It's a new era for the Chicago Bears as a new front office and a new coaching staff have taken over. The draft is around the corner, but first comes free agency, an area where the Bears expect to be active. They have numerous needs to address, but money may be the issue. Over The Cap currently has the Bears with an estimated $24 million in available cap space, but that number could change due to the reported trade of Khalil Mack to the Chargers, which will see Chicago receive a second-round pick this year and sixth-rounder in 2023.
The Bears are switching to a 4-3 defense under new head coach Matt Eberflus and defensive coordinator Alan Williams, and the offense will undergo significant changes as well. The biggest areas of need are wide receiver, offensive line, defensive line, and in the secondary.
The legal tampering window opens up on Monday with the new league year and free agency officially starting on March 16. Here are five players that the team should reach out to as soon as possible, starting with two familiar names.
Bilal Nichols, DT
The Bears are the only team he's ever known, and I think there's a way to keep Nichols in the fold. A fifth-round pick in the 2018 draft, Nichols has collected 146 tackles, 18 TFLs, 11 sacks, 31 QB hits, and five pass deflections in 60 games (49 starts). And with all signs pointing to Akiem Hicks finding a new home next season, the Bears would be wise to keep some familiarity along the defensive line. While Nichols doesn't have eye-popping numbers, he's been consistent from day one. I'm sure the Bears can give Nichols a deal that will allow him to stay, while also taking care of him financially. Nichols and Eddie Goldman could form a formidable interior duo next season.
Jakeem Grant, WR
With Allen Robinson more than likely to sign with a different team in free agency, the Bears have Darnell Mooney and a bunch of question marks at the wide receiver position. Depth must be added and that's where Grant could fit in. A midseason trade acquisition from the Dolphins, Grant made the most of his chances when he had the ball in his hand.
In 11 games for the Bears, Grant massed 915 all-purpose yards, as he was used as a return specialist (493 kick return yards, 250 on punts), receiver (139 yards), and runner (33 rushing yards). He scored three total touchdowns, the highlight being a 97-yard punt return on "Sunday Night Football" against Green Bay in Week 14. Grant finished third in the league with 11.9 yards per punt return and was one of only two players to return a punt for a touchdown. His efforts earned him a Pro Bowl invite.
He made just $1.5 million last year (per Spotrac), so it shouldn't cost a ton to bring him back. But he's sure to get a raise. Grant would be a nice complementary piece for this offense, and could perhaps work his way into the starting slot receiver spot.
Trent Brown, OT
Chicago's offensive line surrendered 58 sacks last season, the most of any team in the league, and wasn't always able to open holes for the running game as well. Injuries have been an issue over the last few seasons but it doesn't change the fact that this is a unit that needs a makeover in the worst way. Brown could be a solid pickup as a veteran presence.
Brown has started 69 games in seven seasons for three different teams. He's been reliable, doesn't make many self-inflicted mistakes (28 penalties in his career), and made the Pro Bowl in 2019. He turns 29 in April so he should still have a few good seasons in him. He made a reasonable $6.5 million last year in New England, so he probably won't break the bank at a position the Bears struggled with mightily in 2021.
Alex Okafor, DE
With Mack apparently on his way out of the Windy City, another pass rusher is needed to line up opposite Robert Quinn, assuming he remains with the team. Okafor has 31.5 sacks and 74 quarterback hits, along with 215 total tackles during his nine-year career (106 games played). He's 31 years old and entering his 10th year in the l league, so it probably won't take a long or lucrative contract to acquire his services. And with the Bears switching to a 4-3 alignment, more defensive ends/edge rushers will be needed.
Jimmy Smith, CB
He'll be 34 when the 2022 season begins, so perhaps his best days are behind him. But Smith is still a dependable player and could provide the Bears with a stop-gap option until they find a permanent choice to pay opposite No. 1 corner Jaylon Johnson. A Raven since entering the league as a first-round pick in the 2011 draft, Smith has 374 tackles, 14 interceptions, and 74 pass deflections to his credit.
— Written by Gabe Salgado, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He can also be heard on WGN Radio. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.