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Bears couldn’t lose by adding Texans free agent Mario Williams

Mario Williams (pulling down PeytManning) should be high-priority target for Bears. | Ronald Martinez~Getty Images

Mario Williams (pulling down Peyton Manning) should be a high-priority target for the Bears. | Ronald Martinez~Getty Images

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Updated: April 14, 2012 8:15AM



Even before the recent release of Peyton Manning — a first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback — the 2012 NFL free-agent class was among the best ever, loaded with promising and proven players younger than 30.

There are quality free agents at multiple positions, including ones that could be upgraded on the Bears. With an estimated $26 million in salary-cap space, the Bears have the flexibility to pursue anyone at any position.

The Bears should concentrate their efforts on one player: Mario Williams.

The Houston Texans had no intention of allowing Williams to walk. But the former No. 1 overall pick would have had a franchise number of $22 million, which was too high for the Texans to bear. While they’re still pushing to re-sign him, Williams is too close to free agency not to test the proverbial waters.

Williams will draw plenty of interest.

He’s just 27, and he has 53 career sacks. He was limited to five games last season, after tearing a pectoral muscle, but he still generated five sacks.

There’s always a risk investing in players developed on other NFL rosters. But defensive ends have proved to be safer, calculated gambles. Two of the most coveted free agents ever were defensive ends. The Green Bay Packers had no qualms about signing Reggie White, and the Bears have no regrets about signing Julius Peppers two years ago.

How could the Bears afford Williams and Peppers?

The price — and investment — would no doubt be steep. Peppers signed a six-year contract that guaranteed him $42 million. After restructuring his deal last offseason, Peppers’ cap number for 2012 is a team-high $12.18 million. In 2010, after his signing, Peppers’ cap number was $14.7 million.

If Williams signed a similar deal, then his cap number would be comparable, although — more likely — a bit higher. If the structure were similar to Peppers, though, the combined cap number for the two defensive ends would be $26.88 million, or 22 percent of the 2012 salary cap of $120.6 million.

Not included in that figure is the eventual extension that defensive tackle Henry Melton will receive.

Many would argue that the Bears have more pressing needs and that Williams is a luxury.

But 2011 is all the evidence someone needs to see, to understand the significance of the D-line to the Bears. With Israel Idonije slowed by injuries, and the inability of Corey Wootton — projected to push the veteran during training camp — to stay healthy, offenses concentrated their efforts on stopping Peppers.

That Peppers still finished with 11 sacks is a testament to his talent.

But the Bears didn’t get enough help from other players. Melton had his moments, but he has admitted he needs to be more consistent. Stephen Paea flashed, as did Amobi Okoye. But there were stretches when the defensive line didn’t muster enough pressure.

Instead of trying to be like the Joneses, the Bears should be building off their strengths. The Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers boast elite passing offenses.

Could Vincent Jackson transform the Bears passing offense that much?

That’s entirely possible.

But there’s a litany of free-agent receivers who have landed huge contracts from other teams, then ­disappointed with their ­production.

Instead, the Bears could instill fear in opponents by fielding the best defensive end duo in the NFL — bar none — if they can get ­Williams and Peppers on the field together.

Signing Williams wouldn’t leave the Bears enough to sign Jackson.

They’d need at least $5 million for their rookie class, and a couple more million to sign veterans, during the season. They can still create nearly $2 million in cap space by releasing running back Marion Barber, then they could focus on bargain-shopping.

With a glut of veterans available and more soon to be released, there will ­inevitably be a game of musical chairs, with players just looking for jobs.

NOTE: The Bears tendered the minimum qualifying offer to running back Kahlil Bell, a restricted free agent, at a cost of $1.26 million. That allows them to match any offer from another club. For about $700,000 more, the Bears could have placed a second-rounder tender on Bell. That way, if another club signed Bell, they’d have to concede a second-round pick as well to the Bears.



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