The Chicago Bears are in the midst of interviewing candidates to fill their current general manager and head coach vacancies, and it’s reasonable to expect both gigs to be filled within the next two weeks or so. Once we know who’ll be calling the shots atop the Bears organization, we’ll have a better idea of what their roster priorities will look like. For now, it’s worth taking a look at a handful of Chicago’s pending free agents who warrant a new contract to remain with the Bears.
We have to start with defensive lineman Akiem Hicks, right? He was limited to just nine games and a total of 304 snaps in 2021 but he still finished as the Bears’ fifth-highest graded defender, according to Pro Football Focus. Hicks’ expired contract with the Bears paid him $48 million over the last four seasons, but according to Spotrac, his market value entering the 2022 free agency period is just $5.5 million per year. His projected free-agent deal is two years, $11.1 million. If that projection turns into reality, Chicago would be doing a massive injustice to their fans and the roster if they let Hicks walk. He’s been too important to the team, both inside the locker room and on the field, to let walk away at such a low price tag.
Wide receiver Allen Robinson is scheduled to hit free agency, too, but unlike Hicks, there aren’t many Bears fans hoping No. 12 returns to Chicago. It’s been quite a bizarre turn of events considering there were social media campaigns demanding that the Bears pay Robinson a lucrative contract extension prior to the 2021 season. Robinson’s significant statistical regression—he finished with just 38 catches for 410 yards and one touchdown in 12 games—had his desire and effort questioned on a weekly basis.
I’m not in the “Robinson didn’t try” camp. Instead, it was obvious from Week 1 that Matt Nagy and his offensive assistants were doing everything in their power to elevate Darnell Mooney to the front of the wide receiver line. It was a strategy that paid off, in a way, considering Mooney’s production and continued development. But we can’t ignore how talented of a player Robinson is and how coveted he’ll be on the open market. The Bears are entering free agency with a huge need at wide receiver; maybe they should just keep the guy who many will value as the best option available at the position.
Spotrac has Robinson’s market value at $16 million per season and his expected contract being in the neighborhood of four years, $64 million. It’d actually be a pay cut from the nearly $18 million Chicago paid him in 2021 on the franchise player tag. Once the Bears land their new head coach and general manager, we may see the approach to Robinson change quite a bit. And that’ll be good news for the team.
Two members of the 2018 NFL draft class, Bilal Nichols (DL) and James Daniels (OG), are both scheduled to hit free agency too. And both players are priorities to bring back in 2022.
Nichols had a productive season, logging 679 snaps and registering 51 tackles and three sacks. He’s become a fixture on the Bears’ defensive line and has enjoyed a steady improvement in each of his first four seasons in the league. He isn’t a superstar and won’t be on any Pro Bowl rosters anytime soon, but players like Nichols are critical pieces to a well-rounded roster.
The same goes for Daniels, who finished 2021 as the Bears’ fifth-highest graded player on offense, according to PFF. He was the team’s highest-graded offensive lineman among players who took every snap. Chicago’s offensive line is far from one of the team’s strengths, but the Bears could do a lot worse than Daniels in the starting lineup. He has to return.
Safety DeAndre Houston-Carson picked a good year to break out in 2021. He’ll hit unrestricted free agency after being the Bears’ third-highest graded defender and logging a career-high 420 snaps on defense. At 28 years old, Houston-Carson is beginning to emerge as a viable starting safety in the NFL and it’d be a shame if he settles in as an every-week starter somewhere else after developing for six seasons under the Bears’ watch. I have a sneaky suspicion he’ll be back, and it’ll be hard keeping him off the field in 2022.
And what about wide receiver Jakeem Grant, who injected serious juice and field-flipping speed to the Bears’ offense after Chicago traded for him last October? When utilized properly, Grant proved he can be a productive piece in the passing game, and during a three-game stretch from Weeks 12-14, he scored two touchdowns and totaled 131 receiving yards. Eye-popping numbers? No. But his impact on the field extended beyond the box score. He’s an inexpensive offensive weapon that the Bears should re-sign, assuming he didn’t flash enough in 2021 to make a team overpay for his services this March.
The Bears have 31 players on expiring contracts. Some are unrestricted free agents, while a few are restricted and exclusive rights players. There’s a lot of work for the next general manager to do, but if he can bring back the guys listed above, he’ll be off to a great start.