AFC North: Chicago Bears

Teams around the NFL can start contacting and negotiating with agents of players set to become unrestricted free agents beginning on Saturday, but deals can’t be executed until March 11 at 3 p.m. CT when the new league year starts.

As that date approaches, we take a look at Chicago’s pending free agents, and their chances of returning to the team in the first part of our weeklong series.

Tillman
2014 free agent: Charles Tillman

Position: Cornerback

2013 statistics: 8 games; 52.5 tackles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss, three interceptions, four pass breakups and three forced fumbles.

2013 salary: $7.95 million base salary and $51,575 workout bonus -- $8,001,575 cash value.

Outlook: The Bears are expected to make a strong push to keep Tillman. Although the club does want to be younger on defense, Tillman is still viewed as a key component in the immediate future. The question boils down to whether Tillman wants to return and play for head coach Marc Trestman. The two-time Pro Bowl cornerback is expected to have multiple suitors in free agency. Tillman has strong ties to Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith, Jacksonville Jaguars defensive coordinator Bob Babich, Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli and Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera from their time in Chicago. Tillman will have options.

McCown
2014 free agent: Josh McCown

Position: Quarterback

2013 statistics: 8 games, 5 starts; 1,829 yards passing, 13 touchdowns and one interception; 109.0 passer rating.

2013 salary: $840,000 base salary and $5,600 workout bonus -- $870,600 cash value.

Outlook: McCown has repeatedly expressed a desire to return to Chicago, and almost everyone in the building, ranging from general manager Phil Emery to starting quarterback Jay Cutler, say they want the reserve signal-caller back. But talks between the sides haven’t necessarily reflected what has been said publicly (that doesn’t imply talks have gone badly, but things have moved slowly). McCown holds more leverage than ever in his career after the way he played in relief of Cutler last season, but the Bears haven’t been in a hurry to get the quarterback signed to a deal. McCown will have plenty of suitors in free agency. A legitimate opportunity to compete for a starting job could lure him away from Chicago.

Hester
2014 free agent: Devin Hester

Position: Special teams returner

2013 statistics: 52 kickoff returns for 1,436 yards (27.6 average); 18 punt returns for 256 yards (14.2) and one touchdown.

2013 salary: $1,857,523 base salary and $250,000 workout bonus -- $2,107,523 cash value.

Outlook: Hester is unlikely to return to Chicago. The Bears probably aren’t interested in paying a couple of million dollars to a player who will strictly return kicks for a second straight year. Hester did a decent job adjusting to his new role in 2013, but he didn’t make the type of impact necessary to command the same kind of salary (or even a raise) in 2014. Like Tillman, Hester will have offers from around the league. A reunion with Smith in Tampa makes sense. Hester is also close with current Arizona Cardinals wide receivers coach Darryl Drake. Maybe some interest materializes on that front. A couple other undisclosed teams expressed a certain degree of interest in Hester two weeks ago at the NFL combine. Hester will land on his feet, but he probably won’t get the chance to continue his career with the Bears.

Ratliff
2014 free agent: Jeremiah Ratliff

Position: Defensive tackle

2013 statistics: Five games, four starts; 14.5 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 tackle for lost yardage.

2013 salary: $840,000 base salary -- $395,294 cash value.

Outlook: Ratliff didn’t show much in 2013, making his Chicago debut nearly a month after joining the team. But he performed well enough over the last five games of the season that the Bears would like to bring him back. The Bears met with Ratliff’s representatives at the NFL combine in Indianapolis recently to see about working out a deal, and the sides remain in contact about the defensive tackle’s potential return to Chicago. Other teams will likely show interest, too. At 32, Ratliff is still plenty capable of contributing at a high level. He also possesses the toughness the Bears want to instill on what’s expected to be a revamped defense. And let's be real, Ratliff is arguably a better player than even a healthy Henry Melton.

Live blog: Ravens at Bears

November, 17, 2013
11/17/13
10:00
AM ET
Join our ESPN.com NFL experts as they break down the Baltimore Ravens' visit to the Chicago Bears. Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 1 p.m. ET. And, be sure to visit our NFL Nation Blitz page for commentary from every game, as well as fan photos and the latest buzz from Twitter. See you there.
James Ihedigbo and Brandon Marshall USA TODAY SportsJames Ihedigbo and the Ravens' secondary face a challenge in Bears receiver Brandon Marshall.

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- If the playoffs started today, the Chicago Bears and the Baltimore Ravens would be out. There are still seven games left in the season, but none of them can be squandered, so this matchup Sunday will see both teams fighting to get into contention in their respective conferences.

The Bears enter the contest without quarterback Jay Cutler and two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Tillman, while the Ravens are coming off their first victory in more than a month. ESPN.com Bears reporter Michael C. Wright and Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley break down the matchup.

Michael C. Wright: Last weekend, Baltimore snapped a three-game losing streak. Does the win restore any faith in the defending Super Bowl champions' ability to return to the playoffs?

Jamison Hensley: The Ravens believe Sunday’s overtime win over the Cincinnati Bengals was a good start to getting back to the postseason for a sixth straight year. Even though the Ravens knocked off the AFC North leaders, no one is boasting that this is a playoff team because it was far from a statement game. The Ravens' offense can’t run the ball, and the defense can’t get opponents off the field late in the fourth quarter. The defending Super Bowl champions definitely have some serious flaws this season.

Baltimore’s attitude would change if they can win in Chicago. The schedule suggests that this is a pivotal game. If the Ravens can change their fortunes on the road and beat the Bears, they will be at .500 entering a stretch of three straight home games against the Jets, Steelers and Vikings. The Ravens have had great success under head coach John Harbaugh in November and December, and things are set up for them to do it again this year. That is, if the Ravens can get the franchise’s first victory in Chicago.

Speaking of attitude, how are the Bears dealing with losing Cutler again?

Wright: Well, after all the second-guessing about when head coach Marc Trestman should’ve pulled Cutler or about whether the quarterback should have played in the first place, I’d say there’s a fair amount of confidence in backup Josh McCown. Before being thrust into action on Oct. 20 at Washington when Cutler tore a muscle in his groin, McCown was already one of the favorites in the locker room. General manager Phil Emery has called McCown a “glue guy,” and other players consider the 34-year-old quarterback a father figure.

In three games filling in for Cutler, McCown has completed 42 of 70 passes for 538 yards and four touchdowns, with no turnovers and a passer rating of 103.1. Obviously, in his first full start, McCown played a major role as the Bears upset the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. He has demonstrated mastery of Trestman’s offense, and the quarterback attributes that to the fact he learned the scheme from the ground up, and actually had some input in the implementation of it.

Joe Flacco received the huge contract, but clearly hasn’t been playing like a $120.6 million quarterback. What has been his biggest issue, and do you see him turning things around this season?

Hensley: Flacco takes a lot of heat because he hasn’t put up the expected numbers after signing one of the richest contracts in NFL history. But he is in a tough situation. He lost his two favorite targets when Anquan Boldin was traded and Dennis Pitta went down with a dislocated hip. Flacco has been sacked 30 times (only Ryan Tannehill and Ben Roethlisberger have been sacked more). Harbaugh applauded Flacco for making plays while scrambling. But Flacco is really running for his life.

While Flacco hasn’t had the strongest supporting cast, he also hasn’t been the same quarterback he was during the Ravens’ championship run. The biggest change is his inability to connect deep. On Sunday, Flacco was 0-for-7 with an interception on throws at least 15 yards downfield, which qualifies as the most deep attempts without a completion he has had in his career. With all of the problems on offense, the Ravens desperately need more big plays out of Flacco.

What’s the biggest concern for the Bears’ pass defense?

Wright: Where would you like to start? There are several. But the most significant right now is how the Bears will perform without one of their best players in Tillman, who on Monday was placed on the injured reserve/designated to return list. Tillman, with three interceptions and three forced fumbles, was one of the main reasons the Bears are tied for fifth in the league with 20 takeaways. Since coming into the league in 2003, Tillman ranks in the NFL’s top 10 in interceptions (36), interception-return yards (675), defensive touchdowns (nine), forced fumbles (42) and passes defended (133). That level of production is difficult to replace. But the Bears are confident in backup Zack Bowman’s ability to get the job done. Bowman started 12 games in 2009 and led the team with six interceptions. When Bowman has played this season, he has been adequate (one INT). He has size (6-foot-1, 196 pounds) similar to Tillman, which allows him to match up well with bigger receivers.

The Bears have struggled against the run, and you’d think they could be in for a long game against someone such as Ray Rice. But from what I’ve seen so far, he hasn’t been the Rice I remember from last season. What’s the deal with him?

Hensley: Rice injured his hip in Week 2 and hasn’t been the same since. He insists he’s at full strength, but the numbers say otherwise. Rice’s average of 2.5 yards per carry is worst among qualified running backs. But you can’t put all of the blame for the NFL’s 30th-ranked rushing attack on Rice. The Ravens’ offensive line has struggled to open holes, and because Flacco can’t throw the ball deep, defenses are stacking the box with eight players.

Getting some semblance of a running game is key to turning around the season, which is why the Ravens need to commit to the ground game against Chicago. Under Harbaugh, the Ravens are 45-12 when they gain more than 100 yards rushing. That’s the fifth-best mark in the NFL, which shows how important a running game is to the Ravens.

Baltimore has been up and down in terms of run defense. In their five losses, the Ravens have given up an average of 124.4 yards rushing. The Bears’ Matt Forte had good back-to-back games before he was shut down against the Lions. What’s the key to him rebounding against the Ravens?

Wright: The No. 1 key would be better blocking from the offensive line. For the first time all season, the Bears on Sunday probably lost the battle at the line of scrimmage on offense. At best, Trestman said he would call it a draw. The Bears know it’s unacceptable for Forte to average 1.9 yards per carry on 17 attempts, and Trestman said one of the major contributors to the performance against the Lions was that several players missed assignments on key plays. Going into that game, the Bears knew they wouldn’t put together a strong rushing game, but thought they’d have a chance to pop three or four explosive runs against Detroit’s dominant front. Obviously that didn’t happen. But if the Bears clean up some of the execution issues up front, Forte should be able to rebound. Going into Sunday’s game, he was averaging 4.7 yards per carry. He’ll have to get back on track if Chicago expects the offense to run smoothly because it is by establishing Forte that the Bears set up their play-action passing game.

Jay Cutler, Ben RoethlisbergerKirk Irwin/Getty ImagesQuarterbacks Jay Cutler, left, and Ben Roethlisberger lead offenses headed in opposite directions.
ESPN.com Bears reporter Michael C. Wright joins me for Double Coverage as we preview the Chicago Bears-Pittsburgh Steelers game, which will be played Sunday night at Heinz Field.

Michael, I never thought I’d say Pittsburgh sports fans are fortunate to have the Pirates, but more than halfway through September we have bizzaro world going on here. The Buccos are headed for the postseason and the Steelers haven’t come close to resembling a playoff team.

Two touchdowns in two games has Steelers fans firing offensive coordinator Todd Haley already, and yet the biggest issue the offense might face is it simply doesn’t have the personnel on that side of the ball.

On the subject of the Steelers' offense, how difficult will Bears cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings make it for wide receivers Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders to get open?

Wright: The thing about those guys is they’re not speed burners by any stretch, but they’re a pair of crafty veterans. If the Bears decide to match their corners according to who they think is the most dangerous, they’ll likely put Tillman on Brown.

In Week 1 against Cincinnati, the Bears matched Tillman with A.J. Green, and in the past they’ve matched him up against Detroit’s Calvin Johnson. I don’t think you’ll see a ton of press coverage because the Bears like to play zone, keep everything in front of them and make the offense play dink-and-dunk football until they make a mistake the defense can capitalize on.

I’d say you’ll see equal amounts of Cover 2 and a single-high safety look. When the Bears play with a single-high safety, that’s when you see the cornerbacks manned up in press coverage.

I know the past four times the Steelers started 0-2, they recovered to finish with a winning record, but how much of a sense of urgency is there in that locker room?

Brown: The Steelers have done more than just pay lip service to the reality that there better be a sense of urgency in a locker room that is one floor below the library where six Lombardi Trophies are displayed.

The veterans met among themselves before the Steelers’ first practice of the week, and I know one message they especially wanted to convey to the younger players is that the 0-2 start is unacceptable.

Free safety Ryan Clark also said he wants to make it clear that the Steelers can’t depend on turning around their season simply because they are the Steelers. Or that the fact the Steelers have made the playoffs three of the past four times they have opened 0-2 will enable them to start playing better. And he is absolutely spot-on.

The defense has played well overall, but it has yet to force a turnover, and that has to change Sunday night. That leads me to my next question: How well is quarterback Jay Cutler playing, and how have he and new coach Marc Trestman meshed?

Wright: Cutler has improved in each of the past two games, generating passer ratings of 93.2 and 97.2. Cutler is No. 5 in the NFL in completion percentage, and he’s brought the team back from late deficits in back-to-back outings.

What’s important to note about Cutler is the fact he’s finally confident in the protection (remember, he’s taken a beating over the past four seasons) and believes in Trestman’s system. Cutler has been sacked only once through the first two games. Through the first two games of 2012, he’d been sacked six times. So now Cutler is confident enough to step up into the pocket and find weapons without trepidation about being hit in the mouth by a defender.

As far as Cutler’s relationship with Trestman, so far so good. Trestman came into the Bears with the mandate to protect Cutler, which obviously went a long way with the quarterback. Trestman has said the true measure of their relationship will come when they face adversity together.

Speaking of adversity, how significant was the Maurkice Pouncey injury to the Steelers' offense?

Brown: It cost the Steelers the offensive player they could least afford to lose aside from Ben Roethlisberger, and Pouncey’s season-ending knee injury had a ripple effect.

It devastated the Steelers psychologically, as Pouncey is so respected in that locker room that his teammates voted him a captain at the age of 24. I truly believe the Steelers' season opener might have turned out differently had Pouncey not gotten hurt on Pittsburgh's first possession.

The Steelers were fortunate that an experienced center like Fernando Velasco was not on an NFL roster when Pouncey went down. Velasco picked up the offense quickly and played admirably last Monday night in Cincinnati. But he is no Pouncey, who was the unquestioned leader of a young line that is still trying to find its way.

So the Steelers go into their second straight game against an opponent that looks considerably better than them on paper. That said, what should concern the Bears most when it comes to the Steelers?

Wright: They’ve definitely got to be concerned about two things: their own pass rush (just two sacks so far, compared to eight last year at this point in the season), and surrendering explosive plays in the passing game (which often come as the result of their lack of a pass rush). Roethlesberger’s ability to move and buy time should make things even tougher for the Bears.

The Bears allowed two completions of 40-plus yards in the opener, and six connections last week for gains of 20 yards or more. That’s too much. As you know, players such as Brown and Sanders can easily turn those long completions into touchdowns. And given Roethlisberger’s mobility, Chicago’s secondary can cover the receivers for only so long before they break open.

My final question for you is how much Roethlisberger’s mobility is wasted because, as it looked last Monday night, his receivers aren’t on the same page with him?

Brown: Roethlisberger addressed that very question this week, and he said a major reason he and the receivers have been out of sync at times is because opposing teams are disrupting the wideouts’ timing.

Neither Brown nor Sanders is particularly big, and opposing cornerbacks are jamming them at the line of scrimmage. The two are simply going to have to fight through it when teams get physical with them.

Roethlisberger’s mobility is still an asset, and he could jump-start the offense by using it to extend plays and find one of his receivers down the field. That is one of Roethlisberger’s trademarks, and, like most things with the Steelers’ offense, there hasn’t been enough of that through the first two games.

Live blog: Bengals at Bears

September, 8, 2013
9/08/13
10:00
AM ET
Join our ESPN.com NFL experts as they break down the Cincinnati Bengals' visit to the Chicago Bears. Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at (1 p.m. ET). See you there.

Cutler-DaltonGetty ImagesChicago's Jay Cutler, left, and Cincinnati's Andy Dalton lead their respective offenses against very stingy defenses.
Two strong defensive teams led by highly scrutinized quarterbacks in Jay Cutler and Andy Dalton set the scene for what should be a hotly-contested matchup between what are expected to be ascending clubs.

Marc Trestman makes his debut as an NFL head coach at Soldier Field on Sunday, leading a Bears team with plenty of roster turnover on offense, including a totally revamped line expected to better protect Cutler as he operates the club’s new scheme. That group will be tested by a Bengals defensive line, led by Geno Atkins, that accounted for 43 of the team’s franchise-record 51 sacks in 2012, and also paved the way for the defense to finish the season ranked No. 6 for fewest yards allowed.

Chicago’s defense in 2012 was even better, finishing fifth in net defense, third in scoring defense (17.3 points per game) and No. 2 in turnover differential while leading the NFL in interceptions (24) and total takeaways (44).

While home-field advantage can be key for teams, it's certainly been a factor in this series. The Bengals hold a 4-1 road record against the Bears and own a 6-3 series lead, which includes victories in their last outings (2005 and 2009).

Chicago hasn’t beaten the Bengals since 2001.

ESPN.com’s Matt Williamson and Bears team reporter Michael C. Wright discuss the matchup.

Wright: The Bears hope they fixed the offensive line with a combination of scheme (shorter drops for Cutler), beefed up protection with Jermon Bushrod at left tackle and a pair of draft picks in Kyle Long (first round) and Jordan Mills (fifth) at right guard and right tackle, and another weapon for Cutler to find down the middle of the field when he’s in trouble. But the inexperience of Long and Mills will be question marks against Cincinnati’s active defensive line.

It seems Cincinnati’s defense is built around Atkins, but how much of a factor are guys like Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson?

Williamson: Atkins is the foundation of the defense for sure and everyone thrives off his presence, but the Bengals have a lot invested in the defensive line now in terms of finances and draft picks. This is an extremely deep and talented group that makes the entire defense go. Dunlap might be a little underrated and Johnson a little overrated, but they form an impressive pair of defensive end. These three players, along with the rest of Cincinnati’s defensive front, will prove a very steep challenge for Chicago’s rebuilt offensive line in Week 1.

What can the Bengals’ defense expect from this new Trestman offense?

Wright: The Bears will utilize zone blocking in the running game, which should allow Matt Forte to pick his own holes. That should open up the passing game, where the Bears will use West Coast philosophies such as shorter routes and drops for Cutler so he can get rid of the ball quickly. Look for the Bears to also try to use Earl Bennett down the seams to exploit potential matchup problems, especially on traditional running downs where the Bengals might be using base personnel.

Speaking of the Bengals, they’ve made the playoffs in three of the last four years, but really haven’t made much noise. What are the expectations for this team now?

Williamson: Expectations must go up. They had yet another high-quality offseason and this team has an exceptional young core of players on both sides of the ball. They clearly play in a tough division, but going one-and-done in the playoffs yet again will not be considered a successful season in Cincinnati. I fear they will only go as far as their quarterback will take them. But Bengals fans have a lot to be excited about.

Do you think this Bears defense can defend A.J. Green?

Wright: They should be able to keep him from dominating the game. It’s likely the Bears match Charles Tillman up against Green, but if the receiver winds up in front of Tim Jennings, the team is confident he can get the job done, too. The Bears typically don’t double or shade coverage against players such as Detroit’s Calvin Johnson, so don’t count on seeing the Bears try that against Green. Cincinnati’s tight ends could be an issue now that they’ve got two good ones in Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert.

With such a talented supporting cast, do you see Dalton as just a guy surrounded by weapons, or a blossoming young quarterback?

Williamson: He shows signs of blossoming into a solid young quarterback, and has been especially adept in the red zone, which is very noteworthy for a young quarterback. But I think he is more of the former. He is a limited passer who lacks great tools, and isn’t as accurate or on time with his throws as you would like for someone with his limitations. The Bengals knew this and landed two very “Dalton-friendly” receivers for him in Eifert and Giovani Bernard. Eifert should develop into an exceptional target in the middle of the field as well as the red zone, while Bernard provides an easy dump-off option for Dalton. With all the Bengals’ resources over the past two offseasons, it really surprises me that Cincinnati didn’t do more to challenge Dalton or greatly improve its backup quarterback spot.

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