Bears Free Agency Preview: Wide Receiver

The Chicago Bears have already begun scouring the free-agent market for help at wide receiver. Knowing the team’s interest in upgrading the position, here are the top receivers about to hit the open market.

There is a lot of speculation about the future of Chicago Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall, who was highly problematic, both on and off the field, last season.

The Bears could save nearly $4 million in cap space by waiving Marshall before March 12, so it wouldn’t be a shock if the club parted ways with the mercurial receiver before then.

If that happens, it would immediately set the club’s receiving corps on its head. Alshon Jeffery would slide into the No. 1 role but beyond Marquess Wilson, who has 19 career receptions, the wideout cupboard is bare.

The Bears today met with Brian Hartline, who was waived by the Miami Dolphins last week. Obviously, Pace and Fox are interested in upgrading a shallow group of receivers.

With that in mind, here are the top free-agent pass catchers who will hit the open market next Tuesday, March 10.

Randall Cobb (5-10, 192) Age: 25
Cobb is arguably the best slot receiver in the NFL. He’s a quick, dynamic player who is a threat to score every time he touches the ball. He missed most of 2013 due to a knee injury but bounced back in 2014 with 91 catches for 1,287 yards and 12 TDs. He won’t turn 25 until August, so Cobb is by far the best long-term wide receiver on the market. He turned down a deal from the Packers that would have paid him $9 million per season, so he’s likely out of Chicago’s price range.

Jeremy Maclin (6-0, 198) Age: 27
Maclin missed all of 2013 with a torn ACL but was tremendous last year, catching 85 passes for 1,318 yards and 10 TDs. In five NFL seasons, he’s caught 36 touchdowns. He’s an injury risk but when he’s healthy, Maclin’s speed makes him difficult to defend. He has the skill set and pedigree to be the clear-cut No. 1 receiver in Chicago, and he’ll be cheaper than Cobb.

Cecil Shorts (6-0, 202) Age: 27
Shorts is a talented, big-play wide receiver who in 2012 finished second in the NFL with 17.8 yards per catch. When healthy, he’s a quality pass catcher with speed to make defenses pay after the catch, but he’s always banged up. Shorts has never played a full season during his four-year career and has just four touchdown receptions in 26 games played that last two seasons combined. The Bears would be wise to invest elsewhere.

Michael Crabtree (6-1, 214) Age: 27
In 2012, Crabtree caught 85 passes for 1,105 yards and 9 TDs, yet he tore his Achilles early in 2013 and didn’t look like the same player last year. He finished 2014 with just 698 receiving yards despite playing in all 16 contests. He’s still just 27 years old, so if fully healthy, Crabtree has comeback potential in 2015. At the right price, he’d be worth a speculative investment.

Torrey Smith (6-0, 205) Age: 26
Smith is one of the best downfield receivers in the game, one whose size, speed and leaping ability make him difficult to cover 1-on-1. In 2013, he caught 65 passes for 1,238 yards. Yet his production slipped to 49 receptions for 767 yards last season. He did manage to haul in 11 touchdowns but his disappointing 2014 may have reduced his price tag to an extent. Smtih would make an outstanding complement to Jeffery on the other side of the field.

Eddie Royal (5-10, 185) Age: 29
Royal has been an effective NFL slot receiver for seven seasons. He peaked as a rookie in Denver (91 catches, 980 yards) with Cutler throwing him the ball, so if the Bears retain Cutler, then Royal makes some sense. He’s also an experienced punt returner who average 9.1 yards per return in 2014. Royal isn’t the key to a championship but he’d be a quality piece of the puzzle.

Brian Hartline (6-2, 200) Age: 28
After back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns in 2012 and 2013, Hartline was an afterthought in Miami last season. He’s not extremely athletic but Hartline has size, good hands and brings veteran leadership. As a depth option, the Bears could do much worse.

Kenny Britt (6-3, 223) Age: 26
Britt has loads of potential but he’s never been able to put it together at the NFL level. He’s big, fast and has playmaking ability, yet injuries and apathy have held him back. Yet he’s only 26 years old and still has time to reach his ceiling. If the Bears feel receivers coach Mike Groh can help Britt play to his potential, he’d make a solid low-cost, high-upside option in Chicago.

Hakeem Nicks (6-1, 208) Age: 27
In 2010 and 2011, Nicks combined for 155 catches, 2,244 yards and 18 TDs. In the three seasons since, he has just 147 catches, 1,993 yards and 7 TDs. Nicks is obviously no longer the player he once was but he still has value in a No. 3 role.

Harry Douglas (6-0, 183) Age: 30
Just two seasons ago, Douglas caught 85 passes for 1,067 yards. In fact, whenever called into duty for the Falcons due to injuries to Julio Jones or Roddy White, Douglas always produced. He’s not flashy and he’s 30 years old but on a short-term, veteran-minimum deal, he’d be well worth the money.

THE PICK: Torrey Smith

Smith won’t come cheap and this signing only makes sense if Marshall is waived or traded, as the Bears could funnel the $4 million they’d save on Marshall’s contract to Smith.

Smith gives Chicago something the club has lacked for years: speed. He’s one of the best downfield targets in the game and can take the top off opposing secondaries. Despite a down year for Baltimore’s passing attack, Smith had a career-high 11 touchdowns last season.

He’s not a consistent player but the Bears already have that in Jeffery. With Smith scaring safeties on the opposite side of the field, Jeffery would have room to make plays as the team’s No. 1 pass catcher. And if defenses pay him too much attention, Smith would make them pay over the top.

If the Bears retain Marshall, then Hartline makes a lot of sense. He’s not a big playmaker but he’s dependable. In addition, he’s good friends with Marshall and could serve as a calming presence in the locker room.

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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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