The Bears definitely look to have a solid core in place, despite the gaping holes on offensive line which they will likely try to address via draft and free agency. But just because they do have a solid foundation to build off of now, doesn't mean that same foundation will be in place come training camp. In fact, the Bears have a rather scary group of players - specifically defensive players - hitting the free agent market this year.
Some of those free agents include Olin Kreutz, Anthony Adams, Nick Roach, Pisa Tinoisamoa, and special teams ace Corey Graham. Having no real idea where the issues regarding the NFLPA and NFL collective bargaining agreement will end up, it's difficult to predict who will stay and who will go among this group of free agents.
It's probably safe to say Olin Kreutz will be sticking around. Kreutz has not expressed any interest in retiring from the league and has said he wants to finish his career in Chicago. But what about guys like Adams, Roach and Pisa? Difficult to say...
One thing that we can probably take an educated guess at is which 2012 (as opposed to 2011) free agents may be able to negotiate contract extensions. There are 12 Bears' players currently due to be free agents in 2012. Of those 12, I think three - including one non-player and one 2011 FA - just may have showed enough this past season to bargain an extension in 2011.
In order of likelihood...
1. Lovie Smith
Jerry Angelo removed all speculation when he addressed the media after the Bears' playoff run. "It's our intention to extend Lovie," Angelo said. Smith last received an extension in 2007 after taking his team to the Super Bowl. Smith is 63-49 during the regular season. He's .500 in the playoffs, and has won three division titles and one conference title in his seven seasons as Bears' head coach.
2. Matt Forte
Let's put it this way, Chester Taylor is set to make $1.275 million dollars next season. Forte? He will make $555,000 in the final year of his rookie deal. As much as any player on the Bears' roster this past season, Forte was not only consistent, he was a difference maker. He finished with 1,616 yards from scrimmage, a 4.5 yards-per-attempt rush average and nine touchdowns. He will get an extension.
3. Israel Idonije
Here's where is gets a little dicey. Israel Idonije not only had his best season with the Bears this year, he had the best season of his career. He finished with eight sacks, equaling the sack total of his all six of his prior seasons combined. He had four forced fumbles and 49 tackles in 2010. His per season FF average before 2010 was 0.33. The issue, is that the Bears remember those other six seasons. Is one year playing opposite Julius Peppers enough, or do they ask him to do it again?
4. Danieal Manning
If you recall, Manning was looking for an extension prior to the start of last season. Manning is one of those players who's set to be a free agent this year. So given the CBA issues, why would the Bears extend Manning? Because he did what they asked him to do. Last year, when the Bears refused to extend Danieal's deal, they basically asked him to earn it. He did that this season with a 24.7 yards per kickoff return and 72 tackles playing safety. Every indication is that Manning would like to remain in Chicago, and the Bears would be foolish to not try and retain him.
5. Earl Bennett
Bennett is due to be a free agent in 2012. And after starting the season injured, Bennett did not get a lot of snaps early on. He caught up quickly and proved to be the Bears' most complete wide receiver. Some may argue that point given the bolstered stats of Johnny Knox, but Bennett is without question the best route-runner, the most physical and most sure-handed receiver the Bears currently have. Getting a deal done this year is going to be a challenge for Bennett, especially assuming Mike Marts sticks around (he will). The Bears will try and secure offensive line help, but possibly also wide receivers to fit the Martz system. Yeah, the one he tried to use at the beginning of the season.
We'll definitely begin to see how some of this will play out in the weeks and months to come. In the mean time, here's a look at the Bears full list of 2011 and 2012 free agents:
Chicago Bears 2011 free agents
QB Caleb Hanie, RB Garrett Wolfe, WR Rashied Davis, TE Desmond Clark, C Olin Kreutz, DT Anthony Adams, LB Nick Roach, LB Pisa Tinoisamoa, CB Corey Graham, S Danieal Manning, S Josh Bullocks, P Brad Maynard
Chicago Bears 2012 free agents
RB Matt Forte, WR Earl Bennett, TE Greg Olsen, TE Kellen Davis, T Kevin Shaffer, G/C Roberto Garza, DT Israel Idonije, DT Marcus Harrison, LB Hunter Hillenmeyer, CB Zackary Bowman, CB Tim Jennings, S Craig Steltz