The NFL Combine is just over one week away, so many have their attention set on the incoming class of rookies. But before the draft, Ryan Poles and Matt Eberflus will need to spend serious time reviewing their current roster and deciding how to reshape the personnel to fit their vision of the team. Who will stay, and who will go? And which position groups will be best addressed outside of the draft? With only 45 players under contract for the upcoming season, over $27 million in cap space according to Spotrac, and just five draft picks (at least as they stand now), it’s likely that a lot of the short-term reshaping will happen in free agency. Here’s a list of players that the Bears may have their eyes on when free agency opens up on March 16:
RYAN JENSEN - CENTER
It made sound boring, but Poles has made it clear that building the offensive line will be a priority for the Bears throughout his tenure as the team’s GM. Given how shoddy offensive line play has been a notable factor in each of the last two Super Bowls, it’s not a bad idea for the Bears to shore up their line to better protect Fields, either. Jensen is one of the best in the biz and is coming off of a Pro Bowl campaign in 2021. The last contract Jensen signed made him the highest paid center in the league, in 2018. He’ll be 31 this year, so he’s likely to command another expensive deal, although maybe not another record breaker. If adding more studs to the OL is Poles’ No. 1 priority, Jensen could be his starting point.
SAM MUSTIPHER - CENTER
Mustipher was one of the most polarizing players on the Bears last year. Some think he has the upside to become a solid starter in the NFL. Others think he should be the first player to be replaced next season. Time will tell what Poles thinks, but as an exclusive rights free agent, Mustipher could represent either an affordable stop gap until the Bears can accrue more draft picks, or an interesting project to develop further.
XAVIER RHODES - CORNERBACK
Rhodes’ All-Pro days with the Vikings may be behind him, but he remains a reliable corner who continues to take the ball away. He also has familiarity with Eberflus’ defense, as he spent the last two seasons with the Colts. It’s worth noting that Rhodes only played 76% of the Colts’ defensive snaps last season, the lowest number since his rookie season in 2013.
CASEY HAYWARD, JR. - CORNERBACK
Hayward Jr. has played extensively in zone coverage schemes, so he’d feel right at home in Eberflus’ take on the Cover 2 defense. He’s also one of the most prolific defensive backs at taking the ball away, which is a big emphasis of Eberflus’ philosophy. But Hayward has played under Gus Bradley for the past five seasons, so there’s a chance Hayward simply follows Bradley from Las Vegas to Indianapolis.
BRYCE CALLAHAN - CORNERBACK
The Bears need to find a slot corner, in addition to another outside corner, and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who held down the position better than Callahan did during his previous stint with the Bears. Callahan turns 31 in October, so he’s likely got a few seasons left in the tank. The one concern for Callahan is durability. Injuries kept him out of 12 games over the past two seasons, and he missed the entire 2019 season too.
AKIEM HICKS - DEFENSIVE TACKLE
Hicks is arguably a little bigger than Eberflus would like out of his prototypical defensive tackle. But no one can argue that when he’s healthy, Hicks is one of the most dominant players on the field and is freakishly athletic for his size. Questions about his durability are legitimate since he’s missed 20 games over the last three years due to various injuries. It sounded like Hicks was saying goodbye to Chicago at points last season, but with a new regime in charge maybe the Bears and Hicks can reach an agreement on a new deal.
LARRY OGUNJOBI - DEFENSIVE TACKLE
Ogunjobi signed a one-year deal with Cincinnati in 2021, and was a force on the Bengals' stout defensive line. He started 16 games last season and generated seven sacks from the interior. But he hurt his foot in the Bengals’ Wild Card win over the Raiders and missed the rest of the postseason. Ogunjobi required surgery on the foot, so we’ll see if that affects his value on the market.
JAMES DANIELS - GUARD
The former Bears second-round draft pick is in the prime of his career, and has proven to be a reliable starter for most of his career. Beyond that, he’s arguably the most versatile offensive linemen the Bears have rostered in recent memory, as he’s played at right guard, left guard and center. There’s a good chance Daniels has several teams bidding for his services this offseason, so it will be interesting to see how Poles evaluates and values Daniels.
LAKEN TOMLINSON - GUARD
Since 2015, Tomlinson has only missed one game, so his durability is off the charts. In addition, he’s spent the past five seasons in Kyle Shanhan’s zone blocking run scheme, something Luke Getsy is expected to implement in Chicago. If that is the plan, Tomlinson could be a great fit.
FOYESADE OLUOKUN - INSIDE LINEBACKER
While the Bears should be working on an extension to keep Roquan Smith in Chicago for a long time, the question remains who will play beside him. It seems doubtful Danny Trevathan will factor into Poles’ plans considering he’s been seriously limited by injuries two of the last three seasons. Speed is a key component to playing linebacker in Eberflus’ offense, and Oluokun is really fast. He parlayed that athleticism into an incredible 192-tackle season, which led the NFL in 2021. Oluokun is turning 27 later this year, too, so he’s still in the prime of his career.
QUANDRE DIGGS - SAFETY
Eberflus’ defense places a premium on creating takeaways, and Diggs has been one of the most consistent ball hawks in the NFL over his career. Diggs intercepted five passes each of the last two seasons, and then intercepted three passes in each of the three seasons before that. Diggs most recently played in Pete Carroll’s 4-3 scheme, so he should feel right at home in Eberflus’ defense.
TASHAUN GIPSON - SAFETY
Consistently can go a long way for safety duos in the NFL, and Gipson has been solid alongside Eddie Jackson for the past two seasons. If Poles decides to invest more in other areas of the roster, bringing back Gipson on a one-year deal could be the move for the Bears, yet again.
MIKE WILLIAMS - WIDE RECEIVER
Keenan Allen demands much of the spotlight in Los Angeles, but Williams has played a pivotal role for the Chargers as Justin Herbert has developed into a legit starting QB. At 6’4”, 220 lbs he’s a big target in the red zone, and has proven himself as a top-tier deep threat too. Williams has the skillset to maximize Justin Fields’ upside, but given his breakout 2021 season the Bears may not get the chance to pursue him. There’s speculation the Chargers may place the franchise tag on Williams this year, or lock him up with a contract extension.
MICHAEL GALLUP - WIDE RECEIVER
If the Bears view Darnell Mooney as a No. 1 option, then Gallup could garner interest to become their new No. 2. Gallup was limited by injuries last season, but when he was on the field he managed to earn Dak Prescott’s attention in the Cowboys’ crowded passing attack. He averaged nearly seven targets per game last season, turning that into nearly 50 yards per game. Gallup also showed the versatility to line up on the outside or in the slot in 2021.
ALLEN ROBINSON - WIDE RECEIVER
Robinson is coming off one of the worst years of his career, and was clearly unhappy with the previous Bears regime. But now Poles is running the front office, offering Robinson a clean slate of sorts at Halas Hall. If he doesn’t receive the value he’s looking for on the open market, then a one-year deal to return to Chicago may be a win-win situation. Robinson gets the opportunity to prove yet again that he’s a top-flight wideout, and the Bears get a stop gap at wide receiver for one season, allowing them to improve other areas of the roster in the short term.