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Top Five Chicago Bears 2014 NFL Free Agency Moves
The 2014 NFL free agency period is shaping up as a huge event for the Chicago Bears. If things stand the way they are heading into next March they could only have 35 players under contract when the market opens, meaning 23 others will see their deals expire. It sounds like a mass exodus that could threaten to cripple a franchise, but it actually has been carefully orchestrated by GM Phil Emery. He wants players who will earn their money, not loudly proclaim they deserve it. Otherwise he will use the projected $39.5 million in salary cap space that will open up to go get somebody who will. With that in mind, what are the top five moves Emery and the Bears should make when free agency does start again next year?
5. Decide on Jay Cutler first
Nothing changes. The quarterback position is still the most important in pro football and Chicago can't afford to deal with anybody else until they reach a decision on Jay Cutler. The 30-year old quarterback has endured a mixed bag of results in four seasons with the team. At times he is brilliant, at others a detriment. The 2012 season, despite resulting in a 10-6 record, was his statistical worst as Bear with lows in passing yards (3,033), touchdowns (19) and completion percentage (58). The team hopes that new head coach Marc Trestman can fix that problem. If he does then they are more than willing to hand Cutler a fat new contract. However, if he either struggles again or they miss the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years then that money should be saved for building the team around the next quarterback.
4. Cut Julius Peppers
He is the best player on the defense and a consummate team leader. Regardless, Julius Peppers is also the most expensive, not to mention one of the oldest members of the defense. He turns 34 next January with a contract number figuring to exceed $17 million against the cap. The defensive end is a model of consistency, collecting 11 sacks each of the last two seasons while starting all 16 games. However, his ongoing battle with foot problems (plantar fasciitis) and inescapable money-to-age issues make him too expensive to keep past 2013. It is a move nobody wants to see happen in Chicago, but must accept if they want to avoid a money troubles and a defensive collapse somewhere down the road.
3. Sign Eric Wood or Brian De La Puente
Emery and the front office have done a solid job rebuilding the much maligned Bears offensive line. They added two-time Pro Bowler Jermon Bushrod at left tackle, durable three-year starter Matt Slauson at left guard, slid top 2012 tackle J'Marcus Webb to the right side and drafted Kyle Long to challenge at right guard. The one area they have left somewhat untouched is center. Longtime veteran Roberto Garza fills this spot. He is the leader of the group and a stable presence. He is also turning 35 next spring. That is ancient age for an offensive lineman and the Bears really have no successor for replacing him outside of some reserve guards or undrafted free agents. Luckily the 2014 class might feature a couple answers. Offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer may want to bring in New Orleans Saints center Brian De La Puente, whom he developed into a capable starter. Eric Wood of the Buffalo Bills and Alex Mack of the Cleveland Browns also might wander free. Any of them would make ideal upgrades.
2. Extend Henry Melton
There is no getting around it. They franchise tagged him for a reason. Henry Melton is the best young defender the Bears have and he is the one they must build their future around. He reached a Pro Bowl last season on the strength of six sacks and 44 tackles, and just turned 26. His best years are ahead. Emery must make sure they happen in Chicago. He bought himself more time with the tag but that can disappear quickly. Finding common ground with Melton ranks near the top of the priority list.
1. Bring back Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings
No position area looks scarier for the Bears entering 2014 than corner. No fewer than five players including Pro Bowlers Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings have expiring contracts. That means Chicago could lose its ability cover opposing receivers in one fell swoop. In a division that features Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford that is something that can't happen. Until the team can fill the pipelines with fresh talent through the draft, having capable vets like Jennings and Tillman is worth the money.