Chicago Bears: 2012 Offseason position previews

ForteStreeter Lecka/Getty ImagesMatt Forte's buzzer-beating contract extension capped off a busy offseason for the Bears.
ESPNChicago.com takes a look at the Bears' many offseason moves in a photo gallery .

From Phil Emery replacing Jerry Angelo to the signing of Matt Forte to an extension just before the deadline, it's been a busy offseason for the Bears.

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Knox may miss all of 2012 season

May, 23, 2012
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LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Chicago Bears wideout Johnny Knox plans to eventually make a full recovery from a fractured vertebra he suffered on December 18 versus the Seattle Seahawks that required surgery, but the fourth-year receiver could not rule out the possibility of being forced to miss a large portion -- if not the entire 2012 season -- as he continues to rehab daily at the team's practice facility.

Read the entire story.

Bears release offseason workout schedule

April, 12, 2012
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The Chicago Bears will conclude their organized offseason work with a full veteran minicamp from June 12-14, the team announced on Thursday.

Organized team activities (OTAs) are scheduled to begin on May 21 and last for three weeks leading up to the minicamp.

The club will also host a rookie mini-camp a few weeks after the NFL draft from May 11-13.

The official start of voluntary workouts at Halas Hall is Monday, April 16. The Bears will also conduct a local pro day on Friday to give players from the area a chance to impress the teams coaches and scouts before draft weekend begins on Thursday, April 26.

Bears re-sign Jennings to 2-year deal

March, 13, 2012
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CHICAGO -- The Bears took care of some in-house business before the official start of NFL free agency by re-signing veteran cornerback Tim Jennings to a two-year deal.

Read the entire story.

Offseason position outlook: Safeties

February, 17, 2012
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Major WrightChuck Cook/US PresswireSafety Major Wright has been injury-prone in two years with the Bears.
This is final installment of a 10-part series that reviews every Bears position group on offense and defense, while also taking a quick look at potential free-agent targets and the top prospects in the upcoming NFL draft.

Adding at safety seems an annual rite of passage in Chicago, considering the Bears have used draft picks on the position in seven of that last eight years.

Apparently, the fickleness in talent acquisition manifested itself on the field as well.

Although injuries played somewhat of a role at times, the Bears lined up with eight combinations of starters at safety over 16 games with a five-game stretch with Major Wright and Chris Conte as the starters serving as the most stability the team would see in 2011 at the position.

The Bears appeared to find an emerging playmaker last season in Conte, a third-round pick, who finished 2011 on the injured reserve. But the team undoubtedly will try once again to solidify the safety spot through the draft or free agency. Of the six safeties currently on the roster, two -- Brandon Meriweather and Craig Steltz -- are free agents, leaving Wright and Conte as the only other players with experience.

A third-round pick in 2010, Wright experienced an up-and-down campaign in his second season. But despite an overall negative perception of Wright, his chemistry with Conte seemed undeniable. In the six games the Bears paired Wright and Conte as the starters, the club came away with eight interceptions while allowing just four touchdown passes and holding opponents to a passer rating if 68.9.

In the 10 games that didn’t feature Wright and Conte as the starters, the Bears picked off 12 balls, but gave up 18 touchdown passes while allowing an opponent passer rating of 85.8.

So while the success Wright and Conte experienced together in 2011 gives Chicago optimism about the position moving forward, the team must still be leery of their youth -- which makes them prone to mistakes -- and the quality of the depth behind them. Those concerns push safety high on the priority list of positions the team must address through the draft or free agency.

THE CURRENT ROSTER


[+] EnlargeMichael Bush
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesChris Conte improved throughout his rookie season.
Major Wright: Durability continues to be an issue for Wright, who missed two games in the first half of the season and two more over the final four. The safety also has a penchant for making mental busts, which improved somewhat in 2011, but should be even better in his third year. Wright registered a career-high 12 tackles in the season finale, and the staff remains optimistic about his future with the club. If Wright and Conte can stay healthy in 2012, the young duo might solve this team’s problems at the position.

Chris Conte: Injuries and inconsistent play led to Conte making his first career start on Oct. 16 against the Minnesota Vikings, and the rookie went on to make nine starts. One of the most athletically gifted players in the secondary, Conte posted 47 tackles and intercepted a pass in 2011. But an ankle injury sustained on Dec. 18 led to Conte finishing his rookie season on the injured reserve. Conte provides a playmaking element at safety the team hasn’t experienced consistently in quite some time. The key for Conte now is to use this full offseason to add strength, and to gain a better grasp of the team’s system. Once Conte gains enough of an understanding of the system to start anticipating things, he can pair that with his elite athleticism to start making game-changing plays.

Brandon Meriweather: A two-time Pro Bowler, Meriweather didn’t play up to that level with the Bears in 2011. Signed to a one-year deal that paid him more ($3.25 million) than any other safety on the roster, Meriweather played 11 games, starting in four, and finished with 39 tackles and $45,000 in fines for questionable hits. Of Meriweather’s 16 games with the Bears, the safety didn’t play in five of them, including the final two at Green Bay and Minnesota. Meriweather isn’t likely to be back with the team.

Craig Steltz: In starting four of the last five games, Steltz posted 37 tackles and a sack, in addition to forcing two fumbles and finished the season with 48 tackles. A four-year veteran, Steltz also ranked fourth in special-teams tackles (12), which registers as the second-highest total of his career. A free agent, Steltz might be able to generate some interest on the market. But there’s a good chance the Bears try hard to bring him back.

Winston Venable: Made the team as an undrafted free agent out of Boise State and played 12 games last season, finishing with 10 tackles on special teams. Likely won’t be given much of an opportunity to contribute on defense because of inexperience and lack of range in coverage.

Anthony Walters: Made the team as an undrafted free agent and was activated from the practice squad just before Week 6. Walters made his debut on Oct. 16, but a month later was placed on the injured reserve. Walters doesn’t appear to factor into the team’s plans as a potential contributor on defense.

Bears' free agents: Meriweather, Steltz

POTENTIAL FREE AGENT TARGETS



Tyvon Branch, Oakland Raiders, unrestricted
Dashon Goldson, San Francisco 49ers, unrestricted
Dwight Lowery, Jacksonville Jaguars, unrestricted

WHY STELTZ SHOULD BE A PRIORITY


HawthorneIf the Bears are intent to go into 2012 with Conte and Wright as the starters, that’s fine. But the team needs insurance at the position and at least one candidate to push the incumbents. Through his play over the last four games, Steltz earned at least an opportunity to compete for one of the starting jobs in 2012 if he’s brought back. The problem is that Steltz likely won’t want to return unless he’s assured of a legitimate opportunity.

By starting the final four games, Steltz gained valuable game tape that could generate interest in the free agent while potentially giving the Bears competition for his services.

A four-year veteran, Steltz knows Lovie Smith’s system, has 48 games of experience at his disposal, and possesses the type of team-first attitude the Bears covet. So while the team could stand to bring in one or two more players at the position through the draft or free agency, signing Steltz should be a no-brainer.

Offseason position outlook: Cornerbacks

February, 16, 2012
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Charles TillmanBob Donnan/US PresswireCharles Tillman made his first Pro Bowl in his ninth season with the Bears.
This is the ninth installment of a 10-part series that reviews every Bears position group on offense and defense, while also taking a quick look at potential free-agent targets and the top prospects in the upcoming NFL draft.

The Bears find themselves in the midst of conducting yet another search for a potential starter at cornerback opposite Charles Tillman, a nine-year veteran coming off his first Pro Bowl season.

The three most viable candidates -- Tim Jennings, Zack Bowman, and Corey Graham -- are all set to become unrestricted free agents, and there’s a strong possibility none will return to the club for 2012. Besides that, aside from Graham -- who never received much of an opportunity at corner, but played nickel -- Jennings and Bowman never emerged as potential long-term solutions at the position despite multiple opportunities.

Starting 28 games opposite Tillman, Jennings played well in 2010 and a good portion of 2011 before the team benched him in favor of Bowman late in the season. So it’s believed the team wants to explore the free-agent market or NFL draft for a potential starter at cornerback.

The Bears finished 28th last season against the pass, surrendering 354.1 yards per game but ranked in the top 10 (tied for sixth) with 20 interceptions. The cornerbacks contributed 12 of those picks, with nickel corner D.J. Moore intercepting four passes to lead the team, followed by Tillman and Graham with three apiece and Jennings -- who dropped several potential INTs -- with two.

Given Green Bay’s prowess in the passing game and the ascension of the Detroit Lions, led by Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson, the Bears need to load up with the pass rush and coverage on the back end. Bears coach Lovie Smith said most of the team’s personnel decisions are based upon how players match up with division rivals.

“You mention a guy like [Calvin] Johnson ... I like big corners anyway to match up against some of those guys,” Smith said. “I definitely don’t think we need a complete overhaul by any means.”

Still the team -- given the likelihood of multiple free-agent departures -- needs to replenish some talent at cornerback.

THE CURRENT ROSTER


Charles Tillman: Scored two of the team’s six defensive touchdowns last season and played a significant role in the team ranking eighth in opponent passer rating (79.3). Tillman set a franchise record in 2011, by returning his fifth INT for a touchdown and also forced four fumbles on the way to being selected to his first Pro Bowl. With eight INTs since 2010, Tillman is tied with teammate D.J. Moore for the most picks in the NFL in that span. Smith said Tillman played the most disciplined football of his career in 2010, and only followed that up with a stronger 2011 campaign. Set to enter his 10th season, Tillman doesn’t appear to be declining.

[+] EnlargeSteve Smith
Dennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireTim Jennings, who started 15 games last season, doesn't figure to be back with the Bears next season.
Tim Jennings: Tied for second on the team with eight pass breakups and started 15 of 16 games. Started the season with a 10-tackle effort in the opener, and played fairly well over the first 12 games. Towards the end of the season, Jennings’ play declined somewhat, leading to the club benching him for the Christmas matchup at Green Bay. An unrestricted free agent, Jennings will draw some interest on the open market for teams in search of a boundary corner. So his return to Chicago seems unlikely.

Zack Bowman: Started 12 games in 2009, and led the team with a career-high six INTs but lost a training camp battle with Jennings for the starting job in 2010. The team held high hopes that Bowman could bounce back and win back his job in 2011, but that never transpired. An unrestricted free agent, Bowman started one game in 2011 and finished the season with six tackles and one pass breakup. Because of his size (6-1, 196 pounds) and youth, Bowman should also generate some interest in free agency. A change of scenery might prove beneficial.

Corey Graham: One of the best special-teams performers in the league, Graham earned his first Pro Bowl appearance last season by leading the team with 22 special-teams tackles. Graham is tied for third in the NFL since 2007 with 75 stops on special teams. But it appears the team has pigeonholed him in the role of a special teamer. So the unrestricted free agent will want a legitimate opportunity elsewhere to contribute on defense. Filling in for D.J. Moore at the nickel spot, Graham intercepted passes in three consecutive games from Nov. 13 to Nov. 27.

D.J. Moore: Led the team in interceptions (4) and tied for second in the team with eight pass breakups despite missing three games because of an ankle injury. Moore has now intercepted eight passes over the past two seasons and is pretty much cemented into that nickel corner role. Moore is set to enter the final year of his original rookie contract, and needs a strong 2012 to cash in.

Josh Moore: A fifth-round pick by the Bears in 2010, Moore played three games as a rookie but surprisingly was cut in September. The Bears brought Moore back to the practice squad in November, and former GM Jerry Angelo said the team never wanted to cut him. But the cornerback became a victim of the numbers game. Moore is actually one of the team’s best pure cover corners, but still needs to acclimate to the pro game to receive a real shot at making a contribution in 2012.

Bears free agents: Bowman, Graham, Jennings

POTENTIAL FREE-AGENT TARGETS


Brandon Carr, Kansas City Chiefs, unrestricted

Brent Grimes, Atlanta Falcons, unrestricted

Cortland Finnegan, Tennessee Titans, unrestricted

WHY CARR OR GRIMES MAKE SENSE


HawthorneNew general manager Phil Emery knows both Carr, pictured on the left, and Grimes extremely well, which makes them logical options. Emery played a role in bringing Grimes to Atlanta in 2006 as an undrafted free agent, and the GM spent time with Carr in Kansas City.

One potential problem with Grimes is his lack of size (5-10, 183 pounds). Smith prefers bigger corners. But Grimes has extensive experience playing in a system very similar to the one utilized by the Bears, and possesses one of the traits the team covets most: he’s aggressive in run support.

Carr (6-0, 207 pounds) is arguably the best corner available on the free-agent market. But his asking price will likely be way more than what the Bears would be willing to pay. Sure the team has plenty of room under the cap to bring aboard a high-priced player such as Carr. But the Bears typically don’t spend big money in free agency on corners. Besides that, Carr is considered more of a man corner; although it’s likely he wouldn’t have any problems playing in a more zone-oriented scheme.

While Carr or Grimes would make sense given their histories with Emery, don’t count out the Bears pushing hard to re-sign one of their own free agents such as Bowman or Tillman and adding to the position through the draft. The latter likely isn’t the team’s first choice, but could turn into Plan B depending on what transpires around the league.

Offseason position outlook: Linebackers

February, 15, 2012
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Urlacher/TebowDoug Pensinger/Getty ImagesBrian Urlacher is one of just four players in NFL history to post more than 40 career sacks and 20 interceptions.
This is the eighth installment of a 10-part series that reviews every Bears position group on offense and defense, while also taking a quick look at potential free-agent targets and the top prospects in the upcoming NFL draft.

When Chicago Bears chairman George McCaskey, president Ted Phillips or new general manager Phil Emery speaks about the team’s situation at linebacker they’re usually working to pry off the hourglass always attached to the discussion.

Age isn’t a factor they say. The duo of Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs -- 33 and 31, respectively -- only serve as evidence of the brass’ assertion.

“I’ve heard the rumblings that there’s a lot of age on our roster, defensively,” Emery said when asked specifically about Urlacher and the linebacker position. “I kind of look at it this way: it’s not a numerical number we’re looking at [when determining whether a player is getting too old to contribute]. It’s the way you’re making plays. Are you being a productive player? If it was just a miracle number, and the number of gray hairs, I wouldn’t be standing here today.”

Urlacher and Briggs combined in 2011 for 282 tackles, four interceptions, 10 pass breakups, two forced fumbles and 11 quarterback pressures in being named to their eighth and seventh Pro Bowls. Briggs eclipsed 100 tackles for the eighth consecutive season while Urlacher accomplished the feat for a franchise-record 11th time.

Are they slowing down? Maybe, but the duo continues to find ways to compensate for physical limitations by sharpening the mental sides of their games. Still, at some point, the Bears need to find the duo’s eventual replacements.

Emery has made it clear he’d prefer to replenish the talent pool through the draft. But it’s unlikely the Bears will use a high pick in April to draft a linebacker.

The new GM will also have to at some point address Briggs’ demands for a new contract.

THE CURRENT ROSTER


Brian Urlacher: Enters the final season of a five-year extension signed in 2008, and is set to receive $7.5 million in base salary ($9.7 million cap charge). Still one of the NFL’s best middle linebackers, Urlacher hasn’t discussed his contract status. But surely Urlacher would like to finish his career in Chicago and appears healthy -- and skilled -- enough to play at a high level for multiple years beyond 2012. Urlacher tied for third in interceptions (3) in 2011, and is one of just four players in NFL history to post more than 40 (41.5) career sacks and 20 (21) INTs. Urlacher sprained the MCL in his left knee in the season finale, but the injury won’t require surgery or a lengthy rehabilitation process that would put his availability for 2012 in question.

[+] EnlargeLance Briggs
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesLance Briggs doesn't have much leverage in his push for a new contract.
Lance Briggs: Was vocal prior to the 2011 season about the desire to receive a raise, or at least have the team flip the base salaries for 2012 ($3.75 million) and 2013 ($6.25 million). Given that two years remain on the deal, Briggs doesn’t appear to have much leverage in this situation and the Bears won’t be inclined to succumb to the linebacker’s demands. Briggs has said that he’d like to be traded if the Bears can’t accommodate his request. But he’s made such statements in the past, and ultimately returned to the team. Before the start of last season, there were rumblings about a potential trade between the Bears and New York Giants involving Briggs and defensive end Osi Umenyiora. But former general manager Jerry Angelo told ESPNChicago.com at the time that while logical given the needs of both teams, those rumors were untrue.

Nick Roach: Signed a two-year contract worth approximately $4 million prior to training camp in 2011, and will receive $1.715 million in base salary for 2012. Roach started 15 games at strong side linebacker last season, and contributed 61 tackles to go with three pass breakups. Interestingly, there were rumblings the Bears were considering bringing in players such as Pisa Tinoisamoa and Lofa Tatupu last season to man Roach’s spot. Tinoisamoa’s health remains an issue, but there’s a chance the team could still be eyeing Tatupu, who reportedly visited the New Orleans Saints on Monday.

Dom DeCicco: An undrafted free agent, DeCicco played in all 16 games as a rookie and tied for second on the team in special teams tackles (17). He is No. 2 on the depth chart at middle linebacker behind Urlacher. It’s still too early to tell whether DeCicco might be Urlacher’s future replacement at the position. He needs a full offseason to improve strength while learning all the nuances of the team’s system.

J.T. Thomas: A sixth-round pick in 2011, Thomas received essentially a red-shirt season when the Bears placed him on the injured reserve on Sept. 3 because of a back injury. Sources said the team was somewhat unpleased with Thomas’ physicality, and wanted him to improve in that area. Thomas further muddled his situation early Monday when he was arrested and charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession.

Patrick Trahan: Signed to the active roster on Nov. 29, Trahan played five games and contributed five tackles on special teams. Prior to joining the Bears for training camp, Trahan spent 2010 on the practice squad of the Tennessee Titans. Trahan possesses the traits of the run-and-hit linebacker the Bears covet, but needs more seasoning to become a legitimate threat to crack the lineup.

Jabara Williams: Claimed off waivers from the St. Louis Rams on Oct. 17, and played five games for the Bears, making five stops on special teams. The Rams drafted Williams in the seventh round, and he played two games with the club before his release. Also fits the run-and-hit mold.

Bears free agents: None

POTENTIAL FREE AGENT TARGETS


•MLB/OLB David Hawthorne, Seattle Seahawks, unrestricted
•OLB Leroy Hill, Seattle Seahawks, unrestricted
•OLB Manny Lawson, Cincinnati Bengals, unrestricted

WHY HAWTHORNE FITS

HawthorneAll three of the potential candidates listed could play SAM linebacker if the team thinks it needs an upgrade at Roach’s spot. But of the three, Hawthorne possesses the most versatility and upside. A four-year veteran, Hawthorne notched 115 tackles in 2011 to go with two sacks and three interceptions, one of which he returned 77 yards for a touchdown (with a Grade II MCL sprain). Bears coach Lovie Smith, a native of East Texas, is no doubt familiar with Hawthorne, who grew up with former safety Danieal Manning in Corsicana, Texas.

Nicknamed “Heater”, Hawthorne has posted more than 100 tackles and led the team in tackles each of the last three seasons. What’s more is he’s played all three linebacker spots. Coincidentally, Hawthorne’s first NFL start came against the Bears in 2009, and he posted 16 tackles in that contest.

Normally a middle linebacker, Hawthorne has also led the Seahawks in tackles from the weak side. In Chicago, Hawthorne, 26, could potentially play Roach’s spot where he’d be an upgrade against the run and in pass coverage, and simultaneously serve as the heir apparent to either Briggs on the weak side or Urlacher in the middle.

Under the last personnel regime, the Bears expressed some interest in Hawthorne. But it’s unclear now how Emery views him.

Offseason position outlook: Defensive line

February, 14, 2012
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Defensive Bears TD AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastThe Bears' Israel Idonije has 13 sacks over the past two seasons as the full-time starter at defensive end.
This is the seventh installment of a 10-part series that reviews every Bears position group on offense and defense, while also taking a quick look at potential free agent targets and the top prospects in the upcoming NFL draft.

The defensive line combined for all but three of the team’s 33 sacks, with defensive end Julius Peppers racking up a team-high 11 for his third double-digit sack campaign in four years.

But the Bears finished 2011 tied for 19th in that statistic, which wasn’t sufficient in the eyes of Bears coach Lovie Smith.

“We got good pressure from our front four,” Smith said. “But to say that we got enough the entire [season], I can’t say that. Each year that I’ve been here, we’ve tried to improve our defensive line; that’s always. You look at our league [and] we’ve got three quarterbacks I think that threw for over 5,000 yards. You need to be able to rush them better. That is an area we need to improve.”

[+] EnlargeHenry Melton
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastHenry Melton impressed in his first season as a starter, recording seven sacks.
The team ushered in the post-Tommie Harris era at defensive tackle with strong campaigns from first-year starter Henry Melton and free-agent acquisition Amobi Okoye, who combined for 11 sacks. Melton posted seven sacks, which tied for third in the NFL at his position, and Okoye’s four sacks tied him for 11th.

But the rest of that position group didn’t contribute much to the team’s totals, although it did fare well at stuffing the run.

The Bears ranked No. 5 in the NFL against the run, and according to STATS LLC, tied for the second most “stuffs” -- a tackle of a rusher for negative yards -- in the league in 2011 with 54 for 144 yards in losses. Since 2004, the Bears lead the NFL with 452 stuffs, and the defensive tackle position plays a significant role in the team’s ability to post such numbers.

That doesn’t mean the position group doesn’t need to improve. With Melton and Matt Toeaina set as the starters, the team needs to coax more out of veteran Adams -- who is coming off somewhat of a down year -- as well as Amobi, a free agent, and 2011 second-round pick Stephen Paea, who wasn’t able to crack the rotation until Week 6.

The defensive ends, meanwhile, might be in line for an upgrade opposite Peppers. With opponents devoting so much to neutralize Peppers, his counterpart -- Israel Idonije -- contributed just five sacks in 2011, and is set to become a free agent. The staff considers Idonije a “core player”, but it would seem unlikely the team would be interested in bringing him back as anything more than a rotational player.


THE CURRENT ROSTER


Anthony Adams: Played the first seven games -- starting two -- but was inactive for five of the team’s next eight outings. Adams hadn’t been inactive in that many contests since 2008. Nagging injuries appeared to be a factor in Adams’ struggles, and Smith also cited mediocre practices as one of the reasons for the veteran’s lack of playing time. Adams contributed 17 tackles and eight quarterback pressures, but finished without a sack in 2011 for the first time since the 2008 season. Adams enters the final year of a two-year contract signed just before the start of last year’s training camp, and is scheduled to receive $1.9 million in base salary. He’ll count $2.65 million against the salary cap.

Henry Melton: The coaching staff -- especially Smith -- raved about Melton all offseason, and the three-year veteran justified the team’s position with a promising debut as an NFL starter. Melton notched 16 tackles and seven sacks to go with 34 quarterback pressures. Melton started the season with six tackles, three sacks and 12 quarterback pressures in his first four games, but experienced a lull in production. Melton admitted to pacing himself as an attempt to conserve energy for the duration of games, and thinks that played a role in his inconsistency. With a year of experience as a full-time starter, Melton will be a more consistent performer in 2012.

Jordan Miller: Originally signed as an undrafted free agent out of Southern, Miller caught the staff’s attention in training camp and the preseason, eventually earning a spot on the practice squad. Miller needs to take full advantage of the club’s conditioning program to make a legitimate push to get on the field in 2012.

Amobi Okoye: Signed to a one-year contract last Aug. 1 that included a paltry signing bonus of $82,500, Okoye -- a former first-round pick of the Houston Texans -- appeared to be merely a reclamation project. But Okoye proved much more by contributing four sacks, 27 tackles and 27 quarterback pressures. Keep in mind Okoye came into the 2011 season with just 11 career sacks in 150 career games. Instead of being a bust, Okoye appears to have been miscast in Houston’s 3-4 scheme because his skill set is more conducive to success in an attacking one-gap system. The Bears will likely try to bring back the free agent if the sides can agree to a cap-friendly deal.

Stephen Paea: Paea’s strange inactivity over the first five games conjured “bust” whispers. But the truth is the second-round pick struggled to transition into the pro game, and was also working through the soreness and fatigue associated with recovering from a knee injury suffered prior to the draft. Paea contributed two sacks, 18 tackles and two quarterback pressures as a rookie. The defensive tackle recorded the club’s eighth safety since 2004 when he sacked Donovan McNabb in the end zone in Week 6. Paea spent the majority of last offseason rehabbing from the knee injury. But now that he’s fully healthy, expect Paea to grow tremendously this offseason.

Matt Toeaina: The starting nose tackle, and one of the main reasons the Bears were successful stuffing the run, Toeaina tallied 21 tackles and no sacks, and was inactive four games because of a sprained knee. Toeaina posted a season-high five stops on Dec. 18 against the Seattle Seahawks. Having signed an extension in December 2010, Toeina is under contract through 2013.

[+] EnlargeJulius Peppers
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesJulius Peppers recorded a team-high 11 sacks for the Bears last season.
Julius Peppers: Peppers posted nine of his sacks over the final 11 games, and he tallied at least one in seven of those outings to eclipse 10 sacks for the seventh time in 10 NFL seasons. Peppers also forced three fumbles to run his career total to 36. That number ranks as the fourth-most in the NFL over the past 10 seasons. Interestingly, the majority of Peppers’ production seemed to come after Week 5 when the veteran suffered a sprained knee in a loss to the Detroit Lions.

Israel Idonije: Contributed five sacks, and now has 13 over the past two seasons as the full-time starter. Idonije also scored a touchdown on a recovered fumble in the end zone in Week 15 against the Seahawks. Although the veteran set career highs in tackles (57), and fumble recoveries (2), Idonije might not be back with the Bears in 2012 as the starter opposite Peppers. Idonije just finished the final season of a three-year contract, and will likely be allowed to test free agency for a more lucrative deal than what the Bears might be inclined to pay.

Corey Wootton: Seemed to be putting together a strong training camp, but nagging injuries derailed what could have been a breakout season. Wootton suffered a knee injury on the opening kickoff of the exhibition opener that required arthroscopic surgery. After sitting out the first three games, Wootton returned in Week 4 to face the Carolina Panthers. In the week of practice leading up to the following game at Detroit, Wootton suffered a broken hand. Wootton possesses the potential to develop into a starter, but needs to find a way to shake the injuries.

Thaddeus Gibson: Signed to the active roster on Dec. 19, Gibson contributed on special teams in the last two games of the season. A former fourth-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2010, Gibson possesses impressive physical attributes, but is raw. Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli seems to be the ideal coach to aid in Gibson’s development.

Chauncey Davis: Signed with the Bears in November, Davis made three tackles in a loss to the Oakland Raiders in his debut. Davis played the final six games and registered nine tackles and a sack. Prior to joining the Bears, Davis played in 96 games (25 starts) in seven seasons with the Atlanta Falcons.

Bears free agents: Okoye and Idonije

POTENTIAL FREE-AGENT TARGETS


•DT Jason Jones, Tennessee Titans, unrestricted
•DT Cory Redding, Baltimore Ravens, unrestricted
•DT Kendall Langford, Miami Dolphins, unrestricted
•DE Mario Williams, Houston Texans, unrestricted
•DE Cliff Avril, Detroit Lions, unrestricted
•DE Jeremy Mincey, Jacksonville Jaguars, unrestricted

WHY ADDING THROUGH DRAFT MIGHT BE BEST


Unless the team seeks an upgrade at the under-tackle spot currently manned by Melton, it’s unlikely the Bears make any moves at this position during free agency outside of potential backups. But if the team wants to upgrade opposite Peppers, it would have plenty of gifted options, not to mention more than enough cap room to pull off a high-profile acquisition.

Perhaps a significant deterrent to making a move in free agency is the fact the club already has $20.15 million committed in 2012 base salaries to just three players on defense (Peppers, Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs). That number would likely swell to approximately $26 million or more if the team picked up a high-profile pass rusher to play opposite Peppers.

So Williams might be too expensive, and Avril is believed to be a top priority in Detroit. That might make Mincey an intriguing option. Mincey, 28, is coming off a breakout season in which he posted eight sacks, 57 tackles and four forced fumbles playing in a 4-3 system similar to Chicago’s. But the Bears might be apprehensive about how Mincey arrived at those sacks because five came in two games against a struggling Indianapolis Colts offensive line, and he notched three more over 14 other outings.

That could potentially push down Mincey’s asking price to a number closer to what the Bears were paying Idonije.

But with new general manager Phil Emery running the show, the team might feel the safer play is to bring back Idonije or try to boost the pass rush through the draft.

Offseason position outlook: OT

February, 13, 2012
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Gabe CarimiJonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesThe Bears expect Gabe Carimi to be able to participate in at least a portion of their offseason program.
This is the sixth installment of a 10-part series that reviews every Bears position group on offense and defense, while also taking a quick look at potential free agent targets and the top prospects in the upcoming NFL draft.

The offensive line -- namely the tackle position -- showed progress in 2011 with a second-year player (J’Marcus Webb) starting on the left side, and rookie Gabe Carimi manning the right. Sacks per game dropped for quarterback Jay Cutler to an average of 3.25, from 13.65 in 2010.

Still those numbers remain too high.

“Whenever your quarterback is getting hit, that’s a concern,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said at the end of the season. “We have a franchise quarterback first off in Jay Cutler, who is as good as there is out there. We want to protect him as much as possible. Our quarterback has been hit too many times around here. That’s one of the areas that we’ll need to improve, but it can be done.”

It won’t require revamping the unit or miraculous improvement from the players, either, despite the common perception the offensive line is deficient in the talent department. What often wasn’t publicized in 2011 was the devastating effect the team’s scheme played in the line’s ability to protect Cutler.

For a good portion of the season, the Bears tried to protect Cutler using five-man protections, which essentially left Webb and Carimi -- and later Frank Omiyale and Lance Louis -- alone on the outside against opponents’ top pass rushers while making the unit undermanned in blitz situations. The team also called several plays involving five- and seven-step drops for Cutler, which extended the time the quarterback held onto the ball, thus exposing him to more potential punishment.

[+] EnlargeJ'Marcus Webb
Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesJ'Marcus Webb was penalized a team-high 15 times last season, but the Bears remain high on the left tackle, who enters his third season.
Of the 23 sacks Cutler suffered in 10 outings, 18 of them occurred in the first five games.

So the Bears eventually remedied the sack situation by calling plays that allowed Cutler to get rid of the ball quicker. The staff also employed more maximum protection on passes, kept tight ends in passing downs, and chipped with the running backs.

The Bears plan to go a similar route in 2012 schematically with Mike Tice as the new offensive coordinator. In addition to tweaking the scheme to make it even more run oriented, the Bears plan to build into the system the ability to audible at the line of scrimmage, and install plays that employ moving pockets to take advantage of Cutler’s mobility.

Throw in the anticipated growth of Webb, who enters his third season, and rising second-year man Carimi -- who Tice said was “playing winning football” before suffering a season-ending knee injury on Sept. 18 at New Orleans -- and it’s understandable that Smith remains optimistic about the line’s prospects for 2012.

“I would normally not talk a lot about positions and what we’re gonna do next year,” Smith said. “But I think as we looked at the offensive line, as we’ve critiqued that offensive line in my years here so many times, I think this is the best situation we’ve been in since I’ve been here with our offensive line.”

THE CURRENT ROSTER


J’Marcus Webb: The most maligned of the team’s tackles, Webb started his first season at left tackle after starting on the right side as a rookie. According to Pro Football Focus, Webb ranked as the worst full-time starter at his position in the NFL, and was responsible for 38 pressures. In addition Webb was penalized a team-high 15 times for 82 yards (43 nullified), resulting in eight stalled drives. The staff remains high on the left tackle, and Tice often defended Webb’s play in 2011. Part of that stems from the immense talent Webb possesses, which has allowed him to put forth lights-out performances against some of the league’s best. Case in point: Webb’s strong outing on Nov. 7 against the Philadelphia Eagles. In that game, Webb -- matched up against one of the league’s best pass rushers in Trent Cole -- surrendered only one pressure on 36 drop backs. The team’s first inclination will be to leave Webb on the left side, but it could explore moving over Carimi from the right side or moving Chris Williams from guard back to tackle.

Gabe Carimi: The 29th pick of the 2011 draft, Carimi became an immediate starter at right tackle. Although not as gifted physically as Webb, Carimi makes very few mistakes and is a hard-nosed competitor. A partial dislocation of Carimi’s right kneecap suffered Sept. 18 at New Orleans ended a promising start from the rookie. Then Carimi opted in December to undergo further surgery to stabilize his right knee. The latest procedure will tighten ligaments and require Carimi to rehab for four months, according to sources. But the team expects Carimi to be able to participate in at least a portion of the offseason program. Carimi elected to undergo the procedure to keep his knee from becoming a recurring issue so the prognosis is positive.

Frank Omiyale: The Bears' second-most penalized offensive lineman, Omiyale was flagged seven times for 35 yards in 2011, resulting in three stalled drives. Despite the negative perception of Omiyale, the staff is actually high on the veteran as a swing tackle, capable of backing up multiple spots. A seven-year veteran, Omiyale started three games at right tackle last season. He’s scheduled to make $2.1 million in the final year of a four-year contract signed in 2009.

Levi Horn: Signed with the team as an undrafted rookie in 2010, Horn has spent the majority of his time on the Bears practice squad. The club promoted Horn to the active roster in November, but he was inactive for the final six games. Although he’s listed as a tackle, Horn also worked at guard with the second team during training camp last year. Horn could eventually develop into the Bears' swing tackle.

Perry Dorrestein: An undrafted rookie from Michigan, Dorrestein signed to the Bears practice squad on Nov. 23. Dorrestein started 31 games at Michigan over three years. But it’s unclear whether he’ll still be with the team in late July for training camp.

Bears free agents: None

POTENTIAL FREE AGENT TARGETS


Jared Gaither, San Diego Chargers, unrestricted
Demetrius Bell, Buffalo Bills, unrestricted
•Marcus McNeil, San Diego Chargers, (will be cut in March, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune)

WHY BEARS MIGHT STAND PAT


The Bears consider themselves set at the starting positions. But there has to be some concern about the potential timeline for Carimi’s expected recovery. Still, the club has enough depth to compensate for a delayed recovery so the Bears aren’t likely to spend in free agency at tackle. Tice has said that unless a can’t-miss prospect falls into the team’s lap in the draft, it likely wouldn’t use a first-round pick on an offensive lineman, either. But that doesn’t mean the Bears won’t acquire some players late in the draft or add a couple of undrafted rookies. Tice is considered one of the league’s best at evaluating offensive linemen, and he has a track record for uncovering unheralded gems. Also keep this in mind: Tice prefers offensive linemen with the body type and size of tackles that can also kick inside to play guard.

Offseason position outlook: Guard/center

February, 10, 2012
2/10/12
10:41
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TBDScott Cunningham/Getty ImagesChris Williams enters the final year of his rookie contract still with a lot to prove.
This is the fifth installment of a 10-part series that reviews every Bears position group on offense and defense, while also taking a quick look at potential free agent targets and the top prospects in the upcoming NFL draft.

Attrition over the past two seasons led to discovery at the interior positions up front for the Chicago Bears, with former offensive line coach Mike Tice being forced to shuffle players to compensate for a major departure (Olin Kreutz) and various injuries.

Now the team’s offensive coordinator, Tice says those issues created surprising depth, which is “a good problem to have.”

The current roster features five players -- Chris Williams, Roberto Garza, Lance Louis, Edwin Williams and Chris Spencer -- that started multiple games in 2011. The problem, however, is just three of them will crack the starting lineup in 2012, with the other two falling back to reserve roles.

[+] EnlargeRoberto Garza
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesRoberto Garza proved to be a very capable replacement for Olin Kreutz at center.

Interestingly, all five can play multiple positions with Chris Spencer and Edwin Williams being capable of backing up Garza at center. Chris Williams and Louis, meanwhile, have started games outside at tackle. After spending most of his career at guard, Garza -- a 12th-year veteran -- is coming off his first season as Chicago’s starting center, where he replaced Kreutz, a franchise icon.

Garza continued to improve as the year progressed. With a full offseason to work with quarterback Jay Cutler, the team expects continued growth between the quarterback and center, who work together to identify threats on the defense before making adjustments in the protection.

As for the running game, the Bears are coming off a season in which they eclipsed the 2,000-yard rushing mark for just the second time in 20 years. On 177 runs behind the interior of the line in 2011, the Bears averaged 4 yards per attempt.

“For our offense to rush for 2,000 yards in a season, that’s saying a lot the way we were able to run the football,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said. “If you’re going to get off the bus running the football, you’ve got to be able to do it then.”

The interior of Chicago’s offensive line will play a major factor in determining whether the team’s good fortunes with the rushing attack continue under a new ground-oriented attack led by Tice.

THE CURRENT ROSTER

Roberto Garza: Took over as the starting center when the team couldn’t work out a deal to bring back Kreutz, with no drop off in terms of production. In fact, Garza provided somewhat of an upgrade because he possesses Kreutz’s intelligence, but is stouter at the point of attack. The Bears rewarded Garza for a strong season with a two-year extension worth $6.55 million, including $2.6 million guaranteed. Garza came into training camp expecting to start at guard, and handled the move to center with very few complications. So a full offseason working at center should only lead to more improvement.

Chris Spencer: Brought in during training camp as a potential starter at center, and ended up playing extensively at right guard in the season opener for an injured Louis. Spencer eventually started 14 games for the Bears at right guard. Initially, Tice was apprehensive about Spencer’s prospects because of his reputation for being somewhat soft. But Spencer quickly changed Tice’s impressions with a hard-nosed style and impressive athleticism. Spencer could easily emerge in the offseason as one of the top contenders for one of the starting guard spots.

Chris Williams: One of the most physically gifted linemen on the team, Williams started the first nine games at left guard. But a fractured and dislocated wrist he suffered against the Detroit Lions on Nov. 13 landed Williams on the injured reserve. Williams excelled at blocking in space, and was by far the club’s best at pulling as the lead blocker for Matt Forte. A former first-round pick and starter at both tackle spots, Williams enters the final year of his original rookie contract. He needs to prove he’s worthy of a long-term commitment from the team.

Lance Louis: Started off the season as the starting right guard, but an ankle sprained knocked him out of the majority of the first four games. Louis returned on Oct. 10 to start against the Detroit Lions, but eventually moved over to right tackle, replacing an ineffective Frank Omiyale, who at the time was filling in for injured rookie Gabe Carimi. Given the circumstances, Louis performed reasonably well at right tackle. But he’s eager to get back to his more natural guard position. Like Chris Williams, Louis is entering the final year of his contract.

Edwin Williams: The Bears quietly signed Williams to a two-year extension near the end of last December, which serves as an indication of his worth to the team. Williams started the last seven games of 2011 at left guard, as the replacement to Chris Williams. Although Edwin Williams isn’t as athletic as Chris Williams, he’s more powerful and a better pass-protector, according to the staff. Also capable of playing center, Edwin Williams might wind up a backup in 2012 because of the high number of capable players at the interior positions.

Ricky Henry: Signed to the active roster on Nov. 17, Henry played in two games, making his debut on Dec. 18 against the Seattle Seahawks. The club acquired Henry as an undrafted free agent for training camp. Although he’s talented, Henry will likely end up a victim of the numbers game at training camp.

Mansfield Wrotto: Signed to the 53-man roster on Dec. 27, but never played in a game. A six-year veteran, Wrotto has started in 12 games with the Buffalo Bills and Seattle Seahawks.

Reggie Stephens: Spent most of 2011 on the practice squad, after signing with the team on Nov. 8.

Bears free agents: None

POTENTIAL FREE AGENT TARGETS

Carl Nicks, New Orleans Saints, unrestricted

Ben Grubbs, Baltimore Ravens, unrestricted

Evan Mathis, Philadelphia Eagles, unrestricted

WHY BEARS MIGHT STAND PAT

The team isn’t likely to make moves to upgrade the interior of the offensive line through free agency. But there’s a good chance the Bears add to the roster through the draft through late-round picks or undrafted rookies. It’s important to note that Tice has a track record for uncovering gems along the offensive line; especially undrafted free agents

Offseason position outlook: Tight end

February, 9, 2012
2/09/12
12:32
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Martellus BennettJim McIsaac/Getty ImagesMartellus Bennett might thrive with the Bears after an escape from the circus atmosphere in Dallas.
This is the fourth installment of a 10-part series that reviews every Bears position group on offense and defense, while also taking a quick look at potential free agent targets and the top prospects in the upcoming NFL draft.

Surely at some point in the in the playoffs the Chicago Bears front office watched the exploits of tight ends around the league, and wondered why under former offensive coordinator Mike Martz and the team basically eliminated the position, reducing it to nothing more than an extra offensive lineman.

Five of the tight ends featured in the postseason (New Orlean's Jimmy Graham, New England's Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, Green Bay's Jermichael Finley and San Francisco's Vernon Davis) individually produced more in terms of receptions and yardage than every tight end on the Bears roster combined. In fact, of all the teams that advanced to the postseason, only one starting tight end -- Denver's Daniel Fells -- generated fewer catches (19) than Chicago tight ends Kellen Davis and Matt Spaeth (25), but matched their yardage (256).

[+] EnlargeKellen Davis
MRQ/Icon SMIKellen Davis has all the physical tools to be a productive tight end, but the Bears are still waiting for him to put it all together.
Of the 12 starting tight ends on playoff teams just two -- Fells and Jake Ballard of the New York Giants -- caught fewer than 51 passes. To really put that into perspective, consider the fact that Chicago's leading receiver -- running back Matt Forte -- finished the season with 52 receptions.

Ten tight ends on playoff teams eclipsed Forte's numbers, and four of them -- Detroit's Brandon Pettigrew, Atlanta's Tony Gonzales, Graham and Gronkowski -- finished 2011 with at least 80 catches. A Bears player hasn't accomplished that feat since 2002, when receiver Marty Booker finished with 97 receptions.

So despite the rosy outlook from the coaching staff regarding the team's tight ends, clearly the Bears need more from the position, especially in the red zone where the Bears scored 20 touchdowns in 38 drives inside an opponent's 20 in 2011.

"We have an excellent tight end," Bears coach Lovie Smith said of Davis, who is an unrestricted free agent. "We brought Matt Spaeth here to primarily be a blocker for us, and he filled that role well. Kellen Davis can do anything the good tight ends in this league can do. I think we had a combination of as good a tight end -- the makings of -- as anyone around in Kellen."

THE CURRENT ROSTER


Kellen Davis: Despite pedestrian statistics, Davis led the Bears with five touchdown receptions, finishing his fourth season with 18 catches for 206 yards. An unrestricted free agent, Davis might be offered a minimal deal to re-sign. But if the Bears -- under new GM Emery -- decide to upgrade at the position, they could decide to let Davis sign elsewhere. Davis has flashed ability as both a blocker and receiver over the past two seasons, but lacks consistency in both areas.

Matt Spaeth: Brought in as a blocking tight end, Spaeth played 15 games, catching seven passes for 50 yards. The Bears signed Spaeth to a three-year contract last year in free agency, and -- counting his bonuses -- he basically earned more than $285,000 per catch last season. With Spaeth to receive $1.775 million in base salary for 2012, the front office may decide that’s too much to pay for a one-dimensional tight end. In fact, the Bears could use that money to try to lure back Davis.

Kyle Adams: Contributed primarily as a special teamer for eight games as a rookie, before a torn hamstring landed Adams on the injured reserve. One of just five undrafted free agents to make last year’s team, Adams also showed promise as a developmental tight end that might thrive with an NFL offseason under his belt that might open up the door to a strong training camp.

Andre Smith: Spent the first eight games on the practice squad before the Bears promoted him to the 53-man roster after Adams was placed on injured reserve. Although he was on the active roster, the Bears placed Smith on their inactive list in each of the last eight games. Like Adams, Smith is another developmental prospect that displays promising upside.

Draylen Ross: Spent time briefly with the Bears during 2011 training camp, and was signed to the practice squad when Adams was placed on IR and Smith was promoted to the active roster. If Ross makes it to training camp, he’ll have a difficult time sticking.

Bears free agents: Davis

POTENTIAL FREE AGENT TARGETS


•Jermichael Finley, Green Bay Packers, unrestricted
Fred Davis, Washington Redskins, unrestricted
Martellus Bennett, Dallas Cowboys, unrestricted

WHY BENNETT MIGHT MAKE SENSE


MeachemThere's no way the Packers let Finley see the open market, and Davis' 2011 drug suspension might be too much of a red flag for the Bears under new GM Phil Emery. Bennett (6 foot 6, 270 pounds) makes for an interesting prospect for a variety of reasons. According to a Cowboys source, Bennett was the team's best blocker, is immensely athletic and possesses solid hands. But he's been plagued by immaturity. Like quarterback Jay Cutler, Bennett has often been criticized for his body language.

Bennett, who will be 25 in March, might be able to thrive in Chicago because of the Bears' established group of leaders, and the fact Halas Hall isn’t the circus atmosphere the tight end has become accustomed to in Dallas. With the Bears, Bennett would take a lead role, as opposed to being merely a backup to Jason Witten. Throw in a strong-minded coach in Smith, a top quarterback in Cutler, and an established group of leaders in the locker room, and Chicago might be the place where Bennett can finally flourish.

Believe it or not, Bennett’s skill set is very similar to those of Pettigrew and Finley.

Offseason position outlook: Receivers

February, 8, 2012
2/08/12
11:52
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Robert MeachemAP Photo/Gerald HerbertWith teammate Marques Colston due a big contract, the Saints' Robert Meachem could be a viable free agent option for the Bears.
This is the third installment of a 10-part series that reviews every Bears position group on offense and defense, while also taking a quick look at potential free agent targets and the top prospects in the upcoming NFL draft.

The fantasies recently shared over Twitter between Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler and Miami Dolphins receiver Brandon Marshall about a possible reunion surely sparked optimism about the club’s future at what’s been an underachieving position in recent years.

But don’t expect Chicago to make a move to land Marshall. That deal might be too difficult for the Bears to swing, but the team still plans this offseason to extend every effort to finally give Cutler -- who will have only one year left on his contract after the upcoming season -- the weapons he needs.

"I will say this: What is going to be targeted [are] good football players, producers, dynamic playmakers that can help this football team grow," new general manager Phil Emery said. "[We want to] help the players that are here, and surround them with more weapons, more people that can make plays, and help this football team in its march towards championships."

Considering the Bears' leader in receptions -- running back Matt Forte -- doesn't play the receiver position, it’s quite clear that’s where the team needs to upgrade with the "dynamic playmakers" that Emery discussed.

The team’s preference is to do that through the draft. But the severe talent deficiency at the position will likely force the Bears to attack the problem from multiple fronts, meaning the NFL draft in April and pro free agency a month before that.

The Bears are well positioned in terms of salary cap space to make moves, and new offensive coordinator Mike Tice has been vocal about the need to add a legitimate No. 1 receiver to properly execute the team’s new system. By adding more targets -- especially a No. 1 that always has to be accounted for in coverage -- the Bears would be able to line up players such as Earl Bennett and Devin Hester in different spots on the field to take advantage of one-on-one matchups.

“We do need a [receiver] that when he gets one-on-one coverage, he has to win way more than he loses,” Tice said. “Moving forward, we’re going to evaluate the guys we have and how we’ve used them in the past. Our scouting department will do a great job -- whether it’s our pro personnel department or college scouting department -- in finding that guy or guys that are going to be able to let us implement this system, this process.”

THE CURRENT ROSTER


[+] EnlargeJohnny Knox
Rob Grabowski/US PresswireJohnny Knox was second in the NFL with 19.6 yards per catch.
Johnny Knox: Finished the 2011 season ranked second in the NFL in yards per catch (19.6 yards), led the team in receiving yards (727) and was tied for second in receptions. But a devastating back injury on Dec. 18 casts doubt on Knox’s potential availability for 2012. Having undergone a vertebral fusion procedure, Knox will have to wear a back brace until mid-March, and his timeline for recovery could extend beyond six months, according to multiple sources.

Roy Williams: Williams came on toward the end of the season, and two of his three best performances of the year came over the last two games in which he caught a combined 10 passes for 141 yards and a touchdown. Early indications pointed to the Bears bringing Williams -- an unrestricted free agent -- back in 2012 with a cap-friendly contract. But the regime change with Emery now as the GM could change the team’s thinking. Williams believes he deserves at least an opportunity to go to training camp to compete for a spot.

Dane Sanzenbacher: An undrafted rookie, Sanzenbacher started off strong by catching 19 passes over the first seven games for three touchdowns with Earl Bennett out of the lineup. Once Bennett returned, Sanzenbacher played six consecutive games with no catches from Nov. 7 to Dec. 11. Sanzenbacher’s promising rookie start was plagued by dropped passes (5). Depending on what the team does in free agency and the draft, Sanzenbacher could have a hard time making the 2012 roster.

Devin Hester: Nagging injuries limited Hester’s production on offense and in the return game. Over a three-game stretch from Oct. 10-23, Hester caught 14 passes only to finish with one reception over the next four weeks. Scheduled to earn $1.646 million (the salary includes escalators -- that likely haven’t been reached -- worth up to $3.554 million based on his production) Hester hasn’t yet developed into the receiver the Bears had hoped for. But an infusion of new talent at the position might change Hester’s role by putting him in the slot or other spots more, which might increase his production.

Earl Bennett: An internal-body injury suffered on Sept. 18 knocked Bennett out of the lineup for five games. But he returned Nov. 7 to put together three strong performances in Bears' victories (14 catches for 251 yards and a TD). Having developed strong chemistry with Cutler dating all the way back to college, Bennett watched his production dip dramatically after the quarterback suffered a thumb injury that knocked him out of the final six games. Still, Bennett remains the most dangerous of the team’s receiving threats, and was rewarded with a contract extension toward the end of the season.

Max Komar: Added to the Bears active roster on Dec. 19, and played in only one game on special teams against the Green Bay Packers on Christmas. Komar possesses some elusiveness, but could find a difficult time making the roster if he sticks around long enough to go to training camp.

Jonathan Haggerty: Signed to the practice squad on Dec. 20 and is considered a long shot to make the 2012 team.

Kevin Jurovich: Added to the practice squad on Dec. 21, but likely won’t make it to training camp with the team.

Bears free agents: Williams

POTENTIAL FREE AGENT TARGETS


Vincent Jackson, San Diego Chargers, unrestricted
Marques Colston, New Orleans Saints, unrestricted
Robert Meachem, New Orleans Saints, unrestricted

WHY MEACHEM MIGHT MAKE SENSE


MeachemDynamic playmakers such as Philadelphia’s DeSean Jackson, Buffalo’s Steve Johnson and Kansas City’s Dwayne Bowe likely won’t see the free agent market because of franchise tags or the sides working out new agreements. And it’s highly unlikely Vincent Jackson or Colston will either.

New Orleans is trying to work out an extension for quarterback Drew Brees, and once that’s done, it’s likely the Saints will turn their attention to Colston. So they’ll ultimately wind up having to part ways with Meachem. But don’t let Meachem’s production in 2011 (40 catches, 620 yards and 6 TDs) fool you. His lack of mega numbers stems in part from New Orleans’ spread-the-wealth system, and the fact he often became the clear-out man to open up things underneath for tight end Jimmy Graham.

Meachem’s explosive deep speed is part of the reason he became somewhat of a decoy. But he possesses the physical attributes to thrive in the right situation.

Offseason position outlook: Running back

February, 7, 2012
2/07/12
11:12
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TBDScott Boehm/Getty ImagesOne thing is certain about Matt Forte -- he is in line for a big raise in 2012.
This is the second installment of a 10-part series that reviews every Bears position group on offense and defense, while also taking a quick look at potential free agent targets and the top prospects in the upcoming NFL draft.

Matt Forte shook off disappointment in contract negotiations and trepidation about his long-term future with the franchise in 2011, and put together his first Pro Bowl campaign before a knee injury knocked him out of the last five games.

All throughout last season and thus far this offseason, contract negotiations between Forte -- a pending unrestricted free agent -- and the Bears dominated most discussions regarding the franchise. The question now is whether the sides can consummate a deal. New general manager Phil Emery declined to tip the club’s hand in negotiations, which are expected to pick up in the coming days.

Team president Ted Phillips said there’s no way the Bears let Forte hit the open market.

“We’d like to [work out a long-term contract with Forte],” Phillips said. “But as Phil [Emery] pointed out, we obviously will at least consider placing the franchise tag on him.”

That’s fine by Forte, as long as the team uses the tag to buy it more time to strike a long-term deal.

The team will have to designate Forte its franchise player -- or work out an extension with the running back -- between Feb. 20 and Mar. 5. If the Bears tag him, they have until July 16 to sign Forte to a new contract.

The running back hinted that “people probably wouldn’t know where I was” if the sides don’t reach a long-term agreement.

THE CURRENT ROSTER


Matt Forte: Despite contentious negotiations with the team prior to the season opener, Forte decided to prove his worth on the field by out-producing players such as Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson and Oakland’s Darren McFadden -- both earning more than 10 times Forte’s 2011 base salary -- in total yards from scrimmage (1,487) despite missing more than a month of action.

Forte finished the season ranked 10th in the NFL -- at all positions -- in total yards from scrimmage, and led the league in that statistical category prior to suffering a sprained knee on Dec. 4 against the Kansas City Chiefs.

Given the team’s expected shift to more of a run-oriented offense, Forte’s value remains high. Emery has already touched base with Forte’s agent, Adisa Bakari, and it appears the team will finally make a legitimate effort at striking an agreement with the Pro Bowl running back.

[+] EnlargeKhalil Bell
AP Photo/Jack DempseyKahlil Bell's play late in the season could allow the bears to cut Marion Barber loose.
Marion Barber: Barber is set to receive a $100,000 workout bonus this offseason, and is scheduled to earn $1.9 million in base salary for the 2012 season. While Barber has proven to be a dependable backup/complement to Forte, his salary -- although not high -- might be too much because there appears to be a younger, less expensive, and potentially better option waiting in the wings in Kahlil Bell.

Bears coach Lovie Smith pointed out that Barber’s injury history is cause for concern. Lingering calf issues led to Barber being inactive in five games.

Kahlil Bell: If Bell didn’t outright earn the No. 2 job behind Forte with his play down the stretch, he should at least receive a real opportunity to compete for the spot in training camp.

A restricted free agent, Bell likely will receive a low tender from the team, which might lead to Barber’s departure, especially if the Bears also manage to sign Forte.

Bell averaged 4.3 yards per attempt in 2011 and produced his first 100-yard outing on Christmas at Green Bay. Interestingly, Bell blends some of the attributes of Forte (elusiveness) and Barber (power), which surely bodes well for his future with the Bears. Bell acknowledged that fumbles were somewhat of a problem during the season, but it’s not a situation that can’t be remedied.

Armando Allen: Could wind up sticking as the No. 3 running back if he can contribute on special teams. He showed promise in the final two games of 2011, rushing 11 times for 40 yards on Christmas against the Packers.

Because of Allen’s size -- 5 foot 10, 190 pounds -- he'll definitely need to use the offseason to add bulk and strength.

Tyler Clutts: The Bears entered last offseason looking for a true fullback, and they uncovered a gem in Clutts, a punishing lead blocker who can also be a threat out of the backfield (eight catches for 48 yards in 2011).

The lone fullback on the roster, Clutts also contributed on special teams in 2011, making three stops on coverage teams. His role may grow in the new Tice-led offense.

Robert Hughes: A Chicago native, Hughes spent time last season on the team’s practice squad and might be a longshot to make the 2012 roster. A strong showing in the preseason finale of 2011 led to Hughes winding up on the practice squad.

Bears free agents: Forte, Bell (restricted)

POTENTIAL FREE AGENT TARGETS


None

WHY THE BEARS MIGHT STAND PAT


Even if the Bears don’t sign Forte to an extension, they’ll still be on the hook for approximately $8 million with the franchise tag. Tack on Barber’s $1.9 million base salary and a likely tender offer for Bell, and the Bears will have more than $10 million committed to salaries of running backs.

So if the Bears decide to keep Barber and Bell, don’t expect them to make any moves in free agency at the position. The club may wind up cutting Barber loose and keeping Bell as the No. 2, while adding to the position with a late-round pick or undrafted free agent.

Offseason position outlook: Quarterback

February, 6, 2012
2/06/12
10:17
AM ET
Cutler/UmenyioraChris McGrath/Getty ImagesMike Tice's new offense figures to take advantage of Jay Cutler's ability to throw on the run.
This is the first installment of a 10-part series that reviews every Bears position group on offense and defense, while also taking a quick look at potential free agent targets and the top prospects in the upcoming NFL draft.

Jay Cutler flashed enough development through the first 10 games of the 2011 to merit inclusion into conversations about the NFL’s elite at the position. Then he suffered a fractured thumb that forced him to miss the final six contests, ruining what seemed to be a promising season.

If anything, Cutler’s injury taught the Chicago Bears the value of keeping a capable No. 2 on standby, considering the team lost five of six down the stretch.

With the team set for the future with Cutler at the helm as the starter, the Bears face a couple of interesting dilemmas this offseason with backups such as Josh McCown and Caleb Hanie set to go into unrestricted free agency.

In addition, new general manager Phil Emery must also determine whether rising second-year player Nathan Enderle fits into the offense the team will utilize under new coordinator Mike Tice, while figuring out whether the quarterback possesses enough upside to warrant a roster spot for 2012 as a developmental prospect.

THE CURRENT ROSTER


Jay Cutler: Cutler averaged 229.1 yards passing, which ranks as the third-best single-season mark in franchise history, and his passer rating of 85.7 registered as seventh in franchise annals.

Prior to Cutler’s thumb injury, the club ranked sixth in scoring (26.8 points per game), and it seemed the quarterback -- at the time of the injury -- was playing his best football as a Chicago Bear. There’s concern about how Cutler will perform in 2012 playing for his third offensive coordinator in four seasons.

But Tice has been clear about his intentions of catering the offense to fit Cutler’s talents. So the transition should be smooth. Look for the new offense to feature the ability to audible, in addition to several plays with moving pockets to take advantage of Cutler’s mobility.

[+] EnlargeCaleb Hanie
Mike DiNovo/US PresswireFree agent Caleb Hanie would seem to have played his way out of Chicago, but he might be a better fit in Mike Tice's offense.
Caleb Hanie: Following a promising showing in the 2010 NFC title game with a few shaky performances when given the opportunity to start in relief of Cutler. In four starts, Hanie tossed nine interceptions, and finished the season with a passer rating of 41.8.

Those showings, coupled with the fact he’s a free agent might mean Hanie won’t remain with the team in 2012. But don’t be so fast to make that assumption. Hanie wasn’t an ideal fit for Mike Martz’s offense, but what Tice plans to implement actually caters to what the quarterback does well.

The club likely won’t ever trust Hanie again as the No. 2. But there’s a small chance he sticks as the third quarterback.

Josh McCown: Played well enough to warrant consideration as the No. 2 behind Cutler in 2012. But the club would be doing itself a disservice if it doesn’t bring in competition from outside for the job.

McCown completed 63.6 percent of his passes in the three games he played (two starts), and showed plenty of poise in the pocket as well as an ability to make things happen with his legs when things break down. It’s likely the Bears will extend McCown an offer to return, but the club could have some competition from other teams based on the way the quarterback performed late in the season.

Nathan Enderle: Inactive for 14 of the team’s 16 games, Enderle never received an opportunity to play even when Hanie struggled to fill in for Cutler because the coaching staff deemed the rookie unready.

For a brief period during training camp, Enderle moved ahead of Hanie on the depth chart. But Enderle didn’t develop enough -- because of limited repetitions -- to become a realistic option as a backup.

Handpicked by Martz because he possessed the traits to thrive in that pass-oriented system, Enderle may no longer be considered an ideal fit for what the Bears plan to do with Tice as the offensive coordinator.

Bears free agents: Hanie, McCown

POTENTIAL FREE AGENT TARGETS


Kyle Orton, Kansas City Chiefs, unrestricted
Jason Campbell, Oakland Raiders, unrestricted
David Garrard, unrestricted

WHY GARRARD MIGHT MAKE SENSE


Unlike Orton and Campbell, Garrard likely won’t be expensive, and he won’t enter a new situation looking to win the starting job. Besides that, Tice is familiar with Garrard from their time spent together with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Garrard, 34, has started 76 career games, with a career completion percentage of 61.6 and a passer rating of 85.8. A 10-year veteran, Garrard has thrown just 54 interceptions in 2,281 attempts. Physically, Garrard possesses many of the traits (strong arm, good mobility, and toughness) that would make him an ideal fit for Tice’s offense.

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