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Price would be steep if Bears try to sign safety Devin McCourty

Patriots don't play tag with Devin McCourty, making him best safety available in free agency.

If the Bears want to take one giant leap to solve a long-standing issue at safety, a pricey fix will likely be available.

The Patriots exercised their franchise tag on kicker Stephen Gostkowski before Monday's deadline, meaning free safety Devin McCourty will become an unrestricted free agent March 10, barring an unexpected deal with New England before then.

Four other teams used the franchise tag with the Chiefs keeping outside linebacker Justin Houston off the market after his 22-sack season. The Cowboys (Dez Bryant) and Broncos (Demaryius Thomas) applied it to wide receivers and the Giants used it for defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. The Dolphins employed the transition tag on tight end Charles Clay.

The Lions chose not to tag defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh at a price of $26.9 million so he will reach free agency, where he aims to become the highest-paid defensive player by topping the $16.7 million annual average of Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt. At 28, Suh is a rarity in free agency — a dominant, game-changing player in his prime. Lions general manager Martin Mayhew has expressed confidence his team will re-sign Suh, but Suh will be in demand with seven teams possessing more than $40 million in cap space.

The NFL announced the 2015 salary cap is $143.28 million and the Bears have ample room with roughly $27 million available. While the pursuit of Suh would be somewhat surprising given his expected salary demands and the Bears' significant needs as the team converts to a 3-4 front, McCourty is an interesting option.

McCourty is the best available safety in a slim class of free agents that will be followed by a thin crop of prospects in the draft. The Patriots' decision not to tag McCourty at $9.6 million could mean they don't want to set a negotiating floor at that level for an annual salary, but elite safeties are commanding up to $10 million per year. The Saints signed Jairus Byrd to a six-year, $54 million contract, with $26.3 million guaranteed, last March. Five safeties are set to have an annual average salary of $8 million or more in 2015.

Bears general manager Ryan Pace was with the Saints when they acquired Byrd. Is he interested in bucking up at the position again? Do the Bears, facing a major transition in the front seven, want to make such a steep investment in the secondary?

"McCourty is much better than Byrd," one NFC pro personnel director said. "Hard to pay a safety that much, but this guy has corner skills in coverage, which is a better fit for today's passing game."

The personnel director said McCourty, 27, is also superior to Rahim Moore, the Broncos safety also headed to free agency. That is one man's opinion, and certainly coach John Fox has a good feel for Moore and what he could bring.

The Bears have selected nine safeties in the last 10 drafts and only Brock Vereen, a fourth-round pick last year, remains. Chris Conte will be an unrestricted free agent and sources said he will not be re-signed. Of those nine safeties, only Conte (52 starts) and Danieal Manning (56 starts for a second-round pick in 2006) started the equivalent of three seasons — 48 games.

Veteran Ryan Mundy, 30, was signed last March and he finished second with 108 tackles while tying for the team lead with four interceptions. Mundy and Vereen provide options for the Bears, but surely Pace has plans to add competition and depth.

If the Bears want to be in on McCourty, expect a crowd of bidders.

bmbiggs@tribpub.com

Twitter @BradBiggs

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