The Chicago Bears are focused on 2021. However, several of their players have at least one eye directed at 2022. This is because a considerable number of them have expiring contracts going into next offseason. So they have plenty of incentive to play well this coming season beyond just the desire to win games. This may be their last or in some cases only chance to get some big money.

That raises an interesting question. Looking at the considerable lineup of names, who are the players that are the most important to watch? Those that likely would have a considerable windfall one way or another on their future plans depending on how they perform. After some deliberation, I broke it down to 10 key names that fans should keep an eye on.

Chicago Bears have several interesting 2022 free agents

10. Damiere Byrd

Pretty much the entire noteworthy Bears receiving corps is on expiring contracts this year. That means the team will have to determine in the next few months if there’s anybody they’re hoping to keep long-term. Usually, in these situations, it’s important to watch the younger guys. Byrd is 28-years old with minimal wear and tear on his body after spending the first three seasons of his career as a backup. Last season in New England proved he has untapped potential. If Byrd can deliver a strong showing this season, it wouldn’t be a shock if Chicago moved quickly to lock him in for a multi-year deal.

9. Alex Bars

When it comes to the offensive line, you’re only as strong as your weakest link. This is both true of the starting five but also the reserves. Bars proved in 2020 that he is capable of starting in the NFL. So the fact that the Bears have him as a primary backup at guard is a major coup. They know that if either of their starters goes down, he’ll be able to step in and the line should continue to function well. It would be great if the team somehow managed to convince him to stay beyond this year. Having a long-term backup with his kind of reliability is rare in the NFL.

8. Tashaun Gipson

Gipson is the first safety to make it beyond one year as a starter next to Eddie Jackson since Adrian Amos left. He certainly earned it with how well he played last year, grabbing two interceptions and starting every game. The question is can he do it again? Gipson doesn’t have age on his side. He’s 31-years old. So every year is a prove-it year for him. If he wants to make it to 2022 in Chicago, then he can’t afford a regression of any sort on the field. Not having to fill that spot with somebody new again would certainly be a preference for the Bears as well.

7. Anthony Miller

At one point in time, it felt like Miller was ready to become one of the best slot receivers in the NFL. He had that ability to take over games at the drop of a hat. He still does. Yet for whatever ready the former 2nd round pick just hasn’t been able to take that final step. Something always seems to get in the way from erratic quarterback play to his own lack of discipline. Miller has always had the talent. He hasn’t proven trustworthy enough on a week-to-week basis. With more competition ever going into this training camp, this could be his last stand. Either he finally breaks through or he becomes the latest former high draft pick lament unfulfilled expectations.

6. Germain Ifedi

Ifedi was supposed to lock himself in at right guard last season. He played pretty well, but injuries elsewhere forced the Bears to shift him to right tackle. This move proved fruitful as his steady presence there helped the offensive line steady itself after months of upheaval. That is why Ifedi was brought back for another season. He is still young enough to secure a long-term deal. However, he’ll have somebody nipping at his heels in 5th round pick Larry Borom. Offensive line coach Juan Castillo believes Ifedi is capable of reaching the Pro Bowl. That would suit the team just fine as it ensures the right edge of their line would be secure.

5. Sam Mustipher

Nobody paid this kid a second thought at the start of 2020. Why should they? He was an undrafted free agent in 2019. He’d never done enough to make the active roster. Most presumed he was purely an emergency option. Well, that emergency arrived when injuries ravaged the line midway through last season. Mustipher was inserted at center and to the shock of everybody, he played well. Enough to where he finished the season in that spot with Cody Whitehair shifting to left guard. Now Mustipher enters a contract year with a chance to cash in big time. Is he the guy of the future? The Chicago Bears are giving him the opportunity to find out.

4. James Daniels

Sensing a theme yet? The Bears’ offensive line has three projected starters who are coming out of contract next offseason. So there are a ton of questions to be answered in that regard. With Justin Fields approaching his place as the quarterback of the future, these questions are by far the most important on offense. Daniels is the one everybody should watch. Prior to his unfortunate pectoral injury last season, the young guard was playing the best football of his career. He faces an interesting challenge though. Not only is he returning from the injury, but he also faces a shift from left guard to right guard. Handling all that and still playing well enough to get paid won’t be easy.

3. Akiem Hicks

Plenty of teammates are happy that Hicks will return for 2021 after he came narrowly close to being traded this offseason. Even as he pushes into his 30s, the big defensive end remains a focal point of that Chicago Bears front seven. If he puts together another of his strong seasons on the interior, Pace will have a dilemma. He’s not prone to paying solid money to players around his age bracket. The last time he tried blew up in his face with Robert Quinn. Yet it’s impossible to deny what Hicks means to this defense. So one can imagine some sort of one or two-year extension happening if he maintains his customary level of play. Otherwise, the team will have a major headache on their hands trying to replace him.

2. Bilal Nichols

After such a strong rookie campaign in 2018, many started to wonder if Nichols was a flash in the pan after his somewhat disappointing follow-up in 2019. Those concerns faded away when the defensive end posted a career-high five sacks last season including 13 QB hits and seven tackles for a loss. He is maturing not just into a capable rotational player but a genuine starter who continues to get better. He has a chance to become the true fixture of the Bears’ defensive line in the future. This coming season is the final test. If he can duplicate or even exceed what he accomplished last year? Odds are good he’ll be rewarded, and likely prioritized even over Hicks.

  1. Allen Robinson

If this is a shock to anybody, then they’ve been living under a rock for the past calendar year. The Chicago Bears have tried to find common ground with their star receiver since as far back as early 2019. Despite several strong pushes, it became clear Robinson was pushing for a pay raise that would put him in the top 5 on a per-year basis. That means $20 million+. The Bears have made it clear to this point they aren’t willing to meet that demand. Thus Robinson will play 2021 on the franchise tag. Most understandably assume this means he will hit the market next spring. Can Pace somehow stop the inevitable in the precious few months between the end of the season and free agency? That may depend on how the receiver plays.