Bears’ offseason primer: Whom they could add, subtract and draft

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Jay Cutler could be let go this offseason. (Getty Images)

Change has been constant under the Bears’ new regime — only 19 players remain from its arrival — but this offseason has a different feel. The Bears have the third overall draft pick this April and, in free agency, money to spend.

“That’s a lot of youth on the team and a lot of guys getting better, but this offseason’s huge, man,” GM Ryan Pace said. “And I think there’s a big responsibility with that much cap space, this high in the draft. It’s a significant offseason for us. And we’ve got to get going in that direction.”

The goal, Pace said, is to “look for long-term solutions that lead to long-term success.”

As they prepare to try, here’s a primer about who the Bears could lose, what they need and who might be available:

Unrestricted free agents

The Bears that can sign elsewhere via free agency starting in March—listed alphabetically, with their 2016 cap number, per

  1. OLB Sam Acho ($840,000) — Good special teamer, better locker room presence.
  2. T Mike Adams ($760,000) — Adams made a spot-start and was later placed on IR with a back problem — scary, given that he needed back surgery in 2015.
  3. QB Matt Barkley ($675,000) —Amazingly, he led Bears quarterbacks in starts.
  4. K Connor Barth ($850,000) — Robbie Gould’s replacement started 4-for-7 but finished 14-for-16.
  5. CB Johnthan Banks ($1.182M) — The waiver claim started the final two games but was carted to the locker room with an ankle injury against the Vikings.
  6. T Nick Becton ($675,000) — Suffered an elbow injury in camp.
  7. CB Brandon Boykin ($760,000) —Hurt his pectoral muscle in camp.
  8. QB Brian Hoyer ($2M) —His completion percentage of 67 is a franchise record.
  9. WR Alshon Jeffery ($14.599M franchise tag) —His best game of this season — a 105-yard performance in the opener — was lower than his top four of 2015.
  10. G Eric Kush ($1.26M) —The “Hard Knocks” star was solid in four starts at guard.
  11. G Ted Larsen ($1.65M) — Made eight starts, but only after being passed over twice in the preseason for a starting gig.
  12. T Matt McCants ($1.67M)— Played two offensive snaps.
  13. TE Logan Paulsen ($760,000) — Only one offensive player committed more penalties than Paulsen’s six.
  14. S Chris Prosinski ($840,000) — Trailed only Sherrick McManis in special teams snaps, totaling 352.
  15. WR Deonte Thompson ($840,000) — Led NFL in kick return attempts, finished sixth among qualifiers with a 23-yard average, and famously dropped a game-winning touchdown.
  16. DE Cornelius Washington ($565,947)—After bulking up a year ago— he’s gained more than 20 pounds as a pro — Washington settled in nicely at defensive end.
  17. NT C.J. Wilson ($760,000) — Sixty-six of his 128 snaps came in the last two games.
  18. WR Marquess Wilson ($551,787) — In December, he broke his left foot for the third time in one year and two weeks.

Restricted Free Agents

The Bears have right of first refusal on re-signing the following players, with their 2017 tender in parentheses, per

  1. S/CB Demontre Hurst ($555,000) — Had one of their franchise-low eight interceptions this year.
  2. ILB Christian Jones ($512,333) — Played more than three-quarters of the Bears’ special teams snaps.

Exclusive Rights Free Agent

Players the Bears can keep at the veteran minimum. They’re not allowed to sign elsewhere: (with 2016 average annual value)

  1. WR Josh Bellamy ($760,000) — The team’s best special teamer, by far, Bellamy struggled with drops but matched last year’s total of 19 catches.
  2. QB David Fales ($555,000) —Signed when Jay Cutler was hurt, he went 2-for-5 in his NFL debut, the finale’s fourth quarter.
  3. QB Connor Shaw ($511,657) — A favorite of the coaching staff, Shaw suffered a grisly broken leg in the third exhibition game.
  4. TE Daniel Brown ($525,000) — The converted receiver intrigues the Bears; he had 16 catches for 124 yards and a touchdown.
  5. LS Patrick Scales ($480,000) — Within two days, was cut and re-signed the week before the season began.
  6. CB Bryce Callahan ($480,000) — Limited by injuries, Callahan still started 10 games.
  7. LB Danny Mason ($333,000) — Hurt his knee in final preseason game.

Key Dates

Jan. 16 — Deadline for underclassmen to declare for the NFL draft

Jan. 28 — Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., with Bears coaching North team.

Feb. 28 to March 6 — NFL Scouting Combine

March 1 — Deadline to name Franchise and Transition tag players

March 7 — Teams can start negotiating with the agents of unrestricted free agents

March 9 — Free agent signing can become official starting at 3 p.m.

April 27 — NFL Draft in Philadelphia

Top 10 free agents

  1. Redskins QB Kirk Cousins — Under the franchise tag, Cousins broke his own franchise passing yards record this season but threw a Week 17 interception with the playoffs on the line.
  2. Steelers RB Le’Veon Bell — In his rap album earlier this year, Bell said that “f they don’t sign me big, I know someone will.”
  3. Chiefs S Eric Berry — The cancer survivor had four picks and two defensive scores this season.
  4. Chargers OLB Melvin Ingram — Has 18 ½ sacks over the past two seasons.
  5. Cardinals OLB Chandler Jones — He posted 11 sacks after the Patriots traded him to Arizona, and seems primed for a franchise tag.
  6. Panthers DT Kawann Short — The East Chicago, Ind., native hasn’t missed a game as a pro.
  7. Texans CB A.J. Bouye — He’s been one of the season’s great surprises, going from a part-time starter to the best free agent cornerback available.
  8. Browns OLB Jamie Collins — The Browns have said they want to give Collins, who they got from the Patriots in a midseason trade, a long-term deal.
  9. Cardinals S Tony Jefferson — There’s room for Jefferson to grow: he doesn’t turn 25 for another two weeks.
  10. Chiefs NT Dontari Poe — The 346-pound -stuffer threw the best fat-guy touchdown pass ever on Christmas Day.

What they need

Ranking the Bears’ needs:

  1. Quarterback — The Bears must finally find a young quarterback, and have the draft-pick ammo to do it.
  2. Cornerback — Despite Pace saying he believes in Kyle Fuller, the cornerback’s return seems unlikely after his coordinator called him out for letting a knee scope sideline him all season.
  3. Safety — Quoting Pace: “We need to add more ball skills to our secondary. That’s on me, and we’ll do that.”
  4. Offensive line — Is Charles Leno the answer at left tackle? Would the Bears dare move Kyle Long back outside? They didn’t rule it out.
  5. Outside linebacker —Leonard Floyd showed flashes of stardom. But Willie Young had 1 ½ sack in his final 10 games and Pernell McPhee might be a part-time player.
  6. Tight end — The Bears need a physical blocker to play alongside Zach Miller, whose injury history screams out for depth.
  7. Defensive line — Akiem Hicks was a revelation, and would be even better alongside a healthy Eddie Goldman. Rookie Jonathan Bullard disappointed.
  8. Wide receiver— This rockets up the list if the Bears decide to let Alshon Jeffery walk.
  9. Inside linebackers— Danny Trevathan might start next year on the physically unable to perform list, but Nick Kwiatkoski should be fine in his place.
  10. Running back — The Bears could upgrade from Ka’Deem Carey as a third-stringer.
  11. Kickers —Both Connor Barth and Pat O’Donnell were fine.

Cap space

Assuming a $168 million salary cap, the Bears will have about $62.5 million to spend this offseason, per The Bears rank ninth in cap space, according to the site, while the Browns lead the league with about $107.9 million in room.

Feeling a draft

Here’s who the (ridiculously early) mock drafts predict the Bears taking with the No. 11 pick: North Carolina QB Mitch Trubisky Alabama DL Jonathan Allen’s Todd McShay: Michigan S/OLB Jabrill Peppers’s Rob Rang: Alabama DL Jonathan Allen Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer

Top spenders last offseason

Here are the five top spenders in the first two weeks of free agency last year— plus the Bears —and how their regular record changed:

Team, Money Spent/2015/2016

  1. Giants, $106.3M/6-10/11-5
  2. Jaguars, $74.4M/5-11/3-13
  3. Raiders, $70.7M/7-9/12-4
  4. Texans, $65.1M/9-7/9-7
  5. Eagles, $59.2M/7-9/7-9
  6. Bears, $38.7M/6-10/3-13

Two Bears that earned a raise:

  1. QB Matt Barkley — The former USC star seemed to be on his way out of football before getting his six starts this season because of injuries to Jay Cutler and Brian Hoyer. He was brutal at the end — with a 61.9 passer rating and seven interceptions over his final two games — but showed enough flashes to earn a second-string job next year, somewhere.
  2. DE Cornelius Washington — Washington was part of a steady defensive line rotation this season, playing 364 snaps, a notably leap in durability. He hurt himself on his first defensive play in 2015 and had only 88 defensive plays to his name entering this season.

Two Bears vets that could go:

  1. QB Jay Cutler —The Bears could release Cutler at no cost to them, except for a $2 million cap hit. There’s no rush to make any moves with him, however; his contract has no payment deadlines and he’s still recovering—albeit quickly, according to Pace — from labrum surgery on his right shoulder.
  2. OLB Lamarr Houston — A torn ACL limited the former defensive end to two games this season, two years after a similar injury cost him eight. In between, he led the 2015 Bears with eight sacks.

Junior achievements

The Bears hope that coaching the Senior Bowl’s North team gives them an insight into quarterbacks, the way the Cowboys staff did when they coached against Dak Prescott in last year’s game. Perhaps the top four best quarterbacks, though, are underclassmen. A look:

  1. Mitch Trubisky, North Carolina: The hottest prospect — at least this early —declared for the draft Monday.
  2. Deshaun Watson, Clemson: Fresh off the national title game, Watson has been invited to the Senior Bowl despite playing only three seasons —in part because he graduated in 2 ½ years.
  3. DeShone Kizer, Notre Dame: He just turned 21 and was only 12-11 in two years as a starter.
  4. Brad Kaaya, Miami: Leaves as the only passer in school history to top 3,000 passing yards in three-straight seasons.

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