A look at the future of Bears' unrestricted free agents
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General manager Phil Emery has already begun talking with the representatives of some of the Bears' 18 players who are due to become unrestricted free agents March 12.
With a limited amount of space (about $4 million) under the $123 million salary cap, Emery will have to pick and choose whom to re-sign. Their top priority is Pro Bowl defensive tackle Henry Melton, who received the franchise tag Friday and will play for $8.45 million next season, unless the two sides agree on a multi-year deal by July 15.
But Melton is just one of eight players who started or played significant roles in 2012. There isn't enough money to keep them all.
Emery and coach Marc Trestman have mostly been tight-lipped about their intentions, but let's take a look at what should transpire in the near future:
Should be back
Melton went to his first Pro Bowl, and the Bears want him back, even if they are forced to pay him the $8.45 million under the franchise tag. They would prefer to get a long-term deal done with a more cap-friendly salary for this season. Melton has 13 sacks in the past two seasons and improved as a run defender last season. He was also a huge bargain, with a cap hit of just $698,000. If another team makes a multi-year offer that the Bears choose not to match, the Bears would receive two first-round picks as compensation, but that is a very unlikely scenario.
•Defensive end Israel Idonije made $2.5 million last season but lost his starting job to Corey Wootton midway through the season. He still played extensively (711 snaps, almost twice as many as rookie Shea McClellin's 365) in a rotation that utilized four players. He also adds value because of his versatility, playing inside in some nickel packages and when others were hurt.
"He's done a number of good things and had a number of good games both outside and inside," Emery said. "He's a guy we will sit down and talk to about coming back. He's got versatility; that's a positive thing. He has done a good job for us."
•Guard Lance Louis graded out as the Bears best offensive lineman and is a definite keeper. The Bears should get a good value, since he missed the final five games with a torn right ACL and won't be 100 percent by the start of training, which should lessen interest from other teams.
"Lance is fully into his rehab, and he has made significant progress," Emery said. "We're pleased with his progress."
•Linebacker Nick Roach is the unsung member of the group, but he's a long-time starter at a position that lacks depth and will also be extremely thin if Brian Urlacher isn't re-signed.
Could be back
•Linebacker Brian Urlacher has been the face of the franchise for a decade, and the new regime appears to want him back, but certainly not at the $9.7 million cap number he had last year. Emery has said he has great respect for Urlacher, but he probably doesn't have more than $2 million or so to spend on a player with diminishing skills and huge injury concerns. Does any other NFL team?
•Offensive tackle Jonathan Scott was a serviceable starter, but the Bears will be looking for an upgrade either in the draft or free agency.
"He added positively to our group," Emery said at last week's Scouting Combine. "He helped us win games. At some point, we will sit down with his agents and see if we can move forward."
Emery's opinion of Scott isn't shared by others, many of who consider Scott a journeyman, at best.
•Cornerback Zack Bowman was re-signed midway through last season as a street free agent after he was cut by the Vikings. He played well on special teams and has the size and speed to compete for a backup job on the corner. Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings are the only corners under contract on the 53-man roster, so the Bears must keep someone or target that position in free agency and/or the draft.
•Cornerback Kelvin Hayden won the nickel job from D.J. Moore last season and even started two games when Jennings was hurt. He provided decent run support but does not have the cover skills to compete for a starting job, although he's a tough and experienced backup.
•Quarterback Josh McCown has value as an experienced, mobile, athletic No. 3; especially since 2012 backup Jason Campbell isn't expected back.
•Defensive tackle Amobi Okoye wasn't much more than a warm body last season, which is why he was waived Nov. 27. But he was re-signed two weeks later when injuries hit, and he's still only 26, so he could figure as a backup.
•Cornerback D.J. Moore, a big-play maker in each of the previous two seasons at nickel back, fell out of favor last season because of missed tackles and lost his job to Kelvin Hayden.
•RB Kahlil Bell was cut before the season but then re-signed, only after Michael Bush was injured late in the season. He has some value, but only as a No. 3, and that isn't a priority position behind Matt Forte and Bush. Bell also has had fumbling issues in the past.
•Quarterback Jason Campbell is expected to look for an opportunity where he can compete for a starting job. He was a costly insurance policy last season ($3.75 million), but he didn't do much to excite (72.8 rating) in limited action.
•Linebacker Geno Hayes was pressed into service as the starter on the strong side when Nick Roach moved from there to the middle to replace injured Brian Urlacher. Hayes came cheaply ($750,000), has some value as a backup and enough mobility for a cover-2 linebacker, but he isn't the guy you want starting.
•Place-kicker Olindo Mare was a late-season fill-in for injured Robbie Gould, who has recovered from a sprained knee.
•Safety Troy Nolan was added to special teams for the final game.
•Guard Chilo Rachal played poorly as a starter and went AWOL with personal problems after he was benched.
•Center/Guard Chris Spencer won't be paid as a starter by the Bears or anyone else, as he was last year (a wasted $4.25 million against the cap). He still offers experience and versatility as a backup but is worth only at about one-quarter of what he made in 2012.
• Follow Bob's NFL reports on Twitter @BobLeGere, and check out his Bear Essentials blog at dailyherald.com/sports.
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