Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports
The Bears were a bad team in 2014, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t some solid individual performances. The Bears actually had a few players who had the best season of their respective careers and a couple of young players who proved that they belong in the league. Here is a list of Bears free agents that I think they should bring back for the 2015 campaign in order of importance.
DT Stephen Paea – After three disappointing seasons the former 2nd round pick finally lived up to his potential. It helped that he played a full 16 game season for the first time in his career, but when healthy Paea was more dominant than he’d been at any point earlier. Paea had a career high 5 sacks, finished second on the team in QB hurries with 31 and QB hits with 11, and had the 2nd highest defensive grade on the team according to Pro Football Focus (14.4). His grade from PFF was the 11 best grade at the DT position over more well known names like Geno Atkins (8.8), Nick Fairley (9.8) and Henry Melton (11.5).
It’s surprising considering how bad the Bears defense was, but their DT combination of Ratliff and Paea was the 3rd best combo in the NFL according to PFF. The Bears drafted two DTs early last year, Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton, but neither has proven that they are ready to start. The Bears defensive line has the potential to be the strength of the team next year and with weaknesses everywhere else, they can’t afford to lose one of their best DTs. We saw in 2013 how hard it is to stop anyone with a weak defensive line. Paea’s injury history should keep the price to re-sign him reasonable. Also Jay Ratliff is 34 this season and 2015 is the last year of his deal, so the Bears could be in bad shape if they let Paea go this year and Ratliff retires after the 2015 season.
Projected 2015 Salary: $4M
CB Demontre Hurst – Was the Bears slot corner for the last third of the season and showed flashes of competence with positive grades in five of his last seven games. Hurst diagnoses plays quickly, breaks on the ball well and is very aggressive in run support. He’s small (5’10) and doesn’t have great hands, but his unusually long arms and 37″ vertical help make up for his lack of height. The Bears didn’t allow him to blitz much, but he showed good instints and timing when he did and depending on who takes over the Bears defense, Hurst could be a lot more active rushing the passer. Cardinals DC Todd Bowles, one of the favorites for the Bears HC job, blitzes more than any current DC in the league and Hurst would be a great fit for his scheme.
Regardless of who takes over as head coach, there is a shortage of competent defensive backs in the league. A young player like Hurst, who has shown the potential to be an impact player in the slot, is worth keeping around. Due to his inexperience the price tag on Hurst should be modest and he could be a good value down the road if he solidifies his spot as the starting slot corner.
Projected 2015 salary: $750,000
CB Al Louis-Jean – Was thrown in the fire this year despite starting less than 10 games in college due to an injury and a coaching change. The 20-year old corner made some mistakes, but also flashed natural cover ability. Louis-Jean has great size (6’1, 200) and sub 4.5 speed. He has the potential to be a starting NFL corner in time, but needs to improve his technique and more importantly just get the developmental snaps that he missed in college. Not only was Louis-Jean not drafted, but he wasn’t even a priority free agent; he made the Bears on a mini-camp tryout, so he’s not going to cost much to keep. The minimal investment could pay off in a year or two if Louis-Jean can develop into a starting corner.
Projected 2015 salary: $510,000
C/G Brian de la Puente – Phil Emery’s last move as Bears GM was to re-sign 35 year old center Roberto Garza to a 1 year deal. I’m not sure what Emery was thinking as Garza was coming off his worst season as the Bears center. According to PFF he was the 21st ranked starting center (out of 32). Watching Garza all year, I thought it was his worst season as well. He was often overpowered in pass pro and didn’t seem to get much push in the run game. The signing was even more confusing when the Bears had a younger (29), more effective center on the roster in de la Puente. When Garza was injured between week 1 & 6, de le Puente took over and played very well with an 8.2 grade over that stretch. Not only did he outplay Garza this season, but his $795k salary was just over half of what Garza cost ($1.5M) the Bears. I understand that Garza is a leader on and off the field, but his play was below average this season and he isn’t getting any better at 35 years old.
The re-signing of Garza doesn’t mean the Bears can’t bring de la Puente back next season. If anything, relying on a 35 year old center to stay healthy almost forces the Bears to have a solid backup on the roster. I don’t think de la Puente is the Bears future at center, but he gives them a solid stop gap if they want to draft a center to develop this year.
Projected 2015 salary: $1M
Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports
TE Zach Miller – Remember this guy? Miller was one of the preseason stars for the Bears this season. He is a dynamic receiving tight end with the size to be a competent blocker. He has had a hard-luck injury history but has the talent to be a weapon in the passing game. Eventually Miller’s luck has to change right? He is certainly due for an injury-free season and it won’t cost the Bears much to give him a chance.
Projected 2015 salary: $730,000
ILB DeDe Lattimore – The priority undrafted free agent became one of the Bears better special teams players by the end of the season. Lattimore is an old-school, 2-down MLB who is a big hitter in the run game. He’s probably not athletic enough in coverage to be a starter, but he can play on obvious run situations and his fierce hitting will play well on special teams.
Projected 2015 salary: $510,000
CB/S Charles Tillman – I admit I have a hard time being objective about Peanut Tillman. He’s been one of my favorite Bears for most of his career and I hope the Bears give him one more chance. Tillman has stated his desire to play in 2015 and it would be painful to see him put on a different uniform than the one he was worn his entire career. I’m not sure how much value Tillman could provide on the field, but maybe a move to safety would extend his career another season or two. He would definitely provide value on the sidelines where he can teach young corners like Fuller, Hurst, and Louis-Jean the tricks of the trade. With the Bears transitioning to new management this season, keeping a veteran like Tillman would provide some much needed stability in the locker room. I’m sure he’s got a few more forced fumbles in him as well.
Projected 2015 salary: $2M