Chicago Bears: Chicago Bears

A source close to Brandon Marshall looked at Chicago’s trade of the receiver to the New York Jets on Friday simply as business, adding that “you have to accept” the move.

Now the Bears have to be willing to accept the challenge of replacing Marshall’s production, not to mention the very real possibility that such a feat could prove to be close to impossible.

In three seasons with the Bears, Marshall produced 15 games in which he racked up 100-plus yards receiving for a total of 34 such performances in his nine-year career. Since coming into the league in 2006, Marshall ranks third in receptions (773), fifth in receiving touchdowns (65) and sixth in receiving yardage (9,771).

Marshall’s 279 catches for 3,524 yards and 31 touchdowns with the Bears works out to an average of 93 catches per year for 1,174 yards and 10 touchdowns.

So replacing that production won’t be an easy feat for the Bears, and let’s not kid ourselves for one minute that veteran Brian Hartline, brought in Wednesday for a visit at Halas Hall, could get it done. The comparison between the players isn’t even close.

Widely considered a distraction by his detractors, Marshall certainly wouldn’t win Mr. Congeniality in the Bears locker room, where he routinely spoke his mind, and wasn’t afraid to challenge teammates to kick up their games to a higher level. Obviously to management, Marshall’s potential to adversely affect locker room chemistry outweighed the gaudy numbers he’s capable of producing on a consistent basis.

Luckily for the Bears, they go into free agency with close to $30 million in cap space. They’ll need the majority of that cash to upgrade what has been a historically horrid defense, but Friday’s trade of Marshall means that the Bears also will be looking at possibly bringing in receivers in free agency next week as well as in the draft.

It’s unlikely the Bears use the No. 7 overall pick in May on a receiver, considering the team’s myriad needs on defense. But the upcoming class of receivers in the draft presents Chicago several options after the first round. The Bears could use a second-round pick on Miami’s Phillip Dorsett to add a speed element to complement Alshon Jeffery, as the former Hurricane clocked a 4.33 in the 40-yard dash, which ranked as the third-fastest time at the NFL combine.

Other potential targets for the Bears outside of the first round include Kansas State’s Tyler Lockett, Central Arkansas’ Dezmin Lewis and Southern Cal’s Nelson Agholor, along with East Carolina’s Justin Hardy.

The current roster features receivers such as Jeffery, Josh Bellamy, Marc Mariani, Josh Morgan and Marquess Wilson. And it’s worth pondering whether Marshall’s departure will negatively affect Jeffery’s growth, considering it was the former’s tutelage (teaching him how to train, how to eat and how to take care of his body) that paved the way for the latter’s ascension.

The Bears could try to replace Marshall with Jeffery as the No. 1, but it’s worth asking whether Jeffery is actually ready to take on such a role. Once Marshall was lost for the season Dec. 4, Jeffery averaged just four catches during the last three games after averaging 5.6 receptions the previous 13 contests.

With Marshall out of the picture, the Bears must turn to a free-agent crop of receivers that includes several talented players such as Green Bay’s Randall Cobb, Philadelphia’s Jeremy Maclin, Baltimore’s Torrey Smith and Houston’s Andre Johnson. Starting on Saturday, NFL teams can enter into negotiations with impending free agents. So the Bears will likely be on the phone with representatives for at least one of the players listed above.

Cobb reportedly is seeking a deal averaging in the range of $10 million per season, which obviously is more than the $7.5 million Marshall is set to earn in 2015. Maclin caught 85 passes for 1,318 yards with 21 catches for gains of 20 yards or more and 10 touchdowns in 2014 after missing all of 2013 with a torn ACL. Maclin, reportedly, would prefer to re-sign with the Eagles.

Smith lacks Marshall’s consistency, considering he’s eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark in only one season and is coming off a 2014 season in which he contributed career-lows for yards (747) and yards per catch (15.7). Johnson, meanwhile, recently asked the Texans to trade or cut him. But at 33 with a base salary worth $21.5 million over the next two seasons, Johnson likely won’t receive much action from the Bears for a potential trade, given that he had just 936 yards receiving last season with three touchdowns.

So it’s more likely the Texans cut Johnson and take a $7.3 million hit in dead money, making the receiver a free agent. Once Johnson hits the market, he’ll command quite a bit less in salary than he’s currently due. But even at a much lower salary, it’s unlikely the Bears would be looking to replace Marshall with a 33-year-old receiver who appears to be on the decline.

So while options appear aplenty regarding potential replacements for Marshall, the reality is Chicago faces a difficult challenge in bringing in a receiver capable of matching his production.
Free agency kicks off soon, so let’s count down the top 10 Chicago Bears’ players set on March 10 to hit the open market:

Lance Briggs, linebacker.

2014 pay: $5.5 million ($4.75 million base salary, $500,000 roster bonus, $250,000 workout bonus).

By the numbers: Played 453 snaps in 2014, collecting 65 tackles, including three for lost yardage, an interception, two pass breakups and a pair of quarterback pressures in addition to forcing a fumble in eight starts. Briggs missed three games because of a rib injury and another game with a groin injury before going on injured reserve on Nov. 28, causing him to miss the last four games.

The case for keeping him: Briggs could serve as an experienced, veteran bridge player for the team at one of the inside linebacker spots as the Bears transition into a 3-4 scheme. Sure, Briggs hasn’t played in a 3-4 system in the NFL, but several coaches believe he possesses the smarts and physical skills to excel at inside linebacker in this scheme. Briggs racked up triple-digit tackle totals for nine consecutive years before his production dipped to 87 and 65 tackles over the last two years. So Briggs isn’t the same player he’s been in the past, but he’s plenty capable of contributing respectable numbers from an inside spot in a 3-4. He’s also an indispensable leader who has basically seen it all in the NFL.

The case for letting him walk: There’s no way the Bears pay Briggs anything close to what he’s become accustomed over the years because he’s no longer a premier player. Briggs also needs to get over the departure of Lovie Smith. While Briggs speaks on record often about his desire for a return to Chicago, we’re not sure that’s truly the case as he could be looking for a fresh start in Tampa Bay, Atlanta or New Orleans. Perhaps the new regime believes it’s time to purge the roster of all the longtime Bears and start anew.

Prediction: Briggs won’t be a commodity in the first wave of free agency, and it’s expected he’ll sign once all the big money dries up. Any team that signs Briggs, including the Bears, would likely bring him aboard on a one-year, prove-it type of deal somewhere in the $2 million range. At this point, it appears he’s more likely to sign with another team in free agency than return to Chicago as the Bears, according to, aren't interested in bringing him back in 2015.

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Thanks for taking the time to submit questions for this week’s mailbag.

Let’s get started:

@mikecwright: I agree with you. The Bears are a better team with Brandon Marshall in the lineup than without. As for the rumors regarding Marshall, I'm not sure about the level of the team's interest in moving him. At this time of year, general managers constantly field inquiries regarding potential trades. So while there are reports out there about the Bears taking calls regarding potential trades for Marshall, you have to ask how intent the club is in actually making the move happen. At this point, I'd say the Bears certainly are open to the possibility of moving Marshall. Obviously, Marshall has a reputation for being a passionate player who can also be a divisive figure in the locker room. So I'm sure the Bears are taking that into account in planning for 2015, and it could very well be the case the brass has decided Marshall isn't worth the trouble. Locker room chemistry is one of the most important ingredients required for a new regime to produce success.

@mikecwright: I'd say it's not looking good because both players would have to be willing to potentially take on reduced roles and reduced salaries. Both are plenty capable of contributing for the Bears in 2014, but in Tillman's case, the Bears already have two starting corners in Tim Jennings and rising second-year man Kyle Fuller. So Tillman or Jennings would likely have to move inside to nickel. Tillman earned $2.25 million in base salary in 2014, and it's unlikely he'll receive a deal that lucrative from the Bears. Briggs made a total of $5.5 million in 2014, and won't receive anything close to that to return to the Bears. But I believe Briggs would be a fit as an inside linebacker in the team's new scheme. Still, I expect both to test the market before a return to Chicago would be possible.

@mikecwright: March 12 for both players. Jay Cutler's $15.5 million base salary for 2015 is already fully guaranteed. If he's still on the roster on March 12, the Bears would be responsible for $10 million of Cutler's 2016 salary. If Marshall is still on the team's roster on March 12, his 2015 base salary of $7.5 million becomes fully guaranteed.

@mikecwright: Wilfork is 33, but I still think the Bears at least take a look. Wilfork is impressive to me because he came back in 2014 from a torn Achilles tendon he suffered the season before and participated in 73.4 percent of New England's defensive snaps and played at a high level. As you know, in a 3-4 scheme, the nose's primary responsibility is taking on multiple blockers in run situations while providing an inside rush in passing situations. Despite coming off the Achilles injury, Wilfork excelled in both those areas. The problem for the Bears would be Wilfork's salary. So it's unknown whether Chicago and Wilfork could strike a deal to the defensive lineman's liking. You also have to remember that he'll likely be a hot commodity in free agency because top interior defenders are highly sought after. Wilfork was due a $4 million roster bonus and would have earned a $3 million base salary while counting $8.9 million against New England's cap. So there's a chance Wilfork could return to New England at a reduced rate. If the Bears decide Wilfork is worth pursing, they'll have to come at him with a really strong offer because I'm guessing he'd take a little less than what he was set to earn in 2015 to return to the franchise that helped him win two Super Bowl rings.

The Chicago Bears' reported openness to trading receiver Brandon Marshall makes sense if the new regime believes it can replace his production and improve locker room chemistry by removing him.

But the truth is the Bears are a better team with Marshall on the field than without him. The potential distractions can be mitigated by strong leadership from new head coach John Fox, general manager Ryan Pace, and the rest of the team.

In nine years in the NFL, Marshall has put together 34 games in which he gained 100-plus yards receiving, and his teams are a total of 15-19 under such circumstances. But the Bears are 9-6 when Marshall, a five-time Pro Bowler, reaches 100 yards receiving.

Pace and Fox said they've met with Marshall and several other players as they make plans for the 2015 Bears. Marshall's base salary of $7.5 million for next season becomes guaranteed on the third day of the new league year (March 12).

Marshall fought through lagging leg injuries most of last season, and finished the year on the injured reserve due to fractured ribs and a punctured lung, and produced just 721 yards receiving. Prior to last season, Marshall racked up 1,000 yards receiving in seven consecutive seasons.

On top of the production tailing off, Marshall participated in a couple of instances that could be construed as potential distractions. Most notably, a postgame locker room rant after a loss to the Miami Dolphins, in addition to challenging a Detroit Lions fan to a boxing match on Twitter as well as weekly television duties as an analyst on Showtime's "Inside the NFL."

But wouldn't you accept such hiccups for Marshall's usual production, especially if the new regime found a way to keep it all to a minimum?

Marshall turns 31 on March 23, but his subpar 2014 campaign shouldn't be attributed to age as much as injury, issues at quarterback and suspect play calling. After all, there are several receivers in their 30s coming off productive seasons, such as Atlanta's Roddy White, Baltimore's Steve Smith, San Francisco's Anquan Boldin and Houston's Andre Johnson.

Marshall is younger than all those players, and his offseason training habits make the receiver one of the league's better conditioned players at the position. Let's also not discount Marshall's penchant for playing through pain.

Besides that, the Bears giving up Marshall for a mid- to late-round pick -- which is likely all the team would likely receive in a trade -- makes little sense when considering his $7.5 million salary isn't prohibitive with regards to the cap as Chicago is eyeing more than $25 million in salary cap space.

So if the team is truly looking to move Marshall, Fox and Pace must really perceive the receiver as a major locker room problem. That wouldn't be a surprise. Teammates throughout the season and after have characterized Marshall that way. But it's easy to forget that in Marshall's best season as a pro (2012, when he finished with 118 catches for 1,508 yards), the Bears finished the year with a 10-6 record.

So how much of a distraction was Marshall back then?

"I think [Marshall has] had great production. I think he's a guy that's a big target," Fox said in February at the NFL combine. "That helps you a lot in the red area, and he's done it in this league. We're trying to evaluate where everybody fits, and how we best use them; trying to put the best football team on the field. He's part of that process. I don't know if it's fair to give a full evaluation when I only took part of the test. We've still got more questions on the test, so we'll continue down that path, and hopefully make the best decision for our football team."

If that means ridding the locker room of Marshall, the brass needs to make sure to replace his production.

Because even on the verge of 31 and coming off the second-worst season of his career in terms of production, Marshall still is one of the best receivers in the NFL. Chicago will see that in 2015, whether it's with the Bears or elsewhere.
Free agency kicks off soon, so let’s count down the top 10 Chicago Bears’ players set on March 10 to hit the open market:

de la Puente
Brian de la Puente, C/OG

2014 pay: $800,601 ($730,001 base salary, $65,000 signing bonus, $5,600 workout bonus).

By the numbers: Participated in 501 snaps in 2014, playing in eight games with six starts. De la Puente started four games at center and two at left guard before going on the injured reserve on Nov. 26 with an ankle injury. The Bears were 4-2 in games de la Puente started.

The case for keeping him: First off, de la Puente has history with new general manager Ryan Pace, having started 50 of 56 games in three years with the New Orleans Saints before signing with the Bears. De la Puente, 29, perhaps represents the future of the center position as Roberto Garza turns 36 before the 2015 season, which will mark his 15th season in the league. So rather than bring in an outside free agent or drafting a center, the Bears could plug in de la Puente at center when the time is right and feel comfortable about the move because he’s a proven veteran with plenty left in the tank.

The case for letting him walk: There’s really no compelling case for parting ways with de la Puente unless his salary demands on the open market are much more than the team is willing to pay. The Bears would be wise to try to strike a deal with de la Puente before the start of free agency, or they could have competition for his services. Chicago is expected to commit resources in free agency to revamping the defense. But the only way will the Bears let de la Puente walk is if the rebuilding project is so significant on defense that they don’t have anything left to pay a backup offensive lineman who, at this point, appears to be the starting center in waiting.

Prediction: De la Puente was rated the No. 3 free agent center by Pro Football Focus, and although his backup status makes him an under-the-radar player in free agency, teams looking for starters at the position could make him a target. Surely the Bears know this and will try to strike a deal with de la Puente before the start of free agency. So don’t be surprised to see Chicago bring back de la Puente before free agency begins March 10.

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The Chicago Bears plan to host free-agent receiver Brian Hartline on a visit at Halas Hall on Wednesday, a source confirmed. first reported the visit.

Released by the Miami Dolphins to clear cap space, Hartline caught 39 passes for 474 yards last season and scored a pair of touchdowns. A fourth-round pick in 2009, Hartline's role gradually shrunk last season to the No. 4 option in the team’s passing game.

[+] EnlargeBrian Hartline and Brandon Marshall
AP Photo/Charles KrupaBrian Hartline and Brandon Marshall were teammates for two seasons in Miami.
So despite speculation regarding the uncertain status of Bears receiver Brandon Marshall, the team’s interest in Hartline doesn’t appear to mean it is looking to replace Marshall, who prior to an injury-riddled 2014 campaign put together seven consecutive seasons in which he gained at least 1,000 yards receiving.

The Bears likely view Hartline as a potential option in the slot.

Hartline reportedly visited the Cleveland Browns on Tuesday, but could wind up re-signing with Miami as team owner Steve Ross reportedly called the receiver shortly after his release. A source said the Dolphins remain interested. So Hartline could be using his free-agent visits to determine his value on the open market.

Hartline started all 16 games for the Dolphins in 2014, yet produced the fewest receiving yards (474) of his career after putting together back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in 2012 and 2013.

In six seasons with the Dolphins, Hartline has 298 receptions for 4,243 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Interestingly, Hartline and Marshall have maintained a close relationship since the latter joined the Bears. They were teammates for two seasons in Miami (2010-11).

So although it’s apparent the Bears are interested in Hartline, the team could also be using the free-agent visit to glean more information about Marshall.

Remember, Bears general manager Ryan Pace and coach John Fox held off on committing to Marshall for the 2015 season when asked last month at the NFL combine about the receiver, who is due $7.5 million next season in base salary and counts $9.575 million against the cap.

Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, who enters the final year of his deal in 2015, are tied for ninth in the NFL with the most 100-yard receiving games (eight) in the NFL since 2013.

It’s likely that the Bears view Hartline as a potential secondary target as former seventh-round pick Marquess Wilson, after a training-camp injury, struggled during a 2014 season that was supposed to be his breakout year.

Wilson played in seven games last season with six starts, but generated just 17 receptions for 140 yards and a touchdown.
Free agency kicks off soon, so let’s count down the top 10 Chicago Bears’ players set on March 10 to hit the open market:

Chris Conte, safety

2014 pay: $1.431 million ($1.421 base salary, $10,000 workout bonus).

By the numbers: Played in 44.4 percent of the team’s snaps in 2014 over 12 games, with 11 starts, and contributed three interceptions to go with 38 tackles. Was inactive for a total of four games, missing time due to back and eye injuries, in addition to spraining both shoulders. Conte was also diagnosed with at least two concussions on the season.

The case for keeping him: Upset Bears fans don’t want to read this, but Conte is one of the most athletic players on Chicago’s defense, and although he’s not a strong run supporter, he can be a major asset in coverage. Conte has picked off three passes in each of the past two seasons, and has the coverage ability -- in part because of his college experience as a cornerback -- to handle man-to-man responsibilities against slot receivers. Prior to the 2013 season, Conte, 26, appeared to be on the verge of ascending to one of the league’s best at the position. Perhaps a new coaching staff can rejuvenate what once appeared to be a promising career.

The case for letting him walk: Since Conte’s dismal 2013 season, multiple coaches believe the safety has lost his confidence. Besides that, Conte’s recent injury history gives cause for concern. Conte missed the entire 2014 offseason program after undergoing shoulder surgery, and he couldn’t continue games in Weeks 2 and 3 because of shoulder-related issues. Conte was also diagnosed with at least two concussions during the season. Chicago has plenty of cap space to bring back Conte if it so chooses, and the safety’s overall skill set would seem to make him a viable candidate to return. But Conte’s style of play probably isn’t aggressive as new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio would like.

Prediction: Conte only returns in 2015 if the Bears present his only offer in free agency. Otherwise, Conte is likely to bolt because for him it’s time for a change of scenery. Conte is a more talented player than given credit for, and it’s likely Fangio could coax that out of him on a consistent basis. But given all Conte has gone through during his Bears tenure, it’s likely his preference is to start fresh somewhere else.

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No: 10: Darryl Sharpton.

No. 9: Danny McCray.

No. 8: Eben Britton.

No. 7: Jimmy Clausen.

No. 6: D.J. Williams.
The Chicago Bears announced Tuesday that ticket sales for their draft celebration from April 30 to May 1 (and running daily from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.) begin on March 12 on the team’s official website.

 The Plaza at Park Grill, which is located on Michigan Ave. at the entrance of Millennium Park will serve as headquarters of the Bears Miller Lite Draft, and fans can purchase general admission tickets for $45 starting on March 12 at 11 a.m. CST on the team’s official website.

Fans looking for reserved premium seating can call the team’s ticket office at 847-615-BEAR (2327) for availability.

According to a release sent by the team, the two-night draft even will include live draft coverage and analysis, as well as specials in the team’s pro shop and chances to win prizes, including autographed merchandise and NFL draft Autograph Stage Passes for a guaranteed autograph from current and former NFL players.

On April 30, former Bears linebackers Dick Butkus and Brian Urlacher make appearances along with the club’s first-round draft pick. On May 1, former Bears coach Mike Ditka is scheduled to appear along with the team’s first-round pick.
Free agency kicks off soon, so let’s count down the top 10 Chicago Bears’ players set on March 10 to hit the open market:

D.J. Williams, linebacker

2014 pay: $645,700 ($645,000 base salary, $700 workout bonus).

By the numbers: Played in 12 games with 10 starts, and contributed 73 tackles, a pass breakup and two quarterback pressures, but was placed on the injured reserve on Dec. 11 due to a nagging neck injury that forced him out of the team’s sixth game. Williams participated in 412 snaps last season.

The case for keeping him: Williams provides an experienced veteran presence in the locker room, and has played in the past for new coach John Fox. An 11-year veteran, Williams played two seasons (2011-12) in Denver with Fox before signing in 2013 with the Bears. Williams projects as an ideal fit at inside linebacker in the team’s new 3-4 front, but hasn’t produced in the 90-tackle range since 2011, Fox’s first season in Denver. Williams won’t command much when he hits the market, and he could serve as a bridge player in the team’s transition to a new scheme.

The case for letting him walk: Williams turns 33 before the start of the 2015 season, and he’s finished the past two years on injured reserve due to a torn pectoral muscle in 2013, and the neck injury in 2014. Williams seems to be more of a two-down linebacker at this point in his career but could be rejuvenated playing again for Fox. Williams likely won’t have many options in free agency and won’t be able to command a huge salary. But Williams’ recent injury history could scare off the Bears. He’s played in 18 games over the past two seasons.

Prediction: The Bears will look for younger upgrades at the position this offseason, which means it’s likely Williams won’t be brought back. Like many free agents his age, Williams will likely have to wait until after the draft to sign with a team looking to fill out its final training camp roster. Williams, no doubt, can still play. But he won’t be a high priority in free agency for the Bears.

Previous installments
No: 10: Darryl Sharpton.

No. 9: Danny McCray.

No. 8: Eben Britton.

No. 7: Jimmy Clausen.
Jay CutlerAP Photo/Ann HeisenfeltBears quarterback Jay Cutler signed a seven-year $126.7 million extension last January.

At least 10 former Chicago Bears staffers from the Lovie Smith and Marc Trestman regimes said recently they believe the team can't consistently compete for championships as long as it fields a lineup with Jay Cutler under center.

That sentiment might explain why head coach John Fox and general manager Ryan Pace remain uncommitted to Cutler as the team's starting quarterback for 2015. Deciding whether to commit to Cutler has a time element. If Cutler is on the Bears' roster on March 12, $10 million of his 2016 salary is guaranteed.

Cutler declined comment through a team spokesman. His agent, Bus Cook, said questions about whether the Bears feel they can win with Cutler should be directed to the team.

Two teammates, who also asked to remain anonymous for this story, characterized Cutler as a divisive figure with whom they'd rather not continue to play.

In six years with the Bears, Cutler has gone through four offensive coordinators, two head coaches and a pair of general managers. Yet Cutler remains very much in play as the team's potential long-term solution at the position, in part, because of the seven-year, $126.7 million extension the quarterback signed in January 2014.

One more former staffer said the Bears could win with Cutler as long as the coaches handcuff him to the system.

[+] EnlargeJohn Fox
Kamil Krzaczynski/USA TODAY Sports"I don't think there's any question that there's ability and talent there," new Bears coach John Fox said recently of Cutler. "[But] there's a lot more that goes into it, and we're evaluating that as we speak."
But that's precisely what the staff did when Mike Martz served as offensive coordinator during the 2010 and '11 seasons, according to another former coach, and Cutler and Martz were often at odds.

Although Smith let Martz go after the 2011 season, there's no denying Cutler played some of his best football as a Bear during a six-game span that year in which he completed 60.7 percent of his throws for 1,359 yards and eight touchdowns with three interceptions for a passer rating of 91.3. Cutler led the Bears to a 5-1 record during that stretch before breaking his right thumb in a Nov. 20 win over the San Diego Chargers.

“We're going to take our time on this,” Pace said recently. “We really have until mid-March. We're going to maximize that time and make thorough decisions through this whole process.”

But video evaluation of Cutler may not prove as beneficial as speaking with teammates and perhaps his former coaches. Remember, Pace worked with former Bears offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer in New Orleans, and it would come as a surprise if the new GM didn't pick Kromer's brain about Cutler. Kromer is the same coach who apologized during a team meeting for admitting he was an anonymous source in a story that characterized the Bears as harboring buyer's remorse for signing Cutler to the long-term contract. When the Bears cleaned house in December before Pace came on board, Kromer's contract was the only one terminated of all the assistants remaining on the staff.

“I don't think there's any question that there's ability and talent there,” Fox said recently of Cutler. “[But] there's a lot more that goes into it, and we're evaluating that as we speak.”

Despite Pace's and Fox's refusal to commit to Cutler publicly as the starter, it appears -- based on the staff they've set up -- the Bears are prepared to give the quarterback one last shot. The Bears hired two pro-Cutler coaches in offensive coordinator Adam Gase and quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains.

According to multiple sources, Cutler started to grow close to Gase after spending time with the former Broncos offensive coordinator at the wedding of former Bears quarterbacks coach Shane Day, a disciple of Martz. Cutler has wanted to work with Gase for a while, the sources said. Martz tried to hire Gase in 2010 as Chicago's quarterbacks coach, but Denver wouldn't allow him out of his contract, which led to the hiring of Day.

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhJay Cutler completed 66 percent of his passes last season and threw for 3,812 with 28 touchdowns and 18 interceptions on a Bears' team that finished 5-11.
Back in 2012, Cutler wanted Smith to hire Loggains, but he wasn't allowed out of his contract with the Tennessee Titans. Cutler and Loggains have a close personal relationship, according to a sources, and both the quarterback and coach have wanted to work with one another for quite some time.

It's unknown how Cutler and the new staff will get along if he's still on the roster in 2015, and one former coach said he believes it's time the organization stops catering to the quarterback until he delivers a return on the club's investment.

One staffer said that while Cutler was injured and Josh McCown was flourishing as the replacement in 2013, there was a significant faction in the locker room that believed the latter should've remained the starter. Another coach said that fairly early in the 2014 season, it was apparent the team had made two mistakes: (1) not re-signing McCown, and (2) continuing to stand behind Cutler after it was clear he was not going to consistently operate within the confines of Trestman's offense.

That same coach said he believed McCown gave the Bears a better chance to win than Cutler because he simply executed the scheme the way he was asked, without freelancing.

Pace and Fox met with McCown during the NFL combine, but there will be no reunion as McCown signed with the Cleveland Browns.

Some may view the disparaging remarks from Cutler's former coaches as sour grapes on the part of scorned staffers. Nobody on the current staff has told Cutler he's on the way out or that his tenure in Chicago is in jeopardy.

But every one of the former staffers interviewed from the Smith and Trestman regimes pointed out similar flaws in the quarterback. Two “R” words -- “renegade” and “rogue” -- were often used by the former staffers when asked about Cutler's ability to play within the confines of an offensive system.

They all also questioned Cutler's leadership abilities. One former staffer said McCown was the offense's leader in the locker room during his final season in Chicago, adding that for Cutler “it's just not him” to embrace such a role. The staffer said that Cutler doesn't have to be a leader for the team to succeed.

But it's difficult to ignore that the most successful teams in the NFL have strong leadership at the quarterback position.

"There's a lot of things outside of the building that I think are maybe a little misunderstood. When you get to know somebody, things are different when you get to talk face to face. So yeah, that's going on,” Pace said. “I know he's a very talented player, and again it's just getting to know him as a person and kind of how he ticks.”
Free agency kicks off soon, and last week we started a countdown of the top 10 Chicago Bears' players set on March 10 to hit the open market. We pick up the series this today with No. 7:

Jimmy Clausen

2014 pay: $645,700 ($645,000 base salary, $700 workout bonus).

By the numbers: He played in four games with one start, completing 54.2 percent of his passes for 223 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. He had a passer rating of 71.8.

The case for keeping him: It’s difficult to find young, backup quarterbacks with experience. A five-year veteran, Clausen has 11 starts, with the majority (10) coming during his time playing for new Bears coach John Fox in Carolina. During his lone start in 2014, a Dec. 21 loss to the Detroit Lions, Clausen performed well enough to cement status as a bona fide No. 2 option who can get a team through a game in a pinch if the starter goes down.

The case for letting him walk: Fox was forced to throw Clausen into the fire during the quarterback’s rookie season, and that decision ultimately resulted in him losing his job with the Panthers. Although Clausen didn’t play much for the Bears last season, he put enough on tape for teams to feel confident about him as a strong backup option. So there is a good chance Chicago could be competing for Clausen’s services, which in turn could drive up his asking price.

Prediction: Just last season, the Bears chose Clausen as the starter over Cutler, because of the latter’s inability to consistently execute the scheme the way he was asked. If the Bears decide to keep Cutler, it would be a smart move to keep Clausen on the roster, too. In fact, the team should probably open up competition for the starting position. Cutler hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2009, and it’s unclear how he will get along with new quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains and offensive coordinator Adam Gase, provided the team keeps him. So it would be a good idea to keep an experienced player such as Clausen on the roster. It’s doubtful the Bears will have much competition for Clausen’s services. So they should be able to bring Clausen back on a one-year deal very similar to the one he signed last offseason when joining Chicago.
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- The Chicago Bears announced Friday they signed tight end Zach Miller to a one-year extension.

Miller, 30, landed on the injured reserve last August after suffering a season-ending Lisfranc injury (torn foot ligament) in the preseason, but caught the staff’s eye prior to that with a strong preseason debut against the Philadelphia Eagles (six catches, for 68 yards and two touchdowns) and promising workouts during training camp.

Miller suffered the injury in the second quarter of the team’s win in the second preseason game over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Prior to that, the Bears had been experimenting more with Miller in the lineup opposite starter Martellus Bennett in double tight-end formations.

Miller played in 29 games over his first two years in the NFL (2009-10) with the Jaguars, but since 2011, he’s participated in just four contests as injuries continue to keep him sidelined. Miller hasn’t been a part of an active roster since 2011. He spent 2012 on the injured reserve in Jacksonville, and in 2013, Miller worked with Tampa Bay in the offseason, but was waived prior to the start of the regular season.

In all, Miller has played in 33 games with five starts, contributing 45 catches for 470 yards and four touchdowns.

The Bears signed Milller originally in December of 2013.
Thanks to everyone participating in this week's Twitter mailbag.

Let's get started.

@mikecwright: I'm not sure about "fits" as you say, but the Bears are definitely interested in David Harris of the New York Jets, and Tampa Bay's Mason Foster as potential fits at inside linebacker. I think linebackers such as Jonathan Casillas and O'Brien Schofield are also players to keep an eye on as free agency approaches. I think San Francisco has some interesting things going on at linebacker as well. Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman appear to be close to returning to full health, which means that last year's starters Chris Borland and Michael Wilhoite could be relegated to backup roles. So perhaps new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, given his familiarity with all four players, could talk Ryan Pace into trying to trade for one of his former 49ers pupils.

@mikecwright: I could definitely see that happening. The names to look out for would be linebacker Nate Irving, safety Rahim Moore and defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, aka "Pot Roast," as all three are free agents. Knighton is reportedly looking to make somewhere in the neighborhood of $7.5 million per year, which seems a tad steep. Knighton played in Jacksonville and Denver for new Oakland Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio. So there's a good chance Del Rio could be looking to add Knighton as well. Irving is coming off a torn ACL, which means he probably won't have much leverage in terms of landing a big-money deal. But Irving became a full-time starter in 2014, and seems to be an ascending player. Moore, meanwhile, will be one of the better safeties on the market along with New England's Devin McCourty. So there's a good chance Moore could be looking for more than the Bears would be willing to pay. In the past, the Bears didn't value the safety position in terms of handing out big-money deals. Perhaps that's changed with Pace as the GM.

@mikecwright: I think you got it right. But I go back and forth between where to put Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall. In fact, I'd say Marshall probably has a better chance of returning to Chicago than Cutler.

@mikecwright: I'm sure that 5.64 time in the 40-yard dash hurt him in the eyes of some scouts, but I don't believe that will affect his draft position. What you've got to realize is that Danny Shelton has rare power and strength, and he did put up a 30.5-inch vertical leap, which means he's got the explosion that personnel evaluators covet. He's also got the strength and power to command double-teams, which in turn would keep offensive linemen off the linebackers to allow them to run around and make plays. Shelton met with several teams at the combine, including Chicago, Indianapolis, Arizona, Green Bay, the New York Giants and New Orleans, and I don't think any of those teams' interest has waned after that time in the 40. Ultimately, what the player put on tape in games is what Shelton will be judged on; not a 40-yard dash time.

@mikecwright: I like him. Personal side note: Petty's coach at Baylor, Art Briles, was head coach of the Stephenville [Texas] Yellow Jackets back when they defeated us (Wichita Falls, Texas -- Hirschi High School) 49-40 in the first round of the playoffs my sophomore year. Anyway, as much as I like Petty, I don't think he's quite ready. I think he'll need a few years to learn the nuances of an NFL system before he's ready to be a starter. So if the Bears were to draft Petty, they'd have to let him sit and learn a few years before thrusting him into any real action.

Even Petty admitted that it's difficult at this point to project how he'll fare in an NFL system because of his background in a spread offense, but said he's more of a pocket passer than most spread quarterbacks.

"We were in the spread, but at the same time, I feel like I am a pocket passer," Petty said at the NFL combine. "I want to extend plays, extend plays within the pocket. That might be a little bit different than most spread quarterbacks who want to run it out of the pocket. For me, I feel like my game can translate easier in that, and the fact that I want to play within the pocket, and I want to extend plays within the pocket and beat you doing that."

Free agency kicks off soon, so let's count down the top 10 Chicago Bears' players set on March 10 to hit the open market:

We'll go in reverse order.

Here's No. 8: Eben Britton

2014 pay: $730,000 ($730,000 base salary).

By the numbers: Played in 10 games as the club's sixth offensive lineman, and participated in 11.6 percent of the team's snaps last season. Britton missed five games after having his appendix removed in October.

The case for keeping him: Britton possesses the versatility to play either of the tackle spots, but he can also kick inside to guard and contribute. Britton was usually the player utilized when the Bears lined up with an extra offensive lineman at the tight end spot -- providing Chicago a proven swing tackle. Given Jordan Mills' struggles in 2014, Britton could potentially compete for a starting job in 2015 if he's brought back.

The case for letting him walk: Britton missed plenty of time at training camp in 2014 due to a hamstring injury, which led to the Bears terminating his contract at the end of camp during final cuts. Britton's experience and versatility makes him an attractive addition for other teams. But the Bears don't need to overpay because they could probably get by with 2014 seventh-round pick Charles Leno Jr. assuming the swing-tackle role.

Prediction: Despite all Phil Emery's mistakes with personnel on defense, he built a deep offensive line for the Bears with proven players such as Britton assuming backup roles. Surely the new brass will recognize Britton's worth and bring him back at a veteran minimum rate if another team doesn't overpay.

Previous installments

No: 10: Linebacker Darryl Sharpton.

No. 9: Safety Danny McCray.
As Bears general manager Ryan Pace and coach John Fox evaluate Jay Cutler to determine whether to bring him back for the 2015 season, ESPN NFL analyst Jon Gruden thinks it’s time the club gives another signal-caller an opportunity.

Asked on ESPN "Mike & Mike" on Thursday what would go into the final decision regarding Cutler, Gruden said, “I think John Fox is going to look at the body of work. They’re going to see that he didn’t get it done really with Lovie Smith or Marc Trestman, and now I’m the next head coach. I think you need to give some other people an opportunity to play. I think some of these quarterbacks get too many chances. There are good enough players out there that deserve a chance to be the quarterback of the Chicago Bears.”

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsJay Cutler got a $126.7 million extension from the Bears in January 2014, but the team is still exploring its options at quarterback.
In six seasons with the Bears, Cutler produced a regular-season record of 44-38 and has thrown 129 touchdown passes to go with 93 interceptions for a passer rating of 84.3.

The new regime’s intense evaluation of Cutler stems from his seven-year, $126.7 million extension signed last January. Cutler’s $15.5 million base salary for 2015 is already fully guaranteed, but if the quarterback remains on the roster on the third day of the new league year (March 12), he’s guaranteed another $10 million of his 2016 salary.

“I know he has talent,” Gruden said. “But I don’t think he warrants that salary for sure. I think Chicago needs to look at getting a different leader under center.”

It’s clear the new regime has at least explored that possibility. The club met recently at the NFL combine in Indianapolis with former backup Josh McCown for breakfast in a restaurant inside the team’s hotel.

"[The] meeting went really well. [I] enjoyed spending time with them," McCown told ESPN.

McCown played for Fox in Carolina (2008-09) and spent three seasons with the Bears (2011-13) before signing a two-year deal to join former coach Lovie Smith in Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers released McCown on Feb. 11.

McCown played a significant role in Chicago, helping the club to implement a new offense under Trestman and former offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer, and was often described by former Bears general manager Phil Emery as "a glue guy" in the locker room.

McCown played eight games during his last season in Chicago (2013), winning three games in five starts while filling in for an injured Cutler. McCown performed well enough to stir debate about whether he should be the full-time starter over Cutler.

“Two years ago, the Bears were on the brink of going to the playoffs because of Josh McCown’s play,” Gruden said. “Josh McCown played great for Marc Trestman. He fit that system. He understood it. He looked like he was in rhythm. He won a lot of games just two years ago for the Bears. He’s available. You can bring Josh McCown back. Jake Locker, possibly. There are some quarterbacks out there that need a new place to go. We were in Super Bowl XXXVII with Brad Johnson, I think he was on his third team. Rich Gannon was on his fifth team. Steve Young never started until he was 30 years old. We live in a day where everything has to happen right now, or let’s get him out of here. Some of these guys are going to prove to you that they can play. They just need a new setting.”

Perhaps that also includes Cutler.