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Bears’ receiving corps needs a boost for 2012

Vikings cornerback Asher Allen tackles Bears receiver Roy Williams who had TD receptiSunday. | Andy King~AP

Vikings cornerback Asher Allen tackles Bears receiver Roy Williams, who had a TD reception Sunday. | Andy King~AP

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Updated: February 3, 2012 8:14AM

MINNEAPOLIS — As the Bears prepared for their season finale, Roy Williams gathered his fellow receivers Friday and gave a pep talk.

“I told these guys this is the best wide receiver corps I’ve ever played with,” Williams said. “As a collective group, we’ve got speed. We’ve got a guy in Earl [Bennett] that, you just throw it to him. Then we’ve got a daredevil in Dane [Sanzenbacher], who sticks his head in everything.

“Get Johnny [Knox] back, and we’ll be good. As a group, I think we can come together and make a machine.”

Williams didn’t provide a punch line or wink. He didn’t even punctuate his comments with a smile.

He was serious.

To his credit, Williams made a sizable contribution as the Bears ended a five-game skid with a 17-13 victory over the Minnesota Vikings at Mall of America Field. Williams led the Bears with 60 receiving yards, and he scored the offense’s only touchdown, a 22-yarder, at the start of the second quarter. Set to become an unrestricted free agent, Williams had his finest two-game stretch of the season: 10 catches for 141 yards and a touchdown.

If possible, at the right price, the Bears should bring back Williams.

He was the most productive receiver at the end of the season and finished tied for second in catches with 37, but that only reinforces why the Bears must land a go-to receiver in the offseason.

And the timing couldn’t be better for receiver-hungry teams.

There will be some talented unrestricted free agents available, arguably the deepest class in recent memory. Vincent Jackson of the San Diego Chargers, Dwayne Bowe of the Kansas City Chiefs, Marques Colston of the New Orleans Saints and Wes Welker of the New England Patriots could be the headliners, but there are other intriguing options such as Pierre Garcon (Indianapolis Colts), Robert Meachem (Saints), Reggie Wayne (Colts) and Plaxico Burress (New York Jets).

It’s unclear what’s going to happen with Jackson because the Chargers are reportedly going to fire coach Norv Turner, and the Chiefs, Patriots and Saints might not be able to give their respective receivers the contracts they believe they deserve.

The Saints are worth a close look. They’ve made no headway on an extension for quarterback Drew Brees, which means they’ll likely have to use the franchise tag on him. That means Colston will become an unrestricted free agent along with Meachem.

The Saints almost certainly cannot afford to keep both, let alone one.

In addition, the NFL draft will feature a host of talented players, most notably Justin Blackmon of Oklahoma State and Michael Floyd of Notre Dame.

The Bears are aiming for a championship run in 2012, so they might be better off targeting a free agent, then spending a pick in the third round or later on a developmental player, as well.

With the exception of defensive end Julius Peppers, the Bears haven’t been inclined to hand an established veteran a market-level contract. So if they want to go the bargain route, then Meachem and Garcon could be more appealing.

Coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jerry Angelo haven’t given their opinions on the receiver position. But Williams and his fellow receivers were all on the same page.

Bennett and Devin Hester also backed the current group.

Asked about the Bears pursuing a No. 1 receiver, Bennett said, “Man, I’ve been hearing that for four years.

“I’m tired of hearing that, honestly. If you look at the stats, every guy who plays in this offense has been doing a great job at receiver. Everyone has been doing their job and making plays. I don’t listen to what people say, but I’m sick and tired of hearing that.

“I feel this group right here is the best we’ve had in Chicago since I’ve been here.”

Ultimately, though, the Bears haven’t had a 1,000-yard wide receiver since 2002, when Marty Booker had 97 catches for 1,189 yards.

And while the Bears justifiably can point to the loss of quarterback Jay Cutler, the reality is the passing offense — which finished the season ranked 26th — was ranked 22nd before he got hurt.

Hester backed the perseverance of his unit, which had to overcome and deal with injuries.

But asked if changes are coming, Hester said, “It’s always like that in this league.

“I never heard of an NFL team that brought back the same players. It’s the nature of the beast.”

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