NFL free agency this year will officially begin on March 11, 2014 at 3 p.m. CST. Teams and agents may begin negotiating "legally" three days earlier but no player may be signed before that time.
The Chicago Bears must address numerous needs this offseason, the majority of which are on the defensive side of the ball, while juggling 25 soon-to-be free agents with very little money to spend under the cap. GM Phil Emery and Cliff Stein, Chicago's vice president of football operations and lead contract negotiator, will have their hands full over the next few months.
In our Bears Free Agency series, we'll break down the players on the open market that could fit the Bears' needs, as well as those who should and shouldn't be re-signed, all with a close eye on the salary cap.
To start, let's review the team's financials.
The Bears currently sit with roughly $9 million to spend under the $133 million salary cap.
The seven-year contract Jay Cutler recently signed will cost the Bears $22.5 million in 2014, nearly 17 percent of the team's cap. His contract drops into the more-palatable $15 million-$17 million per-season range the remainder of his deal but the club will be forced to work around Cutler's cap-crippling contract this year.
Emery also re-signed Tim Jennings ($5.25 cap hit in 2014) and Matt Slauson ($2.75 million) shortly after season's end. Together, those three contracts will cost the Bears nearly 22 percent of the club's cap space next year.
Areas of Need
The Bears ranked dead last in the league in sacks last year and must find edge rushers who can pressure opposing quarterbacks.
Pro Bowler Henry Melton may bolt this offseason, which would leave a gaping hole along the interior of the defensive line.
Chicago's starting duo last year was arguably the worst in the league and Major Wright is a free agent.
Charles Tillman will test the free-agent market and may have played his last game in Chicago. The team re-signed Jennings but he's 30. Now is the time to start planning for the future.
With Briggs and two 2013 draft picks on the roster, linebacker isn't a huge long-term need, but both Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene need at least one more year of seasoning. The Bears will likely bring in veteran placeholders on one-year deals.
Here are the 25 Bears players set to hit free agency:
|Player||Pos||Status||Age||2013 Cap Hit|
(2/23 UPDATE: The Bears today signed Taylor Boggs and Derrick Martin to one-year contracts, leaving just 23 free agents.)
(3/1 UPDATE: The Bears the past week signed Roberto Garza, Kelvin Hayden and Dante Rosario to one-year deals, leaving only 20 free agents.)
(3/6 UPDATE: The Bears have re-signed Jeremiah Ratliff and parted ways with Devin Hester, leaving 18 free agents.)
(3/9 UPDATE: The Bears have re-signed Nate Collins and Jordan Palmer, leaving 16 free agents.)
Nine of the players on this list were productive starters or key backups for Chicago's defense last year. This leaves the team with just six 2013 starters (Lance Briggs, Julius Peppers, Chris Conte, Stephen Paea, Tim Jennings, Shea McClellin) returning next year.
That may not be such a bad thing for a defense that was one of the worst in the league last season. Emery can now infuse new talent on defense, players that "transcend schemes", and possibly shift toward a hybrid 3-4/4-3 system. For that reason, we won't leave out 3-4 players in our free-agency analysis, as those could be the type of defenders the Bears are targeting.
The most important players on this list are Charles Tillman and Henry Melton, impact players coming off season-ending injuries. Both have plenty left in the tank – Melton is only 27 – and will likely test the free-agent waters. If other teams show serious interest, which is almost guaranteed, they league may price Melton and Tillman out of the Bears' range, forcing Emery to start over at two pivotal positions.
The elephant in the room is the massive contract of Julius Peppers. After restructuring his deal early in 2013, Peppers is due more than $18 million next season and $20 million in 2015. For an aging, declining player, that's a tough pill to swallow.
Even worse, Peppers carries more than $8 million in dead money. If the Bears cut him, they will have to eat all of that cash in 2014. The team could designate Peppers a June 1 cut, which would distribute that money into $4 million chunks in each of the next two seasons. That could provide Emery $14 million more in spending money.
Under that scenario, the Bears could potentially enter free agency with around $23 million in cap space.
Other cut candidates include WR Earl Bennett ($2.45 million cap hit in 2014, no dead money), RB Michael Bush ($1.85 million in savings), P Adam Podlesh ($1 million in savings) and WR Eric Weems ($1.1 million in savings). Cutting those four would give Emery an additional $6.4 million to spend in free agency.
(3/10 UPDATE: The Bears today waived Michael Bush and Dante Rosario, clearing a combined $2.4 million in cap space.)
Plan of Attack
The past two years, Emery has been very aggressive on the first day of free agency. He made splashes trading for Brandon Marshall two years ago, and signed Jermon Bushrod and Martellus Bennett a few hours into the process last season. Yet Emery had more money to spend in both of those offseasons, so it will be interesting to see if he goes charging head first into free agency this year. In reality, the only way he can be his typical aggressive self is to cut Peppers at 3:01 CST on March 11.
After going big early, Emery has filled the rest of his roster with part-time, one-year players the past two years. With the club tight to the cap already, expect him to follow that same path with his back-end players.
During the next six weeks, Bear Report's Bears Free Agency series will break down in detail each of Chicago's free agents, outlining the pros and cons of keeping each player. We'll also analyze the best fits, by position, in this year's free-agent market, with an eye toward value players.
Buckle up Bears fans, it's going to be an informative ride.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his third season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.