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Free agency to shape draft

Published: Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014 5:30 a.m. CDT

Long before the Bears get around to the NFL draft, they will have to decide what participation, if any, they will have in NFL free agency, which will begin March 11.

On offense, they have to decide whether to retain backup quarterbacks Josh McCown and Jordan Palmer, and starting center Roberto Garza.

On defense, Henry Melton, Corey Wootton, Nate Collins, D.J. Williams, James Anderson, Major Wright and Charles Tillman will be free agents, as will punt and kickoff returner Devin Hester.

It appears the Bears will try to keep McCown, but if another team is willing to offer him any more than $2.5 million to $3 million a year on a multiyear deal, the Bears probably will allow him to walk and stick with Palmer. It is highly unlikely both will be back.

Wootton is the only other one of their own free agents they will make a priority to retain, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see Williams back, too.

They will then have one more decision to make before they plunge into the free agent marketplace. Are the Bears going to stick with the Tampa 2, one-gap defense, or will they switch to more of a base 4-3 two-gap defense or the 3-4?

Many are assuming the addition of Paul Pasqualoni as defensive line coach and Reggie Herring as linebackers coach, according to The Score and FoxSports1’s Alex Marvez, could signal a switch to the 3-4 because both have significant experience in that scheme. But both are also more than capable of coaching in the 4-3. So that speculation may be premature.

Whatever scheme the Bears decide on, they are going to need at least one more starter at defensive end, at least one at tackle and probably one at linebacker, one cornerback and at least one or possibly two new safeties.

They are not going to find five to seven new starters on defense, plus a center, young quarterback and kick returner all in one draft. So some participation in free agency is a given.

Safety is a priority for the Bears, and the draft crop is thin. Jairus Byrd of the Bills, Cleveland’s T.J. Ward and Indianapolis’ Antoine Bethea are all Pro Bowl safeties and free agents.

It’s not inconceivable Ward will get a franchise tag, but it’s likely all three will hit the market, as well as the 49ers’ Donte Whitner, New Orleans’ Malcolm Jenkins and Philadelphia’s Nate Allen. Those three should be a bit less expensive. Any of the six would be a significant upgrade over Chris Conte or Major Wright.

The problem with discussing defensive linemen is that most of the best 4-3 prospects are not good fits in a 3-4. But assuming the Bears stay with what they know, the Panthers’ Greg Hardy, Bengals’ Michael Johnson, Vikings’ Jared Allen, Giants’ Justin Tuck and Seahawks’ Michael Bennett are the best 4-3 ends on the market. Hardy likely will sign a long-term deal in Carolina or be franchised.

The Bengals franchised Johnson in 2013 and it’s hard to picture them tagging him two years in a row.

As you may have heard, Bennett is Bears tight end Martellus Bennett’s brother and is having a good postseason with the Seahawks. He did have 8½ sacks this season and five tackles for loss, and had nine sacks in Tampa in 2012. But he managed just six sacks total his first three years in the league and is not the double-digit sack pass-rushing threat the Bears desperately need, assuming Julius Peppers is a cap casualty.

There are plenty of 3-4 tackles and ends to pick from with the Cowboys’ Jason Hatcher, Packers’ B.J. Raji and Dolphins’ Paul Soliai the most interesting, but really no three-technique tackles to get excited about.

If Tillman walks, the Patriots’ Aqib Talib and Falcons’ Brent Grimes are the best corners available. But Talib is likely to stay in New England and Grimes is not an upgrade over Tillman.

• Hub Arkush covers the Bears and pro football for Shaw Media. Write to him at harkush@shawmedia.com.

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