Next up after Forte, in terms of importance, is defensive end Israel Idonije. He has developed into a solid two-way performer - strong against the run and OK as a pass rusher. But the Bears would like more from the left end spot than the five sacks they got from Idonije last season. Considering he'll turn 32 next season, his arrow may no longer be pointing up. If the Bears decide to goose their pass rush with someone else's free agent, they may not be able to afford to hold on to Idonije.
Amobi Okoye signed a one-year deal a year ago as a free agent and contributed as a backup in the defensive tackle rotation. He also can play left end, and even though Okoye has five years experience, he's still just 24.
For the Bears' defense to perform well, it's imperative that it can pressure the quarterback with just the front four, and that didn't happen on a consistent basis last season.
Despite all the positive talk regarding the Bears' defense in 2011 - most of it coming from players and coaches at Halas Hall - Lovie Smith's team wasn't very impressive on that side of the ball.
The Bears were a respectable 14th in points and 17th in yards allowed, and they were stout against the run, finishing fifth in yards and 10th in average gain allowed.
But only four teams permitted more passing yards than the Bears, and only three had fewer sacks per pass play. Those numbers may be OK for teams like the Packers and Patriots, which have state-of-the-art offenses to compensate, but they're not OK for Smith or for Bears defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli.
The Packers' Aaron Rodgers threw for 4,643 yards and 45 touchdowns last year, and the Lions' Matthew Stafford threw for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns, so the Bears face two of the NFL's five most prolific quarterbacks twice every season.
"To say that we got enough (pass-rush pressure) the entire time, I can't say that," Smith said at the end of the season. "That's an area that we're going to look at. We always look to improve our defensive line."
Julius Peppers can't do it all himself, and even his 11 sacks were nowhere near the league leaders. Eight players had 12 or more sacks last season. The Bears got some inside pressure from Henry Melton, who had a career-best seven sacks (only two NFL tackles had more), but no other player had more than Idonije's five.
It's not that the Bears can't get pass-rush help in the draft, but it's unlikely they'll luck into someone like 49ers rookie Aldon Smith (14 sacks in 2011) with the 19th overall pick.
If the Bears decide they want immediate help, their best bets would be the Lions' Cliff Avril or the Cardinals' Calais Campbell, both four-year veterans with a lot of tread still on the tires. The 6-3, 260-pound Avril is undersized for the Bears' scheme, but that's not a concern with the 6-8, 300-pound Campbell, who is an ideal fit in Arizona's 3-4 defense.
Avril had 11 sacks last season, the most among all free-agent defensive ends, while Campbell had 8.0. Some other interesting players scheduled to hit the market on March 13 are the Falcons' John Abraham and the Colts' undersized Robert Mathis, who both had 9.5 sacks.
Abraham will be entering his 13th season and Mathis his 10th. But last season was the eighth time Abraham has had at least 9.5 sacks in a season, including 13 in 2010. The 6-2, 245-pound Mathis would have to be a situational rusher in the Bears' scheme, but he has had 9.5 or more sacks in seven seasons, including each of the past four.
The AFC champion Patriots have four defensive ends scheduled to become free agents, including two - 11-year veteran Andre Carter and former Bear Mark Anderson - who had 10 sacks last season.
After being cut in 2010 by the Bears, four years after his 12-sack rookie season, Anderson resurrected his languishing NFL career with the Patriots. Was that a fluke or a sign of a player who has recaptured the magic?
The stronger the Bears' pass rush, the more it will hide a secondary that isn't much better than mediocre.
Other than cornerback Charles Tillman, who was voted to his first Pro Bowl in his ninth season, no one in the Bears' secondary stood out, so it's debatable how much effort the team will put into re-signing a large group of its defensive back free agents.
Five players who have started games in the Bears' secondary are unrestricted this year.
Cornerback Corey Graham may be the most valuable of the bunch given his prowess on special teams, which earned him a trip to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl last month. The five-year veteran has just one start since starting nine times at cornerback in 2008, but he picked off passes in three straight games last season while subbing at nickel back when D.J. Moore was injured.
Tim Jennings started the first 14 games at cornerback last season but was benched for a week in favor of Zack Bowman. Then Jennings started the season finale after Bowman, who is also a free agent, was benched. Bowman had started the first three games in 2010 but was benched in favor of Jennings, who started the final 13 games. Clearly the Bears have confidence issues with both players.
Safety Brandon Meriweather was signed to a one-year deal just before the start of the 2011 season after he was cut by the DB-challenged Patriots, who had the second-worst pass defense in the NFL. The Bears found out why he was available as Meriweather played himself out of the lineup after four weeks as the starter at free safety.
Craig Steltz, another special teams stalwart, started the final four games last season at strong safety and played well enough to at least be in the mix again.
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