With the NFL scouting combine in the rearview mirror, the league’s spotlight has shifted quickly toward free agency, in which the Bears will make their first big steps in their roster revision efforts.
The new league year begins at 3 p.m. March 10, opening the doors for what again will be a frenzied free-agent market. But how much will the Bears aim to accomplish? And which big-name players will figure prominently in their discussions?
To set the table for the organization’s March plans, here’s a look into four key issues facing new general manager Ryan Pace.
1. Just how exactly will the Bears approach free agency?
Here’s the quick overview: Pace feels incredibly comfortable with the Bears’ salary-cap situation and acknowledges he won’t be afraid to take a few big swings in free agency if he sees the pitches he likes.
“If there is a player that we know can upgrade us right now, we’ll attack it,” Pace said.
With the NFLPA projecting the 2015 salary cap to come in north of $143 million, the Bears should be close to $28 million below the cap when free agency begins, more than enough room to shop as they see fit.
“We’ll be calculated,” Pace said. “In a perfect world, you address a lot of your needs in free agency to open up the draft for best player available.”
Still, the new GM’s core philosophy will be to build the nucleus of the roster through the draft, using free agency more as a supplement. In that vein, Pace understands the need to synchronize his draft plans with his free-agency vision. That requires an understanding of the comparative strengths at every position between the draft class and what may be available in free agency.
This year’s draft class, for example, may be thinnest at safety with a major falloff after top prospect Landon Collins of Alabama. So it will benefit the Bears to do their full homework on the free-agent class at safety. Chris Conte, a 52-game starter for the Bears over the last four seasons, is headed for the open market.
Outside replacement options at safety for the Bears could include the Patriots’ Devin McCourty, the Broncos’ Rahim Moore and the Giants’ Stevie Brown.
The second phase of free agency could open up bargain options on safeties such as the Texans’ Kendrick Lewis or the Jaguars’ Sherrod Martin.
With a shift to a 3-4 defense underway, expect linebacker also to be a top priority for Pace. High-end free-agent options at outside linebacker will include Justin Durant (Cowboys) and Jason Worilds (Steelers). Brandon Spikes (Bills) and Rey Maualuga (Bengals) headline the inside linebacker class.
2).Which of the Bears’ in-house free agents are headed out of town?
The bad news for Pace — or maybe it’s actually the best news — is that very few of the players on his current roster with expiring contracts are worth re-signing. The two biggest names on that 17-player list, of course, are Charles Tillman and Lance Briggs, a pair of longtime defensive standouts. But Tillman just turned 34 and has missed 22 games the past two seasons, twice suffering season-ending injuries to his right triceps.
Briggs’ 34th birthday will arrive in November and he too has been on the shelf far too often the last two years, missing 15 games with shoulder, ribs and groin injuries.
At this point, the Bears will prefer to restock their roster with players who are young, healthy and ascending and there’s likely little to gain by bringing Tillman and Briggs back for their 13th seasons.
That said, Pace and coach John Fox are being careful not to push either player out the door without their deserved reverence. After former general manager Phil Emery proved just a tad callous with his separations from several locker room linchpins — most notably Brian Urlacher and Devin Hester — Pace and Fox have pushed to give Tillman and Briggs their proper respect.
“They have been great Bears,” Fox said. “And they have accomplished a lot. … They have the deepest respect of our ownership and our organization.”
What Briggs and Tillman may not have is an opportunity to return.
3. What other notable Bears players are headed for the open market?
Conte flashed at points during his contract season in 2014, showcasing impressive range and athleticism in spurts. But the oft-injured safety missed four full games and couldn’t finish seven others, battered around like a playground tetherball.
After four taxing seasons in Chicago, a fresh start with a new team may be the best thing for Conte, who may land back with coach Lovie Smith on the Bucs.
Defensive tackle Stephen Paea, meanwhile, delivered a far more productive presentation in the final year of his rookie contract, contributing a career-high six sacks and displaying enough power and agility to become an interior presence. That will give Paea added leverage on the open market. But measuring any Bears’ interest has been difficult as they plan using a 3-4 defense.
Other notable names on the Bears’ 18-player in-house free-agent list include quarterback Jimmy Clausen, linebacker D.J. Williams, tight end Dante Rosario, offensive lineman Eben Britton and special teams standout Sherrick McManis.
4) With major shake-ups in the front office and coaching staff, will the Bears be able to capitalize on any connections during this upcoming period?
The Bears will march into free agency with a new GM who’s deeply familiar with the Saints roster, a coach and offensive coordinator (Adam Gase) who can offer intelligence on Broncos players and a defensive coordinator (Vic Fangio) who knows plenty about the free agents coming out of the 49ers’ pipeline.
That should accelerate the homework the Bears will do on free agents from all three teams, a list that includes receiver Robert Meachem, linebacker Ramon Humber and safety Jamarca Sanford (Saints); Moore, defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, guard Orlando Franklin and linebacker Nate Irving (Broncos); and cornerback Perrish Cox and linebacker Dan Skuta (49ers).
Knighton may be the most intriguing prospect on that list, a beefy but agile 28-year-old space-filler, who would fit the profile of what the Bears covet at nose tackle.
Raiders coach Jack Del Rio was Knighton’s coordinator with the Broncos the last three seasons and also was with him with the Jaguars for three years. Del Rio labels Knighton “a dancing bear type” and a significant asset to a 3-4 defense.
“He’s kind of a big powerful man who can stay on his feet and run down the line,” Del Rio said. “This game is about big, powerful men (who function) so that the guys who have the skill level can do their things.”
Knighton won’t come cheap. And both Pace and Fox have cast recent votes of confidence in Jeremiah Ratliff as a nose tackle option. But familiarity could become a factor for Fox.
Overall, the Bears are aware of the workload that will be required to reshape the roster to their liking. Free agency won’t solve all of their issues but should offer a valuable starting point.