The Chicago Bears are in the midst of a small rebuild period. Although George McCaskey denied the rebuild phase during the new coaching and general manager search in December and January, there is little doubt that the Bears have a lot of holes to fill, questions to answer about their existing roster, and pieces to find in order to be the team that new coach John Fox and GM Ryan Pace want the Bears to be.
Fox was hired because of his ability to turn around teams quickly and make them competitive in a short time span. The idea is that Fox can coach to overcome the roster deficiencies and make the team better, while Pace works to build a roster full of talent that they need.
Most NFL teams are in the self-scouting part of the offseason. As I said before, this means evaluating their own roster, impending free agents and players whose deals will be expiring in one or two years.
The Bears have over 20 players who will be free agents of some kind (exclusive rights, restricted or unrestricted). While you can check out the link posted there from Lester for the all the free agents, I'll be focusing on the unrestricted free agents.
The team has already dealt with two of their exclusive rights free agents, DeDe Lattimore and Al Louis-Jean, leaving only Demotre Hurst in limbo. The Bears have no restricted free agents.
So as far as unrestricted free agents go, this is the list of significant players the Bears have who are entering UFA: Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman, Chris Conte, Stephen Paea, Brian de la Puente, Jimmy Clausen, Dante Rosario, Josh Morgan, Jeremy Cain and Darryl Sharpton.
From the outside and looking at the Bears' new defense, which will likely be a hybrid leaning more towards a 3-4 system, means that many of the defensive free agents face an uncertain future.
As much as they've done for the Bears in their careers, Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman are unlikely to return to the Bears. Briggs might have been athletic enough to work in a 3-4 four or five years ago, but he hasn't looked as quick in recent years and his injury history of late means the Bears couldn't rely on him for 16 games.
Tillman too has had an injury history, and may have even played his last game. The Bears could use him; when he's healthy he can still play effectively, but the team needs to get younger at the position and, while Kyle Fuller could use the veteran presence, he should be able to be the No. 1 CB this season.
Chris Conte is likely to benefit from a fresh start elsewhere; however, the safety position is a black hole on the Chicago roster so if they offered him a modest one or two year deal, it would not surprise me.
De la Puente, Clausen, Morgan and Rosario may or may not get deals depending on how the new coaches think they fit their system. Clausen and Rosario have a history with Fox and Morgan can be a quality depth player; he and Gase overlapped with San Francisco in 2008, when Gase was a bottom-level assistant. De la Puente was a disappointment when he came over from New Orleans to be reunited with Aaron Kromer. Kromer had gotten a lot out of DLP when they were together with the Saints but they couldn't recapture that glory.
Sharpton is a curious case. The guy has clearly shown that he can play when he's healthy, but he's never been able to stay healthy and contribute for 16 games. Sharpton played in a 3-4 in Houston and works as a fit for Vic Fangio's D, but his health concerns mean its unlikely they could get a full season from him. The Bears need all the help they can get at LB so Sharpton, I would estimate, will be back on a modest veteran minimum contract.
Finally, Paea is the biggest free agent among the Bears bunch but also the biggest question mark. Paea isn't a traditional fit for a 3-4 defense, but could work in a hybrid unit. Last season on the 49ers, Fangio's DTs were almost all 6'4" and between 275 and 300 pounds. Paea is 6'1" and 306 pounds. The biggest indicator to me will be if the Bears bother to make Paea a contract offer. If they do, the coaches think they can work with him; if they pass, then they don't. Simple as that.
None of these guys is likely to receive a franchise tag so I believe that is off the table for the Bears again
Contract extension candidates
The other part of the Bears' offseason work will involve identifying players with only a year or two left on their deal, and using their leftover cap room after free agency and the draft to extend players.
Players with one year left on their current deals include Alshon Jeffery, Matt Forte and Shea McClellin, among others. Forte, who is 29, will likely play out his current deal but could get a year tacked on at some point. As for McClellin, the new coaches will likely see how he works in a 3-4 before deciding on him.
Jeffery is most likely to be in line for an extension this summer or next. Perhaps the Bears will let him play out his deal and make a decision to either franchise him or extend next year, but I think the team would be wise to lock up their best young receiver now.
Players with two years left on their deals include Kyle Long, Martellus Bennett and Willie Young. Long could get an extension this year if the cap situation is deemed right. Long has been a Pro-Bowl player and is becoming a leader in the locker room. He's already a fan favorite and if he continues at a high level in 2015 he could get an in-season extension.
Pace and company will want to see how Young bounces back from his Achilles injury before they think about handing him new paper, plus they will want to evaluate how he works in their new D. Expect him to play out his deal.
Bennett is a curious case. On one hand he has become a dynamic playmaker for the Bears who has outperformed the deal he signed before last year but, on the other, he is a bit of a handful, getting into training camp fights and not being one to shy away from media attention. The new regime will likely want to see how he works in their offense and if he meshes well with the new authorities. He likely wouldn't get a new deal until next offseason.
The other players who have two years left include young players who are unproven, such as Marquess Wilson, Jon Bostic, Jordan Mills and Christian Jones. Some have been disappointing, some have shown flashes. The new coaching staff will likely want each of them to finish their current deals before making up their minds.
What do you think? Who needs new paper and who should the team let walk? The Bears don't really seem to have a lot of big-name UFAs this year.