Free agency kicks off at 11:01 p.m. Thursday night. For an organization that values building its team through the draft but does not have a first or second round pick this year, free agency will be the Bears’ draft.

Contrary to public opinion around Chicagoland, Jerry Angelo and Lovie Smith are no dummies. They can see the writing on the wall that not only are their seats hot and they most likely face a playoffs-of-bust mandate, but they also know that for Smith’s defense to greatly improve in order to make the postseason, they have to add a couple of key pieces in free agency.

Thus, when free agency begins late tomorrow night, expect to read rare news that the Bears have thrown their hat in the ring for some of the top free agents on the market. In years past, Angelo has used free agency as a supplemental source to add necessary pieces to the roster. Free agency has always been used to fill immediate needs, not wants.

Angelo has always stated that they’re not going to “set the market” on any big-named players in free agency. Under his watch, the Bears have typically shopped from the bargain bin. But with Gaines Adams’ death and Adewale Ogunleye set to test the market, the Bears have a glaring need for a left defensive end who can put pressure on the quarterback and improve Smith’s defense.

Little did any of us expect Julius Peppers to be on the top of the Bears’ wish list, but it’s been reported as such by multiple sources. In fact, David Kaplan reported on that the Bears met with Peppers’ agent over the weekend. Adding a player of his caliber, a guy who has recorded double-digit sacks in six of his eight years in the league, not only would improve defensive line mates Alex Brown and Tommie Harris, and whoever starts opposite Harris at nose tackle, but his presence would also improve a struggling secondary. The results would be immediately noticeable.

It’s not as if Peppers is the only end on the Bears’ radar, either. Packers free agent Aaron Kampman and the Titans’ Kyle Vanden Bosch have also been mentioned as possible upgrades. I’ve always liked Kampman’s work ethic and non-stop motor and I think he’d be an excellent addition if the Bears do not land Peppers. You could hardly call Kampman a consolation prize because if the Bears did sign him, it would still feel like the Bears won the lottery.

Adding Kampman instead of Peppers might not be a bad option, either. Kampman will command less money than Peppers is rumored to be seeking — somewhere in the range of $15-18 million per season. With the extra money they save on a Kampman deal, the Bears could still pursue a veteran free safety like Antrel Rolle or Kerry Rhodes. Darren Sharper also could hit the market as the Saints are not expected to re-sign him. Angelo and Smith both have publicly stated that free safety is a position that needs to be fixed immediately.

With their backs against the wall with an average defense and serious holes to fill at two of the three most important positions in a Cover 2 defense — left end and free safety — expect Angelo and Ted Phillips to be more willing to shell out the big bucks to fix the problems on the roster. Defensive end is one of the most important positions on a football team, especially in the Cover 2. It may be the second-most important position behind quarterback because rarely do teams win Super Bowls without a good pass rush. I also would expect them to address the offensive line, but probably not with a big-named free agent.

The Bears can ill afford to be cheap at this point in the process. Internal improvement alone will not be enough to end this team’s playoff drought. They need to get better by adding pieces to the puzzle, and those pieces will come with a hefty price tag. But the ramifications of missing the playoffs for the fourth straight season after losing Super Bowl XLI could be just as bad.