NFL Nation: 2013 Free-Agent Review

Money: D.J. Williams signed a one-year deal last March that paid a base salary of $900,000 with a maximum value of $1.75 million.

Stats: Produced 27 tackles, including two for lost yardage, one quarterback pressure, two sacks and forced a fumble in six games.

[+] EnlargeD.J. Williams
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesLinebacker D.J. Williams played in just six games this season -- the lowest total in his NFL career.
2013 role: Signed as the replacement at middle linebacker for future Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher, Williams projected to be a potential steal in free agency because of his superior speed and athleticism, and joined the team as the starter. But Williams missed nearly all of training camp and the preseason due to a strained calf, which caused him to get off to a slow start at the beginning of the regular season.

The good: The strained calf during the preseason slowed Williams initially, and he didn’t appear to be in ideal shape at the beginning of the season. But once Williams worked himself into the mix, the linebacker made plays reminiscent of his days with the Denver Broncos.

Prior to joining the Bears, Williams had produced 90 tackles or more in five of the previous six seasons. The belief early on was that the addition of Williams and veteran James Anderson to play alongside Lance Briggs would upgrade the linebacking corps.

“D.J. Williams came in and provided leadership in terms of his motor, his effort and his physical[ity],” Bears general manager Phil Emery said. “Cannot understate when players make plays and they make impact tackles, impact plays on any side or area of the game, they become leaders.”

Williams also played a key role in the development of rookie second-round pick Jonathan Bostic, who would end up starting nine games.

The bad: The calf injury at the start of camp set back Williams for the early part of the season. Then with four minutes left in the third quarter of a 27-21 over the New York Giants on Oct. 10, Williams tore a pectoral muscle that would put him out for the rest of the season. That situation represented the third season-ending injury for a Chicago defensive starter, and forced the club to play Bostic in the middle for the duration.

Prior to the injury, Bears coach Marc Trestman said, “I saw D.J. Williams blowing up piles and running with speed to the ball.” But Williams missed five tackles over the first six games.

2014 outlook: Williams’ future in Chicago appears to be shaky at this point, with Emery saying the club wants to infuse youth on the defense through free agency and the draft. Williams will be 32 at the start of the 2014 season, but still possesses the physical attributes to be a dynamic playmaker.

So at this point, the Bears haven’t ruled out bringing back Williams. Perhaps it bodes well for the veteran that Emery that at some point it might be best to take advantage of Bostic’s run-and-hit skillset by moving him to an outside linebacker spot. That would leave open a spot in the middle for Williams.

“I like the team chemistry. I like the coaching staff. I like the energy of the city,” Williams said. “Hopefully if things work out right, I’ll be back here. I love our defense. It’s simple, but we play fast and just downhill.”

When the rest of the team packed up to leave for the offseason, Williams stayed behind to continue rehabilitation at Halas Hall. Williams needs to gain medical clearance to play before the team can seriously ponder bringing him back for 2014. The linebacker believes he’s still capable of producing at a starter’s level.

“I know I still have a good amount of years left in me,” he said. “I still have talent. If I don’t end up here, I’ll end up somewhere else, though I would love to end up here.”
Money: Signed a four-year contract worth $20.4 million with $9.215 million in guarantees ($4.5 million signing bonus). Bennett will earn a total of $4.9 million in 2014 and is scheduled to count $6.025 million against the Bears’ salary cap in the second year of his deal.

Stats: Bennett finished the season with career highs in receptions (65) and receiving yards (759) and tied his all-time best mark with five touchdown catches. Bennett’s 65 grabs ranked fourth on the Bears and No. 8 in the NFL amongst tight ends. His 759 receiving yards were the third highest total on the team and ninth amongst tight ends in the league.

2013 role: Bennett spent the entire year as the unquestioned No. 1 tight end on the Bears’ roster. He technically started 15 games, but Bennett played an extremely high number of snaps every single week. The tight end proved to be the Bears' third or fourth option on offense, sharing touches with receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, and tailback Matt Forte. Bennett lived up to almost all of the expectations placed upon him after the Bears moved so quickly to sign him last offseason.

The good: Compared to the Bears’ 2012 starting tight end, Kellen Davis, Bennett looked like Kellen Winslow Sr. in his prime. Bennett immediately turned tight end from a position of severe weakness to a position of strength. The six-year veteran began the year with a bang when he hauled in three touchdown passes over the first two games, including the game-winner versus the Minnesota Vikings in Week 2. He displayed a willingness to fight for additional yards after receptions, even if he occasionally landed on his head as a result of the going to extra mile. Bennett’s quirky and eclectic personality played well with the media. He was never a distraction and seemed to be extremely happy and comfortable in his new surroundings.

The bad: Bennett never missed a game or complained about injuries, but he did fight through a variety of physical ailments that possibly curtailed his effectiveness to a small degree. There were weeks in the season when Bennett failed to factor much into the offense. He had five games where he caught two or fewer passes, but the Bears also had a variety of weapons for the quarterback to choose from.

2014 outlook: Bennett figures to pick up where he left off in 2013. Expect the tight end to again be one of the top four options on offense from week to week. Bennett would benefit from a stronger No. 2 tight end behind him on the depth chart. Perhaps that is an area the Bears address in the draft or in free agency. At 26 years old, Bennett, who turns 27 in March, should be entering the most productive phase of his NFL career.
As Chicago eyes free agency next month, we’ll take a look back at the top players from the 2013 class of free agents, how they performed in their first year with the Bears and their prospects for 2014. Here we look at offensive tackle Jermon Bushrod:

Money: Signed a five-year contract worth a little more than $35.965 million that included $17.715 million in guarantees.

Stats: None, but as one of four new starters on the offensive line, Bushrod helped the Bears set a franchise record in yards (6,109) as the club finished with a 4.9 sack percentage on 609 drop backs, which ranked as the club’s sixth-lowest sack percentage since 1982, when sacks became an official statistic.

2013 role: Of all the free-agent offensive linemen available, Bushrod had allowed the most combined sacks, hits and hurries, but he still represented an upgrade over the inconsistent J’Marcus Webb. Bushrod became an immediate starter on the offensive line, and protected the blindside of quarterback Jay Cutler in addition to helping his position group adjust to the new blocking schemes brought to the club by coach Marc Trestman and offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer, who the tackle had previously worked with in New Orleans. A Pro Bowler in 2012, Bushrod started all 16 games at left tackle for the Bears.

The good: Chicago surrendered just 30 sacks, which ranks as the club’s fewest since 2008 and the second fewest for the Bears in seven seasons, and Bushrod played a major role in that. On the season, Bushrod was responsible for four sacks, and that number perhaps could have been greater when taking into account the Bears now utilize an offense designed to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands quicker. Perhaps one of Bushrod’s greatest accomplishments in 2013 came in helping the rest of the offensive line learn the team’s new blocking schemes because of his experience working with Kromer in New Orleans. Bushrod was slightly better than average in pass protection. But when Chicago ran the ball behind Bushrod over left tackle, it averaged 5.03 yards per attempt, which ranked as 12th in the NFL.

The bad: In addition to the four sacks Bushrod surrendered, he also allowed nine hits and 42 quarterback pressures. By comparison, in 2012 Webb gave up seven sacks, five hits and 30 hurries. But Webb’s salary wasn’t near what the Bears paid to land Bushrod. So he’s got to perform at a level commensurate to what the Bears are paying. In addition, Bushrod tied with tight end Martellus Bennett for the team lead in penalties (seven). Luckily for the Bears those penalties resulted in only one stalled drive. Five of the flags were called for holding (three) or false start (two). Bushrod’s 2013 season was an improvement over what he did in 2012, but not by much. In 2012, Bushrod gave up four sacks, eight hits and 45 hurries.

2014 outlook: Bushrod is set to count $7.3 million against Chicago’s salary cap in 2014. So while he didn’t play horribly in 2013, he needs to play at the level he’s being paid: as an elite pass-protector. Bushrod knows that, and should improve in Year 2 with the Bears as the offensive line continues to develop chemistry. Down the stretch of 2013, Bushrod displayed signs of improvement. Over the last five games of the season, he surrendered a sack, two hits and six pressures after giving up a sack, three hits and 20 pressures in the five games previous. So perhaps Bushrod can carry that momentum into 2014 because he’ll certainly need to for the Bears to improve upon a strong 2013 campaign in the first year of Trestman’s offense.