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Bears’ activity in free agency will depend on several factors

Linebacker Brian Urlacher is among free agents Bears must decide on. | AP

Linebacker Brian Urlacher is among the free agents the Bears must decide on. | AP

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THE TOP FREE AGENTS

1 MIKE WALLACE, WR, Steelers

This speedy receiver is what the pass-happy NFL covets. As the saying goes, you can’t teach speed. He’ll find a big contract somewhere, but not with the Bears.

2 JAKE LONG, OT,
Dolphins

Long was once the best left tackle in the game, but injuries have hindered him. He has been declared healthy, so let the bidding war begin.

3 CLIFF AVRIL, DE,
Lions

Avril has his drawbacks, but pass rushers always are coveted. The Bears might be lucky and see Avril, who had 9.5 sacks last season, leave the division.

4 ANDY LEVITRE, OG, Bills

A solid pass-blocker, Levitre could help to solidify an offensive line for years to come. The Bears could use him.

5 ANDRE SMITH, OT, Bengals

The Bengals chose to use the franchise tag on defensive end Michael Johnson, meaning Smith, a right tackle, was expendable. He was Pro Football Focus’ fourth-best offensive tackle in 2012.

6 SEBASTIAN VOLLMER, OT,
Patriots

The right tackle is coming off a solid season and might stick with the Patriots. But plenty of teams will be calling about him.

7 PAUL KRUGER,
DE/OLB, Ravens

Kruger was the Ravens’ best pass rusher and had two sacks in their Super Bowl victory. He has a good motor but has struggled against the running game.

8 GREG JENNINGS, WR,
Packers

Jennings will be 30 in September and has been slowed by injuries the last two seasons. But his resumé might be worth the risk for some teams.

9 DASHON GOLDSON, S,
49ers

There was some surprise the 49ers didn’t use the franchise tag on him. He was a big part of a stout secondary in 2012, having an All-Pro season.

10 WES WELKER, WR, Patriots

It’s hard to imagine Welker playing for anyone but the Patriots because Tom Brady loves him. But the prototypical slot receiver apparently will test the market first.

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Updated: April 11, 2013 7:02AM



Bears general manager Phil Emery’s phone ­probably hasn’t stopped going off since late Friday. The NFL’s free-agency madness has begun, even though a league memo about ­tampering might have slowed things for the moment.

Thanks to the new three-day negotiating window before free agency officially begins at 3 p.m. Tuesday, talks between teams and potential unrestricted free agents have been ongoing since late Friday.

‘‘It’s fair to say that we felt that it was something that would at least bring some organization to what had been a very chaotic process,’’ former NFL general manager Bill Polian said in a conference call. ‘‘Agents can talk to clubs. They can go back to the old club with what one would assume would be a bona fide offer or some parameters. They can gauge who is interested and who is not interested.’’

With that said, here’s what to watch for with the Bears with talks going strong:

Bears need money

The salary cap for 2013 is $123 million, and the Bears are already close to that number after defensive tackle Henry Melton ($8.45 million) accepted his franchise-tag tender. They also need cap space to sign their next draft class.

So what do they do?

The Bears have to cut some players, restructure some contracts or extend others. They have no other choice if they want to add new players, keep some of their own (linebackers Brian Urlacher and Nick Roach and guard Lance Louis) and win now.

Extending the contracts of cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings and wide receiver Brandon Marshall would be best. Extending or restructuring deals might mean a salary-cap mess later on, but those three deserve it.

‘‘The cap is a challenge,’’ Emery said last month at the NFL Scouting Combine. ‘‘It’s a dynamic in the NFL. It is what makes the league what it is in terms of its competitiveness. Every player kind of has a piece of the pie, and how you divide that up is a very interesting, creative process and allows a lot of big-picture thinking. We’ll take what we have and work through it.’’

Bears have needs

Everything should start with upgrading the offensive line. Standing pat and thinking new coaches and schemes can fix marginal players might mean another season of seeing quarterback Jay Cutler on his back too often.

There are plenty of good offensive linemen available; it just comes down to what the Bears are able to spend and willing to commit.

Offensive tackles can put a dent into teams’ bank accounts. Sebastian Vollmer (Patriots), Andre Smith (Bengals), Jake Long (Dolphins), Gosder Cherilus (Lions), Jermon Bushrod (Saints) and others should garner plenty of interest.

Bills guard Andy Levitre might be the best player available at his position, but the demand for him is high.

Addressing what they have at tight end and linebacker is next. And it’s not much, with Roach and Urlacher in need of deals and the Bears ranking last in receptions by tight ends for the second consecutive season in 2012.

The top tight ends available are Dustin Keller (Jets), Jared Cook (Titans), Fred Davis (Redskins), Delanie Walker (49ers), Martellus Bennett (Giants) and Brandon Myers (Raiders). Some, such as Cook, might get big contracts.

The market for linebackers, meanwhile, is sparse, which makes re-signing Roach or Urlacher pretty important.

Buyer’s market

Some of the top-tier offensive linemen or tight ends available might be dreams for the cash-strapped Bears. But that’s OK if they can’t free up some cap room.

There are simply more players than jobs (and money) available. When things slow down, the Bears should be able to pounce. They might be able to find solid players to fix their needs — maybe not for the long term, but for at least a year or two.

Veteran Jets guard Brandon Moore, 32, is an under-the-radar name who could help stabilize the Bears’ offensive line at an affordable price.

‘‘The period we’re in right now is one where every club is faced with the question: How much do I pay a player based upon his productivity, his availability, his longevity and his contribution to the overall cap situation?’’ Polian said.

Don’t forget draft

What the Bears are able to accomplish in free agency will affect how they approach the draft in April, but it works both ways. The draft class is considered rich with offensive linemen and tight ends.

Notre Dame’s Tyler Eifert and Stanford’s Zach Ertz , the two
top tight ends in the draft, might be available for the Bears at
No. 20. Offensive tackles such as Menelik Watson (Florida State) and D.J. Fluker (Alabama) also might be there.

‘‘The offensive-line class has strength in the front end when you look at it from tackle, guard and center,’’ Emery said. ‘‘And you look all the way through, there are a number of players who would be in the mix as starters.’’

The right price

It’s apparent the Bears still see value in Urlacher, Roach, Louis, right tackle Jonathan Scott, defensive tackle Israel Idonije and backup quarterback Jason Campbell. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be talking with them.

What the Bears have to do is decide who is a necessity and who is a luxury. They already have been busy handling some of their own players. A league source confirmed that backup running back Armando Allen was tendered a contract as an exclusive-rights free agent. Restricted free-agent defensive tackle Nate Collins won’t be tendered.

Urlacher, if you ask his teammates, is a necessity if the Bears really are planning to maintain their scheme under new defensive coordinator Mel Tucker.

‘‘You start talking about our defense, Brian Urlacher is the quarterback of that defense,’’ Idonije recently said on WSCR-AM (670). ‘‘He is the linchpin in what drives us. So when you start talking about getting the offense better and then maintaining defensive success, Brian Urlacher has to be a piece of that equation. . . . You take him out of that situation, things just change.’’

Sentimentality, though, only goes so far for a GM.



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