- Jeff Dickerson, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Chicago Bears already have a significant amount invested at wide receiver next season with a combined $11.650 million in salary cap space between Brandon Marshall ($9.3 million) and Earl Bennett ($2.350 million) and the second-round pick the club used last year on Alshon Jeffery.
But while Marshall remains one of the best in the game, Bennett and Jeffery have both dealt with their share of injuries, which raises the question of whether the Bears need to protect themselves by grabbing another moderately priced wide receiver in the offseason.
Devin Hester is under contract for one more season, but he completely fell off the map last year, especially on offense where he appears to have zero chemistry with quarterback Jay Cutler. Maybe the Bears keep Hester for the sake of the return game, but it seems like a long-shot that he will be asked to contribute much on offense. With Lovie Smith and Darryl Drake no longer in the building, Hester would probably benefit from a fresh start in a new NFL city. But that's an issue the Bears have yet to address.
Eric Weems is signed through 2014, but he also seems to do his best work on special teams.
It would be wonderful to see Johnny Knox return to the field after the horrific spine injury he suffered late in the 2011 season against the Seattle Seahawks, because Knox is exactly the type of down-the-field vertical threat the Bears missed last year in the passing game.
Although Knox is determined to make a comeback and continues to work toward resuming football-related activities, it's still unknown if Knox will ever play again, which makes it difficult to count on him to fill a role in 2013. Knox is officially a free agent after his original rookie contract expired at the end of the regular season.
The wildcard in this group might be 6-foot-1 Joe Anderson, the second-year man out of Texas Southern who made an impact on special teams late last season with a couple of big hits. Anderson carries himself with a certain confidence, that should serve him well when he tries to win a roster spot next summer in training camp.
But looking at the unit as a whole, and given the injury concerns surrounding Bennett and Jeffery, the Bears could be in the market for another receiver in either the draft or free agency. If the Bears go the veteran route, here is a look at some of the projected unrestricted free agent wideouts, in no particular order.
Mike Wallace, Pittsburgh Steelers: The Bears needed a receiver in the 2009 NFL draft, but instead of taking Wallace in the second or early third round, the club instead traded their second-round choice and drafted defensive lineman Jarron Gilbert in the third round at No. 68 overall. After Wallace went to the Steelers at No. 84, the Bears drafted receiver Juaquin Iglesias. Safe to say that didn't work out. Wallace is expected to be back on the market this offseason, and although he is that vertical threat the Bears desperately need, there remains the issue of price. Wallace wants to get paid. Are the Bears willing to cough up the dough?
Dwayne Bowe, Kansas City Chiefs: Money is going to be a theme when it comes to the upper echelon free-agent wide receivers, and Bowe falls squarely in that category. Bears general manager Phil Emery spent three years in Kansas City with Bowe, where he watched the wideout top 1,000 receiving yards two times and catch 15 touchdowns in 2010. After getting slapped with the franchise tag last year, Bowe is looking for a lucrative long-term contract.
Wes Welker, New England Patriots: Despite a couple of drops in big moments, Welker is still a great player with 100 catches and 1,100 receiving yards in five of the past six seasons. He would make any team better on offense. But it might be hard to leave the comfort of catching balls from future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady.
Danny Amendola, St. Louis Rams: In that Welker mold, Amendola has put up impressive numbers in two of the past three years despite battling through injuries. There have been reports that St. Louis is working to re-sign Amendola, so he might not be available unless the two sides are unable to reach an agreement. The franchise tag number for receivers in 2013 is projected to be north of $10 million, so it's unclear if Amendola is a candidate to get the tag if the talks with the Rams fall apart.
Julian Edelman, Patriots: Edelman can bring a substantial amount of value to a team because he can do so many things on the football field -- receiver, return man, cornerback, etc. He is coming off a broken foot, so there will be an injury red flag, but Edelman has maxed out as a former seventh-round pick. For NFL teams that are creative on offense, he will probably be a good fit.
Brandon Gibson, St. Louis Rams: Gibson hit his stride last year when he averaged a career-best 13.5 yards per reception. With two 50-plus reception seasons under his belt, the 25-year-old should command a fair amount of attention if he reaches the open market.
Greg Jennings, Green Bay Packers: Reports out of Green Bay say that Jennings has put his house up for sale an plans the leave the team after seven seasons. Even though Jennings is coming off an injury-plagued year when he dressed for only eight games, he should find plenty of suitors in free agency, but it will cost big money. Jennings is only 29 years old, and great receivers can still be effective into their mid- to late 30s.
Brandon Stokley, Denver Broncos: Former teammates with Cutler, Stokley can still get it done at 36 years old. He caught 45 passes for 544 yards and five touchdowns last season from Peyton Manning, and would be a nice addition to any team looking for a complementary piece at wide receiver.
Donnie Avery, Indianapolis Colts: The first receiver taken in the 2008 NFL draft, Avery had his best statistical season as a professional for the Colts in 2012 when he made 60 receptions for 781 yards.
Domenik Hixon, New York Giants: Hixon is always overshadowed by Victor Cruz (RFA) and Hakeem Nicks, but he's an effective role player, catching 39 balls last year for 567 yards and two touchdowns. For teams not looking to spend a ton of money at receiver, Hixon is a solid option.
Brian Hartline, Miami Dolphins: Hartline had career year in 2012 with 74 catches for 1,083 yards. Before last season, he had average production. This is his shot to cash in, so it will be interesting to see the types of offers he fields in free agency, if the Dolphins let him walk.
Jeff Dickerson looks at potential free agent targets at receiver.