Teams around the NFL can start contacting and negotiating Saturday with agents of players set to become unrestricted free agents, but deals can’t be executed until Mar. 11 at 3 p.m. CST, when the new league year starts.
As that date quickly approaches, we take a look at Chicago’s pending free agents and their chances of returning to the team in the second part of our week-long series.
2014 free agent: Henry Melton
Position: Defensive tackle
2013 statistics: Three games (three starts); five tackles, two quarterback pressures and one fumble recovery.
2013 salary: $8.45 million base salary, $4,725 workout bonus -- $8,454,725 cash value.
Outlook: Once the negotiating window opens up Mar. 8, Melton fully expects to start discussing potential deals with other teams. That expectation comes as a result of talks with the Bears that haven’t quite gone the way Melton’s representatives would have hoped, which is understandable considering he’s coming off a torn ACL and a recent arrest, not to mention concerns about his level of commitment. Bears coach Marc Trestman has raved about Melton’s rehabilitation, and there’s a desire on the team’s part to bring him back for 2014. But with the team tight against the cap, Melton can’t expect to receive a deal anywhere near the $8.45 million franchise tender he signed in 2014, coming off a Pro Bowl season. Melton will have some suitors, and there’s a chance he could come back to Chicago at a reduced rate.
2014 free agent: Zack Bowman
2013 statistics: 16 games (seven starts); 49 tackles, three interceptions (one touchdown), 10 pass breakups, two tackles-for-loss and three special-teams tackles.
2013 salary: $715,000 base salary, $65,000 signing bonus and $5,245.00 workout bonus -- $785,425 cash value.
Outlook: Bowman is expected to test free agency, but the Bears want him to return. At 29 years old with 23 career starts over six seasons, Bowman will probably generate interest from teams in need of depth at the cornerback position. The Bears were pleased with how Bowman performed when he replaced Charles Tillman in the second half of 2013, although it’s unknown if the club is willing to offer the six-year NFL veteran anything above a league-minimum contract. Bowman’s leverage would increase if Tillman leaves the Bears via free agency. Bottom line: The Bears are a better team with Bowman on the roster in 2014. It wouldn't take much to keep him in Chicago, but he is coming off a productive season. That is an important factor to remember.
2014 free agent: Major Wright
2013 statistics: 15 games (15 starts); 117 tackles (97 solo), two interceptions, one pass breakup and two forced fumbles.
2013 salary: $1.323 million base salary and $5,075 workout -- $1,328,075 cash value.
Outlook: After a solid showing in 2012, Wright came into the 2013 season with high expectations but regressed to the point at which there’s a perceived need at the safety position. While it appears Wright can be salvaged, it’s expected he’ll test the market because the Bears don’t appear inclined to offer anything more than a veteran minimum type of deal. Wright possesses the skill set to be a solid starter for the Bears moving forward, but his lack of consistency has become such a liability the Bears are likely strongly considering replacing him.
2014 free agent: Corey Wootton
Position: Defensive line
2013 statistics: 16 games (15 starts); 31 tackles, 3.5 sacks, five pass breakups, one forced fumble, two fumble recoveries and 4.5 tackles-for-loss.
2013 salary: $1.323 million base salary and $5,600 signing bonus -- $1,328,600 cash value
Outlook: The Bears' talks with Wootton have likely not surpassed the exploratory phase after the versatile defensive lineman underwent hip surgery in the offseason. It’s simply too early to tell when Wootton will be fully recovered from the procedure, although given Wootton’s work ethic and physical fitness level, he could be ready to return to the field in June. Wootton proved in 2013 that he can be both a viable defensive end and tackle. The ability to bounce inside and line up at tackle should aid Wootton (seven sacks in 2012) when he enters free agency. Wootton is a talented player with impressive size (6-foot-6, 270 pounds) who is extremely well-liked in the locker room. But the Bears will probably wait to see how they address defensive line in free agency and the draft before they make a final decision on the still-recovering Wootton. He could be off the market before the draft concludes in early May, but the Bears don’t seem to be in a rush.