Expiring contracts: Devin Hester, Patrick Mannelly, Blake Costanzo, Anthony Walters, Derrick Martin, Sherrick McManis
Hot topic: Hester, one touchdown away from setting an NFL record for all returns, wants to break that mark and wants to do so as a Bear. But what's a fair price for a 31-year-old veteran who had a base salary close to $1.9 million in 2013 with an exclusive role as a return specialist?
Overspending to remain loyal to Hester would be a colossal mistake with so much improvement needed in other areas. It's likely the Bears will allow Hester to explore other options in free agency and bring him back only at a deep discount — if it comes to that.
That gives the Bears the luxury of searching out younger, cheaper options to handle return duties. They signed 5-foot-8, 175-pound receiver Chris Williams off the Saints' practice squad in Week 17 with an eye on assessing his skills.
Still, for a player like Hester who has been so electric throughout his career, the temptation may linger to bring him back. He still shows flashes of his explosion. He set a franchise record with 249 return yards in Week 2 against the Vikings; returned a punt 81 yards for a touchdown in Week 7 against the Redskins; had a questionable holding penalty negate a 62-yard score six weeks later against the Rams; and closed the season with a 39-yard kickoff return and 49-yard punt return against the Packers.
Needs fixing: With two years left on his contract, punter Adam Podlesh is not guaranteed a spot on the 2014 roster and should face at least some competition after the Bears' recent signing of Kevin Butler's son, Drew, who was with the Steelers in 2012.
Podlesh's inconsistency was hard to figure, a byproduct, coaches believe, of disjointed timing. A 25-yard punt to open the Week 16 loss to the Eagles was a sign of Podlesh's struggles. His 40.6 yards per punt average ranked 33rd in the NFL and his 37.9-yard net average was 29th.
Reasons for hope: Veteran kicker Robbie Gould is locked up through 2017, signing a four-year extension worth up to $15 million on the final weekend of the regular season. Gould has averaged 114 points per season and needs 92 to break Butler's team record. Gould also remains one of the most reliable field goal kickers of all-time, having connected on 86 percent of his attempts over his nine seasons as Bear. That makes him the third most accurate kicker in NFL history and he could jump to the top of that list over Mike Vanderjagt (.865) and Nate Kaeding (.862)if he makes his next 11 attempts.
Gould matched a career-high by hitting 89.7 percent of his kicks this season. And two of his three misses came in Week 13 at Minnesota — a 66-yarder that fell short on the final play of regulation and that ill-fated 47-yard try on second down in overtime that sailed just right.
The Bears feel very secure with Gould and paid him accordingly.
One last thought: The Bears had solid coverage units overall, allowing an average of 18.8 yards per kick return and 7.4 per punt return. But the big plays for which the unit was known for so long under Dave Toub just didn't materialize with new coordinator Joe DeCamillis calling the shots.
Emery and Trestman both expressed concern over special teams discipline with that unit penalized 18 times for 143 yards this season. Improvement is needed.