The natural inclination is to look outside the current roster with the start of free agency on Tuesday, but certainly the Chicago Bears need to explore bringing back some of their own.
Obviously, the Bears won’t re-sign all 13 of their free agents (not counting Matt Forte, who received the franchise designation), but signs point to the club retaining a good portion of them. The Bears met with representatives for several of their current free agents at the NFL combine in February, but predictably kept their plans for the future close to the vest as the club weighs options outside in free agency against its own players.
Here, we attempt to unravel some of the mystery by predicting which free agents the team plans to bring back, and those expected to put on new uniforms in 2012:
Craig Steltz, S, unrestricted: Even though three safeties were recently given the franchise tag by their respective teams (Dashon Goldson, Michael Griffin, Tyvon Branch), there is still expected to be a fairly deep safety class when free agency begins Tuesday. Steltz saw his stock rise last year when he started a career-best five games, finishing with 48 tackles, three tackles for lost yardage, two forced fumbles and a sack. A 2008 fourth-round pick, Steltz always has been an excellent special teams player. He ranked fourth last season with 12 special teams stops, and is considered by many to be one of the best tacklers on the team. It's unclear if the Bears would let Steltz compete for a starting job next year if he comes back -- they should -- but one thing is clear: The Bears are a better team in 2012 with Steltz on the roster than without.
Josh McCown, QB, unrestricted: For coming in off the street in late November, McCown performed surprisingly well when given the chance to start the last two regular season games. For those efforts, the Bears should reward the veteran with a new one-year deal and make him -- at the very least -- their No. 3 quarterback. Of course, entering his 10th year in the NFL, McCown would command a respectable veteran minimum salary. Given the issues that have plagued the Bears at backup quarterback the last two seasons, retaining McCown and adding another experienced option behind Jay Cutler, sounds like a good idea. It’s believed the Bears plan to bring back McCown as the No. 3, with a chance to win the No. 2 spot in training camp.
Kahlil Bell, RB, restricted: The Bears will no doubt tender Bell with the intent of bringing him back as either the No. 2 or No. 3 running back on the depth chart. Bell coughed up the ball a few times last year, which he acknowledges can’t happen in the future. But he did run for a career-high 121 yards at Green Bay on Christmas night. Plus, the Bears backfield is a tad unsettled right now with Forte dealing with the franchise tag and Marion Barber appearing to be a prime candidate to be released because of his $2.25 million cap charge in 2012. That makes retaining Bell for another season all the more important -- and financially prudent -- for a team expected to place more of an emphasis on the run under new offensive coordinator Mike Tice.
Kellen Davis, TE, unrestricted: Lovie Smith's motives for heaping praise on Davis the last few months are simple: There probably won't be a better option available in free agency. With the exception of perhaps Seattle's John Carlson, this isn't considered a very good year to draft or sign a tight end. Even if the Bears are somehow able to upgrade with a better No. 1, Davis should still be brought back to be the No. 2, with established blocker Matt Spaeth rounding out the group. The Bears need Davis in some capacity, which is probably why Smith went overboard when he compared Davis to the great tight ends in the league, which he is not. But Davis is a terrific athlete who can run block, catch the ball and rarely makes mental mistakes. He just doesn't have a great feel for the game. Still, the Bears make it sound as if they want Davis to return, and for good reason.
Amobi Okoye, DT, unrestricted: Because of limited action, Okoye didn't exactly light the world on fire in his first season with the Bears (four sacks), but he certainly made enough plays for the Bears to strongly consider bringing him back. Despite entering his sixth NFL season, Okoye is still a young guy set to turn 25 in June. Continued work with defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli should only further Okoye’s development. Of course, there's no telling what market might develop for Okoye in free agency, or how much the defensive tackle wants to be paid, but he certainly seems like a strong candidate for the Bears to attempt to re-sign. If Okoye walks via free agency, the Bears could always attempt to re-sign the recently released Anthony Adams at a cheaper price.
Zack Bowman, CB, unrestricted: Bowman could benefit from a fresh start after being unable to permanently win back the starting job he lost to Tim Jennings in early 2010. If nothing else, Bowman -- with 16 career starts -- should be an attractive option in the second wave of free agency for teams looking to improve depth at cornerback. Despite a rough outing at the end of 2011 against Green Bay, a game in which the coaching staff required Bowman to play outside leverage in the red zone, Bowman has an impressive combination of size and athleticism, not to mention a proven track record of being a quality special teamer (10 special-teams tackles and a fumble recovery last year). All it takes is one offseason to catch the eye of a coaching staff. Bowman has turned heads in the past -- six interceptions in 2009 -- so what's to say it can't happen again with a change of scenery?
Caleb Hanie, QB, unrestricted: Hanie will not return to the Bears after starting four games last season in place of the injured Jay Cutler. The next move for the quarterback will be to try and catch on with a team and win a backup job in training camp. With four accrued NFL seasons, Hanie will be more expensive for teams to carry on their roster than say a rookie or second-year player. That could make finding work a little more difficult. But there could be a coach, or general manager who feels Hanie can still be a player in the NFL. If Roy Williams catches a sure touchdown pass versus Kansas City, or if Marion Barber knew the basic rules of football, the Bears probably win two of the games Hanie started, which might have improved his free-agent stock. None of those happened, so now the quarterback must wait and see how the market pans out.
Brandon Meriweather, S, unrestricted: Meriweather never got on track in Chicago after the Bears overpaid ($3.25 million) to land the two-time Pro Bowler and former New England Patriot, and Smith admitted as much last month at the NFL combine. Meriweather started four games over the first five weeks, but became an afterthought by the end of the season, playing in just six more games and being held out the rest despite being healthy. He lived up to his reputation of being an undisciplined freelancer, which makes his initial signing even more curious, since Smith has always refused to tolerate any freelancing or undisciplined play in the secondary.
Chris Massey, LS, unrestricted: The Bears' plan right now is to not bring back Massey, who did a good job filling in for Patrick Mannelly over the final six weeks. Fullback Tyler Clutts can probably handle long-snapping duties in the offseason until Mannelly is fully recovered from his knee injury. But Massey proved to the Bears he can be a reliable option if necessary.
Corey Graham, CB, unrestricted: There is little question Graham prefers a fresh start. In fact, Graham felt that way last year until the post-lockout market forced him back to the Bears. But is Graham going to find a team that will sign and pay him like a starter or give him the opportunity to fill such a role? Teams, however, will be interested -- there is already one report of Graham drawing interest from the San Diego Chargers. But how do they view Graham? Is he a starter or simply a versatile reserve and outstanding special teams player? We know how the Bears view Graham, however. We also know they really want to keep him and would likely offer up a nice bump in pay. Here's the bottom line: If Graham gets an opportunity to start, then he needs to leave. If he doesn't, he should think long and hard about coming back to the Bears.
Tim Jennings, CB, unrestricted: Free agents are going to find out their true worth in this market. One of those players is Jennings, who is looking for a sizeable raise from the $1.4 million base salary he pocketed in 2011. Jennings and his representatives haven’t heard from the Bears so far this offseason about a possible return, according to sources. Although he is a good player, Jennings isn’t someone the Bears are going to overspend to keep. If Jennings can't get what he wants from another team, perhaps he does return to the Bears, but probably in a backup role, or maybe as a candidate to compete at the nickel position.
Israel Idonije, DE, unrestricted: This might come down to money. Idonije earned base salaries the past two seasons of $2.4 million, and carried a cap charge in 2011 of $2.833 million. How much more is Idonije looking for in 2012? What are the Bears willing to pay? How much interest is there for the 31-year-old once free agency begins? Even if the Bears try and find a new starting defensive end to complement Julius Peppers, we can certainly argue the Bears are better off keeping Idonije in the rotation over Corey Wootton, who has yet to make much of a mark after two years in the NFL, largely because of injuries. Not only has Idonije proved himself to be a much more effective pass rusher than Wootton, he’s versatile and can drop inside to play tackle if necessary. But here is where draft status and the economics of the game play a factor. Wootton is scheduled to earn a base salary of $490,000 in 2012. In a perfect world, the Bears upgrade at defensive end while keeping Idonije in the rotation, maybe as the No. 3 pass rusher. That would leave Wootton and veteran Chauncey Davis, who showed some flashes last year, to battle it out for the last spot. But we all know it's not always a perfect world.
Roy Williams, WR, unrestricted: Former offensive coordinator Mike Martz’s lofty prediction of 80-plus catches for Williams during training camp led to unrealistic expectations for the veteran receiver, who tied for second on the team in receptions (37). Williams played more snaps (616) than any other receiver on the roster and was the second-most targeted (60), dropping seven of the 44 catchable balls thrown his way. Interestingly, Williams was the team’s second-leading receiver from the slot (behind Earl Bennett), where he caught 10 passes for 139 yards and a touchdown with only one drop. So perhaps a spot in the slot is in Williams’ future if he remains with the Bears. According to a source, the team indicated shortly after the season it wanted to bring him back in 2012. But sources also indicated that Williams and his representatives haven’t yet heard from the Bears about re-signing with the team. Given what’s on the roster now and the major back injury to Johnny Knox -- who ranked second on the team with 547 snaps in 2011 -- the Bears don’t have many options at the position. So unless the club plans on making multiple acquisitions at receiver, it makes sense to bring back Williams, who despite the drops, made several catches in 2011 that most of the team’s receivers -- outside of Bennett -- couldn't make.