Mark your calendars for March 12 4 p.m. EST. That is when the new league year and free agency begins. The Bears have no shortage of players hitting the market with 17 unrestricted free agents. They also have one restricted free agent in Anthony Walters and one exclusive rights free agent in Armando Allen.
Now, of course, much of what is done with many of the free agents will be determined by the new coaching staff and what system they implement. However, there are still plenty that we can speculate on.
For starters here is a list of all the Bears' UFAs, courtesy of KFFL:
Now obviously the one name that is most instantly recognizable is that of Brian Urlacher. What is going to happen to the Bears' franchise player of the last dozen years?
Personally, I think it's to soon for him to retire and that he will want to play another year but a lot will depend on whether it's for the Bears or not. Urlacher will no doubt want to know what kind of defensive system the team will be running, as well as who the coach and coordinators are. Urlacher has stated multiple times that he wouldn't want to play for another coach other than Lovie so if Smith lands somewhere as a coordinator or head coach, don't be surprised if Urlacher isn't far behind.
Plus, what is Urlacher's value? Phil Emery praised him in his press conference last week saying that before his hamstring injury he was finally beginning to play like the regular Urlacher, but that doesn't mean he's worth the some $8 million that the team played him this year. It will be interesting to see how Emery handles a negotiation with a player that has meant so much to fans and the team but may not mean as much going forward.
Another interesting case will be Johnny Knox. Knox hasn't played since December of 2011 when he suffered a horrible neck injury against the Seahawks. Knox has been rehabbing but it seems like it's still debatable as to whether he will actually ever play again. Knox was a valuable contributor for the Bears and a favorite target of Jay Cutler but he also was known for errors that lead to interceptions and missed plays. Knox would certainly bring a speed element to a receiver corps that now has size with Marshall and Jeffrey.
Now for the much-maligned offensive line, their future is not so bright. With four free agents from one of the worst starting lines in the league, it's hard to imagine a lot of them coming back. However, two of the free agents were the better players on that line in Louis and Scott. I suspect some kind of deal will be done to bring back Louis, who is rehabbing a knee injury that forced him to IR and I think Scott will be brought back too. Emery singled out both of those guys in a positive manner last week while addressing the group.
On the defensive line there could be just as much turnover. I wouldn't expect Idonije or Okoye to be back unless there is no change in the defensive coaching staff. The team will want to try and work out a long-term deal with Melton, a young player who has been voted to his first Pro Bowl, but the price has to be right. There could be a new defensive system and Melton hasn't always been a consistent force in the middle.
In the secondary, it will be interesting to see what happens with Moore and Hayden. Hayden became a starting nickel and even played opposite Peanut Tillman while Tim Jennings was hurt. He was good good, if unspectacular. The Bears may want to get younger at CB but a lot depends on the system in place. Moore played well a couple years ago and fell into Lovie's doghouse this season and when injuries forced him into action he didn't play well at all. I think he will be playing elsewhere in 2013. Bowman was signed for depth and I am not sure he will be back either.
The Bears will probably make an effort to re-sign Nick Roach and they should. Roach is a good player and while he plays in the shadow of Lance Briggs and Urlacher, he's a good player and definitely worthy of the starting position he holds. Geno Hayes will be elsewhere this year.
Lastly, the quarterbacks. The Bears signed Josh McCown when Cutler got hurt and stayed on the rest of the year. Cutler supposedly likes him and he was familiar with the system from Mike Tice and going back to Mike Martz. Jason Campbell was hoping to find a starting gig after this year but that doesn't look like it's likely to happen. I expect Campbell could be retained, even though he played poorly in Cutler's place he's still better than Caleb Hanie or some other inexperienced guy. McCown is good enough but he's not worth the veteran minimum to be a third QB.
So there is an early look at the free agents. Once a head coach and staff as in place look for Emery to begin trying to re-sign guys. There are other players who are signed that could be approached to have their deals re-worked or re-structured. Candidates for that include Charles Tillman ($7.95 million for 2013) and Julius Peppers ($12.9 million for '13). Plus there is the possibility of an extension for Cutler as well.
Aside from the coaching search, there is plenty of excitement and curiosity surrounding the personnel side of the team as well.