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Hoge’s Offseason Notebook No. 1: Bears Free Agent Predictions

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Devin Hester, Josh McCown and Charles Tillman. (Credit: Getty Images)

Devin Hester, Josh McCown and Charles Tillman. (Credit: Getty Images)

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By Adam Hoge-

(CBS) — The NFL season never really ends.

And that’s why I’ll continue to write about the Bears throughout the winter and spring. Before you know it, we’ll be back in Bourbonnais in late July.

This is the first of many weekly notebooks I’ll compile throughout the offseason. Some will be longer, some will be shorter, but there’s always something to write (and read) about the Bears, so I’ll keep it coming every week. These notebooks will have a different “main” theme each week, but I’ll also provide a scouting report of a college prospect and look back at some coaches film from the Bears season in every edition.

Just a week into the Bears’ offseason, general manager Phil Emery has signed five of his unrestricted free agents, but there are still 24 remaining. Let’s take a look at each UFA and their chances to return to the Bears:

(Note: My grades are based on a baseline of 0.00, which is replacement level. I graded out every player in all 16 games as the season went along and averaged them into final grades for each player. For reference, Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall tied for the highest grade on the roster with a 3.94. Shea McClellin and Christian Tupou tied for the lowest grade with a -1.00.)

DT Henry Melton
Age: 27
Experience: 5 years
My Grade (0.00 is replacement level): 0.67

Season In Review: Got off to a slow start, but was having a nice game against the Steelers in Week 3 before he tore his ACL. Spent the rest of the season on IR.

Outlook: Two things are complicating Melton’s future with the Bears: a possible scheme change in the defense and an arrest in Texas on Dec. 22. Emery publicly questioned Melton’s focus on football after the season. The good news is, after playing under the franchise tag in 2013, the ACL and arrest will make Melton a lot cheaper next season. If the Bears stay in a 4-3, I think Melton returns to Chicago in 2014. If they move to a 3-4, there’s not much of a use for him.

CB Charles Tillman
Age: 32
Experience: 11 years
My Grade: 0.00

Season In Review: Tillman tweaked a knee in Week 1 and wasn’t the same player afterward. He even had to sit out the Week 6 contest against the Giants. Four weeks later, a triceps injury against the Lions cost him the rest of his season.

Outlook: Tillman said he has some decisions to make in the coming weeks. Those decisions could involve a possible position switch to safety (which he previously said he doesn’t want to do) or a possible team switch to Tampa where Lovie Smith is now coaching. Teammate Tim Jennings said all he knows is that Tillman wants to win and it would appear the Bears are a lot closer to winning than the Bucs. The wild card here is Tillman’s knee injury. Is it something that is going to continue to hamper him? This is s a tough call, but right now I think there’s a decent chance Tillman will be a new uniform next season.

KR/PR Devin Hester
Age: 30
Experience: 8 years
My Grade: 0.50

Season In Review: Hester still tends to frustrate fans, but the Bears wouldn’t have beat the Vikings in Week 2 without his 249 kickoff return yards and he did all he could in Week 17 to help his team nearly beat the Packers to win the division.

Outlook: He doesn’t have the gear he once had, but Hester proved he still has value as a returner. His 49-yard punt return against the Packers in Week 17 showed he can still turn on the jets. Will another team want to pay him, thinking they can still squeeze out whatever he has left? It’s possible. But if the Bears can bring Hester back on a veteran minimum salary benefit deal, it would be worth it.

C Roberto Garza
Age: 34
Experience: 13 years
My Grade: 0.56

Season In Review: Garza started off the season really strong, had a rough four-game stretch in the middle, but then finished with only one negative grade in the last seven games. After showing signs of slowing down in 2012, it was a bounce-back year for the center.

Outlook: This is really the only big decision the Bears have on offense right now. I imagine the Bears will start grooming a younger replacement in the future (they might view Taylor Boggs as that guy already), but if Garza is willing to come back cheap, it might not be a bad idea to give him another year. He’s a team captain and brings stability on that line because of his understanding of the protection schemes and understanding of opposing defenses.

QB Josh McCown
Age: 34
Experience: 11 years
My Grade: 3.25

Season In Review: Posted the fourth highest grade on the team and excelled as the Bears’ backup quarterback while playing in eight games.

Outlook: McCown is going to have options. Is there a team that might want to bring him in to compete for a starting job? It’s possible. The Bears want him back, but aren’t going to give him crazy money. They gave Jason Campbell $3.5 million to be the backup in 2012 and I’d be surprised if they go that high with McCown. Still, he showed how valuable it is to have a reliable backup. He likes it in Chicago and I think there’s a good chance he ends up back in a Bears uniform.

S Major Wright
Age: 24
Experience: 4 years
My Grade: -0.33

Season In Review: Not a great year for Wright, who was expected to take another leap forward, especially in a contract year. He struggled against both the pass and the run at times and only had two interceptions (and none in the last 12 games of the season).

Outlook: With his rookie contract expiring, I’d imagine the Bears go in a different direction.

DL Corey Wootton
Age: 26
Experience: 4 years
My Grade: 2.56

Season In Review: The defensive end was forced to play defensive tackle for most of the season because of the rash of injuries inside. He actually performed really well in the three-technique, but didn’t look like the same pass rusher when moved back outside. Overall, a really good year for a player who didn’t complain at all about playing out of position in a contract year.

Outlook: Wootton is somewhat hard to evaluate because he played out of position for most of the season. His reps on the outside weren’t all that productive, but it’s hard to blame him when he was using different techniques inside for most of the season. Wootton could actually be 3-4 defensive end if the Bears go in that direction, so he transcends scheme. The idea of the franchise tag would make sense here because the Bears could really use another year to evaluate him, but it would seem unlikely the Bears would take a cap hit around $10 million on Wootton. It would be wise to bring back a versatile, young, smart defensive lineman like Wootton — who has proven in the last two years he can stay healthy — but the market might make that difficult. My gut says he ends up elsewhere.

DT Jeremiah Ratliff
Age; 32
Experience: 9 years
My Grade: 2.60

Season In Review: Ratliff played very well for the Bears, appearing in the last five games after being signed mid-season. He proved he can still play at a high level coming off an bad groin injury in 2012.

Outlook: Ratliff can arguably transcend scheme, but his age doesn’t fit the getting younger on defense idea. I’d be surprised if he returns on anything more than a one-year deal.

DT Nate Collins
Age: 26
Experience: 4 years
My Grade: 1.60

Season In Review: The reserve defensive tackle played well early in the season and appeared to be an ascending player, but then tore his ACL against the Saints in Week 5.

Outlook: Collins says he’ll be ready for OTAs and he’s still young enough to fit in this rebuilding defense at the right price. As long as the Bears stay in a 4-3, he has value in this scheme. Otherwise, he’s not a two-gap zero-technique.

ILB D.J. Williams
Age: 31
Experience: 10 years
My Grade: 1.67

Season In Review: After missing the preseason with a calf injury, Williams performed well before going on IR after Week 7 with a torn pectoral muscle.

Outlook: If the Bears no longer view Jon Bostic as a middle linebacker, then they don’t currently have one on their roster. If they’re staying in a 4-3, signing Williams should be a priority. He wants to remain a Bear and said he’s willing to start contract talks immediately.

OLB James Anderson
Age: 30
Experience 8 years
My Grade: 1.31

Season In Review: For all the problems the Bears had on defense, Anderson proved to be a dependable player. He had his problems against the run just like everyone else did, but he was better at it than most on that defense and he was also pretty good in pass coverage.

Outlook: The numbers aren’t in his favor. If Bostic and Shea McClellin are now outside linebackers (and McClellin appears to be more of a Sam linebacker) then Anderson might be out of a roster spot. Emery also said the Bears want to get younger on defense. I expect Anderson to be elsewhere next year.

OT Eben Britton
Age: 25
Experience: 5 years
My Grade: 0.62

Season In Review: Britton allowed the Bears to be creative by using him as an extra blocker in a tight end role. He was a dependable blocker and actually had his best game of the season when he filled in for right tackle Jordan Mills in Week 17 against the Packers.

Outlook: This might depend on how well league scouts did their homework on Britton. Some team might view him as a starting right tackle and pay him more than the Bears will be willing too. He proved his worth in Chicago though and would be a good fit in this offense going forward.

LB Blake Costanzo
Age: 29
Experience: 7 years
My Grade: -0.13

Season In Review: Costanzo continues to be a dependable special teamer, but he wasn’t able to adequately fill in at linebacker when forced to.

Outlook: Can’t imagine Costanzo is a priority at this point. Emery will worry about rebuilding the defense first and that doesn’t involve Costanzo. If there’s a spot left for him on special teams when it’s all over, then maybe he comes back, but I wouldn’t count on it.

LS Patrick Mannelly
Age: 38
Experience: 16 years
My Grade: 1.00

Season In Review: The longest tenured player in franchise history had another solid season, but did battle a hip injury in the preseason and missed two games in the middle of the season with a calf injury.

Outlook: Have to imagine this one is up to Mannelly. With injuries becoming more of an issue, he may opt to retire. If he wants to come back though, he’s worth it on a minimum deal.

S Craig Steltz
Age: 27
Experience: 6 years
My Grade: -0.31

Season In Review: A lot like Costanzo, Steltz is a dependable special teamer, but he’s not a starting NFL safety. He had an up-and-down game when filling in for Major Wright in Minnesota.

Outlook: Again, not a priority right now as the defense has to be rebuilt before special teams. You could do worse than Steltz as a backup safety, but you could also do better.

OT Jonathan Scott
Age: 30
Experience: 7 years
My Grade: N/A (did not appear in a game this season)

Season In Review: Battled a knee injury in the preseason, was waived before Week 1 for financial reasons and then was brought back to the 53-man roster for the last 15 weeks of the season. Was inactive for all 15 games.

Outlook: Depends on the knee and his availability. If he’s healthy and available in the summer, why not bring him back as an extra offense tackle?

CB Sherrick McManis
Age: 26
Experience: 4 years
My Grade: -0.07

Season In Review: Showed that he’s a solid special teamer who doesn’t fit as anything more than an emergency cornerback on defense.

Outlook: Put it him with the other special teamers. Rebuild the defense first and then if McManis is still looking for a job and there’s a spot for him on special teams, bring him back.

CB Zack Bowman
Age: 29
Experience: 6 years
My Grade: -0.38

Season In Review: Bowman played a significant role in 2013 as Tillman battled a knee injury and then was lost for the season. He was up-and-down with back-to-back good games against the Cowboys and Browns, but also not so good games against the Giants and Rams.

Outlook: With Emery looking to get younger on defense, Bowman might be on the outside. Don’t forget the Bears essentially redshirted cornerbacks C.J. Wilson and Demontre Hurst this season.

CB Kelvin Hayden
Age: 30
Experience: 9 years
My Grade: N/A (did not appear in a game)

Season In Review: Hayden tore his hamstring at Family Fest at Solider Field during the preseason and was placed on IR.

Outlook: Hayden could still have value as a veteran backup, but age is working against him. Isaiah Frey is locked in as the nickelback, the spot Hayden held before the injury. I’d be surprised if he’s back.

TE Dante Rosario
Age: 29
Experience: 7 years
My Grade: 0.40

Season In Review: The Bears traded a seventh-round draft pick to Dallas for Rosario just before the start of the season. He only caught one pass all season, but was a good blocker and special teamer.

Outlook: Rosario was better than the other options the Bears had at tight end in training camp and it would be good to bring him back in 2014. That said, with or without Rosario, Emery should be looking to build some younger depth at the tight end position.

S Anthony Walters
Age: 25
Experience: 3 years
My Grade: -0.08

Season In Review: It was an uneventful season for Walters, who was behind backup safety Craig Steltz on the depth chart and was used as a special teamer. He battled through a couple minor injuries too.

Outlook: Young enough to stay on the roster, but doesn’t appear to be more than a special teamer so he won’t be a priority.

DT Landon Cohen
Age: 27
Experience: 5 years
My Grade: 0.15

Season In Review: Was signed off the street after Melton tore his ACL in Week 3. Cohen was a viable stopgap in the rotation, but finished the year without a sack.

Outlook: You can do worse than Landon Cohen as a backup, but the Bears should be aiming to be in a place where they don’t need to be searching for a guy like Cohen in the middle of the season.

QB Jordan Palmer
Age: 29
Experience: 5 years
My Grade: N/A (did not appear in a game)

Season In Review: Palmer played well in the Bears’ final preseason game of the year, but was still cut. He returned when Cutler got hurt mid-season and stuck around through the end of the year.

Outlook: Could be brought back in an emergency situation next year, but the Bears already signed quarterback Jerrod Johnson to a futures contract and seem to think he can fit in as a backup.

CB Derrick Martin
Age: 28
Experience: 7 years
My Grade: 0.00

Season In Review: Was signed Nov. 13 and was only used as a special teamer and emergency cornerback. Saw a snap at cornerback against the Packers in Week 17 and allowed a completion.

Outlook: Way down on the list of priorities.

Important Offseason Dates

Feb. 3 – Waiver system begins
Feb. 17 – First day for clubs to designate Franchise or Transition tags.
Feb. 19-25 – NFL Combine in Indianapolis.
Mar. 3 – 3 p.m. CT deadline to use Franchise or Transition tags.
Mar. 8 – Clubs can begin contacting agents and enter into contract negotiations with Unrestricted Free Agents
Mar. 11 – New league year starts at 3 p.m., which is when contracts with Unrestricted Free Agents can be executed. This is when all 2013 player contracts expire and the trading period for 2014 begins. Teams must also be under the salary cap at this time (the Top-51 contracts count against the cap).
April 21 – The Bears are permitted to begin offseason workouts on this date.
May 8-10 – NFL Draft in New York City.
July 15 – Deadline for players with Franchise Tag to sign a multi-year contract or extension.

Bears’ Tentative Draft Picks

The final order of the NFL Draft won’t be finalized until the end of the postseason, but the Bears’ picks are tentatively set. Remember, they gained a sixth-round pick in the Gabe Carimi trade and gave up their seventh-round pick in the Dante Rosario trade.

Round 1: 14th
Round 2: 19th
Round 3: 18th
Round 4: 17th
Round 5: 16th
Round 6: 7th (from Tampa Bay)
Round 6: 15th

Don’t be surprised to see Emery try to add more picks.

College Prospect Of The Week

LB Telvin Smith – Florida State

Here’s a guy to watch in tonight’s National Championship Game. He’s an athletic, versatile linebacker, which fits the mold Phil Emery likes. Smith is playing on the weak side this year, but previously played middle linebacker at FSU and still possesses those skills. He’s strong against the run and can drop back into coverage (even plays like a safety sometimes).

Florida State uses those hybrid looks that have been discussed for the Bears defense in 2014, so if you watch Smith tonight, you’ll be able to see him do a lot of different things. Where he’ll end up in the draft remains to be seen as he has some middle-round grades, but if the Bears look to go with a safety in the first round, Smith is the kind of player that could provide some value later on.

The big question is: Can he play middle linebacker in the NFL? It will be fun to evaluate his skill set tonight on a big stage inside the Rose Bowl.

Film Session

As the Bears move into Year 2 of the Marc Trestman offense, this is exactly what they want more of:

Cutler’s 37-yard pass to Brandon Marshall in the first quarter against the Packers was as close as you get to perfect execution across the board. It started with the protection…

image Hoge’s Offseason Notebook No. 1: Bears Free Agent Predictions

…continued with Cutler’s mechanics in the pocket…

image1 Hoge’s Offseason Notebook No. 1: Bears Free Agent Predictions

…and ended with a beautiful back-shoulder throw put perfectly over the defender and in a place where Brandon Marshall could go up and get the football…

image2 Hoge’s Offseason Notebook No. 1: Bears Free Agent Predictions

That’s what you have to look forward to this offseason, Chicago.

Extra points

- I’ll reveal more of my 2013 grades as the offseason goes along, but I don’t mind telling you that Brandon Marshall was the only player on the roster to go all 16 games without a negative grade. Alshon Jeffery was on the same pace too until last week’s game against the Packers when his first half fumble and fourth quarter drop left him with a -1.00 grade on the day.

- The non-fumble recovery against the Packers was the only time all season where all 11 Bears players on the field were downgraded on one play.

- By virtue of their Week 17 loss to the Packers, the Bears will draft seven spots higher than Green Bay in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft. There’s your silver lining.

Adam Hoge covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamHoge.

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