Using the draft and free agency to tag team their roster issues is a strategy the Chicago Bears worked to perfect in rebuilding their offense. Based on new information, how could they go about that process for the defense over the next few months?
This rates as the toughest decision for the Bears to make. Defensive end is already thin for them, so cutting Julius Peppers seems counterproductive. However, he’s turning 34 and becoming too expensive. Better to save the $9.8 million in cap space and repair other areas.
Marc Trestman insisted the down season Michael Bush had was less to do with his own ability and more about the coaches not giving him enough opportunities. True or not, Bush is approaching 30 and getting paid too much as a backup for an offense he’s not a good fit for.
Finishing with career-worst numbers even after taking a pay cut is not a good sign for receiver Earl Bennett. He made a few plays here and there but failed to command more attention in the offense.
There is really no sugarcoating it. Adam Podlesh ended the 2013 season dead last in average yards per punt. That won’t cut it for a team that needs good field position based on new philosophies. Podlesh doesn’t have the leg, and thus shouldn’t have the roster spot. This final cut could land the Bears with upwards of $24 million in cap space.
One thing that is clear about the Bears is that they want top names like Charles Tillman and Henry Melton back, but only at their price. If Melton does go the team will want to make sure they lock up veteran and former Pro Bowler Jeremiah Ratliff to anchor the three-technique tackle position.
Conversely, if Peppers is indeed cut then re-signing defensive end Corey Wootton becomes equally imperative. He should be easier to bring back given his limited market value after a quiet statistical season but the Bears know he is a trustworthy starter.
The last key free agent to retain is D.J. Williams. Jon Bostic was a nice experiment at middle linebacker but he has proven more of an athlete than a thinker. His future lay on the outside. Williams played well in the middle before getting hurt and should return at a fair price.
The thing to remember is free agency isn’t about getting the best talent, it’s about filling positions and depth that are not as available when the draft roles around. The 2014 free agent period looks like it will have a number of solid defensive ends and safeties available. Based on their current salary cap and what they gained, here are the names I would sign.
Justin Tuck – DE
Even with their new-found cap space the Chicago front office must be careful not to get overextended on the open market. They will want to target quality players but ones that won’t cost too much. Justin Tuck is a perfect example. At 30-years old he won’t command a huge contract but his 11.5 sacks last season proves he has enough gas in the tank for a few more years of solid pass rush ability.
Thomas DeCoud – FS
He was predicted as a salary cap casualty given his rough 2013 season but Thomas DeCoud proved himself as a playmaker in coverage at free safety when he made the Pro Bowl in 2012. The key will be protecting him with pass rush, something the Atlanta Falcons didn’t do. His instincts and aggressive nature will give Chris Conte serious competition.
Mike Neal – DE
The Green Bay Packers have a lot of free agents to sift through and not all of them could return. Among those names is 26-year old Mike Neal. What is impressive about him is he was forced to outside linebacker during the season, slimming down to 280 lbs. He wound up with five sacks. That size would translate well to defensive end, and the Bears need depth at that position badly.
With free agency taking some of the edge off, by this point the Chicago Bears brass will then be allowed to go after the best defensive player available. Here are the players that should be taken based on current projections for the NFL draft in May.
Round 1 – Justin Gilbert – CB – Oklahoma State
Charles Tillman is likely on his way out, which will leave a rather large hole to fill at cornerback. Few had a better college season or a better combine than Justin Gilbert. The Oklahoma state corner is fast, agile, physical and showed the instinct to not only cover but play the football. He’s the athletic playmaker Phil Emery wants.
Round 2 – Kelcy Quarles – DT – South Carolina
One lesson Emery said he learned in his first two drafts is that when it comes to defensive linemen, length and size matter a lot. Kelcy Quarles brings plenty of both out of South Carolina, along with a good motor and clear pass rush potential after posting 9.5 sacks for the Gamecocks last season.
Round 3 – Craig Loston – SS – LSU
One other thing the Chicago Bears defense lacked was a voice on the field. Sure, Lance Briggs, Williams and Tillman probably took turns in that endeavor but never enough to make a true difference. Craig Loston is lauded by scouts for his tough, physical nature but also his clear leadership intangibles coming out of LSU. He would make a fine addition at strong safety.
Obviously there would be more players to consider in free agency and the later rounds of the draft but as follows the Bears would have added Justin Tuck to pair with Wootton at defensive end with a proven rusher Mike Neal also joining the rotation. Jeremiah Ratliff would anchor at tackle with Kelcy Quarles to learn behind him. Craig Loston could step in right away at strong safety with a possible rangy former Pro Bowler next to him in Thomas DeCoud. Then there is Justin Gilbert bringing his potential shutdown corner ability across from Tim Jennings. Above all it is a unit much higher in athleticism than a year ago, something that will serve the Bears well.