As of right now that Bears have just under $9M in cap space. As most of you know, that number is fluid with some major cuts expected (Peppers, Bush) and the ability to easily restructure recent contracts for Jay Cutler and Tim Jennings. It’s difficult to establish an accurate estimate of how much space the Bears actually have because there is no way to know who will be released and how much money will be moved around existing contracts, so for the purpose of this article I used a $20M spending limit. That number assumes both Peppers & Bush are released and doesn’t factor in any contract restructuring. The number really could swing by millions in either direction, depending on if they make more cuts (E. Bennett, Weems) or less (Peppers). There are infinite possibilities really, so I am just going to go with a nice round feasible number like $20M.
I separated the potential free agent targets into tiers. The six tiers are based on skill-level and estimated salary. I think the Bears will have enough cap flexibility to sign one major free agent (tier 1), an above average veteran (tier 2), one young player with pro bowl potential (tier 3), maybe a couple solid veterans on a discount (tier 4), 1 post-hype guy (tier 5) and depth guys as needed to fill any remaining holes (tier 6). I left out a bunch of good players in each tier because I am only listing players that I think are the best fit for the Bears. I also selected the player I think is the best option in each group. If I left any players out that you think are a better fit, we can argue about it in the comments.
I took a guess at what each player is going to make, but it is just an educated prediction and a tough thing to gauge. I got a few right last year, but was way off on more. Did anyone predict someone would give Greg Jennings $9M a year? He might be worth that if Aaron Rodgers was coming with him, but I thought he’d be lucky to get $5M per. $12M per for Mike Wallace? Even the normally smart Patriots gave injury-prone Danny Amendola $6M a year. My point is that even savvy GMs get a little nutty the first week of free agency. The Packers just gave CB Sam Shields almost $10M a year! The Bears free agent moves in 2013 worked out pretty well for the most part (Slauson, Bushrod, M. Bennett), so let’s hope Emery keeps his hot streak going. I’m covering just the first three tiers today, so come back tomorrow for the next three.
* My choices are made under the assumption that the Bears are done re-signing their own players and there will be no last-minute deals for DT Henry Melton, CB Charles Tillman, or QB Josh McCown.
Tier 1 – All-Pro Potential (8M-$10M per year): If the Bears had a few less holes to fill they could conceivably afford two of these guys, but that would drain the majority of their cap money and leave them with untested draft picks or sub-replacement players at a couple starting positions. Even just one of these guys makes the Bears defense considerably better and fills a major hole. All five of these guys have at least two prime years left and are worth the three+ years of guaranteed money it will take to sign them. If any of these guys end up in a Bears uniform next year, then free agency was a success regardless of the rest of their moves.
DE Lamarr Houston, Raiders (27, $8M) - Underrated pass rusher whose 57 QBH (hits+hurries) was 6th in the NFL for 4-3 defensive ends. Houston is also stout against the run, leading all DEs with 63 tackles. He may have only had 6 sacks last year but he was one of the best in the league at generating pressure on the QB, he’s great against the run, and he’s only 27. I’m shocked the Raiders didn’t franchise him; Different management, same dumb mistakes. I think Houston is exactly what the Bears need. He’s not quite as explosive as Bennett getting to the QB but he’s no slouch, Houston is significantly better against the run, and should cost a million or two less than Bennett. It’s a touch choice, but I’m going with Houston as my pick for the Bears top free agent target.
DE Michael Bennett, Seahawks (28, $9M) - Well rounded defensive end who is an ideal fit for the Bears scheme and needs. The Bears had a chance to sign Bennett last off-season and didn’t so it makes me wonder if they are willing to offer Bennett the big money it will take to sign him. There is a lot of talk about Bears TE Martellus Bennett luring his brother Michael to the Bears for a slight discount, but if Michael wasn’t willing to give the Seahawks a discount, there is little chance the Bears get one. Bennett is a year older than Houston, isn’t quite as good against the run, and will cost a little more but I would still be stoked if the Bears can sign him.
SS T.J. Ward, Browns (27, $7M) – The Bears haven’t had a hard-hitting safety roaming the middle of their defense since Gary Fencik. It’s about time for one and Ward would be a perfect fit, but he’s probably going to be too expensive. With Jairus Byrd rumored to be asking for $9M per, Ward can’t be far behind. If the Bears maximized their cap room, then maybe, but as an organization they have never prioritized the safety position and in their scheme it just isn’t as important as the defensive line. It’s fun to picture Ward making all those tackles that Wright & Conte missed in the middle of the field, but I think it’s a pipe dream. Unless of course they miss out on their defensive line targets and focus on the secondary. If they do, Ward should be the first name on their list.
FS Jairus Byrd, Bills (27, $9M) – With apologies to Earl Thomas, who is surrounded by much more talent, Byrd is the best free safety in the NFL. He wants to be paid like it at a rumored $9M per year, which probably knocks him off the Bears list of targets. Byrd has elite range in coverage and is a sure tackler. There really isn’t anything not to like. Byrd is basically the opposite of Chris Conte.
Speaking off Conte, please click on this link. It’s hilarious.
DE Michael Johnson, Benglas (27,$78M) - My least favorite of the high-end options; Johnson is just a little too inconsistent for the price. Over the last three seasons, he has had at least 5 “no-impact” games per season and the majority of those have come against top tackles. $7-$8M per year seems like too much to pay for a guy that mainly feasts on sub-par competition. His stats back up my theory. In 2012 when the Bengals line was dominant, Johnson had 13 sacks. In 2013 when they were hit with injuries and offenses paid more attention to Johnson he had 3.5 sacks. I won’t be sad if the Bears sign him; With the exception of Peppers on a good day, Johnson is more talented than anyone in the Bears DE group, but it just seems like too risky of a play for the price tag.