Free agent focus: Free-agent options for the Bears to upgrade at wide receiver

Free agent focus: Free-agent options for the Bears to upgrade at wide receiver

The Bears need to find Mitch Trubisky some players to throw to this season, and that process begins next week when teams are allowed to begin negotiating contracts with free agents on March 12. There might not be an elite receiver set to hit the open market, but there are plenty of solid players who could be fits for the Bears. A look at five of those guys:

Sammy Watkins, Los Angeles Rams

The Rams seems prepared to let Watkins test the open market, but after catching eight touchdowns a year ago in the Sean McVay/Jared Goff offense, would he really want to leave? Or, alternatively, would the Bears be willing to potentially overpay to lure him away from Los Angeles? Watkins, for what it’s worth, only caught 39 of his 70 targets last year and missed eight games as recently as the 2016 season.

Paul Richardson, Seattle Seahawks

Richardson tore his ACL and suffered a season-ending hamstring injury in 2015, which muted the former second-round pick’s promise a bit in Seattle. He flashed some good downfield skills in 2017, catching 44 passes for 703 yards and six touchdowns while playing in all 16 games. He’d be a good option to be a deep threat for Trubisky and might even be a better one than Watkins.

Marqise Lee, Jacksonville Jaguars

If the Jaguars can’t come to agreement with Allen Robinson — which might not be a slam dunk anymore — perhaps they’ll do what they can to keep Lee, who’s averaged 63 catches for 828 yards the last two years. But either way, things might be trending toward both receivers hitting the open market.

Lee is 26 and has only missed two games in the last two years, which could make him an attractive target to add to the injury-ravaged Bears receiving corps. But how the market develops for Robinson will be fascinating — would the Bears be willing to offer more years and more guaranteed money to a guy coming off a torn ACL? That question is complicated by the fact that the Bears’ best receiver on their current roster, Cam Meredith, is coming off a torn ACL, too. Money isn’t necessarily an object for the Bears, who could have around $90 million in cap space if they release Markus Wheaton and Marcus Cooper, but signing an injured receiver while Meredith and Kevin White are on the mend does carry risk.

But Robinson, when healthy, is one of the best receivers in the league. He won’t turn 25 until August and racked up 2,283 yards and 20 touchdowns while being targeted 302 times between 2015 and 2016. If the Bears can land Robinson and get him healthy, he’d immediately be the best target for Trubisky, and one who could help the entire passing game merely by his presence.

Either way, the Bears could target either of these Jaguars receivers, given Jacksonville probably doesn’t have the cap space to keep them both.

Mike Wallace, Baltimore Ravens

Wallace turns 32 in August but showed in Baltimore he still has some tread on his tires, following a 1,000-yard 2016 season with 52 receptions for 748 yards (14.4 yards/reception) in 2017. He only missed one game last year and prior to that played in all 16 games for four consecutive seasons. The Bears would be gambling against an age-related regression, and he might not be the elite deep threat he once was (on average, passes thrown to him traveled 12.9 yards, about the same as those intended for Dontrelle Inman). But depending on what kind of contract Wallace commands on the open market, bringing in a veteran with Super Bowl experience for Trubisky could be a good thing.

Albert Wilson, Kansas City Chiefs

Chiefs general manager Brett Veach’s reaction to a question about his hopes of re-signing Wilson told it all last week at the NFL Combine: “Well, Matt’s in Chicago.” Matt, of course, is Matt Nagy, the Bears’ head coach who most recently was Kansas City’s offensive coordinator.

The 5-foot-9, 200-pound Wilson caught 42 passes for 554 yards with the Chiefs last year and would be a good scheme fit for Nagy’s spiced-up West Coast offense. Signing him, if the Bears don’t pull off a blockbuster trade for Miami's Jarvis Landry, would give Trubisky a reliable slot target who knows Nagy’s offense well.

“He is a very tough player,” Veach said. “He does everything from the slot to the outside, he can block, and he can return if you need him to. He is a very valuable commodity for us and certainly has done a lot for us the last few years.”

Other options

The Bears’ free-agent plans could crystallize before March 12 if they were to pull off a blockbuster trade for Landry. NBC Sports Chicago colleague John “Moon” Mullin reported the Bears have discussed a mega-trade that would ship Jordan Howard and the No. 8 pick to the Dolphins for Landry, the No. 11 pick and a third-round pick. Yes, a ding against Landry’s game is that he only averaged 8.8 yards per reception in 2017, but he averaged 11.2 yards per reception during the 2015 and 2016 seasons and has never missed a game in his four years in the league.

Wilson would be a cheaper option, but the Bears need productive receivers, and Landry certainly is productive. Some other options who are on the market, if the Bears were or were not to acquire Landry: Ryan Grant, Eric Decker, Donte Moncrief, Jaron Brown, Taylor Gabriel, Terrelle Pryor and John Brown. Expect Pace to cast a wide net to find receivers for Trubisky.

After releasing him, Bears reportedly bringing back Marcus Cooper


After releasing him, Bears reportedly bringing back Marcus Cooper

Marcus Cooper's offseason has resembled a will they, won't they relationship.

The corner back signed a three-year deal with the Bears last offseason, but struggled last year and was released by the Bears after one year of that deal. However, Adam Caplan is reporting that Cooper could be back in a Bears uniform this season.

Cooper was officially released by the Bears on March 14 and visited the Arizona Cardinals earlier on Friday. Cooper started for the Cardinals in 2016.

Cooper began the year as a starter for the Bears, but finished with just four starts. He finished 2017 with 18 tackles and three passes deflected in 15 games.

His play with the Bears didn't exactly make him Mr. Popular with fans, as can be observed by looking at the savage replies to Caplan's report.

Cooper's original contract for the Bears with valued at $16 million over three years so the reported $2.5 million number is a significant pay cut and could mean he is being brought back for depth as opposed to last year when he was expected to start.

Plenty of possibilities loom ahead of Bears' draft pick

Plenty of possibilities loom ahead of Bears' draft pick

As the Bears begin to fill out their draft board in earnest, they’ll do so by evaluating the players they like and the players they think will be available when they pick eighth in April. And what players check both those boxes and go into their draft “clouds,” as Ryan Pace calls them, will depend largely on how many quarterbacks are taken ahead of the Bears’ pick. 

With about a month until the draft, it seems clear two teams will take a quarterback with a top-seven pick: the Cleveland Browns and New York Jets. The Browns own the Nos. 1 and 4 picks; the Jets traded up from No. 6 to No. 3, and teams rarely invest that kind of draft capital to not draft a quarterback. 

That leaves a few hinge points in how many quarterbacks are picked by the time the Bears are on the clock:

New York Giants (No. 2 overall)

The Giants still have an aging Eli Manning but could move to use the second pick to draft his long-term replacement. Or, alternatively, they could use this deep class of top-end quarterbacks as an avenue to trade down, add some picks and build out a young core that way. Either of these scenarios would be good news for the Bears, as we’ve seen Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, N.C. State defensive end Bradley Chubb and Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson connected to the Giants at No. 2 as well, if they were to stay there. The Buffalo Bills could be motivated to trade up to No. 2 to make sure they get the guy they want with quarterbacks almost assuredly going off the board at Nos. 1 and 3. 

Cleveland Browns (No. 4 overall)

If the Browns get their quarterback with the first pick — Sam Darnold? — they could be sitting in an ideal spot at No. 4. If the Giants draft a quarterback, Cleveland could play hardball and tell teams they’re fine keeping the fourth pick and drafting Barkley with it. That could create a bidding war between the Buffalo Bills (No. 12) and Denver Broncos (No. 5) to trade up and draft the last of the four clear-cut top quarterbacks in this class. In this scenario, Cleveland adds a bunch of picks to an already-sizable stash and accelerates their growth through the draft. 

If the Giants were to trade out of the No. 2 pick, let’s say to the Bills, it may lessen Cleveland’s desire to trade down from No. 4 unless a team in need of a quarterback like the Arizona Cardinals (No. 15) or Miami Dolphins (No. 11) starts lurking around. But as we saw last year with the Bears trading up one spot to draft Mitch Trubisky, teams don’t want to leave things to chance if they have conviction on the quarterback they want. So that brings us to the…

Denver Broncos (No. 5 overall)

The Broncos signed Case Keenum to a two-year deal and still have 2016 first-round pick Paxton Lynch on their roster, though he hasn’t shown much in only five games as a pro. Does Denver absolutely, positively have to draft a quarterback? No. They’re probably in the same boat as the Giants in that regard. But what if they really like Josh Allen and/or Baker Mayfield, both of whom their coaching staff worked with at the Senior Bowl, and one of them is still on the board when the Browns’ pick comes up at No. 4? Or what if Josh Rosen has been their guy all along? 

In that case, John Elway may make an aggressive move to guarantee he gets the quarterback he wants, and not risk losing that guy if a team were to cut the line by trading with the Browns. 

The other scenario is less positive for the Bears: Maybe the Broncos only have one or two quarterbacks out of this group they want, and they either can’t find a trade partner to move out of No. 5 or don’t want to. If three quarterbacks are drafted in the first seven picks, the Bears may not have the opportunity to draft one of Nelson, Chubb or Alabama defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds, for example, is a super-talented prospect — but we seem to be moving toward a consensus that Nelson, Fitzpatrick, Chubb and Barkley are the four best non-quarterback prospects in this draft. And in all likelihood, the Bears will only be able to draft one of them four quarterbacks are taken before they pick. 

The wild card here is Nelson, given his position (guard) is rarely seen as worthy of being a top-10 pick. But those who saw him up close in college believe he’s a future perennial Pro Bowler, possibly beginning as soon as his rookie year. The Bears’ fit is obvious, with Harry Hiestand coming to coach the offensive line from Notre Dame and the team — as of right now — still having a fairly clear need for another interior offensive lineman. Perhaps Nelson falls to the Bears even if there are only three quarterbacks off the board before they pick, but having four go off the board would make things a little less stressful at Halas Hall in late April. 

Indianapolis Colts (No. 6 overall) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (No. 7 overall)

The Colts already traded down once, and likely did so with the confidence that Chubb would still be on the board at No. 6 to help their limp pass rush. Fitzpatrick seems to be a good fit with Tampa Bay, though a player of his caliber would be a good fit anywhere. Either of these teams still could be persuaded to trade down, especially if the Giants and/or Broncos pass on a quarterback.

Chicago Bears (No. 8 overall)

If four quarterbacks are off the board by the time the Bears pick, that’s ideal for Pace. If three are, he still could get someone from his No. 8 pick “cloud” and be content staying there. If only two are — and this doesn’t appear to be a likely scenario — that means the Bills haven’t found a trade partner and may want to leapfrog the Dolphins at No. 11 to get their guy. More likely, if the Bears are able to trade down from No. 8, it would be because a team like Arizona wants to make sure the quarterback they want isn’t snagged by an opportunistic team ahead of them. 

But Pace's draft history has seen him trade up far more frequently than trade down. If someone who's in his draft cloud is available when the Bears go on the clock, chances are he'll pick that guy and not trade down. 

Plenty can and will change between now and when the draft begins on April 26. But for right now, the landscape ahead of the Bears suggests only positive things setting up for their first-round pick.