Bears face big decisions on several key players

"It will depend on the staff and circumstance," Emery said. "I still see him as a D-end. … When I said in the spring this is a very versatile player, that's what I meant. There isn't a whole lot he can't do."

Henry Melton

His contract situation should be the highest priority, given the young Pro Bowl defensive tackle would be a hot commodity if he were to become an unrestricted free agent March 12.

The Bears had discussions with Melton's representatives during the season about an extension but could not come to an agreement.

His value could change some depending on the new scheme, but whatever the scheme, it's likely Melton will have some appeal to the new staff.

If a contract agreement proves elusive over the next couple of months, look for the Bears to use the franchise tag on Melton at an expected cost of about $8.01 million.

Julius Peppers

He is scheduled to be the Bears' highest-paid player in 2013 with a salary of $12.9 million and a cap number of $16.3 million. Would the Bears think about cutting the 32-year-old if they changed to a 3-4 defense and coaches thought he could not transition well?

Cutting Peppers seems like a stretch. It would save the Bears money, but it would leave a messy salary-cap situation.

If the Bears cut Peppers before June 1, he would count $9.5 million against their 2013 cap. If they cut him after June 1, he would count $3.18 million against the 2013 cap and $6.36 million against the 2014 cap.

There also is a "June 1 designation" they could use to cut him before that date and push off $6.36 million to 2014, but to do that, they would have to carry his $16.3 million cap number until June 1, which would limit their offseason flexibility.

And if Peppers plays in 2013 like he did in 2012, he would bring real value to the defense. Peppers finished the season with 111/2 sacks, the fourth-highest total among defensive ends.

He appeared to be bothered by plantar fasciitis for part of the season, and he hit a lull in November when he had only one sack over a four-game period. But he came on strong late.

Nick Roach

His contract is up, and the Bears have three apparent options. They can bring him back as the strong-side linebacker. They can bring him back as the middle linebacker, the position he played for the last month of the season. Or they can let him walk.

If the Bears were to switch to a 3-4, they probably would not re-sign Roach.

Brian Urlacher

With Smith being gone, this might be a convenient time for the Bears to cut ties with the face of the franchise. And it's possible Urlacher might want a fresh start, perhaps even with Smith if he is coaching elsewhere.

But a new coach might see real value in the middle linebacker.

Emery sounds as if he believes Urlacher still can help the Bears. He said he thought Urlacher made progress with his knee injury throughout the season, to the point he was close to where he needed to be when a hamstring injury knocked him out Dec. 2.

"The things that (would be) difficult to replace ... if we were to move in any other direction is the leadership that he has and the knowledge base that he has of our system," Emery said.

Urlacher still has straight-line speed. His 34 years might show up in his change of direction. But he plays with more understanding than ever, which helps him compensate.

At the time of his injury, Urlacher was the team's leading tackler. That doesn't happen by accident.

Money could be a hurdle in retaining Urlacher. He made $8 million this season, assuming he hit his workout bonus. Urlacher might not be amenable to taking a pay cut. But the Bears might not be interested in paying him like he's an All-Pro.

This will be a sensitive negotiation for Emery to navigate, assuming he wants to retain Urlacher. The good thing is it shouldn't drag out.

dpompei@tribune.com

Twitter @danpompei

CHICAGO

More