- Jeff Dickerson, ESPN Staff Writer
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With NFL free agency officially set to begin on March 12 (teams can begin to negotiate with agents of unrestricted free agents on March 9.), let's take a look at the top five Chicago Bears players with expiring contracts.
1. Henry Melton, DT: The question isn't whether the Bears want to re-sign Melton; it's at what price. The Bears negotiated with Melton's camp during the regular season, but the two sides were unable to strike a deal. When that happens, it's for one of two reasons, or sometimes both: money and years. With a combined 13 sacks over the past two seasons and a team-high 24 quarterback pressures in 2012, Melton probably deserves to be one of the higher paid defensive tackles in the NFL, but that range can cover anywhere from $5 million to $6 million a year or more. Finding the right dollar amount is obviously important, and so is the length of the contract. The Bears' preference likely would be to sign Melton to a five-year deal, while he will no doubt be looking to commit to just four years so he can potentially reach free agency again around the time he turns 30. The franchise tag is always an option, but that mechanism, while collectively bargained in the NFL CBA, can lead to awkward and potentially messy situations. If the Bears want Melton badly enough, the two sides should be able to work out a deal. But keep in mind the Bears have several needs to address this offseason, and only so much salary cap space, so they can't overpay to keep just one player.
2. Brian Urlacher, MLB: This one is complicated. On one hand, it would be nice to see Urlacher, a future Hall of Famer, retire on his own terms while wearing a Bears uniform, especially since he has given 13 years to the organization and to the city of Chicago. Despite missing the entire preseason with knee issues, Urlacher still had 88 tackles, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and one pick-six interception before he hurt his hamstring late in the year. With a full offseason to recover, an argument can be made that Urlacher can still be a productive and important member of any defense. But what kind of contract is Urlacher looking for? He made a total of $8 million last year between his base salary ($7.5 million) and workout bonus ($500,000). Will Urlacher have to take a pay cut to keep playing? Or would the Bears or another NFL team sign him to a two-year, $16 million-plus deal? And does Urlacher even want to stick around after Lovie Smith got fired? It's tough to say. Bears general manager Phil Emery was non-committal when the subject of Urlacher was broached at his end of the year press conference, but I have to imagine the McCaskey family would love to see No. 54 retire a Bear. However this plays out, it figures to be one of the most difficult and controversial Bears player decisions of the offseason.
3. Nick Roach, LB: Regardless of what happens with Urlacher, Roach has done enough to deserve another contract extension. Intelligent and athletic enough to play both strong side and middle linebacker, Roach finished last year sixth on the team in overall tackles (84) and tied for third in tackles-for-a-loss (five). The 27-year-old turned out to be one of the best deals on the roster last year with a base salary of just $1.715 million and a cap hit of $2.815 million. Obviously, Roach is in line for a bump in pay, but he has said repeatedly how happy he is in Chicago, his professional home for the past six years. With Urlacher and Lance Briggs both in their 30's, doesn't it make sense to bring back the youngest player in the linebacker trio with 59 career starts?
4. Lance Louis, OG: Louis would probably have a new contract by now if he hadn't suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament against the Minnesota Vikings on Nov. 25. Before the injury, Louis was the best offensive lineman on the Bears roster, and a strong candidate receive an in-season extension. But injuries are a part of the game, so Louis now spends his offseason rehabbing his surgically repaired knee at Halas Hall. Players are usually forced to take less when they injure themselves in a contract year, no matter how well they were playing before getting hurt. But Louis is still young for an offensive lineman (he turns 28 in April), so the hope is he can fully recover in time to for the start of next season. Maybe Louis opts to sign a shorter deal now with an eye on cashing in down the road when he proves to teams he can still play at the high level he showed last year. Given the state of the Bears' offensive line, I'll argue the club is still much better off with Louis than without him heading into next year, even if the knee injury requires more time to heal than expected.
5. Israel Idonije, DL: The Bears re-signed Idonije last offseason to a one-year deal with a total value of $2.5 million. I'd say that was money well spent. The 32-year-old Idonije ranked second on the Bears' with 7.5 sacks, despite losing some playing time to Corey Wootton at defensive end, while showcasing his versatility by moving inside to play defensive tackle in the nickel package. Idonije can still play. The issue becomes cost, and whether the Bears can find a younger and cheaper player to fill Idonije's role. Or perhaps the Bears spend big money in free agency to land a defensive end like Detroit's Cliff Avril. As it stands now, Julius Peppers ($16.383 million cap number in 2013), former first-round pick Shea McClellin and Wootton figure to be on the roster at defensive end next season. Now it's up to the Bears to decide if they can upgrade from Idonije in the draft or free agency. If they can't, another one-year deal for Idonije doesn't sound like the worst idea.
Other Bears' scheduled to be free agents include: CB Zack Bowman, QB Jason Campbell, QB Josh McCown, WR Johnny Knox, DT Nate Collins, OT Jonathan Scott, RB Kahlil Bell, DB D.J. Moore, OG Chris Spencer, CB Kelvin Hayden, LB Geno Hayes and DT Amobi Okoye.