Bears

Upon further review: Bears handling of Bennett, Forte warrants watching

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Upon further review: Bears handling of Bennett, Forte warrants watching

Looking a little deeper at the contract situations of Matt Forte and Martellus Bennett...

The situations are hugely significant, given that the two players represented 16 of the Bears’ 38 touchdowns and 53 percent of the team’s yardage on offense in 2014. They also involve not only the players, but also the directions anticipated in the 2015 Bears offense.

By way of perspective, first:

Understand that the matter of contracts are anything but simple, much more complicated than just declaring, “you’ve got a contract, you have to honor it.” The problem with that, as Brian Urlacher once correctly noted, when teams want (read: “demand”) a player to take a pay cut, the public rarely applies that dictum to teams, only when a player is demanding a pay raise. That’s just the nature of the NFL compensation structure.

[MORE BEARS: Bennett, Forte using different strategies in quest for Bears money]

For whatever reasons, the knee-jerk attitude is that when someone under-performs their pay grade, they can take a hit, but when someone out-performs their contract, an outcry for more money is rare.

Bennett vs. Julius Thomas

So Bennett can be criticized, albeit not necessarily fairly, for not appearing to honor his contract. “But fair” is a fluid concept where NFL contracts are concerned. Bennett is due a little more than $9 million over the next two seasons; by comparison, Julius Thomas, who caught a combined 108 passes the last two years, vs. Bennett’s 155, will average $9.2 million per year over the next four seasons, roughly twice what Bennett is getting despite production far short of Thomas’.

But here’s a problem.

A more interesting angle on the Bennett and Forte situations is looking at the futures rather than strictly the pasts. Because, ultimately, value is determined by what Bennett and Forte will be worth in the 2015 offense, not only what they were in seasons past.

Every expectation is that the Chicago offense under head coach John Fox and offensive coordinator Adam Gase will swing dramatically back toward the balance that left when Marc Trestman arrived. Bennett’s 155 receptions came in an offense out of balance (nearly 63 percent pass) compared to what Fox and Gase have run previously.

Meaning: Bennett is unlikely to be seeing the 225 “targets” over the next two years that he saw in the last two. By comparison, Thomas saw a combined 149 for 2013-14 with Fox in Denver. Rob Gronkowski averaged 9.0 targets per game over the past two seasons; Bennett averaged 7.0 even with the skewed offense. Bennett's rate of usage is likely to dip a bit.

[MORE BEARS: George McCaskey won't lose confidence in Ryan Pace in Ray McDonald aftermath]

And the Bears did not use the No. 7 overall pick of this year’s draft on a wide receiver with the intention of increasing use of the tight end.

Figuring Forte

As mentioned previously, one expectation is that the Bears will add a year to Forte’s contract, which expires after 2015, giving him the always-coveted cash-in-hand while at the same time lowering their cap hit.

Two considerations here, one future, one past:

While Bennett’s use might be expected to decline a bit for 2015, Forte’s might not. The return to better balance means more work for running backs. All of the carries and targets aren’t planned to be Forte’s; the Bears used a fourth-round pick for running back Jeremy Langford for more than special teams.

But Forte is the lead dog in the Bears’ backfield and the fact that he turns 30 in December projects as a non-serious issue. Few Bears have put as much planning and effort into their own offseason programs as Forte has, reminiscent of Walter Payton and his “hill.”

[NBC SPORTS SHOP: Gear up, Bears fans!]

Coincidentally perhaps, Forte stands second to only Payton in nearly all significant running-back franchise numbers. And Payton, with more than 300 carries in all 10 of his final non-strike seasons, put up 2,000-yard combined yardage seasons at ages 30 and 31.

The Bears also have a quiet tradition of taking care of distinguished veterans with late-career contract tweaks. Urlacher got one; so did Lance Briggs; so did Roberto Garza.

How GM Ryan Pace and new contract chief Joey Laine go forward with veterans will not be lost in the locker room, either.

2017 Bears position grades: Offensive Line

2017 Bears position grades: Offensive Line

2017 grade: C+

Level of need: Medium

Decisions to be made on: Josh Sitton (contract), Eric Kush (contract), Hroniss Grasu (contract), Bobby Massie (contract), Tom Compton (free agent), Bradley Sowell (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: Andrew Norwell, D.J. Fluker, Justin Pugh, Josh Kline, Jonathan Cooper

How the Bears’ offensive line will shape up in 2018 begins with a decision on which the Bears are already on the clock. The team has until March 9 to pick up Josh Sitton’s 2018 option -- or, to put it another way, they have until March 9 to determine if Sitton was/is/will be good enough to justify keeping him and not netting about $8 million in cap savings, per Spotrac. 

For what it’s worth, Bleacher Report ranked Sitton as the league’s sixth-best guard in 2017. If the Bears’ grades of Sitton match those outside ones, then the team probably won’t cut him -- not destabilizing Mitchell Trubisky’s offensive line would be well worth the money in that case. While Sitton turns 32 in June, cutting him would put a lot of pressure on Kyle Long, who hasn’t been fully healthy since 2016. The Bears are hopeful that Long will be back to full strength after multiple offseason surgeries, but releasing Sitton and then signing/drafting his replacement would be a gamble on Long’s health. 

Sitton’s status is the first part of the Bears’ 2018 offensive line equation. There’s also a decision to be made on Bobby Massie, who Bleacher Report ranked as the NFL’s 14th-best right tackle last year but could be cut for about $5.5 million in cap savings, according to Spotrac. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Bears cut or kept both Sitton and Massie for now, then drafted an offensive lineman in the first round (like Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson or Texas tackle Connor Williams) and released one of them. Or they could keep both through the end of the 2018 season. All those options would make sense on some level.

What wouldn’t seem to make sense is the Bears cutting Sitton or Massie and replacing them with a free agent. This year’s offensive line free agent class, without adding any potential cap casualties to it, isn’t particularly strong. By Bleacher Report’s rankings, the best free agent right tackle is Houston’s Breno Giancomi, who’s 27th in that list -- 13 spots behind Massie. At left tackle, New England’s Nate Solder (No. 22) isn’t rated as highly as Charles Leno (No. 20), who we'll talk about in a bit here. 

The only potential upgrade available via free agency would be Carolina Panthers guard Andrew Norwell (No. 2 in B/R’s rankings), who’s 26 and is in line for a big payday this spring -- but that would seemingly be counter-intuitive to releasing Sitton and then potentially paying more money to a different guard, even if he’s younger and has more long-term upside. The Bears could opt for a cheaper guard in free agency who could have some potential working with respected O-line coach Harry Hiestand -- the Giants’ D.J. Fluker (57th in B/R’s rankings) or Justin Pugh (42nd) fit that mold, as would the Titans’ Josh Kline (37th) or Cowboys’ Jonathan Cooper (38th). Or the Bears could keep Sitton and still sign one of those guys as insurance in case Long and/or Eric Kush, who tore his ACL last training camp, isn’t ready to start the season. 

Tom Compton and Bradley Sowell proved to be serviceable backups last year and could be an option to return, even with a new coaching staff in place. The health of Kush, who was missed as a reliable backup in 2017, will be important in figuring out what the Bears' O-line depth looks like. Hroniss Grasu struggled when he was on the field and missed time due to a hand injury, and despite playing for offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich at Oregon could be on the chopping block before/during training camp. 

We’ll finish here with some thoughts on Leno and Cody Whitehair. Could the Bears upgrade at left tackle and displace Leno to the right side of the offensive line? Possibly, especially if Hiestand believes he can make that move work. But it’d be odd if the Bears shifted Leno off left tackle and then signed someone who’s older and, depending on the evaluator, not even as good as him. 

This is all probably a moot point, since the Bears’ internal evaluation of Leno is what matters here. Leno is 26 and the Bears believe he hasn’t reached his ceiling yet, so more than likely, he’s sticking where he is. At the very least, he’ll enter 2018 with a starting job on the Bears’ offensive line. 

One other offseason objective for Hiestand and the new coaching staff: Keeping Whitehair at the same position. Whitehair’s versatility felt like it worked against him at times last year, with the former regime opting to shift him between guard and center quite a bit from the start of training camp through the early part of the season. That instability seemed to affect Whitehair’s play, as he went through a bizarre patch of snapping issues after moving back to center and struggled to be as consistent as he was in 2016. But Whitehair finished 2017 strong, and keeping him at center for the entirety of 2018 could get him back on track to make his first Pro Bowl. 

2017 Bears position grades: Wide receivers

2017 Bears position grades: Wide receivers

2017 grade: D-

Level of need: High

Decisions to be made on: Markus Wheaton (contract), Dontrelle Inman (free agent), Kendall Wright (free agent), Josh Bellamy (free agent), Kevin White (fifth-year option)

Possible free agent targets: All of them? (But more specifically Jarvis Landry, Mike Wallace, Paul Richardson, Marqise Lee, Ryan Grant, Eric Decker, Albert Wilson, Donte Moncrief, Jaron Brown, Taylor Garbriel, Terrelle Pryor, John Brown, Allen Robinson)

The Bears cannot go into 2018 with a wide receiver core as weak as the one with which Mitchell Trubisky had to work in 2017. That doesn’t necessarily mean they have to go out and sign Jarvis Landry for huge money and then draft, say, Alabama’s Calvin Ridley, but adding multiple reliable wide receivers is a massive need for the offseason. A blend of free agents and draft picks seems like the most likely route.

Before we look at this year’s free agent class, a word on Cameron Meredith, who said this on locker cleanout day Jan. 1: “Training camp for sure I’ll be back. Right now it’s staying on pace so that I can do that. Yes, full recovery.”

The Bears shouldn’t count on Meredith to improve off his 66-catch, 888-yard 2016 season by virtue of him coming back from a torn ACL suffered last August. But it’s also not like any production from Meredith will be a bonus; if he’s even close to the player he was two years ago, he’ll be a significant part of the Bears’ offense.

So if the Bears are counting on Meredith to play in 2018, do they absolutely need to go out and splurge for the best receiver on the market in Jarvis Landry? Not necessarily. Landry reportedly wants Davante Adams money (four years, $58 million, with $32 million guaranteed) and might get more than that if a bidding war develops on the open market.

Would Landry be worth it? He followed consecutive 1,100-yard seasons in 2015 and 2016 with a league-leading 112 receptions in 2017, and won’t turn 26 until next November, so yeah, he very well could be. The Bears should have enough cap space to chase Landry, too.

But for a few reasons, Ryan Pace has either never landed nor pursued the priciest free agents in his three cycles as general manager. He splashed $38.75 million for Pernell McPhee in 2015; that was the 10th-largest free agent contract signed that year and has the 13th-highest amount of guaranteed money, per Spotrac. Danny Trevathan got $28 million in 2016 (22nd among free agents), and Mike Glennon’s ill-fated $45 million contract ranked 11th last year (with significantly less guaranteed money).

The other part of Pace’s free agency strategy hasn’t been under his control: The Bears just haven’t been an enticing destination lately. Cornerback A.J. Bouye -- 2017’s highest-paid free agent -- turned down more money from the Bears to sign with the Jacksonville Jaguars, for example.

The Bears hope that’s changing, with a promising franchise quarterback, a young and affable head coach and a major renovation to Halas Hall. For all the losing, and for all the gripes outside Lake Forest about John Fox, the Bears did have a good culture in their locker room. Selling the future of this franchise should be a lot easier in 2018 than it was in 2017.

Will that all add up to the Bears signing Landry to a huge contract? Not necessarily. The Bears could make a strong pitch and sizable offer, but he could be lured by another team that’s had more recent success (like the Oakland Raiders). Or Pace could continue to look for bargains in free agency, which hasn’t particularly worked out for him in the past, but then take a receiver with the Bears’ first-round pick.

But perhaps Pace will see his long-term vision coming together, and will see a big-ticket free agent like Landry being the guy who puts the Bears over the hump from winning to losing. He could be the franchise’s Jon Lester, or if you’re a hopeful White Sox fan, Manny Machado.

But here’s a counter to the argument for signing Landry: Kansas City’s offense last year didn’t have a big-time outside target. Tyreek Hill’s versatility and explosive playmaking ability made him the Chiefs’ best wide receiver, but he was able to line up at almost any position on the field. Albert Wilson (who’s a free agent) had the second-most targets of among Chiefs receivers with 62; tight end Travis Kelce was targeted a team-high 122 times.

The Bears don’t have a Hill or a Kelce on their roster. Tarik Cohen and Adam Shaheen could be the “light” versions of both, which may necessitate a need for better “traditional” wide receivers. That doesn’t necessarily mean Landry, to be fair.

Mike Wallace is 31 but showed he still has something in the tank, missing only one game the last two years while racking up 1,765 yards and eight touchdowns for the Baltimore Ravens. Paul Richardson had a breakout 2017 with the Seattle Seahawks, catching 44 passes for 703 yards with six touchdowns as an effective deep threat. Marqise Lee had 119 catches for 1,553 yards in the vertically-challenged Jaguars offense the last two years. Ryan Grant has never missed a game in his four-year career and is coming off a career best 45-catch, 573-yard season with Washington. The aforementioned Wilson caught 42 passes for 554 yards with the Chiefs last year, both career highs.

Perhaps no free agent receivers have as much to prove than Terrelle Pryor and Donte Moncrief. Pryor, like Alshon Jeffery, found the free agent market weak in 2017 and took a one-year prove-it deal, but instead turning it into an extension and Super Bowl ring, he bombed with only 20 catches for 240 yards with Washington. It’d be a risk, but if he can get the stink of 2017 off him and flash the talent that got him 77 receptions and over 1,000 yards with the Cleveland Browns in 2016, he’d be worth it.

Moncrief is another interesting name out there. He was targeted over 100 times in 2015 and caught 64 passes for 733 yards and six touchdowns as the big-bodied complement to T.Y. Hilton in Indianapolis, but struggled to stay healthy the last two years, only playing 21 games and totaling 56 receptions for 698 yards.

One other guy to highlight: Allen Robinson. The Jaguars probably won’t let him get away, but even if they do, would the Bears really want to sign him and then have three wide receivers coming off season-ending injuries (Meredith and Kevin White being the other two; Robinson tore his ACL in Week 1 last year). The Rams’ Sammy Watkins is also an impending free agent, but it’d be a huge surprise if Los Angeles let him hit the open market, so he’s not worth considering for the Bears right now.

We’ll see what direction Pace takes next month with free agency. But expect the Bears to return no more than one receiver from their Week 2 lineup -- Kendall Wright (59 receptions, 614 yards) is probably the only guy who could be back, if the two parties want to re-unite. Wright, as it stands for my grade, was the only guy keeping this unit from an “F,” as in a total failure.

Markus Wheaton, who became only one of nine players since 1992 to be targeted at least 15 times and catch fewer than 20 percent of those targets (he caught two passes), is likely to be cut. It’s unlikely Josh Bellamy or Dontrelle Inman will be re-signed (slight chance for Inman, but he disappeared in December). And the Bears probably will decline Kevin White’s fifth-year option, making 2018 a prove-it year for the former first-round pick.