Bears unsettled at wide receiver

The Bears today are meeting with former Dolphins wide receiver Brian Hartline. Considering the question marks surrounding Brandon Marshall, how secure is Chicago’s receiving corps?

The Chicago Bears have scheduled an interview today with former Miami Dolphins wide receiver Brian Hartline.

Hartline (6-2, 200) is a six-year veteran who played with Brandon Marshall in 2010 and 2011. He’s a sure-handed possession receiver who could provide depth to Chicago’s receiving corps.

The issue of receiver depth is obviously concerning to GM Ryan Pace and head coach John Fox, neither of whom will commit to Marshall in the long-term.

“We met with [Marshall] and that’s going to be a slow process,” Pace said a few weeks ago at the 2015 NFL Scouting Combine. “I know this, football needs to be the number one priority. We’re going to win a lot of games if we keep football our number one priority.”

Marshall was a distraction off the field last year and also produced career lows on the field (61 catches, 728 yards). He turns 31 this month and is due the third largest salary on the team next season ($9.57 million). Cutting Marshall would clear nearly $4 million in cap space, so it’s possible he’s played his last snap in the Windy City.

The uncertainty around Marshall puts the team’s receiving corps on shaky ground.

Alshon Jeffery is a Pro Bowl wideout coming off back-to-back campaigns of at least 85 catches and more than 1,100 receiving yards. He’s bona fide, yet there are legitimate concerns about whether he can handle the load as the clear-cut No. 1 receiver, as Jeffery has benefited greatly playing alongside Marshall. When teams roll coverage in Jeffery’s direction, he tends to go quiet.

Jeffery is still in the upper echelon of NFL wide receivers but could struggle without a strong supporting cast.

Marquess Wilson is a wildcard for Chicago’s passing attack. He has size (6-3, 200), speed and good hands, and was coming into his own before breaking his collarbone in training camp last year.

He returned in Week 11 and caught 17 passes for 140 yards and 1 TD in the final seven contests. His best outing came in Week 16 against the Detroit Lions: 7 catches for 66 yards.

Wilson has potential but he’s still an unknown commodity, a receiver who has caught just 19 passes in his career. Even if Fox and Gase believe Wilson is starter-caliber, he’s still too risky to serve as a foundational piece.

The only other Chicago receivers are Josh Bellamy, Josh Morgan and Marc Mariani, who is a return specialist. So it’s little wonder the club is visiting with Hartline, who had back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns in 2012 and 2013. Hartline’s experience and veteran leadership would go a long way for an offense that appeared directionless last season.

Also, don't rule out Lance Moore, who was recently cut by the Steelers. Moore was drafted by the Saints in 2005, when Pace was director of pro personnel in New Orleans.

The uncertainty at receiver could also prioritize the position in the draft. The Bears have numerous needs on defense but on draft day the new regime isn’t going to ignore an offense that far underachieved in 2014.

In the first round, Kevin White of West Virginia (6-3, 215, 4.34 40-yard dash) and Amari Cooper of Alabama (6-1, 211, 4.42) could be at or near the top of Pace’s big board.

In the second round, Sammie Coates of Auburn (6-1, 212, 4.42), Devin Smith of Ohio State (6-0, 196, 4.42) and Nelson Agholor of USC (6-0, 198, 4.42) are all prime targets for the Bears.

If the Bears are focused on adding a speed element to the aerial attack, Miami’s Phillip Dorsett (5-10, 185, 4.33) would be great value if he fell to the third round – although rumor has it the Packers are interested in Dorsett as a late second-round selection.

Free agency begins on March 10 at 3 p.m. CT. Because Hartline was waived, he’s free to sign with any team, including the Bears, any time before then. On March 12, Marshall’s 2015 base salary ($7.5 million) becomes fully guaranteed. If the club is looking to part ways with the mercurial receiver, it will happen before then.

Either way, it’s clear Pace and Fox aren’t comfortable with the receiving corps as it currently stands and may use both free agency and the draft to rebuild a position that was, as recently as last season, considered one of the strongest on the roster.

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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fifth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter.

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