Ryan Pace wants to build around quarterback Jay Cutler with playmakers.
Three Bears whose futures are in doubt — wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, running back Matt Forte and tight end Martellus Bennett — fit that description. Still, there are differing degrees of doubt Monday as to whether they’ve played their last game with the Bears.
One day after their 6-10 season ended, the players and the Bears general manager evaluated their futures:
Jeffery the franchise?
Pace will have to consider both sides in the coming weeks: Jeffery missed seven games this season with various soft tissue injuries, but averaged 89.7 receiving yards, eighth in the NFL, when he played.
The Bears are encouraged that Jeffery played all 16 games in the two previous seasons, and will research how to better keep him on the field by examining his ideal body weight, workload and hydration levels.
“We got to get a better grasp of that,” Pace said. “Part of the evaluation of a player is his injuries and his availability.”
That presumes of course, that Jeffery returns. The Bears are likely to at least give the free agent a franchise tag, which would lock him into Chicago for one year and provide a starting point for negotiations.
“Normally, it’s in the best interest of the club and the player to come to a longer-term agreement,” Pace said.
Last year, the Cowboys’ Dez Bryant signed a five-year, $70 million extension, with $45 million guaranteed, after he threatened to skip games without a long-term deal.
Jeffery wasn’t effusive about the tag — “If it happens, it happens,” he said — and said he’d leave further negotiations to Pace and his agent, Eugene Parker.
Three times when asked about his future, Jeffery said he “loves the city of Chicago” — parse that how you will — and shot down the notion he’d prefer to play in the South.
“It’s not about the money,” he said. “But it’s also about what’s the right situation for me. Like winning a championship, that’s all I care about.”
Jeffery plans to work on his the soft-tissue issues in the coming months.
“I plan on having a hell of an offseason,” he said.
The Work Horse
One item hung in Forte’s locker during move-out day: a cutoff navy T-shirt with his number on the back.
The name above the number: “Work Horse.”
”You see how tattered and beat up and stuff (it is),” he said Monday at Halas Hall. “It’s not like me. I’m still good. I just wanted to leave it in there because all my hard work, blood, sweat, tears is in this shirt, too.”
The Bears’ running back joked the shirt would be a motivation to come back to Halas Hall.
If he doesn’t, it’ll be a fitting memorial for the 30-year-old free agent.
Forte and Pace met in the GM’s office Monday, but there was no talk of his future.
“The time will come when we have that conversation,” Forte said.
Before the season began, Forte offered to lower his cap number for his final year in exchange for an extension. Pace passed — and Forte braced all year for the fact Sunday was his last game as a Bear.
Both Pace and coach John Fox prefer rotating running backs. The Bears did that as the season wore on, using Forte and rookie Jeremy Langford on alternating drives with second-year player Ka’Deem Carey mixing in on short-yardage downs.
A committee approach would seem to rule out Forte next season, but he’s been careful not to say so publicly. He claims he’s never felt so fresh at the end of games.
Because Langford and Carey are on their rookie deals, though, the Bears aren’t devoting much money to the position.
A two-year deal would have Forte departing as Carey’s deal expired, while a three-year contract would come up the same date as Langford.
Forte deserves something similar to the three-year, $12 million deal Frank Gore signed at 31 last offseason. Since 2012, only two men 30 or older have rushed for 1,000 yards or more: Gore, twice, and Adrian Peterson this year.
Pace praised Forte’s attitude in sharing carries, but said the Bears need to be honest with their assessment of him.
“When we’re talking about players, everything is coming into play — his physical traits, all the intangibles, his injury history, age,” Pace said.
Forte said there’s a chance Sunday wasn’t goodbye.
“Everybody’s acting like it’s a going-away party, like a funeral or something,” he said. “No decisions have been made. I can be back.”
Dinosaur era over?
Pace denied that there was a broken relationship between the Bears and Bennett, who stayed away from Halas Hall last offseason looking for a new deal.
The GM said he’d likely talk to Bennett’s agent soon, but it seems unlikely he’d rush to offer an extension. Bennett is a year older, and had 53 catches for 439 yards in 11 games before going to injured reserve with a ribs injury.
If he enters a lame duck year, would Bennett’s behavior be a distraction?
Before Pace considers trading Bennett, though, he needs a Plan B, much the way Kevin White was supposed to replace Brandon Marshall.
Free agent Zach Miller could be part of the answer — like Bennett, he had 439 receiving yards, but on 19 fewer catches — but he’s three years older than his teammate. Miller said Monday he’s talked to Bennett a lot lately, and “he’s good.”
The Bears feel they know Bennett “as a player and a person,” said Pace, who praised his blocking and receiving.
“There’s some things he can do better,” Pace said. “There are some things he did really well. We’re going to analyze that in the coming weeks.”
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