These 32 Bears Will Become Free Agents on March 16
Changes in the Chicago Bears’ organization aren’t being limited to the front office and coaching staffs. Instead, the additions of Ryan Poles (GM), Ian Cunningham (Assistant GM), Matt Eberflus (Head Coach), and his staff represent only the beginning. More movement is coming for a Bears team that closed the year with a 6-11 record. But before we start unearthing potential fits and targets, we should get to know the Bears who could be on their way out of town.
The Bears’ 27 Unrestricted Free Agents
Unrestricted free agents are players who have accrued at least four years worth of service team and have expiring contracts at the end of the league year. These players can hit the open market when the new league year begins on March 16 and can sign with any of the NFL’s 32 teams.
Quarterbacks: Andy Dalton
Running backs: Damien Williams
Wide receivers: Allen Robinson II, Damiere Byrd, Jakeem Grant Sr., Marquise Goodwin
Tight ends: Jimmy Graham, Jesse James
Offensive line: Jason Peters, James Daniels, Germain Ifedi, Elijah Wilkinson
What a group we’ve got here. Eleven of the 12 players above were starters in at least one game for Chicago this season. And the one player who didn’t start any games (Jakeem Grant Sr.) was a Pro Bowl return specialist. The biggest potential losses could come on the offensive line, where Daniels was a starter for 17 games and has starting experience at all three interior offensive line positions. And while the Bears have in-house candidates to replace Peters and Ifedi at tackle, the team is still set to lose 23 years of playing experience with the pending departures of the team’s two Week 1 starters at tackle.
Elsewhere, the Bears have four receivers on the cusp of free agency. Robinson will get a bulk of the attention as the offense’s highest-paid player. But let’s not overlook depth options. Chicago’s football team needs more firepower on offense, especially at the receiver spot. But it also needs depth. Maybe someone like Byrd or Goodwin could return as part of a camp battle. But it wouldn’t surprise me to see the team go in a different direction altogether an attempt to upgrade around Darnell Mooney. After all, he can’t be the only guy Justin Fields throws to this upcoming season.
Defense + Special Teams (15)
Defensive line: Akiem Hicks, Bilal Nichols, Margus Hunt, Bruce Irvin, Cassius Marsh
Linebackers: Christian Jones, Alec Ogletree, Joel Iyiegbuniwe,
Cornerbacks: Artie Burns
Safeties: Tashaun Gipson Sr., Deon Bush, DeAndre Houston-Carson, Marqui Christian
Special teamers: P Pat O’Donnell, LS Patrick Scales
Not only could the Bears lose a handful of defensive starters to free agency, they could be seeing some popular players skip town. Hicks has played with a motor that doesn’t stop and was the heartbeat of the Vic Fangio-Chuck Pagano-Sean Desai defenses. Nichols was a nice diamond-in-the-rough fifth-round pick from the 2018 NFL Draft who grew with the unit. Gipson, Bush, and Houston-Carson were helpful in making Chicago’s safeties rotation a strength when things could’ve gotten rough. Similar things can be said about that trio of linebackers, all of whom were key contributors on special teams. And in the case of Alec Ogletree, a proven starter who was contributing in a pinch.
It will be interesting to see if any Bears defenders are made a priority this offseason. A new coaching staff, scheme, system, and philosophy are part of what makes the Eberflus thing a little different. Chicago could bring some key cogs back for depth reasons. It might be early to tell whose those ideal fits could be.
Maybe the most important free agents in this group are the specialists. Scales hasn’t had any issues with botching snaps in 86 games as Chicago’s long snapper since 2015. Should Scales return, he’ll be playing for his third head coach. And if O’Donnell comes back, it’ll be four different coaches for him. But more than that, I’m curious as to what will happen with the kicking mechanism depending on how things shake out with Scales and O’Donnell.
The Bears’ Restricted Free Agents
Restricted Free Agents (5)
After accruing three seasons in the league, restricted free agents are players who can sign offer sheets from other teams. However, the Bears would get the opportunity to match. Chicago’s football team has five such players. Three of them — RB Ryan Nall, TE J.P. Holtz, and OL Alex Bars — play offense. It is worth noting that all three are generally core special teams contributors. Meanwhile, the two Bears’ defenders — CB Xavier Crawford, CB/S Teez Tabor — are defensive backs.
Exclusive Rights Free Agents (3)
UPDATE: The Bears have since tendered offers to all of their exclusive-rights free agents.
After logging two or fewer accrued seasons, Exclusive Rights Free Agents are ones who can negotiate and sign deals with only their original teams. The Bears have three such players with TE Jesper Horsted, OL Lachavious Simmons, and C Sam Mustipher.
We knew the Bears would look different in 2022. But it is easier to visualize now that we have an idea of what a list of potential out-going free agents looks like for this team. Chicago won’t be able to re-sign everyone, but this front office shouldn’t be looking to do that anyway. With this many free agents, we’re on the cusp of seeing waves of changes among players. So I hope you’re ready to brace yourself for a bunch of new players. Their time is coming.