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Decision on Julius Peppers is Bears' top offseason priority

Before the Bears can finalize a game plan for free agency, which opens in 30 days, they need to determine what to do with the 47 players under contract for 2014. That discussion has to begin with Julius Peppers.

Quarterback Jay Cutler is the only player who stands to earn more money next season than the 34-year-old Peppers, who is owed $14 million -- $13.9 million in base salary with a $100,000 workout bonus.

Peppers carries a salary-cap figure of $18.183 million, but cutting him comes with implications and doesn't improve a defense short on depth and talent at end. There will be options in free agency, but it's premature to say which players will make it to the marketplace, where Peppers would stack up as a solid short-term option coming off a 71/2-sack season.

The Bears plan to move former first-round pick Shea McClellin to strong-side linebacker and have him rush the passer in nickel situations. David Bass, Cheta Ozougwu and Cornelius Washington are the only other ends on the roster with Corey Wootton heading to free agency. That makes Peppers, although not ideal, the only legitimate pass rusher on the roster, someone the Bears can't let go before replacing him.

Ensuring strength at right end and under tackle have to be the top priorities for general manager Phil Emery for a defense that has needs at all three levels. Letting go of Peppers would leave the Bears without a starting end on the roster and only one starter, nose tackle Stephen Paea, on the line.

Unless the Bears plan to drop Peppers, which would leave $8,366,668 in dead cap space, and pursue one of the top free-agent options, there isn't a simple solution.

Releasing Peppers would free up $9.8 million in cap space, or he could be counted as a post-June 1 cut, with the dead money equally divided between 2014 and 2015, freeing up nearly $14 million in cap space. More significant right now than cap space, which the Bears can create if necessary, is the unknown cash budget after signing Cutler, cornerback Tim Jennings, guard Matt Slauson and kicker Robbie Gould.

The top pass rusher coming out of contract won't be going anywhere. The Panthers are expected to re-sign or place the franchise tag on Greg Hardy, 25, coming off his 15-sack season. But Brian Orakpo, Michael Bennett and Michael Johnson are intriguing possibilities.

Orakpo, 27, has played end and outside linebacker and is coming off a 10-sack season. The Redskins reportedly began negotiating with him in the last week and could secure him with the franchise tag.

Bennett, the older brother of Bears tight end Martellus Bennett, is 28 and has stated a desire to re-sign with the Super Bowl champion Seahawks after playing for $5 million in 2013. He's a disruptive force and is productive rushing the passer and playing the run.

Johnson, 27, will be coveted but must answer questions about producing only 31/2 sacks for the Bengals last season after posting 111/2 in 2012. The 6-foot-7, 270-pound Johnson is similar to Peppers in frame and is a good two-way player. He played under the franchise tag last year, earning $11.175 million.

The Bears could seek a pay reduction from Peppers but likely would want to make a large trim. He has restructured his contract twice in the last four years, but those were bookkeeping exercises to create cap room, not pay cuts.

If Peppers doesn't want to play for less money for the Bears, he could ensure his release, which would put him on the open market with such veteran pass rushers as Jared Allen, 31; Anthony Spencer, 30; Shaun Phillips, 32; and Justin Tuck, 30.

The Raiders' Lamarr Houston, 26, is an interesting player with a strong track record but isn't a prototypical 4-3 end at 6-3, 300. The Bears should be familiar with the Vikings' Everson Griffen and the Lions' Willie Young, who also might draw interest.

In a perfect world, Emery would find a top player at right end and also catch lightning in a bottle with a budget buy. Bennett's market didn't materialize last year, allowing the Seahawks to sign him to a manageable one-year contract. Phillips produced 10 sacks for the Broncos on a one-year, $1 million contract that included incentives. He's likely to re-sign in Denver, according to reports. The salary cap is expected to force many veterans into one-year contracts again; the Bears did well with Slauson last year and will be seeking more modest buys for experienced players.

The Bears could add a tackle who is ready to plug in and play with the 14th pick in the draft. Finding a pass-rushing end at No. 14 appears difficult as the top end of the draft is short on premium 4-3 rushers after South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney, who could be one of the top picks, unless the Bears are smitten with Missouri's Kony Ealy.

Sorting out the best option at right end is the first order of business because improvements to the back seven won't take shape until the front is fixed.

(c)2014 Chicago Tribune

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