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Bears free agency rumor tracker: Monday

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USA Today

Bears free agency rumor tracker: Monday

As of 11 a.m. CT on Monday, NFL teams are permitted to enter contract negotiations with representation of free agents. While no contracts can be finalized until 3 p.m. CT Wednesday, the next 48 hours are when plenty of big-time deals will be hammered out, so stick with us here on NBC Sports Chicago for a running tracker of updates on players the Bears are meeting with, or players the Bears could target who are meeting with other teams. 

8:30 p.m. update:

WR Albert Wilson

The report: The Dolphins are the front-runner to sign him

Wilson appeared to be an obvious and natural target for the Bears to sign, but this latest report may throw a wrench in that. The 5-foot-9, 200 pound Wilson caught 42 passes for 554 yards in Matt Nagy’s offense last year, and his toughness as a slot receiver was roundly praised by those in Kansas City. If Wilson were to sign with the Dolphins, he'd be replacing Jarvis Landry, who was dealt to the Cleveland Browns last week for a pair of draft picks. 

3:30 p.m. update:

WR Sammy Watkins

The report: Add the Jaguars to the list of teams interested in him

This is interesting, given the Jaguars have about $30 million in cap space but would have to use a sizable chunk of that on Watkins. If Allen Robinson indeed is moving on from Jacksonville, trying to keep Marqise Lee may make more sense than splashing some cash at Watkins. 

2:05 p.m. update:

TE Trey Burton

The report: He's drawing plenty of interest

With the Bears reportedly interested in Jimmy Graham and Austin Seferian-Jenkins (see previous updates below), it'd make sense they'd also be in on Burton, who caught five touchdowns for the Eagles last year and famously threw that "Philly Special" touchdown to Nick Foles in Super Bowl LII. Burton is 26 and is thought of as an ascending player, though he only was targed 31 times last year, catching 23 of those for 248 yards. 

1:50 p.m. update:

WR Allen Robinson

The report: The 49ers may not be in on him

This would bode well for the Bears if the cap-rich 49ers aren't part of Robinson's market. Not only do they have the cash to make a competitive offer, but they have their own franchise quarterback and young, offensive-minded coach to pitch to players. This doesn't mean the Bears' chances to land Robinson are significantly better, but potentially not having to compete with the 49ers for him wouldn't hurt, either. 

WR Sammy Watkins

The report: The Bears, Packers and Chiefs are among the teams interested in him

Watkins and the Rams didn't agree to a deal before he was opened up to negotiations with other teams this morning, and while he still could return to Los Angeles, there will be a strong market for his services. The Bears, naturally, are one of the reported teams in on the 24-year-old who caught 39 passes for 593 yards with eight touchdowns in 2017. There was a previous rumbling (see below) that the Packers could be in the market for Robinson, but that may not be the only top-tier wideout that's drawing the interest of first-year general manager Brian Gutekunst. If these wind up playing out, maybe we'll see a fascinating arms race between the Bears and Packers to land weapons for their respective quarterbacks. 

12:50 p.m. update:

TE Jimmy Graham

The report: The Bears could have interest

Ian Rapoport mentioned this possibility on NFL Network Monday afternoon. Ryan Pace was in New Orleans when the Saints picked Graham in the third round of the 2010 draft. While the 31-year-old's best years appear to be behind him, he remained an excellent red zone weapon for the Seattle Seahawks in 2017 with 10 touchdowns. If the Bears sign him -- or another receiving-first tight end -- expect Dion Sims to be released and Adam Shaheen to take over his role full-time in 2018. 

The Bears aren't the only team rumored to be interested in Graham, though:

WR Allen Robinson

The report: The Green Bay Packers could be among the teams interested in him

This would come as quite a surprise given the Packers locked up Davante Adams last fall and still have Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb on their books. But first-year general manager Brian Gutekunst could be in a decent position to make a high-risk, high-reward play for Robinson -- which would only add to a competitive market in which the Bears are expected to be for the Jacksonville Jaguars wideout. 

CB Bryce Callahan

The report: He'll receive an original-round tender

Like Cameron Meredith and Josh Bellamy, the Bears will have the right to match any offer sheet given to Callahan but would not receive a draft pick if they decline to match. Callahan picked off two passes, forced a fumble and scored a punt return touchdown in 2017 but missed four games. Retaining him would likely take the Bears out of any market that develops for Jaguars nickel corner Aaron Colvin, if they were going to be in it in the first place. 

11:50 a.m. update:

OL Zach Fulton

The report: The Houston Texans are the front-runners to sign him

Fulton could make sense for the Bears, as the Homewood-Flossmoor alum played for Harry Hiestand in college and was a versatile piece of Matt Nagy's offensive lines in Kansas City. He's able to play either center or guard and played in 63 of 64 games since being picked by the Chiefs in the sixth round of the 2014 draft. If Fulton indeed winds up with the Texans, the Bears will have to look elsewhere -- if they weren't already -- to replace Josh Sitton. 

WR Cameron Meredith

The report: He'll receive an original-round tender

By placing the original round tender on Meredith, a restricted free agent, the Bears could match any offer a team makes to him, but would not receive compensation if they decline to match it because he was not drafted. Expect Meredith to be back with the Bears as he works his way back from a torn ACL suffered last August. 

"With Cam, it's just closely evaluating where he's at, listening to our doctors and trainers and just following his progress and where he's going to be," general manager Ryan Pace said at the NFL Combine last month. "The receivers position, as we've talked about a lot today, is a need position for us. Unfortunately, we have a lot of injuries there, so we're kind of assessing where each one of those guys are in their rehab and then also looking to see what our options are as we go into the draft and free agency."

WR Josh Bellamy

The report: He'll receive an original-round tender

Bellamy has put in plenty of work on special teams since joining the Bears in 2014 while catching a little over 50 percent of his targets as part of the offense. The 28-year-old turned in the most productive season of his career in 2017, catching 24 of 46 targets for 376 yards with one touchdown (a deep ball score against the Green Bay Packers). 

11 a.m. update:

OL Bradley Sowell

The news: Signed a two-year deal with the Bears

The 28-year-old Sowell will stick around as a reserve offensive lineman with the ability to play both guard and tackle. Most importantly, Sowell was healthy in 2017, playing in all 16 games. 

CB Patrick Robinson

The report: He may re-sign with the Philadelphia Eagles

Robinson is coming off a career year for the Super Bowl champion Eagles and could've been someone the Bears would look at as a slot corner, if they were to move on from restricted free agent Bryce Callahan. It doesn't appear they'll get that opportunity. 

Four key tagging decisions bring free agency into focus for Bears

Four key tagging decisions bring free agency into focus for Bears

The NFL’s deadline for teams to place the franchise tag on players passed Tuesday afternoon, with the Bears deciding against using it — and the near $15 million salary that comes with it — on cornerback Kyle Fuller. But they will use the transition tag, which costs less than the franchise tag at $12.971 million.

The transition tag allows the Bears to match any offers a team makes to Fuller, but if they decline to match it, they will not receive compensation. That's the risk of the transition tag; the benefit is it costs less and affords the Bears more time to negotiate a long-term deal (the deadline for franchise tagged players to sign a long-term extension is July 15). 

This isn’t like the Alshon Jeffery situation last year, when the Bears declined to use the franchise tag and lost him to the Philadelphia Eagles (the transition tag was not used on Jeffery). Jeffery picked a team with more coaching and quarterback stability (and upside) in the Eagles over a Bears team that was about to sign Mike Glennon and was a month and a half away from drafting Mitch Trubisky. 

Fuller’s situation is much more stable in Chicago, with defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and defensive backs coach Ed Donatell returning for their fourth seasons with the Bears. It’d make sense if Fuller ultimately wanted to continue playing for the same coaching staff under which he enjoyed a breakout 2017 season, one which improved his stock from possible being a training camp cut to being due for a big payday. 

But since Fuller’s made it this far without being agreeing to a multi-year deal with the Bears, there’s little risk for him in testing the free agent market to see what his value is. The Bears know that, but still wanted to keep him without guaranteeing him more money in 2018 than he may get on the open market. 

“I would say cornerback this year in free agency and the draft is a good position,” general manager Ryan Pace said last week, “so that’s beneficial to us.”

Maybe that was Pace sort of winking at Fuller’s representation that, hey, the market you’re expecting may not be the market that develops given it’s flooded with top-end guys like Trumaine Johnson, Malcolm Butler and Bashaud Breeland, not to mention a draft class headlined by Ohio State’s Denzel Ward and Iowa’s Josh Jackson. The transition tag bears that out: The Bears want to keep Fuller, and it allows him to test free agency to figure out his market while allowing Pace to match any offers that come his way. The tag makes sense a lot of sense for the Bears, and probably does for Fuller, too. 

“I can definitely see myself back here,” Fuller said back on New Year’s Day. “I was drafted here. I like it here. But it’s my first time ever in free agency. I have to talk to my agents, my family and just see how that stuff works out. We’ll see. I understand it’s a business. So I’ll be looking forward to whatever it brings.”

Beyond Fuller, there were three other players who didn’t receive the franchise tag on Tuesday for whom the Bears could be in the market:

Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Allen Robinson

Initially, the thought was the Jaguars would do whatever they could to hang on to Robinson, especially after they signed Blake Bortles to a contract extension last month. But the Jaguars and the playmaking wideout have drifted apart in negotiations over the last week, and the team decided against spending $15.98 million on a guy coming off a torn ACL. 

When healthy, Robinson is one of the best receivers in football, catching 153 passes for 2,283 yards with 20 touchdowns in 2015 and 2016. He’ll have plenty of suitors and command a hefty payday with plenty of guaranteed money. Will that scare off the Bears, given their best wide receiver — Cameron Meredith — is similarly coming off a torn ACL? Or will Pace roll the dice and try to hit it big in finding a No. 1 target for Trubisky? The Bears’ level if interest here will be fascinating to watch develop. 

Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Sammy Watkins

The Rams were reportedly going back and forth on using the franchise tag on Watkins or safety Lamarcus Joyner, and ultimately decided to use it on Joyner. Watkins will have plenty of interest in the open market after averaging 15.2 yards per reception and hauling in eight touchdowns in 2017, though he only caught 39 passes for 593 yards as part of that explosive Rams’ offense. 

Watkins, like Fuller, could opt to stay in Los Angeles with the thought it’s the best place for him to further his career. But expect the receiver-starved Bears to make a push for Watkins, too, hoping to sell him on their own combination of a young, offensive-minded head coach and a developing franchise quarterback. 

Carolina Panthers guard Andrew Norwell 

Norwell would’ve been due a little over $14 million had he been tagged (the expectation in Carolina is he won't be). That’s money usually reserved for tackles, not guards, though the 26-year-old Norwell is one of the best interior linemen in the league and hasn’t missed a game since the 2015 season. 

Norwell could command around or more than $30 million in guaranteed money in the open market, which could be more than the Bears want to spend after releasing Josh Sitton and saving $8 million in cap room. But Norwell’s age and talent, coupled with the Bears’ healthy cap situation, does represent the team’s best chance to upgrade over Sitton at guard. Going with a cheaper free agent, or drafting a guard — whether it’s Notre Dame’s Quenton Nelson or a later-round guy — is certainly an option here as well. 

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'Fit' looms as tipping point in Bears search for new head coach

'Fit' looms as tipping point in Bears search for new head coach

The word “fit” flies around anytime an NFL coaching situation is discussed. Exactly what that means is rarely understood in full. But it is potentially the most important element in the Bears’ coaching search, not just another platitude, like “go in another direction.”

It has been a tipping point in recent Bears coaching hires, for better and worse. More on those cases a little later.

“Fit” in the Bears’ coaching search will apply to fit above – how the individual fits in vision and temperament with GM Ryan Pace – and below – how he and Mitch Trubisky connect. Indeed, the fit of the next Bears coach into what Pace has put in place will be critical, beginning with but not in the least limited to quarterback Trubisky.

Specifically: Will the head coach expect to bend Trubisky to his system (Lovie Smith fitting a reluctant Brian Urlacher into Smith’s Tampa-2 defensive concept), or bend his system to fit the player/Trubisky (career-4-3 coach John Fox becoming a 3-4 Denver coach realizing what he had in Von Miller)?

The incoming coach obviously won’t be “incoming” unless he establishes to the satisfaction of Pace (and Chairman George McCaskey and President Ted Phillips) that he is a mesh with Trubisky. Not necessarily himself; a defensive coach won’t work directly with Trubisky in daily practice sessions as much as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach will.

But the successful coaching candidate will be one who has a vision in phase with the capabilities of both Trubisky and his surrounding personnel. That’s been the hallmark of defense-based coaches like Bill Belichick in New England, Ron Rivera in Carolina, and John Fox and Lovie Smith; they are typically in on the game-planning strategically (“ball control, if you please”).

“Fit” is a funny thing, though. What Pace and Bears officials will want from their coaching hire is a clear sense of the offense as it will look with Trubisky. Subsets of that assessment will be run-blocking scheme and its fit for core elements Charles Leno, Kyle Long and Cody Whitehair, only less ensconced as franchise fixtures than Trubisky; and passing game, vertical-based or West Coast. The latter of those, the passing concepts, realistically will be influenced by the incoming offense, given that the Bears were going to make over the wideout group anyway, and a new offensive leader will guide that.

Better to fit scheme to player? Or mold player to scheme?

The fit of head coach/coordinator and quarterback or other player is the stuff on which franchises can turn. Conventional thought is that the successful adjusts his scheme to best utilize the skills of his players.

The Bears have seen those fits work well, and decidedly not so well.

Where it worked to fit player to scheme:

Urlacher loved the two-gap 4-3 scheme of Dick Jauron/Greg Blache; a jumbo front four (Phillip Daniels/Bryan Robinson/Keith Traylor/Ted Washington) engaged whole offensive lines and allowed Urlacher to roam sideline to sideline unfettered. Urlacher went to four straight Pro Bowls (2000-03) and was initially not at all enamoured of Smith’s speed-based one-gap 4-3 that tasked him with more gap responsibilities.

Smith, however, knew what he had in Urlacher, that being a prototype middle linebacker with elite coverage skills. Urlacher was remade into the Smith model and became NFL defensive player of the year in 2005.

Fitting scheme to player can work:

Besides Fox converting from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4 with personnel like Von Miller in Denver, Adam Gase tweaked his offense when he took over as offensive coordinator, Gase researched and found that Jay Cutler was a poor decision-maker. Accordingly, Gase dialed back the quarterback flexibility he’d used in Denver with Peyton Manning, the consummate decision-maker.

The result was Cutler’s best full season for completion percentage, interception percentage and passer rating.

QB fits

Whether the enforced presence of Trubisky on the roster is a positive or negative with coaching candidates will likely remain between Pace and the candidates; best guess is that a candidate doesn’t get on the interview list without some up-front Trubisky-approval vetting by Pace.

But while the move by Pace to target and draft a perceived franchise quarterback was a long-overdue move by Bears personnel chiefs going back more than a decade, it remains to play out whether inheriting a quarterback is a plus for the incoming coach.

Head coaches hired with quarterbacks in place routinely work out pretty well, based on this year’s playoff participants:

Coach                                  Inherited  

Doug Marrone, Jaguars    Blake Bortles

Sean McVay, Rams            Jared Goff

Dan Quinn, Falcons          Matt Ryan

Mike Tomlin, Steelers      Ben Roethlisberger

Sean McDermott, Bills     Tyrod Taylor

But coaches involved in acquiring their own quarterbacks have had arguably greater success:

Coach                                 Brought in

Bill Belichick, Patriots       Tom Brady (inherited Drew Bledsoe)

Mike Mularkey, Titans      Marcus Mariota

Sean Payton, Saints          Drew Brees

Doug Pederson, Eagles    Carson Wentz

Andy Reid, Chiefs              Alex Smith

Ron Rivera, Panthers        Cam Newton

Mike Zimmer, Vikings       Case Keenum

The Bears’ coaching search was set in motion last week concurrent with the firing of Fox. “We’re going to get into [criteria] as we go through the interview process, which’ll be thorough and extensive,” Pace said. “I don’t want to get into the exact details. It’s a competitive market but you can bet that we have criteria in mind that’s very detailed and I’ll feel very confident when we hit that.”

Beginning with a thing called “fit."