Greetings from the icy cold tundra known as Pensacola, Florida--seriously, my car was covered in ice this morning and even had snowfall last night--and welcome to everyone's favorite annual off-season event on WCG known as "Free Agent Extravaganza!" I am your eternal and slightly annoyingly optimistic tour guide for this post, as we shop around at all positions and all names currently listed as Unrestricted Free Agents. Come one, come all, as the madness begins!
First stop, we will be looking specifically at all positions on defense, since well the Bears are coming off perhaps their worst performance on defense in the history of the fabled defensive led franchise. And really, all areas are needs, as the Bears literally have open positions at all positions. From the D-Line, to Linebackers, and the Secondary, there are starting jobs up for grabs that likely will feature new faces. As a matter of fact, there are currently only 12 players on the Bears' roster who play defense. Those new faces that shall man the open positions, will ultimately be decided by Phil Emery and his staff, where the GM has stated the goal is to get younger and better on defense.
Normally, "younger" means they're going to focus on the draft to build the defense, yet as you will see there are several free agents who are relatively young, and are just coming off their first NFL contract. Some will be looking for the big bucks, others will actually receive those big bucks. What's so unique for the Bears' situation is the combination of cap space, their ability to open more cap space, and the potential to incorporate a hybrid front for their base defense. What all that translates to, is any single player is likely to be fair game for the Bears, regardless of the front they've previously lined up in. Let us begin by looking at what was the most devastated position last season, the injury stricken defensive line.
Defensive Line: Ends
The stock in this position is as deep as its ever been in free agency for quite sometime now. There are several players who are definite headliners as well as many solid contributors who can figure to earn a decent paycheck as well as more playing time. With Shea McClellin likely to transition into a hybrid DE/OLB, and the questions surrounding Julius Peppers about his massive contract, it's safe to assume there will be someone signed from this list. Most of the names are of those who spent the most time in 4-3 fronts, but many of you will recognize a pattern relatively quickly.
Jared Allen, DE, Minnesota Vikings - You know him, you love him, and you even loathe him. The man who dares to challenge Patrick Mannelly in growing a mullet has been the leader to what has generally been a strong DL for the division rivals. He wouldn't make much sense for anyone looking to get physically younger on defense, but despite his age he knows how to drop QBs on the turf. Could you imagine how scary our front could be with Julius Peppers and Jared Allen lined up on the same line? A complete fantasy, but nonetheless an awesome prospect to discus about.
Michael Johnson, DE, Cincinnati Bengals - After having what many would consider an extreme disappointment of a season, this is still a name that I'm surprised hasn't been brought up in a lot of conversations thus far. In 5 seasons with the Bengals, he's recorded 26.5 sacks, with a big season in 2012 that ended with 11.5 of those sacks. He could very well turn out to be a one-year wonder; however, we also know he's capable of producing good numbers when rushing the passer. He's also solid against the run, and last year he managed to deflect a career high nine passes. Needless to say, he's a disruptive player, and one who's just beginning to enter his prime.
Michael Bennett, DE, Seattle Seahawks - This is the older brother to current Bears TE Martellus Bennett, and a player his said younger brother has vowed to recruit. Signing him would make complete and total sense for the Bears; as he has experience in a hybrid front, and is capable of making plays no matter where he lines up. His ability to rush the passer from the interior is what makes him an intriguing prospect, in addition to having consistent production in his last two seasons with the Buccaneers and Seahawks.
Corey Wootton, DE, Chicago Bears - The dovahkiin known as Favreslayer is finally set to hit the market, and he's a player that could make a case for himself as someone who can play in either front. His production slipped dramatically this season due to playing out of position at tackle instead of end, where he made several starts at 3-tech in place of injured star Henry Melton and his back-up Nate Collins. There has been a lot mentioned about his selflessness as a player, and he's someone I'd have no problems with the Bears bringing him back for a little longer. Plus, he would be inexpensive, allowing for more players to be signed.
Justin Tuck, DE, New York Giants - A member of what was once considered the best batting order at DE in the NFL, he quietly had a big year for the struggling Giants, amassing 11.0 sacks in 15 starts. This was the first time since 2010 where he set double digit numbers in sacks, and he still has plenty left in the tank. Again, he's another player who's very flexible in changing his stance, and still getting to the QB. He may be 30 years old, yet don't ignore this possible signing for the Bears, provided he leaves the Giants for a fresh start elsewhere.
Greg Hardy, DE, Carolina Panthers - Here he is Bears fans, the name everybody in the NFL has circled in the free agency market. He's young, he's healthy, and he's beyond disruptive. After taking a big step forward in 2012 with his 11.0 sacks, he trumped that mark by four this season with 15.0 sacks. His ability to sniff out the run is what I like most about him, he's the complete package at DE for anyone wanting to improve that position. Because of that, he'll be expensive, very expensive, as the Panthers can apply the Franchise Tag to him. If the Bears somehow pull this move off, then the entire defense stands to see an immense boost to production.
Israel Idonije, DE, Detroit Lions - Remember him? You should, as he was a fan favorite around these parts for several years before departing for Detroit in Free Agency. He was badly missed this season, as he could have easily filled the void at either tackle or end for the Bears. Not entirely sure he'd want to come back to the Bears, or if the Bears have any interest in re-signing him, a possibility nonetheless.
B.J. Raji, DE, Green Bay Packers - Considered by many a first round bust, he hasn't recorded a single sack in two straight seasons after recording 9.5 from 2010-2011. His ability against the run has also come into question, and his effort is heavily criticized with him loafing on a few occasions. He's young, though, and offers an OK specimen to add into a rotation calling for a 3-4 front.
Defensive Line: Tackles
There isn't much to talk about with this position, as there simply isn't anyone who would really make you say "wow, I've got to have ____ from the ____ ______." Still, a few players who could figure to beef up the interior are to be available, and it's to be expected that some of the heavier players will be brought in to help shore up the dead last ranked run defense.
Linval Joseph, DT, New York Giants - Probably the best player on the market for this position, he is a massive object that regularly commands double teams, freeing up his teammates to make plays on the line. I see him as more of a pure 4-3 tackle at the 1-tech, which is fine since I don't expect a complete transition to a 3-4 to occur. Plus, he has the build to be a space eater in that possible front.
Paul Soliai, DT, Miami Dolphins - This man is a giant, plain and simple. He would really aid in bolstering the rotation as being a true nose for the Bears, in addition to being that space eating player if they do in fact go with a 3-4 based front. He won't ever be known as a big time pass rusher, but he is known as a stout run stuffer.
Henry Melton, DT, Chicago Bears - Coming off a season which featured his first career trip to the Pro Bowl, and subsequently received the franchise tag after both sides were unable to reach an agreement on a long-term deal, he appeared in only 3 games before he tore his ACL at Pittsburgh. And if that didn't hurt his stock already, he winds up getting arrested for assault and public intoxication following an altercation at a bar in Grapevine, Texas. That combination is enough to make a lot of teams move on from a player; however, he's also an extremely talented player who will bring to any team a skillful pass rusher. My bet is the Bears will offer him a one-year "prove it" type deal, although we also have yet to hear of any disciplinary action from the NFL.
Jeremiah Ratliff, DT, Chicago Bears - Where Henry Melton took a sharp decline in luck, Jeremiah "Jay" Ratliff experienced a rejuvenation of sorts in his brief stint with the Bears. After not playing for nearly two seasons, he came off the bench to make a handful of starts at both Nose and 3-tech. His presence alone aided the DL and performed slightly better as a result. He has Pro Bowl experience in both a 3-4, and a 4-3 as a big and nasty NT for the Dallas Cowboys, while new Bears DL coach Paul Pasqualoni happened to be a member for that staff. His injury history is a reasonable concern, but honestly I think he's a lock to be resigned. He's rumored to have stated he wants to stay in Chicago, and the Bears are likely to look for D-Lineman who can play in either front.
Jason Hatcher, DT, Dallas Cowboys - This will be the player that is likely to cost the most out of any other DTs expected to be available. Or, so he thinks, at least. Anyway, his 11.0 sacks for the worst defense in the league is something to note, especially since his previous career high was 4.5 in 2011. I'm not too keen on his ability to stop the run, though, and he really reminds me a lot about Albert Haynesworth all those years ago. Normally, I'd be drooling over the prospect of a player like him coming in at 3-tech for the Bears, yet the thought of him taking a big paycheck and then sitting on it much like "Big Al' did at Washington is too scary to make me comfortable with that idea.
Kevin Williams, DT, Minnesota Vikings - Much like Jared Allen, he was a key player to the success the Vikes had with their line for years in the past. Once known as a member to the "Williams Wall", he's now likely on his way out as the Vikings are set to go through a complete change under their new coaching staff. His experience is valuable, but his age isn't something I feel would make him a solid fit for the Bears. I wouldn't mind him being brought in on a small contract, provided there are some talented prospects behind him to develop.
The original plan this season was for D.J. Williams to take over immediately for the future HOFer in Brian Urlacher, and for his back-up in the rookie Johnathan Bostic to eventually transition into becoming the future of the most fabled position in the franchise. That plan fell apart completely after D.J. ruptured a pectoral muscle against the Redskins, and Bostic struggled mightily to fill the void while learning how to play the position. Meanwhile, fellow free agent acquisition James Anderson played rather admirably at Sam, and Lance Briggs is now healthy after missing substantial time with a shoulder injury of his own. In his place, Khaseem Greene filled in at WLB, and did what I felt was an OK job overall. I truly feel the poor quality of coaching hurt this position more than the actual injuries themselves, and now with a fantastic coach in Reggie Herring, they only stand to get better. At the same time, Jon Bostic is believed to be making a possible move to WLB after numerous statements by GM Phil Emery, so MLB is once again a major need. Fortunately, there is a decent list of veterans expected to be available, and all these names make complete sense to consider as targets.
Jon Beason, ILB, New York Giants - Having been traded early in the season from the Panthers to the Giants, he still played relatively solid football for his new team, and figures to be a complete no-brainer to stay in the big apple. In saying that, if he becomes available, this is a player I fully expect the Bears to at least inquire about this off-season. His experience is invaluable, and to me he's perhaps the best free agent available out of all the LBs. He's 29 years old, with plenty of football left despite a series of injuries from 2011-2012. Yes, he sounds a lot like D.J. Williams, but I really doubt the same thing will happen. He will sign a multi-year deal, and it could be with the Bears.
Brandon Spikes, ILB, New England Patriots - Yes yes, I know, former Patriots free agents bad. I still have nightmares about Brandon Meriweather and how much I advocated for his signing, only to result in an absolute bust. With this player, though, is someone who knows exactly how a hybrid front works. Again, he's not a real play-maker, but he's a good run defender and is 26 years old. He would provide for the Bears an intriguing option to man the middle, and under Herring's tutelage he could blossom into becoming a good player. This is also a player I think the Bears will make a run at some point during free agency.
Daryl Smith, ILB, Baltimore Ravens - A player I wanted this last off-season, he's coming off a solid year filling in for Ray Lewis on the former Super Bowl champs. He's had experience under current Bears DC Mel Tucker while with the Jaguars, and would provide for a credible player at a position of need. Plus, he would be a relatively inexpensive option.
Jonathan Vilma, ILB, New Orleans Saints - Once considered one of the top LBs in the NFL when healthy, he hasn't been the same since 2010. A combination of suspensions and injuries have really limited his reps the past three seasons, with only one appearance made during the 2013 season. Again, though, he's a player who has played in both a 4-3, and learned a 3-4 front. I'm not particularly sure how well he would do in a hybrid, but I don't think he would be the worst option on the table. Sign him to a deal much like that of D.J. Williams's, and he could result in a major home run addition if he returns to form.
Karlos Dansby, ILB, Arizona Cardinals - He may be "old", but he's still a damn good LB and team captain. In 2013, he recorded perhaps his best season as a pro, which included a shocking 19(!) pass deflections, 6.5 sacks, two touchdowns, and a career high in interceptions with four. You want somebody to help develop young LBs besides Lance Briggs, here's your guy. If Phil Emery decides to overlook age, then this would be a spectacular move to make.
Joe Mays, ILB, Houston Texans - Now here's someone who has a connection with new LBs coach Reggie Herring. Having played under his mentoring for a season, he performed at an unspectacular, yet decent level in 13 starts inside following Brian Cushing's injury. He's never finished a full season as a starter, so I feel he'd be more or less a "depth" type signing, yet he could provide some competition if the Bears would like a less costly option with experience under a current member to their staff. He also happens to be a Chicago native, for anyone wondering about his roots.
D.J. Williams, ILB, Chicago Bears - He wants to return, the Bears have a need at MLB, and he won't cost much at all. I think he'll be brought back, either as a back-up or in a competition for a starting job.
Nick Barnett, ILB, Washington Redskins - The former All-Pro LB for the Green Bay Packers has now been signed and let go by two different teams in two consecutive seasons. Could he still provide an adequate option to fill the veteran role until someone younger is ready to take over? Maybe, but I also feel his career is almost over, if it isn't already.
Pat Angerer, ILB, Indianapolis Colts - Such an awesome name for a LB in the NFL. Back on topic, he's an interesting prospect to consider, as he's been an underrated player in both a 4-3 front and a 3-4 in four years with the Colts. Injuries are a concern, but let's not ignore what he could bring to the table. I'd be all for him being added to the Bears, provided the Colts choose not to re-sign him.
Wesley Woodyard, ILB, Denver Broncos - Even though the Broncos are best known for their record breaking former Colt QB Peyton Manning and his explosive offense, their defense quietly had a decent season. Woodyard's performance in the middle is a reason why they were solid in this respect, as he attacks the run hard and has a basic understanding of passing routes. He's nowhere close to being the best in the league mind you, but he's a guy I'd monitor rather closely if some of the other options are removed from the table.
We will probably see more change with this position than we've seen in years. Given the prospect of a hybrid front being utilized extensively, players will now be expected to be both dependable pass rushers, and solid in pass coverage. There aren't a lot of players expected to be available, but a few big names will be included this year.
Brian Orakpo, OLB, Washington Redskins - The former first rounder is looking to test the market for the first time in his career, a career that included a transition from a 4-3 style end in college to a 3-4 style OLB in the NFL. Clearly, he's made the transition rather well, and has been seen at times with his hand in the dirt in addition to standing up on the LOS. A great signing he would be, but he would also be a potentially expensive signing as well. His signing could also signal the end to Shea McClellin's stay in Chicago, a move I'd be fine with.
Anthony Spencer, OLB/DE, Dallas Cowboys - It's safe to say he didn't have an ideal season in his transition from a 3-4 OLB to a 4-3 Tampa 2 style end, a season that was cut short with a season ending injury. His talent is enough to warrant considerable interest from multiple teams, and I think he would be perfect for the "Leo" position many have been talking about lately. It still has yet to be seen how he would do with his hand on the ground, but a good option nonetheless.
Calvin Pace, OLB, New York Jets - He's only getting older, but he somehow recorded a career high 10 sacks in his latest season with the circus that is the New York Jets. I doubt he would be able to maintain that high level in Chicago, so unless he comes cheap, I'd generally say "no" to this idea.
James Anderson, OLB, Chicago Bears - As I mentioned in the positional intro, he had what I felt was a good season in his first year with the Bears. At first, he was seen as a "one-year rental" type of signing, but his leadership and experience helped the Bears to have some sort of presence at LB even with Lance Briggs out for a while. His ability to slide inside on 3rd downs really increased his value, and at this point I expect him to remain with the Bears, unless someone offers him a surprisingly big contract.
Will Witherspoon, OLB, St. Louis Rams - The seasoned vet is set to be with his 5th different team in his long career. Where he doesn't seem like an exciting option, he's still a player that's good against the run, and offers a big of veteran leadership in mentoring younger players. At the same time, he's also a bit long in the tooth, so a signing seems unlikely to happen with the Bears in that regard.
Ernie Sims, OLB, Dallas Cowboys - The former Lion left for Jerry World, and didn't really have a good year in what seems to be a one-year stand with the Cowboys.
Rocky McIntosh, OLB, Detroit Lions - He's still around, and he's still solid. Perhaps the oldest option in the bunch, so I don't expect a lot of real interest from the Bears.
Defensive Backs: Cornerbacks
With the Bears locking Pro Bowler Tim Jennings up to a long-term deal, they've solved one of their two problems at this position. The other, is revolving a certain player we will discus shortly. There is a very long list of available free agents who play this position, and the quality is high to say the least.
Charles Tillman, CB, Chicago Bears - Easily the best DB in the market, he may have played his last game with the Bears. The thought of this saddens me to no end, as he's been nothing short of an exemplary leader and an even better player. He leads the league among DBs in takeaways, with forcing fumbles being his specialty. Peanut is someone I want the Bears to re-sign badly, but it's all up to the front office to make that happen.
Aqib Talib, CB, New England Patriots - Easily the second best DB in the market, he's of similar build to that of Charles Tillman, and he's also a very good coverage specialist that makes plays on the ball. I can't help but imagine the Patriots will do everything they can to retain him, but they've also shown a tendency to shy away from signing big contracts, and instead draft their replacement. I remember wanting him a long time ago, and that feeling has not changed to this day. He's only gotten better in his stay with the Pats, and he would be a huge signing to make.
Vontae Davis, CB, Indianapolis Colts - After being a solid defender for the Miami Dolphins, he has turned into a great defender for the Colts. He hasn't taken the ball away a lot, and that's because of how well he does in covering his targets. He doesn't receive a lot of chances to make plays on the ball, and he'll still make great plays despite the low number of opportunities.
Sam Shields, CB, Green Bay Packers - While we've been talking about Charles Tillman being the best CB in the NFC North, Sam Shields has turned in a solid performance the past couple seasons as a full-time starter. His accomplishments include playing well against receivers like Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Calvin Johnson, and Greg Jennings each twice this season. His departure from Green Bay would only help as well, so bringing him in would prove to be a major win/win deal for the Bears.
Corey Graham, CB, Baltimore Ravens - The former Bear has developed rather nicely for the Ravens as a full-time starter, as he is a very smart player in understanding how to cover receivers. Not the spectacular addition a lot would want in place of Tillman, but a wise move he would be in coming back to the Bears.
Captain Munnerlyn, CB, Carolina Panthers - Want to talk about another meteoric rise in the NFL, it's this guy. His stats don't truly support that claim, but he was amazing all season long for the stout Panthers defense. Although he would be a lot smaller than Peanut, he also plays like Tim Jennings, which I love. Having Munnerlyn and Jennings as the tandem would make for a decent secondary by itself.
DeAngelo Hall, CB, Washington Redskins - I'm not exactly a big fan of his, but he's got my respect as a good CB that has been making plays all his career. I would assume he's a safe bet to leave the Redskins, and would provide for any team a player that will make their DB position better instantly.
Brent Grimes, CB, Miami Dolphins - After missing nearly a full season in his last year with the Falcons, he played some phenomenal football in his return to the league with the Dolphins. A selfless leader, he knows exactly how to make plays at the right time. He'll probably receive a hefty contract from a team, though.
Defensive Backs: Safety
Probably the healthiest, and weakest position on the Bears' roster. There will likely be at least one new starter with Major Wright set to hit the streets, and possibly two with Phil Emery making suggestions he intends to overhaul the position entirely. A few big names, a few not so big names, and plenty of names to stay away from. If there's set to be a big signing anywhere, this is the position its most likely to address.
Jairus Byrd, S, Buffalo Bills - He's good, and he's getting paid. Considering how badly the Bears need to upgrade this position, it would not surprise me at all to see him getting offers from Chicago. He's been the best playmaker at this position since he came into the league, and the thoughts of playing for a potential contender should help our cause tremendously.
Antoine Bethea, S, Indianapolis Colts - A fundamentally sound player in general, he's been a good safety since the last time the Colts won a Super Bowl in 2006. He's in line to sign a major contract, so he'll also be an expensive addition provided the Bears sign him.
Donte Whitner, S, San Francisco 49ers - When paired with Dashon Goldson, they made arguably the best safety tandem in the NFL. Without Goldson, he still played at a high level, good enough to make him eligible to land a decent sized deal. Very good against the run, and a physical hitter that will intimidate receivers stepping into his danger zone.
Chris Clemons, S, Miami Dolphins - A decent player overall, he shouldn't be commanding a major bidding war once the market is opened. His play against the deep ball is a concern, but his tackling and understanding of angles make for him to be a solid option.
T.J. Ward, S, Cleveland Browns - Despite being on such a bad team, the Browns had an amazingly good defense, with Ward being a good example of unknown players becoming household names. At first, I was skeptical of his play, but after further review his coverage skills are fantastic to say the least. His superior tackling skills also round him out as one of the better options available this off-season.
Brandon Meriweather, S, Washington Redskins - Bleh.
Ryan Clark, S, Pittsburgh Steelers - When a Steelers fan is asked to name a starting safety on their team, nine out of ten times that name will be Troy Polomalu. With that said, he's been a good teammate and safety for the Steelers the past few seasons. He isn't someone that makes headlines for amazing plays, he's instead someone who prevents highlights from happening, which I find to be the safety's primary job.
Nate Allen, S, Philadelphia Eagles - Back when he was eligible for the 2010 draft, he was a player many Bears fans wanted, including myself. Now, he's not as desirable, with his overall play being considered a big disappointment in his four years so far in the league. I wouldn't give up on him, but he's not the best option as well.
Well Bears fans, that's it for now. As you can see by this extremely long post, there are a lot of notable players available to fill all kinds of positions for a defense in transition. Ideally, any combination of players should help turn around the unit from it's worst performance in franchise history. Who do you want, who do you think I missed, and what do you think will happen? Sound off, and Go Bears!