Chicago Bears: Courtland Finnegan

Free agency primer: WR tops Need Meter

March, 12, 2012
3/12/12
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Devin McCourtyMark L. Baer/US PresswireVincent Jackson is the big free agent prize among wide receivers. Will the Bears be big players?
Where they stand: The Chicago Bears lead the NFC North in available cap room, sitting on approximately $30 million. But it’s important to note that cap room shouldn’t be viewed as a blank check; especially when considering the Bears would likely be looking to extend several of their core players with contracts ending in the next couple of years. While upgrades on offense seem most logical of potential Bears moves during free agency, given the need to surround quarterback Jay Cutler with more weapons, it’s believed that coach Lovie Smith wants to revamp a defense led by four Pro Bowl players -- linebackers Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher, cornerback Charles Tillman and defensive end Julius Peppers -- older than 30.

NEED-METER


[+] EnlargeMarques Colston
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezMarques Colston is among the second tier of free agent receivers who could be options for the Bears.
Receiver: 10. To be fair, the position didn’t appear as much of an area of need when the team ripped off a 7-3 start. Obviously, Cutler played a significant role in that. Over the first 10 games, Chicago’s receiving corps averaged 11 catches per outing. Once Cutler and running back Matt Forte suffered injuries that took them out of the lineup, the receivers’ production dipped to eight catches per game.

A dominant slot receiver, Earl Bennett became the club’s go-to option in the passing game with Cutler out of commission. Teams quickly recognized, and adjusted coverage accordingly, leading to Bennett catching one pass or fewer in five of his last six games. Johnny Knox’s horrific back injury against the Seattle Seahawks further exposed this team’s deficiencies at receiver.

So with a major need clearly defined at the position, the question now is how the team proceeds in free agency and the draft.

It’s believed the Bears plan on making a run at San Diego receiver Vincent Jackson in free agency, and sources have confirmed as much. But if Jackson commands what several agents expect to be a salary in the $12 million-per-season range, it’s unlikely new general manager Phil Emery would continue the team’s pursuit, based on his stated preference of building through the draft, which signifies he’s not a proponent of spending lavishly in free agency.

So surely the team has a few secondary and less-expensive options in mind, such as New Orleans Saints receivers Marques Colston and Robert Meachem, or Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon of the Indianapolis Colts. Given their youth and physical attributes, Meachem (just 11 dropped balls over four seasons) and Garcon would appear to be the best fits. Colston averaged just 3.2 yards after catch in 2011, according to Pro Football Focus. That doesn’t necessarily jibe with the explosive passing game the Bears envision in 2012. Wayne, meanwhile, is coming off his first season since 2003 in which he didn’t gain 1,000 yards receiving.

According to a source, just Wednesday, seven teams (the Bears weren't one of them) expressed interest in Meachem; a list sure to grow as free agency approaches.

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NFC North free-agency primer

March, 8, 2012
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AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Free agency begins Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET

Chicago Bears

Key free agents: Tight end Kellen Davis, running back Matt Forte (franchise), cornerback Corey Graham, quarterback Caleb Hanie, defensive end Israel Idonije, cornerback Tim Jennings, quarterback Josh McCown, safety Brandon Meriweather and receiver Roy Williams.

Where they stand: The Bears will have the most salary-cap space among NFC North teams, upwards of $30 million, and have plenty of potential uses for it. Quarterback Jay Cutler needs more targets in the downfield passing game, whether it's at the receiver or tight end position. And new general manager Phil Emery must start restocking a defense led by four players more than 30 years old: Linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, defensive end Julius Peppers and cornerback Charles Tillman.

What to expect: It's widely believed the Bears will be in the running for free-agent receiver Vincent Jackson. But Jackson's price tag could be steep and no one knows if Emery will prove to be a big spender. It seems likely he will re-sign Davis, and Emery should also save some of his cap space to extend Forte's contract. Secondary receiver targets could include Marques Colston. Bears fans are hoping the team will pursue defensive end Mario Williams, but it's hard to imagine the Bears budgeting for Williams two years after breaking their bank on Peppers.

Detroit Lions

Key free agents: Defensive end Cliff Avril (franchise), left tackle Jeff Backus, safety Chris Harris, quarterback Shaun Hill, linebacker DeAndre Levy (restricted), running back Maurice Morris, running back Kevin Smith, quarterback Drew Stanton, linebacker Stephen Tulloch and cornerback Eric Wright.

Where they stand: The Lions are tight against the salary cap after franchising Avril and aren't likely to be big spenders on the free-agent market. They could relieve the situation by reaching long-term agreements with Avril and/or receiver Calvin Johnson, who has a $22 million cap figure for 2012. Tulloch made a big impact last season after signing a one-year deal, but so far the Lions' attention has turned elsewhere.

What to expect: The Lions' best-case scenario is to keep their 2011 core together without mortgaging their future relative to the salary cap. That would mean getting Tulloch re-signed to preserve the linebacker group they upgraded last season by signing him and veteran Justin Durant, moves that allowed Levy to play on the outside. Hill seems likely to re-sign as Matthew Stafford's backup, while Stanton might test the free-agent waters to see if he has a chance to do better than third on a team's depth chart.

Green Bay Packers

Key free agents: Cornerback Jarrett Bush, quarterback Matt Flynn, running back Ryan Grant and center Scott Wells.

Where they stand: The Packers took care of a big challenge by signing tight end Jermichael Finley to a two-year contract last month. They will let Flynn depart for a possible starting job elsewhere and it appears Grant will test the free-agent market. Discussions with Wells haven't led to an agreement, but the Packers often go to the final moments before reaching a deal. There are no obvious internal replacements for Wells, making his return a priority.

What to expect: The Packers will have some flexibility with the salary cap, but general manager Ted Thompson's aversion to veteran free agency is well known. It's been three years since he signed a veteran unrestricted free agent in the offseason. The Packers have needs at defensive line, outside linebacker and possibly at center if Wells leaves. But let's put it this way: Thompson's strong preference is to find depth and future replacements in the draft, not on other teams' rosters.

Minnesota Vikings

Key free agents: Safety Husain Abdullah, receiver Devin Aromashodu, receiver Greg Camarillo, defensive lineman Fred Evans, defensive lineman Letroy Guion, linebacker E.J. Henderson, linebacker Erin Henderson, safety Tyrell Johnson, quarterback Sage Rosenfels, cornerback Benny Sapp and tight end Visanthe Shiancoe.

Where they stand: The Vikings seem poised for a major roster overhaul in their first offseason since Rick Spielman was promoted to general manager. Players like Shiancoe, E.J. Henderson, Camarillo and Johnson all seem poised to move on. There aren't many positions on the team that appear secure.

What to expect: If the Vikings don't plan to draft USC left tackle Matt Kalil at No. 3 overall next month, the first clue will be if they pursue a free-agent left tackle. That seems unlikely. But they'll need to combine their draft with at least a few veteran free agents if they intend to compete for a playoff spot in 2012. Cornerback could be a point of focus, where Brandon Carr and Cortland Finnegan are among those available. Another could be receiver. The Vikings had major interest in Jackson two years ago.

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