Veteran defensive end Julius Peppers remains the crown jewel of the Chicago Bears' edge rushers, even though he recently turned 33 years old and carries a $16.383 million cap number in 2013. It would be difficult to convince even the most casual observer that the Bears would better off without Peppers next year, despite the amount of money he ties up from a salary cap standpoint. Peppers is still effective and his team-high 11.5 sacks prove that.
With that in mind, the question now becomes whether the Bears need to prioritize finding another complement to Peppers, or if that player is already on the roster.
Will Israel Idonije be back for a 10th season with the Bears?
The Bears have a decision to make regarding Israel Idonije, who is an unrestricted free agent again this offseason after signing a one-year, $2.5 million deal last March. Entering his 10th NFL season, Idonije had 7.5 sacks in 2012, the second-highest total of his career, even though he bounced inside to defensive tackle in the nickel package as the season wore on.
Idonije, 32, also brings a certain amount of intangibles to the table that should not be overlooked. A former finalist for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, he's spent nearly his entire professional career in Chicago, a community he has served well off the field through the various efforts of his successful charitable foundation. As is the case in most negotiations, it could come down to money. If Idonije fields longer and more lucrative offers in free agency, then perhaps he leaves. But if the Bears can somehow find a way to lock him up to a contract similar to the one he agreed to last offseason, it makes sense for the Bears to seriously consider bringing him back for at least one more season, especially when you consider how few impact veteran pass rushers are expected to be available in free agency.
Regardless of what happens with Idonije, fourth-year defensive end Corey Wootton is coming off a breakout season and should be in a position to challenge for a full-time starting job, depending on what the club does in free agency. As we noted last month, Wootton (7.0 sacks) earned a significant raise for next year based on his play and the defense's overall performance.
After the Bears traded for wide receiver Brandon Marshall at the onset of free agency last season, the team felt its most pressing need in the 2012 NFL draft was to add another edge rusher to their mix. They selected Boise State defensive end Shea McClellin in the first round at No. 19 overall. McClellin flashed potential on occasion his rookie year as a situational pass rusher, but did he show enough to be considered a four-down defensive end in 2013? That's tough to say without the benefit of another offseason program/training camp. But as the first pick of the Phil Emery era, McClellin will be given multiple opportunities to impress the coaching staff and earn playing time.
With all their self-scouting complete, here is a list of five potential unrestricted free agents who are expected to generate interest in the very thin defensive end market. Since we are under the impression the Bears will continue to employ a 4-3 style defense, the players below are traditional 4-3 defensive ends. There will be several notable 3-4 edge rushers scheduled to be available in free agency, including Houston's Connor Barwin, Baltimore's Paul Kruger and Dallas' Anthony Spencer, but it's unknown if any of those players would fit into the Bears yet to be revealed defensive system.
Cliff Avril, Detroit Lions: Avril's numbers dipped last year (9.0 sacks) after the Lions slapped him with the franchise tag, but the 27-year-old is still considered one of the top defensive ends heading into free agency. The Lions reportedly offered Avril a three-year, $30 million deal last offseason that he turned down. Pairing Avril with Peppers, Wootton and possibly McClellin would give the Bears all kinds of options at defensive end, and make life difficult for opposing quarterbacks. But it will take a sizeable financial commitment to get this done.
Michael Bennett, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: A versatile defender who also has the reputation of being solid when it comes to stopping the run, Bennett is coming off a career-best 9.0 sacks and three forced fumbles in 2012. Expect Bennett to receive a fair amount of attention in free agency if the Bucs let him walk.
Michael Johnson, Cincinnati Bengals: The 6-foot-7 Johnson became a fixture in the Bengals' starting lineup in his fourth NFL season when he started 15 games and registered 11.5 sacks. Johnson's issue might be his availability. Cincinnati could apply the franchise tag if the two sides fail to hammer out an extension prior to the beginning of free agency.
Osi Umenyiora, New York Giants: Not sure if the Bears want to sign another aging defensive end, but Umenyiora (31) can still be a rotational player in the league. Gone are the days when Umenyiora recorded 14.5 sacks, but he still finds a way to get to the quarterback.
Dwight Freeney, Indianapolis Colts: Although Indianapolis is a franchise on the rise, Freeney does his best work in a 4-3 defense, and appeared to be a little out of place last year in the Colts' new 3-4 scheme. A potential future Hall of Famer, Freeney is probably going to have to take a serious pay cut, but teams should be interested. Freeney has 107.5 regular season sacks, that doesn't happen by accident.