With 7 of the 11 opening day defensive starters from last year hitting free agency, GM Phil Emery has some important decisions to make this off-season. Below is a list of the free agents from the Bears 2013 defense and whether I think Emery should re-sign them, how much I think they are worth, and whether they would fit if the Bears move to a 3-4 defense:
* All grades provided by Pro Football Focus
* All contract figures provided by Sportrac.com
DT Henry Melton: Of all the players the Bears lost to injury this year, losing Melton had the biggest impact. He wasn’t playing that great when he got hurt, but the run defense was noticeably worse as soon as he left the lineup. As hard as it was to watch the Bears once proud defense get mauled by opposing offensive lines, Melton’s injury may be a blessing in disguise for the Bears. If Melton would have come close to repeating his Pro Bowl 2012 season, his price tag would have been exorbitant and it would have taken a large chunk of the Bears salary cap space to re-sign him. Coming off a serious ACL injury it stands to reason Melton will be forced to take an incentive laden long-term deal or perhaps a “prove-it” 1-year deal to rebuild his value. If the Bears can get Melton at a reasonable discount, even if it’s just for 1 year, they should absolutely do it. He is a rare athlete, he’s still young (27), and plays a premium position. Even if the Bears decide to switch to a 3-4 scheme, Melton has the athleticism to slide over to the DE spot.
Re-sign: Yes (assuming recovery from ACL tear)
Projected deal(s): 4yrs, $16M, 1 yr $6M (about half in incentives), or franchise tag at $8.4M
3-4: Starting DE
DE/DT Corey Wooten: Perhaps the only bright spot in an otherwise miserable year for the Bear defense. Wooten proved to be extremely versatile in moving over to the DT spot after injuries to Melton, Collins, & Paea and more than held his own playing one of the most demanding positions in football. As a DT, Wooten earned a +4.2 grade from Pro Football Focus which was the highest season grade on the Bears defense. Wooten ranked 35th out of 69 DTs in the league which is pretty impressive considering it was his first time playing the position. He graded about league average as a DE the year before, proving his value wherever he lines up. His modest statistical totals might keep his price fairly reasonable on the free agent market, which would allow the Bears to bring him back without too much of a salary cap hit. He’s the consummate teammate, can play multiple DL positions well and is only 26. What’s not to like assuming his price tag is reasonable?
Projected deal: 4 yrs, $8 Mil
3-4: DE depth
DT Jeremiah Ratliff: Played in the Bears last five games after being signed mid-season. Considering that he had over a year lay-off between games due to a groin injury, Ratliff played pretty well. The run defense improved once Ratliff was inserted into the lineup and the Bears should consider bringing him back if his price tag is reasonable. He’s not young (32) so he doesn’t have the long term value of Melton or Wooten, but a 2-3 year incentive laden deal would help stabilize the interior of the line and provide insurance in case the Bears lose Melton and/or Wooten. If Ratliff was a 4 time Pro Bowler (08-11) and is a force inside when healthy and happy. That hasn’t happened often the last two years as he has been sidelined with numerous injuries and feuded with Cowboy coaches and doctors. Maybe all he needed was a change of scenery, but either way the Bears should be wary of offering him too much guaranteed money.
Re-sign: Yes (if Melton or Wooten leave)
Projected deal: 3 yrs, $6M
3-4: NT (position he played with Cowboys)
DT Nate Collins: Started two games for the Bears this year before getting injured and was great in week 5 against the Saints (2.4) and terrible in week 4 against the Lions (-2.7). Collins was in the DT rotation for 3 other games before his injury and was decent at best. Overall in the 5 games he played before being lost for the season with an ACL tear, his total grade from Pro Football Focus was 0.3. Not exactly legendary, but compared to some of the other guys the Bears put out there at DT (Cohen, Minter) he seemed great in comparison. Best case, Collins is DL depth and if the Bears can re-sign him at a back-up price, the Bears have a solid 3rd or 4th DT. We learned this year how important depth is on the DL. If the Bears are relying on Collins for anything more than that, I think it’s a mistake.
Re-sign: Yes (in reserve role)
Projected deal: 3 yrs, $3Mil
3-4: Not a fit. Too small for NT, back-up DE at best
DT Landon Cohen: Outside of 1 terrible game in week 11 (BAL, -5.7), Cohen was decent considering he was signed off the street halfway through the season. That being said, there is a reason he was on the street at the midway point of the season. Cohen played just over a third of the defensive snaps from week 7 on and can you remember him making any plays? I can think of only one off the top of my head. Cohen just isn’t an impact player and best case he is a practice squad talent. If he’s on the roster next year, the Bear made some mistakes in the off-season.
DE Chet Owazuga: Played 63 defensive snaps this season which is equivalent to roughly 1 full game. In that time Owazuga recorded 1 sack, 1 QB hurry, and 1 tackle. Meh. Owazuga is a little small for a DE but could be an interesting pass rushing option at OLB if the Bears switch to a 3-4 .
Re-sign: Who cares?
Projected deal: Minimum
3-4: Prospect at OLB
LB DJ Williams: The defense was better with Williams than without him, but he didn’t really play that well in his 6 game stint with the Bears. Granted, he missed training camp with an injury so he may not have been at his best. Either way, he only earned a positive grade in 2 games last season and was really bad in two games (NO, NYG). With the Bears considering moving Bostic outside because he couldn’t shed blocks in his rookie year the Bears don’t have a quality MLB on the roster. Williams has stated his desire to return and his price could be discounted due to age & injury, so if he is willing to take a similar 1-yr deal to the one he took in 2013 than the Bears should pull the trigger. At worst he is solid depth at a position that the Bears have none.
Re-sign: Yes, but only if the price is right ($1M or less)
Projected deal: 1-yr, $1M
3-4: Yes at ILB
LB James Anderson: While he wasn’t as egregiously bad as some of his counterparts on defense, Anderson earned a negative grade in 7 of the Bears last 8 games. When you sign a veteran for a decent contract, a fair expectation should be at least league average production. If the Bears switch to a 3-4, Anderson isn’t a good fit, but even if they stay with a 4-3 Anderson didn’t play well enough this year to justify bringing him back.
LB Blake Costanzo: Solid special teams player, but showed no ability to play LB when needed due to injuries. I think the Bears can find a solid teams guy who isn’t a liability if he’s needed to play some non-special teams snaps. Costanzo is paid like a premier ST player (715,000) and for that price he should be able to do more.
CB Tim Jennings: Already signed(1/3/14) for 4 yrs, 22.5 Mil.