Bears' priority is to keep Forte around

The Sports Xchange

Running back Matt Forte is the Bears' only unrestricted free agent on either side of the ball who is important to their future or would attract much attention on the open market.

Bears president and chief executive officer Ted Phillips has already said Forte will not be available, and it's an almost certainty that he will receive the franchise tag, unless new general manager Phil Emery is more generous than predecessor Jerry Angelo. During last season's training camp, Forte reportedly received a long-term offer from the Bears that included $14 million in guaranteed money, which he chose not to accept. Forte then went out and produced his best season ever, leading the NFL in yards from scrimmage through 12 weeks. But he suffered a season-ending sprained knee early in Week 13 although was healthy enough to play in the Pro Bowl.

With Forte as the featured runner and quarterback Jay Cutler back from the fractured right thumb that ended his season after 10 games, the Bears are in great shape at those two positions.

The rest of the offense needs work.

A strong draft won't be enough to elevate the Bears' offense to a championship level, so it's likely they'll have more than a passing interest in several unrestricted free agents next month.

If they aim to upgrade at wide receiver - and anyone who saw them play last season would advise them to do so - they'll have plenty of targets in free agency. The Bears might not have the NFL's worst group of receivers, but they're in the discussion.

The good news is that there are six wide receivers who topped 1,000 yards in 2011 currently scheduled to hit the open market on March 13, including Steelers restricted free agent Mike Wallace (72 catches, 1,193 yards, eight touchdowns). And there are three more that finished with between 900 and 1,000 yards.

Some will re-sign with their own team before free agency begins, and others may stay put after receiving the franchise tag, but receiver-poor teams like the Bears will have an opportunity to upgrade immediately.

The Patriots' Wes Welker (122 catches, 1,569 yards, nine touchdowns) probably isn't going anywhere, and ditto for Wallace. But that still leaves the Chiefs' Dwayne Bowe (81-1,159-5), the Saints' Marques Colston (80-1,143-8), the Chargers' Vincent Jackson (60-1,106-9) and the Bills' Stevie Johnson (76-1,004-7).

All those numbers look even more spectacular considering that Johnny Knox was the Bears' leading receiver with 727 yards last season. And Knox is still in the early stages of rehabilitation from the back surgery he needed after the gruesome hit he took in Week 15.

Knox and Roy Williams, an unrestricted free agent who probably won't be back, tied for the team lead among wideouts with just 37 catches, well behind running back Matt Forte's 52. No one else on the team caught more than 27 passes.

Tight end Kellen Davis' five touchdown catches were as many as the next two Bears combined. Davis, who got his five scores on just 18 catches, is also an unrestricted free agent.

Now that Mike Martz is gone, the Bears may decide, under new offensive coordinator Mike Tice, to join the rest of the NFL in this wacky, razzle-dazzle gimmick called, "throwing the ball to the tight end."

Bears tight ends Davis and Matt Spaeth caught a total of 25 passes last season. A total of 17 tight ends caught more than 50 passes last season. Ten of the 12 playoff teams had a tight with more than 50 catches, and the Patriots had two.

There isn't as much free-agent talent available at tight end, but the Packers' Jermichael Finley (55-767-8) and the Redskins' Fred Davis (59-796-3) are four-year veterans who should have a lot of productive years remaining.

Offensive line remains a Bears weakness. The healthy return of 2011 first-round offensive tackle Gabe Carimi will help, but it might not be enough.

Saints Pro Bowl guard Carl Nicks is the cream of this year's unrestricted line crop, and New Orleans might not have an abundance of loot left over after signing quarterback Drew Brees to an expected long-term deal. The Saints also have a decision to make on free-agent wide receiver Colston, but Nicks is probably a higher priority considering he might be the best guard in the NFL.

Left tackle is more of a concern for the Bears than guard, and the Chargers could cut Marcus McNeill, who was injured for much of last season. His replacement, Jared Gaither, is unrestricted and would also be an upgrade. So would Buffalo left tackle Demetrius Bell, but the Bills may not let him get away.

Quality left tackles don't come cheaply. But if the Bears were able to land one in free agency, and if Carimi stays healthy and plays to his potential, a former trouble spot could become a team strength.

Copyright (C) 2012 The Sports Xchange. All Rights Reserved.


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