Chicago Bears: 5 Bargain Free Agents Who Would Have an Impact in 2015
The beginning of free agency typically revolves around big-money free agents who are expected to make immediate impacts, but many bargain free agents can still make big impacts for their new teams.
The Chicago Bears will likely be in the running for some big-money free agents once free agency officially opens on March 10, but with all of the holes they have on both sides of the football, they will likely also be looking for bargain players who can make an immediate impact.
General manager Ryan Pace feels good about the team's cap situation and said the Bears could be looking to spend some money in free agency.
According to Over the Cap, the Bears currently have $28,602,772 in cap space available, and that figure will increase by roughly $4 million after the team's trade Brandon Marshall trade to the New York Jets officially goes through on Tuesday (via 670 The Score radio host Laurence Holmes):
Moving Marshall saves the #Bears about $4M in cap space. Team is fairly healthy in that regard, but a little more can't hurt.— Laurence Holmes (@LaurenceWHolmes) March 6, 2015
Even though the Bears have plenty of money available to spend if they want to go after some big-name free agents, they could find some value in guys who struggled at previous stops but still have the potential to develop into solid players at a relatively cheap price.
Here are five bargain free agents who would have an impact in 2015 for the Bears.
ILB Mason Foster
Jon Bostic will likely hold down one of the inside linebacker positions next season, but the Bears will need to find another player who can at least compete for one of the inside linebacker positions this offseason.
Tampa Bay's Mason Foster struggled last year playing for Lovie Smith, but he is just 26 years old and still has the potential to develop into an impact player.
Foster has started 54 games in his four years in the league and has registered 343 tackles, six sacks, 12 pass deflections and five interceptions.
Former Tampa Bay general manager Mark Dominik had high praise for Foster earlier this offseason.
"Mason is a tough, physical, smart inside linebacker," Dominik said, per Ross Jones of Fox Sports. "He sees plays develop. He plays downhill, and he's a very strong tackler at the point of impact.
Foster spent his four years in Tampa Bay as a 4-3 middle linebacker, but Dominik thinks Foster has the ability to play inside in a 3-4.
"The good thing about Mason is not only can he play in the 4-3 as a 'Mike' (middle) or a 'Sam' (strong side), but he can play in the 3-4 at either middle linebacker spot," he said. "He has versatility to play for just about any defense in the league."
Foster struggled in Smith's Cover 2 defense last season because he was forced to drop back in coverage, but he is better suited playing up against the run. Playing inside in a 3-4 defense would play to Foster's strengths as a run defender.
Even though he struggled last season, he is looking forward to the future, whether that is back in Tampa Bay or elsewhere.
"I loved my time in Tampa, and I'm excited for the next chapter in my career, whether that be here or somewhere else," Foster said (via Jones). "I know my best football is in front of me, and I can't wait to get back on the field and contribute to a winning season."
Because of his struggles last season, the Bears may be able to sign Foster for a bargain price at the start of free agency.
WR Hakeem Nicks
Since the Bears agreed late last week to trade Marshall to the New York Jets for a fifth-round pick, the team now has a big need at the wide receiver position.
The free-agent crop of wide receivers thinned out over the weekend with Randall Cobb agreeing to terms with the Green Bay Packers, but there are plenty of bargain receivers available who could make an impact next season for the Bears.
A New York Giants' first-round pick back in 2009, Hakeem Nicks hauled in 202 catches for 3,034 yards with 24 touchdowns in his first three seasons in the league. He struggled with injuries in 2012 and 2013 and signed a one-year deal with the Indianapolis Colts last offseason.
He only hauled in 38 catches for 405 yards with four touchdowns last season, but he said he felt "extremely healthy" in 2014.
"I think in New York, I was just having injury after injury, and I think I just wasn't taking care of it the right way," Nicks said (via Chris Wesseling of NFL.com). "I just kept trying to play through them instead of being patient and sitting and let it heal.
"Now, I am extremely healthy. Looking back on it now, I think that's something that I just had to go through. My body was adjusting."
He is not an elusive receiver, but he is a good route-runner who is more about technique than speed. He does a nice job of going up and getting the football at its highest point, but he has lacked consistency the last couple of seasons.
Because of his recent struggles, the Bears may be able to get him on a team-friendly one-year deal. According to Sportrac.com, Nicks signed a one-year, $4 million contract last season with the Colts. Considering his down year in 2014, the Bears may be able to get Nicks for somewhere in the $2.5 million-$3.5 million range for next season.
Nicks would not be expected to put up the same type of numbers that Marshall did during his time in Chicago, but he has proven in his career he has the ability to be a 1,000-yard receiver.
CB Darius Butler
The Bears used a first-round pick on Kyle Fuller and re-signed veteran Tim Jennings last offseason, but the team still has a need at the cornerback position.
Fuller and Jennings will likely head into the season as the team's starters at cornerback, but as of right now, the nickelback position is wide-open.
The Bears did re-sign former undrafted free agents Demontre Hurst and Al Louis-Jean earlier this offseason, but they may be able to get a bargain by signing Indianapolis Colts cornerback Darius Butler.
He has only made 29 starts in his career, but he has developed into one of the league's most underrated nickelbacks.
According to Pro Football Focus, Butler played 290 snaps at nickelback, allowing just 26 catches on 45 passes thrown his direction last season. His 11.2 coverage snaps per reception was fifth-best among all cornerbacks in the slot in 2014. He finished the year with 46 tackles, nine pass deflections and two forced fumbles.
He is not much of a force against the run, but he is athletic and has enough speed to keep up with quick receivers. He is not flashy, but he is a consistent presence in the slot, and his game would complement both Fuller and Jennings.
He has bounced around a bit over the years, but he still has the ability to make an impact in a team's nickel package.
TE Virgil Green
Even though the Bears already have a Pro Bowl tight end on their roster in Martellus Bennett, they could be in the market for a high-upside backup who can help the team in the running game.
Head coach John Fox knows the NFL is all about throwing the football, but he wants his team to have toughness when running the ball (via Bob LeGere of the Daily Herald):
#Bears coach John Fox on run game: "We talk about toughness, and that's the essence of football. But you better be able to throw it, too."— Bob LeGere (@BobLeGere) January 19, 2015
If the Bears want to add a solid blocker who can help in the running game, Denver's Virgil Green could come at a bargain. He was a seventh-round pick back in 2011 and was quietly one of the NFL's best blocking tight ends last season.
According to Pro Football Focus, Green finished the season as the 11th-best tight end with a plus-5.7 overall grade, and only three tight ends bested his plus-5.5 run-blocking grade.
Green began his college career at Nevada as a wide receiver but was eventually moved to tight end. He was initially not thrilled with the idea of becoming a blocker, but the position grew on him.
"I hated blocking," Green said (via Troy E. Renck of The Denver Post). "But I started to get recognition from not only my teammates and coaches, but the media for springing guys for touchdowns. I realized how valuable my role was. Whatever my job is blocking, I want to do it well and look physical doing it."
Adam Gase, Green's offensive coordinator in Denver and now current Bears offensive coordinator, felt Green was a vital part of Denver's offense last season.
"His ability to be a dual threat for us in pass protection and run blocking" makes him so vital, Gase said last season, via USA Today. "And then he does enough in the passing game to where you can't fall asleep on him. He's a very powerful guy and brings a little different aspect for us at that position."
The market for the soon-to-be-27-year-old will likely be limited, considering he has only 23 catches for 206 yards with one touchdown in four seasons, but if Fox plans on running the football in 2015, Green could be a bargain at tight end.
OLB Dan Skuta
One of the most important positions in a 3-4 defense is outside linebacker, and the Bears will need to address the position in both free agency and the draft.
The Bears will likely consider taking one of the top pass-rushing outside linebackers when they select seventh overall in late April, but they may be able to find a contributor at the position in free agency who won't break the bank.
Signed as an undrafted free agent out of Grand Valley State back in 2009 by the Cincinnati Bengals, Dan Skuta spent four seasons in Cincinnati as a reserve linebacker and special teams contributor before signing with the San Francisco 49ers in 2013.
He made eight starts in 2013 but burst onto the scene last season. In 10 starts in 2014 he registered 33 tackles, five sacks and forced three fumbles.
At the end of last season, Skuta felt like he had taken a big step forward from the year before.
"I was getting close last year; I was a step away from four or five sacks last year," he said (via Andrew Pentis of 49ers.com). "I guess that shows you that I got better and that I got that extra step this year."
After his strong 2014 season, he has his goals set higher for 2015.
"Next year, I need another (step), get up the 10-(sack total)," he said. "I want to be recognized as a Pro Bowl-type guy, so that's what you got to do to get to that point."
One reason why Skuta could be a fit in Chicago is because of his connection to Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, his former defensive coordinator in San Francisco.
Skuta lobbied for the 49ers to promote Fangio to head coach earlier this offseason when Jim Harbaugh left to take the head coaching job at Michigan and said his future in San Francisco would be based on whether or not Fangio returned.
“It’s going to be a big deal to me,” Skuta said when asked if Fangio will influence whether he returns, via Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee. “I like Vic a lot, I like what he’s done, and I like his defense. So that’s going to mean a lot to me going forward.”
Although Skuta seemed better suited to play on the inside when he arrived in San Francisco, Fangio decided he was a better fit outside.
"I was really fortunate that Vic saw that in me, to put me outside, and fortunate that he had the trust to play me last year and throughout this year," said Skuta, via Pentis. "Wherever someone puts me, that's where I'm going to play. But (outside) is where I want to play."
Fangio likened Skuta's play to former 49ers and Denver Broncos Pro Bowl linebacker Bill Romanowski.
“Could probably compare him to (Bill) Romanowski from years past,” Fangio said, per Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle, “without all the fluff.”
Skuta is known as a hard worker who puts everything he has out on the field. He showed in 2014 he can be a productive player in Fangio's system, and he would likely come at bargain price because he is not considered to be one of the league's elite pass-rushers.
Bleacher Report's Matt Miller thinks Skuta's presence alone could help stabilize a young defense, which is something Chicago will likely have in 2015.
"At 28 years old, Skuta doesn't have as much raw upside as others, but his role as a starter has never been completely opened up," Miller wrote. "If asked to start 16 games, he could be a solid starter with the skills to help anchor a young defense."
He is not the flashiest name on this list, but his connection with Fangio should make him a viable option for the Bears when free agency begins.
Statistical information courtesy of NFL.com unless otherwise noted.
Matt Eurich is an NFL/Chicago Bears Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America.