The stopwatch-clicking and bench-press-shouting at the Combine is about done, but something flying under the radar - other than Phil Emery - is the Bears' plans for their own free agents not named "Matt Forte." The team has some obvious immediate needs (WR, OT, DE) and some positions we'd like to see upgrades at (TE, interior O-line, CB), but Phil Emery can make things easier for himself in his first offseason if he can resign four guys before free agency hits. Hint: one is Matt Forte. Jump to examine the other names and how it can help shape our team for next season. You know how to jump don't you? Just bend your knees and push.
Matt Forte is obviously the one guy we absolutely need to have back, but since it seems like a certainty that he'll be back one way (tagged) or another (long-term deal), we don't need to discuss him. Free agents we have that I'd like to see return but don't play huge roles (in my opinion) in offseason strategy include: Bell, Graham, Idonije, Steltz, and McCown. REW, Hanie, Bowman, Massey, Meriweather - I don't see a reason to bring these guys back. So that leaves three guys that - if resigned at a reasonable rate - should be able to allow Emery to streamline his first year at the helm of Da Bears.
Tim Jennings, CB
We've already seen that Jennings is one of the better tackling cornerbacks in the league, and posted good numbers in pass completion percentage (57%) allowed and touchdowns (zero). He's undersized and rather scheme-specific; the reason the Bears keep bringing in undersized, physical corners is they need guys able to press and tackle more than being clear shutdown corners or guys that excel at man-to-man (not to mention they're cheaper to acquire, as well). Jennings provides the Bears with quality on the outside, not consistently excellent play worthy of Pro Bowls, but better than anything we've seen from Zachary Bowman. If we bring back Jennings to a short-term, reasonable deal, that means we avoid paying the farm in free agency for one of the top guys like Carr or Finnegan, and can instead draft a corner in the middle rounds that could develop into something useful in a year or two. Those funds can be better utilized elsewhere, and while I love the idea of Kirkpatrick joining the team, we have bigger immediate concerns in the first round to focus on.
Amobi Okoye, DT
Okoye didn't exactly bounce back and prove to everyone he has the talent that made him a top-ten pick a few years ago, but he did do enough (27 tackles, 27 pressures, 4 sacks) to earn playing time and show that he can be an effective cog on the defensive tackle wheel. With Adams gone, it's crucial to get Okoye back - since he already signed a one-year "prove it" contract I say we're looking at a three-year deal now - to keep the talent at tackle deep but not necessarily amazing. If we lose Okoye, now we're stuck being forced to get another guy that may or may not be either useful right away like a rookie or bring someone off the street for cheap that may or may not work out. Okoye, teamed with Toeaina, Paea, and Melton, is a solid tackle rotation; take one away though and now we need to worry again. Signing Okoye alleviates the pressure of having to add at tackle either through the draft or free agency; I wouldn't be opposed to a big addition at DT, but I'd rather not have us be forced into it, either.
Kellen Davis, TE
Why is a guy with eighteen catches last year important? Because five of those were touchdowns, and because of what it would mean if we lose him. Losing Davis means we have to go out and get someone similar - which means adapting to the scheme and getting comfortable with Cutler - or rolling a dice with a rookie. There aren't likely to be any significant free agent tight ends available, and the draft prospects have some promise, but the Bears shouldn't paint themselves into a corner. Bring back Davis on a short deal and then see what's out there when the draft hits. If one of the tight end talents falls to third round, you can still grab him without having mortgaged cap space with Davis.
The main purpose for bringing back Davis, Jennings, and Okoye isn't just as a safety net of sorts in case we miss out on other guys. They offer the Bears stability at positions that need upgrading, but not as much as the big three: defensive end, wide receiver, tackle. Bringing back these guys - if they want to return - should be a priority because the Bears' attention, money, and draft priorities can then be turned towards other areas. These three guys may represent mediocrity or settling to some fans, but they could help provide a solid foundation in order to bring in the pieces we really need for success.