it clear the outside linebacker position is very important in a 3-4 defense and he knows what he wants from the position.
“Pass rush is the first thing that comes to mind,” he said, via Patrick Finley of the Chicago Sun-Times. “Edge speed. The ability to hit the quarterback. And then the ability to set the edge and get off a block."
While Pace could look to the draft to find someone who fits that mold, the 2015 free-agent class has a handful of talented, young edge-rushing outside linebackers.
Hughes spent his first three seasons buried on the depth chart in Indianapolis before registering 20 sacks over the last two seasons with Buffalo. Some believe his production is a product of playing alongside Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams, but he wants to prove he can be just as productive without them, via Pro Football Talk:
What does Jerry Hughes say to the notion that he benefits from having three great defensive linemen next to him? "Challenge accepted."— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) February 13, 2015
There are certainly questions about whether or not he can be as productive without great talent around him, but he has proven he can be productive versus both the run and the pass. According to Pro Football Focus, Hughes led the Bills with 40 quarterback hurries last season and registered a plus-9.7 grade against the run, second-best on the team.
If the Bears are looking for someone a little more explosive, Worilds could be their guy. He has 25.5 sacks in five seasons with the Steelers but spent the majority of his career behind guys like James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley.
He is quick and explosive off the line of scrimmage and does a nice job of using his hands to fight through blockers. He finished last season with 59 tackles, 7.5 sacks, one forced fumble, one interception and was Pro Football Focus' 11th-best 3-4 outside linebacker with a plus-11.7 grade.
Bleacher Report's Matt Miller is high on Worilds' ability and likes his upside.
"As a starting-caliber player, Worilds won’t get the hype of Justin Houston but has the production, athleticism and youth (26 years old) to make a huge impact for a 3-4 defense," Miller wrote.
After paying him $9.754 million last year after using the transition tag, the Steelers intend on letting Worilds test free agency, according to Scott Brown of ESPN.com.
Other edge-rushers like Pernell McPhee, Brian Orakpo, Brooks Reed and Brandon Graham could all be options, but Hughes and Worilds both have experience, youth and plenty of upside.
An edge-rusher like Hughes or Worilds won't come cheap, but signing one of them would instantly give Chicago's defense credibility moving forward.
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.