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Bears face big decisions on several key players

New coaching staff, schemes will determine futures of Cutler, Urlacher, Peppers and others

Dan Pompei

On the NFL

10:58 PM CST, January 5, 2013

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Most of the players on the Bears roster were acquired by Jerry Angelo to be coached by Lovie Smith. Now that neither is part of the organization anymore, many of those players might not be feeling quite as secure.

The fates of many familiar faces in the locker room will be determined by the man general manager Phil Emery chooses as his head coach and the systems that coach implements.

Here are a dozen key Bears whose futures could be most affected by the changes afoot:

Jay Cutler

There is little doubt Cutler will be the Bears' quarterback in 2013. The issue is whether they will commit to him beyond 2013.

Cutler's contract has one season left at a salary of $8.47 million. Emery has publicly endorsed Cutler, calling him the franchise quarterback the team wants to build around. But he also allowed that the new coach will need to see Cutler the same way.

The Bears might try to extend Cutler's contract this offseason. Doing so would limit what they could do in terms of signing other free agents. They also could decide to let him play out his contract and see how they feel about him after next season.

Determining Cutler's value at this point could be difficult. There has been talk of Cutler being paid like the upper-

echelon quarterbacks in the league, with an average annual salary of $16 million or more. But Cutler's play in 2012 did not justify that kind of contract.

Playing behind a leaky offensive line and throwing to inconsistent receivers other than Brandon Marshall, Cutler finished 20th in the NFL in passer rating (81.3), 21st in completion percentage (58.8), 16th in yards per attempt (6.99) and 26th in yards per game (202). Moreover, he directed an offense that was completely impotent at critical points.

Cutler developed a habit of slow starts and strong finishes. He had a passer rating of 55.1 in the first quarter and 114.7 in the fourth, according to STATS. But he was frequently most effective after the defense had given the Bears a comfortable lead and the pressure was off.

Where Cutler has improved is in avoiding losing the game. But on the flip side, Cutler was arguably the primary reason for only one victory all season — the opener against the Colts.

He performed above average by my grading scale in eight of his 15 starts and average or below in seven. He saved his worst performances for the best opponents. His combined passer rating in two games against the Packers and one game against the Texans was 33.8.

Jason Campbell

He signed a one-year deal last offseason and will become a free agent March 12 if the Bears do not re-sign him before then.

Campbell was one of the highest-paid No. 2 quarterbacks in the league this season with a salary of $1.4 million. He started only one game and was awful in the loss to the 49ers. The highlight of the season for Campbell was rallying the Bears to a late touchdown in a December loss at Minnesota.

The Bears might determine they want another style of quarterback as their backup, or they might decide to go with a younger player. Campbell would like a chance to be a starter but is not likely to get one.

Kellen Davis

Emery made it clear he was not pleased with the production at tight end. Anyone who watched the Bears could see Davis struggled in the passing game. He caught only 19 of the 44 passes thrown to him and dropped six.

The Bears will be in the market for a starting tight end to replace Davis, who is due to earn $2.4 million next season. He could be cut before the start of free agency.

Devin Hester

He has spoken of retirement, which is likely just end-of-the-season frustration. Hester is only 30.

But he might be starting to show signs of age. He had his least productive offensive season since his first season playing wide receiver in 2007.

Opposing special teams coaches still showed Hester respect, but his punt-return average of 8.3 yards ranked 22nd in the NFL and his kickoff-return average of 25.9 ranked 10th. He has not had a return touchdown of any kind in his last 23 games.

Some have speculated Hester could be cut. He will be in the final year of his contract with a salary of $1.85 million. He has an escalator clause in his deal that could have earned him considerably more money, but his performance has not activated it.

Hester's cap number is high at $2.94 million. If he is cut or traded, he would count only $833,000 against the cap.

Israel Idonije

He is 32 and will be out of contract, assuming he is not re-signed before the start of free agency. Idonije played pretty well in 2012 but lost his starting defensive end job to Corey Wootton nine games into the season.

He was a favorite of defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. Whether he has a future in Chicago could depend on what scheme the new coach implements.

Lance Louis

His rookie deal expires in March, and he was a personal favorite of offensive coordinator Mike Tice. Louis, a seventh-round pick in 2009, finally started to come into his own at guard this season.

It's possible Louis will want to test the market, as it might not be easy to pinpoint his value in negotiations with the Bears.

Working in his favor: He was the Bears' best offensive lineman this season.

Working against him: He blew out a knee in late November and won't be completely healthy for quite some time.

D.J. Moore

He is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in a little more than nine weeks. He lost his job as the first-string nickel back to Kelvin Hayden during the season and might not be retained.

Shea McClellin

The issue with McClellin isn't whether he will be in Chicago. It's whether he will be at defensive end.

McClellin was drafted to be an end, and Emery was pleased with how he performed there this season. Emery pointed out McClellin's percentage of quarterback disruptions was better than that of every defensive end in the draft except two who were taken ahead of him — Bruce Irvin of the Seahawks and Quinton Coples of the Jets.

But a scheme change could force him to move to outside linebacker or even inside linebacker.

"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