Just as fans eagerly anticipate the start of the NFL shopping season, one quarter of the Bears’ roster from last season is anxious to see what free agency brings.
The new league year begins at 3 p.m. Tuesday and that is when the Bears are expected to be active and aggressive. Whether that leads to defensive end Mario Williams or a wide receiver like Vincent Jackson or Marques Colston remains to be seen.
Just as the club struck multiple deals in the middle of the night two years ago when ex-general manager Jerry Angelo established a franchise record with a contract that guaranteed Julius Peppers $40 million, the Bears could have contracts in place by early evening this time. The league wisely moved the start time of the league year to daylight hours from 11 p.m., yet another change to capture the public’s interest during the offseason.
Multiple sources indicate the Bears have made it clear they will be moving quickly, and with new general manager Phil Emery coming from the college scouting side of the business, contract negotiator Cliff Stein is expected to have an expanded role in the process.
Then, there is the case of 12 unrestricted free agents and running back Kahlil Bell, who is a restricted free agent and must be tendered before free agency begins for the Bears to maintain control of him.
Of the unrestricted players, five finished the season as starters. That list does not include Amobi Okoye, who was second in playing time at defensive tackle, and cornerback Corey Graham, a Pro Bowl special teams player who has indicated a desire to find a team that will give him a chance to play on defense. Also not included is running back Matt Forte, who has been secured with the franchise tag.
Are the Bears going to re-sign defensive end Israel Idonije, tight end Kellen Davis, safety Craig Steltz, wide receiver Roy Williams and quarterback Josh McCown? If they don’t, they’ll have to replace them. Some are likely in the plans to return, yet Emery hasn’t lifted a pen to sign any of them. Why is that?
The first explanation is the Bears could be aiming for a major target at each of those positions. If they can land Williams, the first pick of the 2006 draft by the Texans, that might change their need for Idonije. If they sign tight end John Carlson, perhaps Davis isn’t as great as he has been billed to be since the season ended. An upgrade could be in the works at cornerback as well.
The second explanation is the open market is where true value is determined. Players sometimes learn what they’re seeking isn’t available. In other cases, the team learns it has to raise its offer.
By waiting, Emery could find players available in the same contract slot that he views to be upgrades. These players could be interested in finding work elsewhere for money, playing time or other reasons. Don’t be surprised if the Panthers show interest in Graham.
Finally, some of the players the Bears simply won’t invite back. This list could include safety Brandon Meriweather, quarterback Caleb Hanie, long snapper Chris Massey and cornerback Zack Bowman.
Unless some top-tier players in free agency choose to take tours, the first major wave of signings should be completed in about a 24-hour period. Then, teams usually regroup and do some accounting before the next cycle. It’s at that point the Bears might begin re-signing some of the players that have experience with them, players that add depth and value.
This much is certain, the roster will look different by this time next week.