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Ranking the Bears' free agents: No. 4

Free agency kicks off soon, so let’s count down the top 10 Chicago Bears’ players set on March 10 to hit the open market:

Brian de la Puente, C/OG

2014 pay: $800,601 ($730,001 base salary, $65,000 signing bonus, $5,600 workout bonus).

By the numbers: Participated in 501 snaps in 2014, playing in eight games with six starts. De la Puente started four games at center and two at left guard before going on the injured reserve on Nov. 26 with an ankle injury. The Bears were 4-2 in games de la Puente started.

The case for keeping him: First off, de la Puente has history with new general manager Ryan Pace, having started 50 of 56 games in three years with the New Orleans Saints before signing with the Bears. De la Puente, 29, perhaps represents the future of the center position as Roberto Garza turns 36 before the 2015 season, which will mark his 15th season in the league. So rather than bring in an outside free agent or drafting a center, the Bears could plug in de la Puente at center when the time is right and feel comfortable about the move because he’s a proven veteran with plenty left in the tank.

The case for letting him walk: There’s really no compelling case for parting ways with de la Puente unless his salary demands on the open market are much more than the team is willing to pay. The Bears would be wise to try to strike a deal with de la Puente before the start of free agency, or they could have competition for his services. Chicago is expected to commit resources in free agency to revamping the defense. But the only way will the Bears let de la Puente walk is if the rebuilding project is so significant on defense that they don’t have anything left to pay a backup offensive lineman who, at this point, appears to be the starting center in waiting.

Prediction: De la Puente was rated the No. 3 free agent center by Pro Football Focus, and although his backup status makes him an under-the-radar player in free agency, teams looking for starters at the position could make him a target. Surely the Bears know this and will try to strike a deal with de la Puente before the start of free agency. So don’t be surprised to see Chicago bring back de la Puente before free agency begins March 10.

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