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Bears returner Marc Mariani ready to excel at receiver

Bears WR Marc Mariani. (AP)

A few teams came calling when receiver/return man Marc Mariani became available in free agency this month, but he said his heart remained at Halas Hall.

Mariani acknowledged it would have been tough for him to say no to general manager Ryan Pace, coach John Fox and new offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains if the Bears wanted to re-sign him.

‘‘This was my second time through free agency,’’ Mariani said in a phone interview Monday. ‘‘The first time I was coming off an injury, so it was one of those things where [teams] were silent. This time there were a few phone calls, and things were rolling a little bit. But it would have taken a lot to get me out of Chicago.

‘‘I really wanted to come back. I love the system. I love Dowell as an OC and coach Foxy and everything that they’re building. Free agency is always a little nerve-racking and exciting, but I’m just stoked to be coming back.’’

Mariani signed a one-year, $840,000 contract, including a signing bonus, on the fourth day of free agency. He is the Bears’ top return man and fourth or fifth receiver, but he stood out more at receiver last season.

Mariani will begin the offseason program next month with quarterback Jay Cutler’s complete confidence. He earned it, setting career highs with 22 receptions and 300 yards last season.

With Alshon Jeffery, Eddie Royal and Marquess Wilson injured at various times last season, Mariani emerged as a reliable option for Cutler. More specifically, he became a go-to option on third down from the slot. Nineteen of his 22 catches went for first downs, including 11 on third-down plays.

‘‘The biggest thing for me was proving to people that I could play that position at a high level,’’ said Mariani, who caught 19 passes in the last seven games. ‘‘Last year was really the biggest season of my career to play offense. I got that film out there and showed that I could do that. That was huge for me.

‘‘My whole career, I’ve been tabbed as a return man and as an insurance-man receiver and depth. Hopefully I proved that there’s more to me and that I can make plays when my name is called. The games down the stretch were big games for me. I was really pumped to go and make plays for Jay.’’

The Bears’ offense lost two playmakers in running back Matt Forte (signed with Jets) and tight end Martellus Bennett (traded to Patriots), but Mariani sees potential among the receivers.

‘‘I have total confidence that our receiver room could be one of the best in the league,’’ Mariani said. ‘‘I look at [2015 first-round pick] Kevin White coming back, and we all know what type of athlete he is. Alshon is one of the elite guys in the game. And with Eddie in there, on paper, it looks pretty good.’’

Mariani’s success at receiver made up for some of his struggles as a return man. He fumbled three times last season and was replaced by Deonte Thompson on kickoff returns midway through the season.

But Thompson remains a free agent, and the Bears re-signed Mariani in a matter of days.

Special-teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers has remained one of Mariani’s supporters. Mariani did have a 47-yard kickoff return in the season finale against the Lions.

‘‘I definitely had some bumps and bruises last year [with returns],’’ Mariani said. ‘‘I just want to be a guy that you can rely on, that you count on back there.

‘‘I’m just going to go into [next season] and be ready to be the guy. I’m ready to compete and make plays.’’

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Email: ajahns@suntimes.com