Beginning within the span of the next 24 hours, the form of the 2013 Bears and beyond is expected to start coming dramatically into focus.
Players with expiring contracts can sign with other teams as of 3 p.m. That means linebackers Nick Roach and Brian Urlacher, guard Lance Louis and a number of familiar Bears could be former Bears by sundown Tuesday.
The organization has had contract talks with Roach, Urlacher and others among their soon-to-be-unrestricted free agents. None were reported as signed by the team as of late Monday night.
On offense: Louis and right tackle Jonathan Scott are the only starters. Quarterback Jason Campbell and guard/center Chris Spencer also are scheduled to hit the market, only Louis for the first time. Spencer is a longshot to be re-signed.
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On defense: Roach and Urlacher are the only starters. But versatile end/tackle Israel Idonije and nickel back Kelvin Hayden are coming out of contracts, along with cornerback Zackary Bowman, linebacker Geno Hayes, tackle Amobi Okoye and cornerback D.J. Moore, who was told by team that he is not being re-signed. Hayes stepped in as a starter when Urlacher was injured in the Seattle game and Roach shifted to middle linebacker.
Simple (or not-so-simple) economics dictate that not all will be back from a team that finished 10-6 narrowly out of the playoffs. The Bears have less than $7 million in available salary cap space; $8.45 million currently committed to defensive tackle Henry Melton under his franchise tag; and are looking at existing contracts with the intention of restructuring deals to create more cap space.
The absence of deals to this point is not necessarily a sign of impasses. The market often is set every year by early deals and both player and team are reluctant to be the first to commit.
The first decision for the Bears, one which already has been made internally, is which players to allow to test the market and which to pay that they are kept off the market and in Chicago.
The franchise tag on Melton was one decision. Preemptive offers on others may yet take shape before 3 p.m. Getting both Roach and Urlacher back will be a huge challenge; losing them both will leave an arguably bigger one for new coordinator Mel Tucker.
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Because the money pool is finite, extremely difficult choices are inevitable. If widespread interest in Roach turns into significant offers, for example, could the Bears be faced with a choice between Roach and Urlacher? One is the present at his position, one is the future at his, whichever Roach’s is determined to be.
The Bears did not agree to the multi-year proposal from Urlacher’s camp nor reach an agreement with Roach’s side during initial talks. Letting both become unrestricteds is a calculated gamble.
Teams generally place priorities on keeping their own. But the Bears are committed to upgrades at offensive line and tight end and cash invested in re-signings is money not available for a tackle such as New Orleans’ Jermon Bushrod or Tennessee tight end Jared Cook, both linked to the Bears in various reports.
Without creating additional cap space, the Bears’ decisions on their own players become even more difficult.