- Michael C. Wright, ESPN Staff Writer
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Where they stand: The Chicago Bears lead the NFC North in available cap room, sitting on approximately $30 million. But it’s important to note that cap room shouldn’t be viewed as a blank check; especially when considering the Bears would likely be looking to extend several of their core players with contracts ending in the next couple of years. While upgrades on offense seem most logical of potential Bears moves during free agency, given the need to surround quarterback Jay Cutler with more weapons, it’s believed that coach Lovie Smith wants to revamp a defense led by four Pro Bowl players -- linebackers Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher, cornerback Charles Tillman and defensive end Julius Peppers -- older than 30.
Receiver: 10. To be fair, the position didn’t appear as much of an area of need when the team ripped off a 7-3 start. Obviously, Cutler played a significant role in that. Over the first 10 games, Chicago’s receiving corps averaged 11 catches per outing. Once Cutler and running back Matt Forte suffered injuries that took them out of the lineup, the receivers’ production dipped to eight catches per game.
A dominant slot receiver, Earl Bennett became the club’s go-to option in the passing game with Cutler out of commission. Teams quickly recognized, and adjusted coverage accordingly, leading to Bennett catching one pass or fewer in five of his last six games. Johnny Knox’s horrific back injury against the Seattle Seahawks further exposed this team’s deficiencies at receiver.
So with a major need clearly defined at the position, the question now is how the team proceeds in free agency and the draft.
It’s believed the Bears plan on making a run at San Diego receiver Vincent Jackson in free agency, and sources have confirmed as much. But if Jackson commands what several agents expect to be a salary in the $12 million-per-season range, it’s unlikely new general manager Phil Emery would continue the team’s pursuit, based on his stated preference of building through the draft, which signifies he’s not a proponent of spending lavishly in free agency.
So surely the team has a few secondary and less-expensive options in mind, such as New Orleans Saints receivers Marques Colston and Robert Meachem, or Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon of the Indianapolis Colts. Given their youth and physical attributes, Meachem (just 11 dropped balls over four seasons) and Garcon would appear to be the best fits. Colston averaged just 3.2 yards after catch in 2011, according to Pro Football Focus. That doesn’t necessarily jibe with the explosive passing game the Bears envision in 2012. Wayne, meanwhile, is coming off his first season since 2003 in which he didn’t gain 1,000 yards receiving.
According to a source, just Wednesday, seven teams (the Bears weren't one of them) expressed interest in Meachem; a list sure to grow as free agency approaches.
Defensive end: 8. Houston’s decision to expose Mario Williams (56 career sacks) to free agency instantly lifted the hopes of teams all over the league looking to strengthen the pass rush. If Emery is to spend big, it’s safer to commit the money to Williams than it would be for a receiver, which many personnel executives believe is the most difficult position to attain quick success through free agency. Pairing Williams with 2009 free-agent acquisition Julius Peppers would give the Bears a major advantage in what’s becoming a division rife with strong quarterback play. It would also go a long way toward improving cornerback play, a position the Bears might also look to strengthen in free agency.
Williams’ price tag might prove too high, though, and the Bears will surely have competition for his services. Besides that, Texans GM Rick Smith says his team is working hard to find a way to bring back Williams.
“I think we’ve been very clear,” Smith said at the NFL combine. “I don’t talk a whole bunch about negotiations publicly, but I think there is no doubt that all the parties involved know what the desire is and that’s for him to be here.”
It’s unknown whether the Bears are gearing up to make a play for Williams. More realistic options for the Bears include Jaguars defensive end Jeremy Mincey, who is coming off a breakout season in which he posted eight sacks to go with 45 quarterback pressures. The Bears are likely keeping a close watch on Kamerion Wimbley in Oakland as well. The Raiders are $22 million over the salary cap and want Wimbley to take a pay cut or face being cut.
The Bears showed interest in Wimbley, 28, last year in free agency. Wimbley’s agent Joe Linta indicated that he won’t be able to gauge Chicago’s potential interest in his client until the Raiders cut the 3-4 linebacker, who would project as a defensive end in the Bears’ system.
Cornerback: 7. According to sources, the Bears haven’t reached out to any of their own free agents at the position, including Tim Jennings, who started last season opposite Charles Tillman. So it appears the Bears might be looking for a potential starter at the position. If the team somehow landed a high-priced pass rusher like Williams at defensive end, it would lessen the need for a corner, thus opening the door for a potential Jennings return.
The Bears took a long look at former Indianapolis Colts cornerback Kelvin Hayden after the NFL lockout came to a close last year, and even brought him in for a visit. Smith had been interested in Hayden for several years, and according to sources, nothing has changed. Hayden visited several teams last year and at least six reportedly flunked the cornerback on physicals (stemming from a neck injury that caused him to miss four games in 2010) before he signed a one-year contract in August with the Atlanta Falcons.
Sources said the Bears have inquired about Hayden again this offseason, and the neck injury remains a concern. Interestingly, Hayden played eight games in 2011 and picked off two passes, but finished the season on the injured reserve with a toe injury.
If Hayden can gain a clean bill of health, the Bears appear to be interested. The Bears don’t typically spend big on cornerbacks in free agency, which might eliminate players such as Tennessee’s Courtland Finnegan and Kansas City’s Brandon Carr from consideration.
Quarterback: 7. Chicago’s nosedive from 7-3 to 8-8 last season became an important lesson for the club on the value of a strong backup quarterback. The team appears to be interested in trying to bring back Josh McCown, who performed well late in the year when he replaced Caleb Hanie. But the team wants to add another veteran to the mix for the No. 2 job behind Jay Cutler, who has missed time now in each of the past two years with injuries.
Ideally, the Bears would want to land a backup with experience. So Kansas City’s Kyle Orton, Detroit’s Shaun Hill and former Jaguars starter David Garrard appear to be attractive options along with players such as Pittsburgh’s Byron Leftwich, Philadelphia’s Vince Young, David Carr of the New York Giants, and maybe even Donovan McNabb, who the team wasn’t interested in last year (different GM in Jerry Angelo) when it had a shot to land him.
Garrard might be the best fit because of his history with offensive coordinator Mike Tice, his physical attributes, and familiarity with the concepts expected to be implemented by the new coordinator in 2012. Garrard 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, and like Cutler owns a 1-1 record in the postseason. The biggest concern about Garrard is his health. He sat out all of the 2011 season because of a back injury, and won’t be 100 percent healthy until the end of March, he said.
Given the quality of players set to hit the market at the position, the Bears shouldn’t have a problem landing a capable backup.
Linebacker: 5. The Bears continue to downplay the age factor with regard to Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher, and the club is correct: both continue to play at a high level with no signs of dropping off. Still, this team needs to find an heir apparent for both spots, and the current roster doesn’t contain any viable candidates.
A couple of years ago with Angelo as the GM, the Bears expressed interest in Seattle Seahawks linebacker David Hawthorne, and the club -- according to a source -- has revisited the prospect of acquiring him this offseason. But Hawthorne is believed to be seeking a contract similar to the deal signed by Browns linebacker D’Qwell Jackson (five years, $42 million with $19 million in guarantees and roster bonuses). It appears the Bears covet Hawthorne’s versatility.
Having started at all three linebacker spots throughout his career, Hawthorne has posted more than 100 tackles in each of the last three seasons. A four-year veteran, Hawthorne -- despite playing the majority of the season with a Grade II MCL sprain -- tallied 115 tackles in 2011 to go with two sacks and three interceptions, one returned 77 yards for a touchdown. The idea would be to bring in Hawthorne, 26, to play SAM, while serving as the potential heir apparent to Briggs at weak-side linebacker or Urlacher in the middle. Urlacher’s contract expires in 2012, and the contract for Briggs, who has expressed frustration with his salary, comes to an end in 2013.
Seattle’s Leroy Hill appeared to be a realistic possibility initially, but his recent arrest for marijuana possession could scare off the Bears.
What to expect: With no body of work to draw upon regarding Emery, expect the unexpected. If the Bears truly plan to make a run at Jackson, look for the team to move quickly, just as they did in 2009 when acquiring Peppers because that’s the type of effort it will take to land arguably the most sought-after prize in free agency. Emery’s philosophies seem to go against him spending big to bring in Jackson. But sources say the team’s interest is real. It’ll be interesting to see how much becomes too much for the Bears to spend on Jackson. If the team bows out of the Jackson sweepstakes, there are still plenty of available options at receiver such as Colston, Meachem, Garcon and Wayne. Defensively, it’s not likely the Bears go after Williams. But they could still look to bolster the pass rush with some of the lesser players on the market.
With so little information on Emery available, his first crack at free agency in Chicago will go a long way toward providing a clearer picture of the team’s plans for the 2012 draft.
With free agency almost here, Michael C. Wright has a primer.