By Adam Hoge-
(CBS) While Bears general manager Phil Emery works diligently on hiring a new head coach, a majority of the players are sitting at home wondering about their future in Chicago.
Here are 10 very important questions Emery will have answer this offseason after he finds his new leader:
1. Can the offensive line be fixed in one offseason?
Probably not, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be the highest priority in the offseason. The Bears have decisions to make with Lance Louis, Jonathan Scott, Chris Spencer and Chilo Rachal, all of whom are are unrestricted free agents. General manager Phil Emery raved about Scott after the season, so I would expect him to return. Louis was the Bears’ best offensive lineman, but he’s recovering from a knee injury. Spencer seems doubtful to return and I’m pretty sure Rachal was locked out of Halas Hall forever when he walked out on the team earlier this year.
The line will likely be addressed early in the draft and probably free agency too. You’ll hear the big free agent names like Jake Long and Ryan Clady, but both guys are going to want a lot of money. The Bears are willing to spend, but it could get tricky with the salary cap. Prying a guy like Branden Albert away from Kansas City could make a lot of sense for the Bears.
As for the draft, this year’s class of offensive linemen is a little underrated. It helped the Bears that juniors like Texas A&M’s Luke Joeckel and Alabama’s D.J. Fluker came out early, but hurt that Michigan’s Taylor Lewan and Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews decided to return for their senior year. Still, there should be a couple of talented guys that fall to the Bears at No. 20. With so many needs, I don’t think Emery has to take a tackle. Take the best available offensive lineman, even if it’s a guard or tackle. Alabama’s Barrett Jones could be available and would be a great fit.
2. Can Brian Urlacher still play?
You know the answer to this question. Yes, he can still play, but definitely not at the level he once did. Urlacher has admitted his left knee will never be 100 percent again and you have to worry about that because one nagging injury can always lead to others.
That said, Urlacher was still leading the Bears in tackles when he suffered what turned out to be a season-ending hamstring injury and even at 34 years old, he’s still better than a lot of linebackers in the league.
That doesn’t mean the Bears will want to pay him again though. He’s an unrestricted free agent and with Lovie Smith out of the picture, both sides might decide it’s better to go in a different direction.
3. Is this a make or break year for Jay Cutler?
Emery has said he’s confident in Cutler going forward, but an extension would speak a lot louder than words. Cutler is entering the final year of his contract and he doesn’t have much leverage based on his play.
We’ll learn more about Cutler’s future with the Bears when the coaching staff is finalized. How will the new head coach gel with the quarterback? Will Jeremy Bates stay on board? When asked the day Smith was fired if he thought Bates would be a part of the new coaching staff, Cutler said: “I doubt it.”
In short, yes, this is a make or break year for Jay Cutler. He’s had so much potential for so long, but he needs to be more reliable for the Bears to sign him long-term. At this point, I’d be surprised if a deal is worked out in the offseason.
4. Who will play tight end?
Anybody other than Kellen Davis. Throughout training camp, the Bears talked about how they were going to try to get the tight end more involved. The result was Davis catching only 19 passes all season. He dropped way too many and clearly is not the playmaker the Bears thought he’d be. What’s scary is that he’s making over $2 million a year. I’d say Davis is a good candidate to be cut in the offseason.
5. How many of “Lovie’s guys” will stay on the roster?
The answer to this question will depend a lot on who the next head coach is. Will the Bears switch to a 3-4? We don’t know yet.
Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman won’t be going anywhere, but guys like Devin Hester, Israel Idonije and Nick Roach may have played their last downs as a Chicago Bear.
Hester talked about retiring after Smith was fired, but that was probably just an emotional reaction. Believe it or not, he may still have trade value, even if it’s just a mid-round draft pick. Trading or even cutting Hester would help save cap space.
6. Will Henry Melton get paid?
Melton’s contract situation will be a big story in the offseason. He’s an unrestricted free agent and just made his first Pro Bowl, so there will be interest in him across the league. If they can’t reach a deal, the Bears could use the franchise tag on him.
7. Who will be the backup quarterback?
Jason Campbell was probably hoping to use 2012 as an audition for a starting job, but he didn’t play all that well when Cutler missed time. Emery knows the importance of a good backup quarterback, but was Campbell worth the $1.4 million they gave him this season? It was only a one-year deal and the Bears might go in a different direction.
8. Will the Bears add competition at running back?
Matt Forte had an up-and-down season, and while scheme had a lot to do with that, the running back was to blame too. Michael Bush didn’t exactly provide the competition the Bears hoped, although he still proves to be better short-yardage back and should be back next year. Both players have outlasted the average NFL longevity for a running back so will Emery try to add some younger competition later in the draft? It won’t be a high priority, but might not be a bad idea.
9. Can Emery add depth at wide receiver?
Nagging injuries severely hampered what should have been a pretty good receiving unit in 2012. Obviously Brandon Marshall was a fantastic addition, but Alshon Jeffery would have had a big year if he hadn’t been nicked up. Earl Bennett was also slowed down and his Week 17 performance against the Lions shows he still has value.
That said, the unit still needs help and could use one more legitimate weapon. But is the missing link a good pass-catching tight end? It seems as if Emery could fix two problems with one good tight end.
10. Where else can depth be added via the draft?
Name a position. Offensive line and tight end are the two positions with greatest need, but you could make an argument for any position on the defense. If Emery still believes in Brandon Hardin, he probably doesn’t need to add anyone at safety through the draft, but cornerback and linebacker could use help as both positions are getting old. Obviously a switch to a 3-4 would impact the greatest draft needs as well.
By my count, the Bears only have five draft picks right now after trading their third round pick to the Dolphins for Brandon Marshall and their seventh round pick to the Buccaneers for Brian Price.
Adam is the Sports Editor for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the Bears, White Sox and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHogeCBS and read more of his columns here.