Having yet to publicly commit to Brandon Marshall, the Bears brought in a different receiver for a Halas Hall interview Wednesday, sources said — Brian Hartline, who was released by the Dolphins last week.
What that means for Marshall is murky. Hartline, who caught 39 balls for 474 yards as the Dolphins’ No. 4 wideout last season, obviously wouldn’t be expected to replace the five-time Pro Bowler.
In fact, his friendship with Marshall might portend that the outspoken receiver — whose 2015 contract becomes guaranteed March 12, if the Bears don’t trade or release him first — could stay.
“I’ve always been proud of Brandon, whether it be on the field or off the field,” the 28-year-old Hartline said last season. “It’s great to call him friend and be there, and kinda give each other some crap every now and then.”
The Bears must decide the futures of Marshall and quarterback Jay Cutler in the next week. Cutler’s $15.5 million 2015 salary is already guaranteed; $10 million of his 2016 deal becomes so March 12. Were the Bears to release Cutler before then, they’d face a $19.5 million cap hit.
If both stay — Cutler’s chances are greater than Marshall’s — the Bears will be slated to, for the second year in a row, return every offensive starter.
As last season showed, though, that’s not always a good thing.
Here’s a look at the Bears’ current offensive breakdown:
2014 offensive rankings: Total – 21. Scoring – 23.
2014 Pro Bowl players: Two — right guard Kyle Long and tight end Martellus Bennett.
Notable free agents: Center Brian de la Puente, quarterback Jimmy Clausen, tight end Dante Rosario, tackle Eben Britton
Top 5 salary cap hits for 2015: Cutler ($16.5 million), Marshall ($9.575 million), running back Matt Forte ($9.2 million), left tackle Jermon Bushrod ($8.05 million), Bennett ($6.125 million).
Phil Emery offensive draft picks remaining: Seven. 2012 — wide receiver Alshon Jeffery; 2013 —Long, right tackle Jordan Mills, wide receiver Marquess Wilson; 2014 — running back Ka’Deem Carey, quarterback David Fales; tackle Charles Leno.
The Bears will devote more free-agent resources to their defense, which followed a franchise-worst season with its second-worst in 2014.
Assuming Cutler stays — his salary could make moving him impossible, anyway — the Bears will hunt for a backup via free agency. Wednesday’s trade of Matt Cassel from the Vikings to Bills added Minnesota to the list of teams interested in stable clipboard-holding veterans.
Unless they shift Long, a two-time Pro Bowler, from guard, the team could look to find starting competition for Jordan Mills, who has struggled in his two seasons at right tackle.
The team will look for another receiver, too, if they decide Marshall is more trouble than he’s worth.
But the most important signings the Bears make this offseason might be their own.
Jeffery and Forte are each entering the final years of their contracts, and both are itching for extensions. Fantex, the sports stock company that offered an IPO on Jeffery, estimated he would sign a six-year deal worth $79.4 million this offseason.
A brief look at the free-agent market:
Wideouts are in
Marshall can be had for the right price, but he’s not the only one.
Wideout Andre Johnson has reportedly asked the Texans to release him. While Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas were given franchise tags by the Cowboys and Broncos, respectively, the Packers’ Randall Cobb should make a killing on the free agent market.
Deep threat Torrey Smith, steady Cecil Shorts and slot waterbug Eddie Royal are free agents, too.
If the Bears try to move Marshall, it will be in a buyer’s market. If they decide to keep him, they can’t spend big money at the position.
Broncos guard Orlando Franklin is big enough — at 6-7, 320 pounds — to return to right tackle, where he started for the first three years of his career, if John Fox decides he’s up for a reunion.
The Bears could always use Mills as a versatile backup; the previous regime toyed with moving him to guard in the middle of last season.
Run run run
Their season all but over last year, the Bears never did see what they had in rookie running back Ka’Deem Carey, who had only six carries for 15 yards after Week 9.
Expect the team to find a veteran to push Carey — GM Ryan Pace comes from a running-back-by-committee team, anyway — even though the draft might offer the best rushing class in a decade.