With the annual NFL Scouting Combine beginning this week in Indianapolis, the Bears and the rest of the NFL will be taking a next step toward draft decisions the last week of April.

But other decisions will come first and likely have a major influence on the Bears’ flexibility in the draft. Best-case scenario is taking a “need” off the critical list and leaving the Bears in the draft-ideal position of being able to truly opt for the best player available.

The Bears, for example, are expected to make aggressive moves in free agency (they were prepared to last offseason) to land an offensive tackle. Part of the reason is that waiting to find one in the draft is problematic at best.

“I think their real, true need is to find that tackle that’s eluded them the last several years and some of the mistakes the organization has made in the past,” said ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay, who ultimately gave the Bears Notre Dame middle linebacker Manti Te’o not because of Te’o’s fit to replace Brian Urlacher, but because what the Bears would most want for their offensive line is likely to be gone.

“I had trouble with the Bears because of that, because the left tackles like [Texas A&M’s] Luke Joeckl, [Central Michigan’s] Eric Fisher and even Lane Johnson from Oklahoma could all be off the board when the Bears come on the board at No. 20.”

What the Bears do, or are unable to do, in free agency and before with their own players ultimately factors heavily into draft plans. Filling needs with established players can be expensive but typically a better route than reaching on draft day to fill a position.