Free agency kicks off soon, and last week we started a countdown of the top 10 Chicago Bears' players set on March 10 to hit the open market. We pick up the series this today with No. 7:

Jimmy Clausen

2014 pay: $645,700 ($645,000 base salary, $700 workout bonus).

Clausen
By the numbers: He played in four games with one start, completing 54.2 percent of his passes for 223 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. He had a passer rating of 71.8.

The case for keeping him: It’s difficult to find young, backup quarterbacks with experience. A five-year veteran, Clausen has 11 starts, with the majority (10) coming during his time playing for new Bears coach John Fox in Carolina. During his lone start in 2014, a Dec. 21 loss to the Detroit Lions, Clausen performed well enough to cement status as a bona fide No. 2 option who can get a team through a game in a pinch if the starter goes down.

The case for letting him walk: Fox was forced to throw Clausen into the fire during the quarterback’s rookie season, and that decision ultimately resulted in him losing his job with the Panthers. Although Clausen didn’t play much for the Bears last season, he put enough on tape for teams to feel confident about him as a strong backup option. So there is a good chance Chicago could be competing for Clausen’s services, which in turn could drive up his asking price.

Prediction: Just last season, the Bears chose Clausen as the starter over Cutler, because of the latter’s inability to consistently execute the scheme the way he was asked. If the Bears decide to keep Cutler, it would be a smart move to keep Clausen on the roster, too. In fact, the team should probably open up competition for the starting position. Cutler hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2009, and it’s unclear how he will get along with new quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains and offensive coordinator Adam Gase, provided the team keeps him. So it would be a good idea to keep an experienced player such as Clausen on the roster. It’s doubtful the Bears will have much competition for Clausen’s services. So they should be able to bring Clausen back on a one-year deal very similar to the one he signed last offseason when joining Chicago.
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- The Chicago Bears announced Friday they signed tight end Zach Miller to a one-year extension.

Miller
Miller
Miller, 30, landed on the injured reserve last August after suffering a season-ending Lisfranc injury (torn foot ligament) in the preseason, but caught the staff’s eye prior to that with a strong preseason debut against the Philadelphia Eagles (six catches, for 68 yards and two touchdowns) and promising workouts during training camp.

Miller suffered the injury in the second quarter of the team’s win in the second preseason game over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Prior to that, the Bears had been experimenting more with Miller in the lineup opposite starter Martellus Bennett in double tight-end formations.

Miller played in 29 games over his first two years in the NFL (2009-10) with the Jaguars, but since 2011, he’s participated in just four contests as injuries continue to keep him sidelined. Miller hasn’t been a part of an active roster since 2011. He spent 2012 on the injured reserve in Jacksonville, and in 2013, Miller worked with Tampa Bay in the offseason, but was waived prior to the start of the regular season.

In all, Miller has played in 33 games with five starts, contributing 45 catches for 470 yards and four touchdowns.

The Bears signed Milller originally in December of 2013.
Thanks to everyone participating in this week's Twitter mailbag.

Let's get started.

@mikecwright: I'm not sure about "fits" as you say, but the Bears are definitely interested in David Harris of the New York Jets, and Tampa Bay's Mason Foster as potential fits at inside linebacker. I think linebackers such as Jonathan Casillas and O'Brien Schofield are also players to keep an eye on as free agency approaches. I think San Francisco has some interesting things going on at linebacker as well. Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman appear to be close to returning to full health, which means that last year's starters Chris Borland and Michael Wilhoite could be relegated to backup roles. So perhaps new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, given his familiarity with all four players, could talk Ryan Pace into trying to trade for one of his former 49ers pupils.

@mikecwright: I could definitely see that happening. The names to look out for would be linebacker Nate Irving, safety Rahim Moore and defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, aka "Pot Roast," as all three are free agents. Knighton is reportedly looking to make somewhere in the neighborhood of $7.5 million per year, which seems a tad steep. Knighton played in Jacksonville and Denver for new Oakland Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio. So there's a good chance Del Rio could be looking to add Knighton as well. Irving is coming off a torn ACL, which means he probably won't have much leverage in terms of landing a big-money deal. But Irving became a full-time starter in 2014, and seems to be an ascending player. Moore, meanwhile, will be one of the better safeties on the market along with New England's Devin McCourty. So there's a good chance Moore could be looking for more than the Bears would be willing to pay. In the past, the Bears didn't value the safety position in terms of handing out big-money deals. Perhaps that's changed with Pace as the GM.

@mikecwright: I think you got it right. But I go back and forth between where to put Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall. In fact, I'd say Marshall probably has a better chance of returning to Chicago than Cutler.

@mikecwright: I'm sure that 5.64 time in the 40-yard dash hurt him in the eyes of some scouts, but I don't believe that will affect his draft position. What you've got to realize is that Danny Shelton has rare power and strength, and he did put up a 30.5-inch vertical leap, which means he's got the explosion that personnel evaluators covet. He's also got the strength and power to command double-teams, which in turn would keep offensive linemen off the linebackers to allow them to run around and make plays. Shelton met with several teams at the combine, including Chicago, Indianapolis, Arizona, Green Bay, the New York Giants and New Orleans, and I don't think any of those teams' interest has waned after that time in the 40. Ultimately, what the player put on tape in games is what Shelton will be judged on; not a 40-yard dash time.

@mikecwright: I like him. Personal side note: Petty's coach at Baylor, Art Briles, was head coach of the Stephenville [Texas] Yellow Jackets back when they defeated us (Wichita Falls, Texas -- Hirschi High School) 49-40 in the first round of the playoffs my sophomore year. Anyway, as much as I like Petty, I don't think he's quite ready. I think he'll need a few years to learn the nuances of an NFL system before he's ready to be a starter. So if the Bears were to draft Petty, they'd have to let him sit and learn a few years before thrusting him into any real action.

Even Petty admitted that it's difficult at this point to project how he'll fare in an NFL system because of his background in a spread offense, but said he's more of a pocket passer than most spread quarterbacks.

"We were in the spread, but at the same time, I feel like I am a pocket passer," Petty said at the NFL combine. "I want to extend plays, extend plays within the pocket. That might be a little bit different than most spread quarterbacks who want to run it out of the pocket. For me, I feel like my game can translate easier in that, and the fact that I want to play within the pocket, and I want to extend plays within the pocket and beat you doing that."

Free agency kicks off soon, so let's count down the top 10 Chicago Bears' players set on March 10 to hit the open market:

We'll go in reverse order.

Britton
Britton
Here's No. 8: Eben Britton

2014 pay: $730,000 ($730,000 base salary).

By the numbers: Played in 10 games as the club's sixth offensive lineman, and participated in 11.6 percent of the team's snaps last season. Britton missed five games after having his appendix removed in October.

The case for keeping him: Britton possesses the versatility to play either of the tackle spots, but he can also kick inside to guard and contribute. Britton was usually the player utilized when the Bears lined up with an extra offensive lineman at the tight end spot -- providing Chicago a proven swing tackle. Given Jordan Mills' struggles in 2014, Britton could potentially compete for a starting job in 2015 if he's brought back.

The case for letting him walk: Britton missed plenty of time at training camp in 2014 due to a hamstring injury, which led to the Bears terminating his contract at the end of camp during final cuts. Britton's experience and versatility makes him an attractive addition for other teams. But the Bears don't need to overpay because they could probably get by with 2014 seventh-round pick Charles Leno Jr. assuming the swing-tackle role.

Prediction: Despite all Phil Emery's mistakes with personnel on defense, he built a deep offensive line for the Bears with proven players such as Britton assuming backup roles. Surely the new brass will recognize Britton's worth and bring him back at a veteran minimum rate if another team doesn't overpay.

Previous installments

No: 10: Linebacker Darryl Sharpton.

No. 9: Safety Danny McCray.
As Bears general manager Ryan Pace and coach John Fox evaluate Jay Cutler to determine whether to bring him back for the 2015 season, ESPN NFL analyst Jon Gruden thinks it’s time the club gives another signal-caller an opportunity.

Asked on ESPN "Mike & Mike" on Thursday what would go into the final decision regarding Cutler, Gruden said, “I think John Fox is going to look at the body of work. They’re going to see that he didn’t get it done really with Lovie Smith or Marc Trestman, and now I’m the next head coach. I think you need to give some other people an opportunity to play. I think some of these quarterbacks get too many chances. There are good enough players out there that deserve a chance to be the quarterback of the Chicago Bears.”

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsJay Cutler got a $126.7 million extension from the Bears in January 2014, but the team is still exploring its options at quarterback.
In six seasons with the Bears, Cutler produced a regular-season record of 44-38 and has thrown 129 touchdown passes to go with 93 interceptions for a passer rating of 84.3.

The new regime’s intense evaluation of Cutler stems from his seven-year, $126.7 million extension signed last January. Cutler’s $15.5 million base salary for 2015 is already fully guaranteed, but if the quarterback remains on the roster on the third day of the new league year (March 12), he’s guaranteed another $10 million of his 2016 salary.

“I know he has talent,” Gruden said. “But I don’t think he warrants that salary for sure. I think Chicago needs to look at getting a different leader under center.”

It’s clear the new regime has at least explored that possibility. The club met recently at the NFL combine in Indianapolis with former backup Josh McCown for breakfast in a restaurant inside the team’s hotel.

"[The] meeting went really well. [I] enjoyed spending time with them," McCown told ESPN.

McCown played for Fox in Carolina (2008-09) and spent three seasons with the Bears (2011-13) before signing a two-year deal to join former coach Lovie Smith in Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers released McCown on Feb. 11.

McCown played a significant role in Chicago, helping the club to implement a new offense under Trestman and former offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer, and was often described by former Bears general manager Phil Emery as "a glue guy" in the locker room.

McCown played eight games during his last season in Chicago (2013), winning three games in five starts while filling in for an injured Cutler. McCown performed well enough to stir debate about whether he should be the full-time starter over Cutler.

“Two years ago, the Bears were on the brink of going to the playoffs because of Josh McCown’s play,” Gruden said. “Josh McCown played great for Marc Trestman. He fit that system. He understood it. He looked like he was in rhythm. He won a lot of games just two years ago for the Bears. He’s available. You can bring Josh McCown back. Jake Locker, possibly. There are some quarterbacks out there that need a new place to go. We were in Super Bowl XXXVII with Brad Johnson, I think he was on his third team. Rich Gannon was on his fifth team. Steve Young never started until he was 30 years old. We live in a day where everything has to happen right now, or let’s get him out of here. Some of these guys are going to prove to you that they can play. They just need a new setting.”

Perhaps that also includes Cutler.
Free agency kicks off in a little more than two weeks, so let’s count down the top 10 Chicago Bears’ players set on March 10 to hit the open market:

McCray
We’ll go in reverse order.

Here’s No. 9:

Danny McCray, safety

2014 pay: $796,538 ($730,000 base salary, $60,938 roster bonus, $5,600 workout bonus)

By the numbers: McCray played in 15 games for the Bears in 2014, contributing 19 tackles on defense and 10 stops on special teams. McCray participated in 16.1 percent of the team’s snaps on defense, but played on 274 of the club’s 435 snaps on special teams.

The case for keeping him: Former general manager Phil Emery gutted Chicago’s special-teams units, which resulted in one of the team’s worst performances in that facet of the game in recent history. McCray is a core special-teams player and one of the unit’s top players. McCray also adds value as a reserve safety and made 10 tackles in the team’s Sept. 22 victory over the New York Jets. McCray turns 27 in March and still appears to have some upside.

The case for letting him walk: McCray can come into the starting lineup in a pinch, but the Bears might be able to find a better player in free agency to serve as a backup on defense and as a top contributor on special teams.

Prediction: McCray might be one of the team’s best players on special teams, but on defense he’s been somewhat of a liability in coverage. McCray will be one of the late signings of free agency, and it's more than likely he won’t be signing with the Bears.

Previous installments
No: 10: Linebacker Darryl Sharpton.
The Chicago Bears announced Wednesday that they signed cornerback Demontre Hurst to a two-year extension.

Terms of the deal were not immediately disclosed.

Hurst debuted with the Bears in 2014, playing in 15 games with two starts. He contributed 35 tackles, picked off a pass and forced a fumble, in addition to contributing 1.5 tackles for lost yardage. Hurst spent the entire 2013 season as a rookie on the club's practice squad but in 2014 became Chicago's No. 3 cornerback.

Hurst originally signed with the Bears in 2013 as an undrafted rookie out of Oklahoma.

The cornerback proved valuable as a key cog in some of the team's substitution packages but also carved out a niche on special teams, where in 2014 he contributed eight tackles.
Free agency kicks off in a little more than two weeks, so let’s count down the top 10 Chicago Bears players set to hit the open market March 10:

Sharpton
We’ll go in reverse order.

Here’s No. 10:

Darryl Sharpton, linebacker

2014 pay: $730,000

By the numbers: Played in just 9.9 percent of the team’s defensive snaps last season, making his debut in Chicago’s starting lineup in an Oct. 12 win over the Atlanta Falcons. Sharpton posted 15 tackles and broke up one pass.

The case for keeping him: The Bears need inside and outside linebackers in the switch to a 3-4 front, and while Sharpton likely wouldn’t challenge for a starting job, he’s proved more than capable as a backup and special-teams contributor. Sharpton opened eyes in the team’s win over Atlanta, with some pondering whether he deserved a more significant role on defense. Sharpton filled in for Brian Cushing in Houston’s 3-4 scheme back in 2013, racking up 87 tackles in 15 games. Sharpton certainly won’t break the bank in a new deal, so it’s worth it to bring him back because he’s a quality backup with experience working in a 3-4 front.

The case for letting him walk: Although Sharpton has proved to be a solid performer, he’s been injury prone throughout his NFL career. Prior to coming to Chicago, Sharpton started the 2012 season on the physically unable to perform list and finished it on the injured reserve. Sharpton played in just eight games in 2011, a year removed from playing 12 games in 2010 and starting in six of them. The Bears placed Sharpton on the injured reserve in December due to a hamstring injury. Prior to the club ending Sharpton’s season, he hadn’t played for the Bears since Week 8.

Prediction: Although injuries remain a concern regarding Sharpton, it’s worth it for the Bears to bring him back on a one-year veteran minimum type of deal if he doesn’t sign with another team because of his experience in 3-4 schemes. A deal for Sharpton likely won’t come until the back end of free agency.

Bears interested in bolstering linebacking corps

February, 25, 2015
Feb 25
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ESPN Bears reporter Michael C. Wright discusses areas the team may address in free agency.

NFL Nation TV podcast: Lessons from the combine

February, 24, 2015
Feb 24
4:15
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Take a listen to this week's NFL Nation TV podcast as the crew breaks down the lessons it learned from last week's NFL combine in Indianapolis, as well as the latest in the push for bringing the NFL to Los Angeles.

Host Paul Gutierrez (San Francisco 49ers reporter) and co-hosts Coley Harvey (Cincinnati Bengals reporter) and Mike Wells (Indianapolis Colts reporter) are joined by four other NFL Nation reporters.

Eric Williams (San Diego Chargers reporter) joins to give an idea of how feasible it would be for the Raiders and Chargers to share a stadium in Southern California. Pat Yasinskas (Tampa Bay Buccaneers reporter) discusses why he thinks Jameis Winston is all but a lock to be the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. Rich Cimini (New York Jets reporter) breaks down which direction the Jets will go with the No. 6 overall draft pick. Will they go with a quarterback? Defense? Receiver? Paul Kuharsky (Tennessee Titans reporter) weighs with his thoughts on where the Titans will turn at No. 2 if Winston is off the board.

Be sure to watch NFL Nation TV live on ESPN.com at 1 p.m. ET/10 a.m. PT each Tuesday, and be sure to give the show's a podcast a listen following each taping.
To read too far into Matt Forte's tweets from over the weekend would be a tad irresponsible, but there's no denying the running back, based on his posts from over the weekend, is at least a little concerned about his standing with the Chicago Bears.

Forte posted a story about potential trade options for the running back, and added the comment: "What y'all think about this Bear fans?"


Forte followed that up with: "A lot of football left in me. I want to play for the Chicago Bears and retire a lifelong Bear. But they have to want the same thing."


Forte apparently thinks the organization doesn't, but it's likely the brass hasn't actually held any substantial conversations with the running back about his future or discussed potentially trading him because new general manager Ryan Pace and coach John Fox are still working overtime to evaluate the entire roster in an effort to determine the team's needs headed into free agency and the draft.

Forte is set to enter the final year of a four-year deal signed back in 2012, and it's likely his agent Adisa Bakari is, or at least will be, banging the table hard for the Bears to give the running back a new contract. But given all the team's needs on defense, coupled with the fact the Bears still need to figure out a way to prevent receiver Alshon Jeffery from hitting free agency when his deal expires next season, Forte won't register as high on Chicago's list of priorities.

Forte
Forte
The organization still hasn't yet approached Jeffery's representatives about doing a new deal, according to a source. So it's likely the Bears would prioritize Jeffery, who is just 25 and playing a more difficult to fill position than running back, over Forte, who will be 30 after next season, when his contract expires.

Forte knows the game, or at least should considering the contentious nature of negotiations between the sides the last time they struck a deal. Forte should also be aware that for the Bears, it might actually make sense to trade him now because his value isn't likely to rise any higher than it is right now.

Forte ranks No. 2 in Bears history in yards from scrimmage (11,431) and rushing yards (7,704) and is fourth in touchdowns (57). He ranks No. 1 in the NFL since coming into the league in 2008 in yards from scrimmage (11,431) and games in which he reached 150 yards or more from scrimmage (23). He's also third in rushing yards during that span, and tops among all running backs in receptions (443).

Yet all of Forte's accolades and contributions won't ever trump the business side of the game, where teams typically don't like to sign running backs to a third contract, in a league in which running backs have increasingly become a dime-a-dozen type of position.

Forte is scheduled to receive a base salary of $6.65 million in 2015, and given Fox's background as a run-first coach, the running back will earn every penny of that money next season. There's also a good chance Forte could be sharing the load in the backfield with rising second-year man Ka'Deem Carey.

It's unknown exactly what Forte might be seeking in a new contract from the Bears after his deal expires in 2015. But at age 30 after next season, Forte can't expect to receive a new deal near as lucrative as his last.

That's just the reality of the business.

NFL Nation TV wraps up the combine

February, 24, 2015
Feb 24
11:00
AM ET
Join us today at 1 p.m. ET, 10 a.m. PT for NFL Nation TV's Spreecast as we return from a one-week hiatus for episode No. 45 with a decidedly combine feel.

Host Paul Gutierrez (San Francisco 49ers reporter) and co-hosts Coley Harvey (Cincinnati Bengals reporter) and Mike Wells (Indianapolis Colts reporter) will be joined by four other NFL Nation reporters throughout the show.

Eric Williams (San Diego Chargers reporter) and Gutierrez will attempt to make sense of the notion that the Chargers and Raiders, who have both called Los Angeles home in the past and have been fierce rivals since their AFL inception, could share a stadium in nearby Carson.

Pat Yasinkas (Tampa Bay Buccaneers reporter) will also let us know what the Buc's might do with the No. 1 overall pick after James Winston's showing at the combine.

Staying with the QB vibe, Rich Cimini (New York Jets reporter) will give us an update on what he thinks Gang Green will do at No. 6 overall in the draft if both Winston and Marcus Mariota are off the board.

And Paul Kuharsky (Tennessee Titans reporter) opines on what the Titans might do at No. 2 overall, go with one of the QBs or perhaps rising USC defensive lineman Leonard Williams, or might they go in an entirely different direction?

Viewers are encouraged to log in and ask the panelists questions as well as contribute in the chat feature.

video
INDIANAPOLIS -- Chicago Bears coach John Fox and general manager Ryan Pace met Wednesday with the media at the NFL combine, and several other interview sessions commenced Friday involving general managers and head coaches around the league. Here’s what we’ve learned about the Bears:

Inside linebackers on radar: Multiple sources indicate the Bears are looking to add inside linebackers in free agency. Interestingly, the current roster features some intriguing possibilities at the position in Jonathan Bostic, Khaseem Greene and the recently re-signed DeDe Lattimore, along with pending veteran free agent Lance Briggs. The team’s interest level in re-signing Briggs is unclear. Briggs earned $4.75 million in base salary in 2014, and likely won’t be able to command such a lucrative salary in free agency.

The Bears will meet with reps for New York Jets free agent inside linebacker David Harris this week at the combine, according to a source. Harris has generated 100-plus tackles in each of the last three seasons and hasn’t missed a game since 2008.

Jay Cutler-friendly staff: At least on the surface, it appears that the new staff is Cutler-friendly it its hiring of offensive coordinator Adam Gase and quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains.

According to multiple sources, Cutler started to grow close to Gase after spending considerable time with the former Denver Broncos offensive coordinator at the wedding of former Bears quarterbacks coach Shane Day, a disciple of former Bears coordinator Mike Martz. Cutler has wanted to work with Gase for a long time. Interestingly, Martz tried to bring aboard Gase back in 2010 as the quarterbacks coach, but the Denver Broncos wouldn’t allow him out of his contract, which led to the hiring of Day.

It goes even deeper than that, though.

Back in 2012, Cutler wanted former Bears coach Lovie Smith to hire Loggains, but he wasn’t allowed out of his contract with the Tennessee Titans. Cutler and Loggains have a close personal relationship, according to sources, and both the quarterback and coach have wanted to work with one another for quite some time.

So while Fox and Pace have been noncommittal regarding Cutler, the club’s recent hires indicate the team ultimately wants to make things work with the quarterback.

Amari Cooper high on Mike Groh: The Alabama receiver complimented Bears assistant coach Groh for his attention to detail, according to this piece by ESPNChicago.com colleague Jeff Dickerson.

“He’s really diligent in the way he wants to teach us,” said Cooper, projected as a first-round pick. He’ll go out and watch a lot of film on other guys, NFL wide receivers, and come back and try to teach it to us so we can be the best we can be.”

Groh worked with Cooper at Alabama from 2011-12 as the team’s receivers coach and recruiting coordinator.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Consensus first-round pick Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper complimented Chicago Bears assistant Mike Groh's attention to detail when asked Friday to describe the impact Groh had on the wideouts' spectacular collegiate career.

Groh, the club's highly regarded wide receivers coach since 2013, worked with Cooper at Alabama when he served as the Crimson Tide's receivers coach and recruiting coordinator from 2011-2012, helping lead the program to back-to-back national championships.

"Coach Groh is a great coach," Cooper said at Lucas Oil Stadium. "He's really specific. He's really diligent in the way he wants to teach us. He'll go out and watch a lot of film on other guys, NFL wide receivers, and come back and try to teach it to us so we can be the best we can be."

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. projects the Oakland Raiders selecting Cooper with the No. 4 overall choice.

The Bears jettisoned the majority of the coaching staff upon the firing of Marc Trestmam, but the team reached an agreement to extend Groh's contract on Jan. 30, making him one of only two holdovers (along with outside linebackers coach Clint Hurtt) from the old regime.

Under Groh, the Bears have had three 1,000-yard receiving seasons -- Alshon Jeffery (2013, 14) and Brandon Marshall (2013).

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