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Bears’ general manager will have hands full

Of Bears’ 14 free agents running back Matt Forte is only one “must-keep” category. | Matt Slocum~AP

Of the Bears’ 14 free agents, running back Matt Forte is the only one in the “must-keep” category. | Matt Slocum~AP

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Updated: February 28, 2012 8:21AM

Chiefs director of college scouting Phil Emery still is considered the favorite to succeed Jerry Angelo as the Bears’ general manager. But whether it’s Emery or Patriots director of pro personnel Jason Licht, the winner will have a heavy workload the minute he signs his contract.

Though coach Lovie Smith is an untouchable and the core of the Bears’ roster for 2012 is intact, hiring a general manager in the middle of the evaluation period for the draft and free agency puts the Bears in catch-up mode.

But there’s more to it than that. When player evaluation and poor draft performance is the reason for change, every aspect of the player personnel department needs to be reviewed. Angelo was a ‘‘consensus’’ guy. Everybody who was part of the consensus contributed to his demise. A single change at the top isn’t likely to slingshot the Bears past the Lions and Packers in the NFC North.

With that in mind, here are some key issues facing Emery, ­Licht or whichever wild card might emerge (with the Bears, you never know) as the general manager:

1. The No. 2 man

Interim GM Tim Ruskell’s status needs to be addressed immediately. After being interviewed but not hired as Angelo’s replacement, his presence at Halas Hall has awkwardness written all over it. Emery’s background is almost exclusively in college scouting. If he gets the job, Ruskell could be the strong pro personnel authority Emery needs. Ruskell thrived in the right-hand man role under Rich McKay with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

2. Evaluate the roster

Under Angelo and Smith, the Bears developed a strong core but seemed easily satisfied with good-but-not-great supporting players — Israel Idonije at defensive end, Nick Roach at linebacker, Johnny Knox at wide receiver. The Giants might not have more overall talent than the Bears, but their balance at those positions is why they’re in their second Super Bowl in five years.

3. Matt Forte

Angelo went by the book and refused to overspend to keep his best offensive player happy. Forte has made it clear the franchise tag won’t keep him from grumbling through the 2012 season, or playing at all. This might be the first big test of the new GM’s ability to manage personnel.

4. The other free agents

Forte is one of the Bears’ 14 free agents, and all of them are unrestricted except running back Kahlil Bell. Only Forte is in the ‘‘must-keep’’ category. Idonije, special-teams ace Corey Graham, cornerback Tim Jennings, tight end Kellen Davis, wide receiver Roy Williams and Bell are next in line. Free agency begins March 13.

5. Scouting department

Scouting is an inexact and finicky science. Every team seems to have its own way of finding ‘‘the right fit’’ for its system. Emery and Licht have been around scouting long enough to bring in their own guys. Emery knows first-hand. He was demoted from director of college scouting to an area scout with the Falcons by new GM Tom Dimitroff in 2008. But changes usually don’t occur until after the draft.

6. Lance Briggs

After making the Pro Bowl for the seventh consecutive season despite his public disgruntlement over the Bears’ refusal to renegotiate the six-year, $36 million contract he signed in 2008, Briggs is hoping the team will reward him with a new deal. He still has two years left — $3.75 million in 2012 and $6.25 million in 2013.

7. Backup quarterback

Above all else, the new GM would be wise to realize that this position is the reason he is here. Unless he can find a way to keep Jay Cutler healthy, he better get this spot right.

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