Chicago Bears: Brandon Carr

On the eve of free agency last week, our four NFC North reporters -- Rob Demovsky (Green Bay Packers), Ben Goessling (Minnesota Vikings), Michael Rothstein (Detroit Lions) and Michael C. Wright (Chicago Bears) -- compiled a list of the top-15 free agents in the division.

A week has passed and nine of them already have come off the market, including six who re-signed with their old teams.

Perhaps the biggest-name free agent from the NFC North, former Bears defensive end Julius Peppers, did not make the original list because he was not a free agent until he was released last week. He signed with the Packers on Saturday.

You can follow all of the NFL free-agent moves in Bill Polian's free-agent tracker, but let's revisit the NFC North top 15 and see what has changed:

1. Sam Shields, Packers CB: Signed a four-year, $39 million contract just a few hours into the open negotiating period on March 8. His $9.75 million per year average made him the fourth-highest paid cornerback in the league behind Darrelle Revis ($16 million), Brandon Carr ($10 million) and Aqib Talib ($9.8 million).

2. Brandon Pettigrew, Lions TE: Re-signed with the Lions for four years and $16 million, including a $4 million signing bonus.

3. Jermichael Finley, Packers TE: Remained unsigned after a visit to the Seattle Seahawks last week. It’s not known what the Seahawks' medical staff thought of Finley's C-3/C-4 neck vertebra fusion surgery that he had last November following his season-ending neck injury.

4. Charles Tillman, Bears CB: Signed a one-year contract to return to Chicago last Friday after missing half of last season because of a torn triceps. The deal is worth about $3.5 million.

5. B.J. Raji, Packers DT: Less than a year after reportedly turning down a multi-year offer that averaged $8 million per season, he returned to the Packers for a one-year deal signed on Friday that was believed to be worth $4 million plus incentives.

6. Matt Cassel, Vikings QB: Opted out of his 2014 contract after the Super Bowl but signed a new two-year, $10.5 million deal with the Vikings on March 7, just before teams could start contacting his agent and will likely head into training camp with the inside track on the starting job.

7. Willie Young, Lions DL: Signed a three-year, $9 million contract with the Bears. Former seventh-round pick received his first extensive playing time with the Lions in 2013, becoming a full-time starter after Jason Jones was injured for the season in Week 3.

8. James Jones, Packers WR: Remained unsigned after the first week of free agency and has not had any known visits even after he ranked second on the Packers last season in receptions (59) and yards (817), the latter of which was a career high despite missing nearly three full games because of a knee injury. Three years ago, coming off the NFL lockout, Jones did not draw strong interest on the free-agent market and re-signed with the Packers for three years and $9.6 million. Could the same thing happen again?

9. Jared Allen, Vikings DE: Remained unsigned after the first week of free agency but reportedly visited the Seattle Seahawks over the weekend. After three All-Pro selections in six years, Allen's time in Minnesota is over.

10. Josh McCown, Bears QB: Signed a two-year, $10 million contract to rejoin his old coach, Lovie Smith, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

11. Henry Melton, Bears DL: Coming off a torn ACL, Melton went unsigned during the first wave of free agency but has a visit scheduled with the Dallas Cowboys this week.

12. Devin Hester, Bears KR: Remained unsigned more than a week after the Bears said they would not bring him back.

13. Rashean Mathis, Lions CB: Remained unsigned after playing in 15 games and taking over as a starter early in the season last year.

14. Everson Griffen, Vikings DE: Cashed in on March 9th by signing a five-year, $42.5 million deal that included $20 million guaranteed to return to Minnesota.

15. Louis Delmas, Lions S: Signed a one-year, $2.25 million contract with the Miami Dolphins after the Lions released him with one year remaining on his contract in February, in part because of a cap number of $6.5 million in 2014.

Free agency primer: WR tops Need Meter

March, 12, 2012
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Devin McCourtyMark L. Baer/US PresswireVincent Jackson is the big free agent prize among wide receivers. Will the Bears be big players?
Where they stand: The Chicago Bears lead the NFC North in available cap room, sitting on approximately $30 million. But it’s important to note that cap room shouldn’t be viewed as a blank check; especially when considering the Bears would likely be looking to extend several of their core players with contracts ending in the next couple of years. While upgrades on offense seem most logical of potential Bears moves during free agency, given the need to surround quarterback Jay Cutler with more weapons, it’s believed that coach Lovie Smith wants to revamp a defense led by four Pro Bowl players -- linebackers Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher, cornerback Charles Tillman and defensive end Julius Peppers -- older than 30.

NEED-METER


[+] EnlargeMarques Colston
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezMarques Colston is among the second tier of free agent receivers who could be options for the Bears.
Receiver: 10. To be fair, the position didn’t appear as much of an area of need when the team ripped off a 7-3 start. Obviously, Cutler played a significant role in that. Over the first 10 games, Chicago’s receiving corps averaged 11 catches per outing. Once Cutler and running back Matt Forte suffered injuries that took them out of the lineup, the receivers’ production dipped to eight catches per game.

A dominant slot receiver, Earl Bennett became the club’s go-to option in the passing game with Cutler out of commission. Teams quickly recognized, and adjusted coverage accordingly, leading to Bennett catching one pass or fewer in five of his last six games. Johnny Knox’s horrific back injury against the Seattle Seahawks further exposed this team’s deficiencies at receiver.

So with a major need clearly defined at the position, the question now is how the team proceeds in free agency and the draft.

It’s believed the Bears plan on making a run at San Diego receiver Vincent Jackson in free agency, and sources have confirmed as much. But if Jackson commands what several agents expect to be a salary in the $12 million-per-season range, it’s unlikely new general manager Phil Emery would continue the team’s pursuit, based on his stated preference of building through the draft, which signifies he’s not a proponent of spending lavishly in free agency.

So surely the team has a few secondary and less-expensive options in mind, such as New Orleans Saints receivers Marques Colston and Robert Meachem, or Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon of the Indianapolis Colts. Given their youth and physical attributes, Meachem (just 11 dropped balls over four seasons) and Garcon would appear to be the best fits. Colston averaged just 3.2 yards after catch in 2011, according to Pro Football Focus. That doesn’t necessarily jibe with the explosive passing game the Bears envision in 2012. Wayne, meanwhile, is coming off his first season since 2003 in which he didn’t gain 1,000 yards receiving.

According to a source, just Wednesday, seven teams (the Bears weren't one of them) expressed interest in Meachem; a list sure to grow as free agency approaches.

(Read full post)

NFC North free-agency primer

March, 8, 2012
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AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Free agency begins Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET

Chicago Bears

Key free agents: Tight end Kellen Davis, running back Matt Forte (franchise), cornerback Corey Graham, quarterback Caleb Hanie, defensive end Israel Idonije, cornerback Tim Jennings, quarterback Josh McCown, safety Brandon Meriweather and receiver Roy Williams.

Where they stand: The Bears will have the most salary-cap space among NFC North teams, upwards of $30 million, and have plenty of potential uses for it. Quarterback Jay Cutler needs more targets in the downfield passing game, whether it's at the receiver or tight end position. And new general manager Phil Emery must start restocking a defense led by four players more than 30 years old: Linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, defensive end Julius Peppers and cornerback Charles Tillman.

What to expect: It's widely believed the Bears will be in the running for free-agent receiver Vincent Jackson. But Jackson's price tag could be steep and no one knows if Emery will prove to be a big spender. It seems likely he will re-sign Davis, and Emery should also save some of his cap space to extend Forte's contract. Secondary receiver targets could include Marques Colston. Bears fans are hoping the team will pursue defensive end Mario Williams, but it's hard to imagine the Bears budgeting for Williams two years after breaking their bank on Peppers.

Detroit Lions

Key free agents: Defensive end Cliff Avril (franchise), left tackle Jeff Backus, safety Chris Harris, quarterback Shaun Hill, linebacker DeAndre Levy (restricted), running back Maurice Morris, running back Kevin Smith, quarterback Drew Stanton, linebacker Stephen Tulloch and cornerback Eric Wright.

Where they stand: The Lions are tight against the salary cap after franchising Avril and aren't likely to be big spenders on the free-agent market. They could relieve the situation by reaching long-term agreements with Avril and/or receiver Calvin Johnson, who has a $22 million cap figure for 2012. Tulloch made a big impact last season after signing a one-year deal, but so far the Lions' attention has turned elsewhere.

What to expect: The Lions' best-case scenario is to keep their 2011 core together without mortgaging their future relative to the salary cap. That would mean getting Tulloch re-signed to preserve the linebacker group they upgraded last season by signing him and veteran Justin Durant, moves that allowed Levy to play on the outside. Hill seems likely to re-sign as Matthew Stafford's backup, while Stanton might test the free-agent waters to see if he has a chance to do better than third on a team's depth chart.

Green Bay Packers

Key free agents: Cornerback Jarrett Bush, quarterback Matt Flynn, running back Ryan Grant and center Scott Wells.

Where they stand: The Packers took care of a big challenge by signing tight end Jermichael Finley to a two-year contract last month. They will let Flynn depart for a possible starting job elsewhere and it appears Grant will test the free-agent market. Discussions with Wells haven't led to an agreement, but the Packers often go to the final moments before reaching a deal. There are no obvious internal replacements for Wells, making his return a priority.

What to expect: The Packers will have some flexibility with the salary cap, but general manager Ted Thompson's aversion to veteran free agency is well known. It's been three years since he signed a veteran unrestricted free agent in the offseason. The Packers have needs at defensive line, outside linebacker and possibly at center if Wells leaves. But let's put it this way: Thompson's strong preference is to find depth and future replacements in the draft, not on other teams' rosters.

Minnesota Vikings

Key free agents: Safety Husain Abdullah, receiver Devin Aromashodu, receiver Greg Camarillo, defensive lineman Fred Evans, defensive lineman Letroy Guion, linebacker E.J. Henderson, linebacker Erin Henderson, safety Tyrell Johnson, quarterback Sage Rosenfels, cornerback Benny Sapp and tight end Visanthe Shiancoe.

Where they stand: The Vikings seem poised for a major roster overhaul in their first offseason since Rick Spielman was promoted to general manager. Players like Shiancoe, E.J. Henderson, Camarillo and Johnson all seem poised to move on. There aren't many positions on the team that appear secure.

What to expect: If the Vikings don't plan to draft USC left tackle Matt Kalil at No. 3 overall next month, the first clue will be if they pursue a free-agent left tackle. That seems unlikely. But they'll need to combine their draft with at least a few veteran free agents if they intend to compete for a playoff spot in 2012. Cornerback could be a point of focus, where Brandon Carr and Cortland Finnegan are among those available. Another could be receiver. The Vikings had major interest in Jackson two years ago.

Offseason position outlook: Cornerbacks

February, 16, 2012
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Charles TillmanBob Donnan/US PresswireCharles Tillman made his first Pro Bowl in his ninth season with the Bears.
This is the ninth installment of a 10-part series that reviews every Bears position group on offense and defense, while also taking a quick look at potential free-agent targets and the top prospects in the upcoming NFL draft.

The Bears find themselves in the midst of conducting yet another search for a potential starter at cornerback opposite Charles Tillman, a nine-year veteran coming off his first Pro Bowl season.

The three most viable candidates -- Tim Jennings, Zack Bowman, and Corey Graham -- are all set to become unrestricted free agents, and there’s a strong possibility none will return to the club for 2012. Besides that, aside from Graham -- who never received much of an opportunity at corner, but played nickel -- Jennings and Bowman never emerged as potential long-term solutions at the position despite multiple opportunities.

Starting 28 games opposite Tillman, Jennings played well in 2010 and a good portion of 2011 before the team benched him in favor of Bowman late in the season. So it’s believed the team wants to explore the free-agent market or NFL draft for a potential starter at cornerback.

The Bears finished 28th last season against the pass, surrendering 354.1 yards per game but ranked in the top 10 (tied for sixth) with 20 interceptions. The cornerbacks contributed 12 of those picks, with nickel corner D.J. Moore intercepting four passes to lead the team, followed by Tillman and Graham with three apiece and Jennings -- who dropped several potential INTs -- with two.

Given Green Bay’s prowess in the passing game and the ascension of the Detroit Lions, led by Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson, the Bears need to load up with the pass rush and coverage on the back end. Bears coach Lovie Smith said most of the team’s personnel decisions are based upon how players match up with division rivals.

“You mention a guy like [Calvin] Johnson ... I like big corners anyway to match up against some of those guys,” Smith said. “I definitely don’t think we need a complete overhaul by any means.”

Still the team -- given the likelihood of multiple free-agent departures -- needs to replenish some talent at cornerback.

THE CURRENT ROSTER


Charles Tillman: Scored two of the team’s six defensive touchdowns last season and played a significant role in the team ranking eighth in opponent passer rating (79.3). Tillman set a franchise record in 2011, by returning his fifth INT for a touchdown and also forced four fumbles on the way to being selected to his first Pro Bowl. With eight INTs since 2010, Tillman is tied with teammate D.J. Moore for the most picks in the NFL in that span. Smith said Tillman played the most disciplined football of his career in 2010, and only followed that up with a stronger 2011 campaign. Set to enter his 10th season, Tillman doesn’t appear to be declining.

[+] EnlargeSteve Smith
Dennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireTim Jennings, who started 15 games last season, doesn't figure to be back with the Bears next season.
Tim Jennings: Tied for second on the team with eight pass breakups and started 15 of 16 games. Started the season with a 10-tackle effort in the opener, and played fairly well over the first 12 games. Towards the end of the season, Jennings’ play declined somewhat, leading to the club benching him for the Christmas matchup at Green Bay. An unrestricted free agent, Jennings will draw some interest on the open market for teams in search of a boundary corner. So his return to Chicago seems unlikely.

Zack Bowman: Started 12 games in 2009, and led the team with a career-high six INTs but lost a training camp battle with Jennings for the starting job in 2010. The team held high hopes that Bowman could bounce back and win back his job in 2011, but that never transpired. An unrestricted free agent, Bowman started one game in 2011 and finished the season with six tackles and one pass breakup. Because of his size (6-1, 196 pounds) and youth, Bowman should also generate some interest in free agency. A change of scenery might prove beneficial.

Corey Graham: One of the best special-teams performers in the league, Graham earned his first Pro Bowl appearance last season by leading the team with 22 special-teams tackles. Graham is tied for third in the NFL since 2007 with 75 stops on special teams. But it appears the team has pigeonholed him in the role of a special teamer. So the unrestricted free agent will want a legitimate opportunity elsewhere to contribute on defense. Filling in for D.J. Moore at the nickel spot, Graham intercepted passes in three consecutive games from Nov. 13 to Nov. 27.

D.J. Moore: Led the team in interceptions (4) and tied for second in the team with eight pass breakups despite missing three games because of an ankle injury. Moore has now intercepted eight passes over the past two seasons and is pretty much cemented into that nickel corner role. Moore is set to enter the final year of his original rookie contract, and needs a strong 2012 to cash in.

Josh Moore: A fifth-round pick by the Bears in 2010, Moore played three games as a rookie but surprisingly was cut in September. The Bears brought Moore back to the practice squad in November, and former GM Jerry Angelo said the team never wanted to cut him. But the cornerback became a victim of the numbers game. Moore is actually one of the team’s best pure cover corners, but still needs to acclimate to the pro game to receive a real shot at making a contribution in 2012.

Bears free agents: Bowman, Graham, Jennings

POTENTIAL FREE-AGENT TARGETS


Brandon Carr, Kansas City Chiefs, unrestricted

Brent Grimes, Atlanta Falcons, unrestricted

Cortland Finnegan, Tennessee Titans, unrestricted

WHY CARR OR GRIMES MAKE SENSE


HawthorneNew general manager Phil Emery knows both Carr, pictured on the left, and Grimes extremely well, which makes them logical options. Emery played a role in bringing Grimes to Atlanta in 2006 as an undrafted free agent, and the GM spent time with Carr in Kansas City.

One potential problem with Grimes is his lack of size (5-10, 183 pounds). Smith prefers bigger corners. But Grimes has extensive experience playing in a system very similar to the one utilized by the Bears, and possesses one of the traits the team covets most: he’s aggressive in run support.

Carr (6-0, 207 pounds) is arguably the best corner available on the free-agent market. But his asking price will likely be way more than what the Bears would be willing to pay. Sure the team has plenty of room under the cap to bring aboard a high-priced player such as Carr. But the Bears typically don’t spend big money in free agency on corners. Besides that, Carr is considered more of a man corner; although it’s likely he wouldn’t have any problems playing in a more zone-oriented scheme.

While Carr or Grimes would make sense given their histories with Emery, don’t count out the Bears pushing hard to re-sign one of their own free agents such as Bowman or Tillman and adding to the position through the draft. The latter likely isn’t the team’s first choice, but could turn into Plan B depending on what transpires around the league.

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