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A deeper look into Bears free agency

CHICAGO IL- OCTOBER 22: Charles Tillman #33 Chicago Bears reacts after Bears recovered fumble against Detroit Lions third quarter October

CHICAGO, IL- OCTOBER 22: Charles Tillman #33 of the Chicago Bears reacts after the Bears recovered a fumble against the Detroit Lions in the third quarter on October 22, 2012 at Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)

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Updated: May 7, 2014 6:15PM

The day started with Bears tight end Martellus Bennett pitching Chicago to his brother, Michael, on NFL Network and ended with the Seahawks’ star defensive end deciding to stay with the Super Bowl champs.

“He understands my decision,” Michael Bennett told reporters in Seattle. “It’s all me — and not really him — so I felt like I made the right decision.”

And while the Bears saved some face Monday — sources said two teams offered him more than the four years and $28.5 million he accepted — it’s clear that general manager Phil Emery must move on to Plan B. Or C.

The win-the-news-conference star signing could elude the Bears when free agency begins, officially, at 3 p.m. Tuesday.

Sources told the Sun-Times that, while the winds of negotiation could always turn, the Bears were not a match for Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson or Bills safety Jairus Byrd, two of the biggest-name defenders on the market.

The Bears have their own players to worry about, too.

Backup quarterback Josh McCown, in a sweep of ESPN’s radio and TV properties, said that he valued the Bears but was intrigued by three other teams that could offer a starting opportunity.

And then there are the Bears’ Pro Bowl players: defensive end Julius Peppers could be released or, though the odds remain slim, traded. Cornerback Charles Tillman could sign elsewhere despite mutual interest to remain in Chicago. And defensive tackle Henry Melton will become a free agent unless he signs Tuesday.

The Bears began making room Monday. Running back Michael Bush was released, clearing $1.85 million of cap space next year, and tight end Dante Rosario, signed only 12 days ago, was cut.

Which still leaves a number of questions for the Bears leading up to the start of the free-agency period.

None is more powerful than the obvious: Now what?

1. What is the team’s greatest area of need?

Patrick Finley: Rushing the passer. No team logged fewer sacks than the Bears’ 31 last year, and 39 players posted more sacks than team leader Peppers’ 71/2. Get to the quarterback, and the Bears’ safeties, corners and linebackers all look better. In a league that grows more passer-friendly every year, it’s a mandate.

Adam Jahns: Building strong depth on the defensive line. The Bears have needs at every level on defense, but a stout defensive line could alleviate a lot of the concerns behind the line. The Bears have been linked to Raiders defensive end Lamarr Houston after Bennett stayed with the Seahawks. Houston, 26, would be a good start, and the 6-3, 300-pounder definitely is the scheme-transcending type that Emery covets.

Mark Potash: The interior line. That’s where it all began to fall apart last season, and re-signing Jeremiah Ratliff and Nate Collins, who’s coming off knee surgery, are two small but not insignificant steps toward rebuilding. The Bears might have a big decision to make on whether they want to overpay to bring Melton back. Whomever they sign needs to be their best interior rusher next season.

2. Is McCown irreplaceable?

PF: Heck no. The backup quarterback is a stand-up guy and a good story, but there’s no reason why quarterback guru Marc Trestman can’t develop a quality second-stringer. It would be harder to replicate McCown’s warm working relationship with Jay Cutler than it would be his talent, despite the 34-year-old’s star turn in relief last season.

AJ: Yes, which makes him a must-sign. Trestman might have the Midas touch when it comes to quarterbacks, but McCown is more than a clipboard-holding backup. His relationship with Cutler can’t be overlooked. The Bears have committed a ton of money to Cutler, and the same has to be done with McCown. He’ll be a steadying presence for an offense required to carry the team next season.

MP: No. The Bears want McCown back because he has value on several levels. But they would be silly to overvalue him, and you can be sure that Emery — who has sent Brian Urlacher and Devin Hester packing the last two offseasons — will not do that. If Trestman can make a star out of McCown, he can make a star out of many others in the Bears’ offense.

3. What now, defensive line or safety?

PF: They need both and will sign both. The Bears’ defense lacks youth, talent and depth at almost every spot. With Bennett off the board and Johnson not being a match, the team might find better value in the safety market.

AJ: There are some difference-making safeties available, notably Byrd. But a source said the Bears weren’t in on Byrd. That could always change, but it’s clear the Bears are targeting help on their defensive line first and foremost. And it’s the right thing to do after the Bears had the fewest sacks in the league and allowed 161.4 rushing yards per game in 2013.

MP: Normally, defensive line would be the easy answer. But with not even Bennett — whose difference-making impact away from the Seahawks’ defense is questionable — available, the Bears need the most elite defensive player they can find, whether it’s a safety, linebacker, cornerback or defensive end. Taking a page from the draft strategy, they need to sign the best player available.

4. Whom would you rather keep: Tillman or Melton?

PF: Tillman. Melton is six years younger than the star cornerback and, in theory, could provide the team with better years going forward. But the Bears use a rotation at defensive tackle and could sign, or draft, a suitable player to plug in. Tillman is harder to replace.

AJ: Melton may be younger, but Tillman may come cheaper, while having the potential to be more of a difference-maker for the Bears’ defense. Melton would be part of a defensive-tackle rotation that includes Ratliff, Collins and Stephen Paea and will grow. And while Melton improves that rotation, Tillman, when healthy, still is the No. 1 cornerback the Bears need in this pass-happy NFL.

MP: That’s not exactly Sophie’s Choice, but it would still be a predicament for Emery if it comes to that — mostly because there’s no telling how effective Tillman and Melton will be after 2013 injuries. Tillman’s value as a leader is immeasurable. Melton would be more effective in the long term if healthy. The Bears need help now. Tillman.

5. Will Peppers be a Bear by the end of the week?

PF: No, especially if the Bears can sign a free-agent pass rusher. The team could designate Peppers and his $18.2 million cap number a post-June 1 casualty any time, which would allow them to spread out the financial hit over two seasons. He seems to have played his last snap in navy and orange.

AJ: Not if the Bears truly are trying to trade him. That kind of chatter typically precedes the inevitable release of a player if a trade can’t be achieved. It’s hard to imagine Peppers having much trade value, considering his age and last season’s erratic production. But the Bears appear poised to use the considerable salary-cap space that getting Peppers off their books would give them.

MP: Yes — but June 1 is a different deal. Peppers is better than any pass rusher the Bears have. But if Emery is shopping him as reported, it’s over. When Emery makes up his mind, he doesn’t mess around. The Bears are going in a different direction.

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