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Mario Williams, Vincent Jackson would upgrade Bears immediately

2012 Pro Bowl

2012 Pro Bowl

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Updated: May 9, 2012 10:21AM



When NFL free agency opens Tuesday, the Bears will be among the haves — at least in terms of salary-cap space.

The Bears are among 11 teams thought to be more than $30 million below the 2012 salary cap of
$120.6 million. They have the most cap space in the NFC North, but their $34 million in space might be $30 million less than the Buccaneers have.

The Bears, Bucs and Redskins are thought to be the most aggressive bidders for two-time Pro Bowl receiver Vincent Jackson. According to a league source, the Bucs have the inside track to land Jackson, with the Bears among the serious suitors who might come up short.

But even if they don’t secure Jackson, the Bears have the money to upgrade their roster with any of several other difference-makers.

Here’s a closer look at some of the best candidates at the Bears’ positions of need:

WIDE RECEIVER

The prize: Vincent Jackson, Chargers: He has said he would return to the Chargers for less than what he might be offered by other teams, but sources indicate there will be a strong market for Jackson, one expected to be too rich for the Chargers’ taste. Despite the Bears’
interest in him, Jackson might cross the threshold they’re willing to pay. His salary might exceed $14 million a season, and the Bucs and Redskins also are interested.

The X-factor: Reggie Wayne, Colts: The five-time Pro Bowl receiver is 33, but he still finished with 960 yards last season despite horrid
quarterback play. Wayne publicly has stated an interest in continuing to play with longtime Colts quarterback Peyton Manning — wherever he ends up. But could the Bears woo him with Jay Cutler, a chance to be the No. 1 receiver and a healthy contract?

The others: There’s a deep group of free agents, including the
Steelers’ Mike Wallace, who is restricted, the Saints’ Marques Colston and Robert Meachem, the Colts’ Pierre Garcon, the Giants’ Mario Manningham and the Cowboys’ Laurent Robinson.

DEFENSIVE END

The prize: Mario Williams, Texans: The former No. 1 pick shouldn’t even be available, but his franchise number ($22 million) was simply too much for the Texans to take on. So Williams, 27, will be an unrestricted free agent. He might command a contract that pays him $14 million to $15 million a season, but he’ll upgrade any defense because of his well-rounded game.

The up-and-comer: Jeremy Mincey, Jaguars: In his first season as a full-time starter, Mincey had eight sacks and forced four fumbles. But he’ll turn 29 in December.

The X-factor: Dwight Freeney, Colts: One of the best defensive ends of his generation, Freeney has thrived in a defense similar to the one the Bears run. But he’s 32, his production has dipped (81/2 sacks in 16 games last season) and he’ll command a high salary and a potential pick because the Colts haven’t released him.

OTHER POSITIONS

The Bears could use help at cornerback, linebacker and tight end and maybe even on the offensive line or at safety. But the draft is stronger at some positions than at others.

For instance, the Bears might be better off addressing tight end via free agency than in the draft, which has a shallow pool of players. They could get a quality offensive lineman or linebacker in the draft. And there are solid options at cornerback in free agency — the Chiefs’ Brandon Carr, namely — or through the draft.

As for tight ends, there are several solid options in free agency. Coach Lovie Smith has gushed about Kellen Davis, but he’ll be in a solid free-agent class that also includes the Seahawks’ John Carlson, the Vikings’ Visanthe Shiancoe, the Cowboys’ Martellus Bennett and the Colts’ Jacob Tamme.

And while Smith has confidence in young safeties Major Wright and Chris Conte, there will be intriguing
options available in free agency. And general manager Phil Emery might deem one too good to pass up.



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