Tier 2 – Above Average Veteran Starters ($3-$6M): If the Bears miss out on a player from the above tier, they could compensate by signing 3 of the guys below who would all improve the defense considerably. I’m not 100% convinced that isn’t the better option anyway. There are a lot of holes on the Bears defense and the quantity over quality approach makes some sense.
DE Willie Young, Lions (28, $5M) – His 4 sacks in 2013 might not excite Bears fans, but they don’t tell the whole story of how productive Young was an edge rusher last season. He finished third in the league with 48 QB hurries, behind only Greg Hardy and Cameron Wake.. Young did play on a talented defensive line so might have faced less attention than he would on a team with less D-line talent (the Bears), but in his first year as a full-time starter he showed the ability to get to the QB. That is a talent the Bears are really lacking right now and Young will be much less expensive than big name options like Bennett & Houston. For the 2013 season he graded out almost equally against the run and pass, so he’s not just an edge rusher but a well-rounded DE who can stay on the field all three downs. If the Bears can get him for $4M or less, they should pull the trigger.
SS Donte Whitner, 49ers (29, $5M) – I’ve begged all off-season for a guy who can patrol the middle of the field and strike fear in opponents. Whitner is that guy. Any time a guy wants to change his legal name to “Hitner”, you know he is willing to lay some people out. For all the attention his hitting gets, Whitner is actually solid in coverage as well. He finished 2013 as PFF’s 5th rated coverage safety and has the skill to do everything the Bears ask for from the safety position in their scheme. He’s not as young as some of the other options out there, but Whitner is coming off the best season of his career and should have 2-3 more pro bowl quality years left if the Bears were to sign him.
DT Clinton McDonald, Seahakws (27, $4.5M) – Undersized speed rusher that would be a great fit for the 3-technique DT in Bears scheme. McDonald was an underrated part of the Seahawks DT rotation and consistently generated pressure up the middle. I don’t think he is the answer as the Bears every down DT, but as a rotational DT similar to his role with the Seahawks, McDonald would be a significant upgrade over the bums that Bears had out there last season. He has proven that he can pressure the QB and he is decent against the run as well. Paired with either Melton, Aaron Donald, or fellow free agent Earl Mitchell, McDonald could be a solid member of the Bears rebuilt defensive line. I wouldn’t pay more than $3.5M per, but at price he’s a good value.
FS Chris Clemons, Dolphins (28, $3M) – Sometimes it takes a few years for a player to find his niche in the NFL and that appears to be the case with Chris Clemons. He struggled to establish a role in his first few years with the Dolphins but over the last two seasons has become an above average free safety. Clemons has excellent range and good instincts in coverage while providing a solid presence against the run. He’s not flashy and is step or two below Byrd & Ward talent-wise, but is a major improvement over the Bears safeties last year. Clemons is a smart player and could provide leadership at the back-end of the Bears defense which hasn’t been there since Mike Brown was a Bear. Clemons has also started 32 consecutive games, so he’s a pretty safe bet to earn the $3M or so it would take to sign him. His versatility, durability, price tag, leadership, and well-rounded skill set make Clemons my choice for the Bears in this tier.
FS Antoine Bethea, Colts (30, $3M) - I think Emery would prefer to sing a younger safety, but the Bears want to win now and signing a solid veteran like Bethea could stabilize the defensive backfield and give them a guy at the back of the defense who has seen it all. Bethea is undersized (5’11) and not that fast, but has proven to be a guy who can step in and play at a borderline pro bowl level . At this point in his career, he is best suited for a zone coverage defense like the Bears. I wouldn’t overpay or be the first guy to call him, but if Bethea is still around at the end of March it would make sense to give him a call and see if the Bears can get a discount. Every year there are good veterans players who are forced to sign for less than their value and with the Bears low on cap space , Emery should be looking for as many of those guys as he can find.