The negotiating window leading into Wednesday’s start of free agency has opened and now the Bears will see if elite free agents are more interested in taking their money with Mitch Trubisky at quarterback.
Multiple sources say the Bears have identified the Rams’ Sammy Watkins as their top target at arguably their greatest position of need — wide receiver. Watkins, the fourth overall pick in the 2014 draft by the Bills, has averaged 15.9 yards per catch in his career. For the sake of comparison, that’s more than a yard better than former Bear Alshon Jeffery.
The Bears are also believed to have expressed interest in Jaguars wide receiver Allen Robinson, but he is coming off a torn ACL suffered in the season opener last year. Watkins would arrive healthy and as a certified speedster who would add a missing dimension to the offense.
Watkins caught only 39 passes for 593 yards for the Rams last season, but he was a valuable threat in the red zone with eight touchdowns. His presence and deep-ball ability opened things up for receivers Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp and running back Todd Gurley in what was the NFL’s top scoring offense.
Where the money goes for Watkins on the open market will be interesting. There’s always a premium for the top players in free agency. He could aim for top-five money at the position, which ranges from $15 million to $17 million in annual average.
Watkins, 24, hasn’t played up to his draft slot, but he produced 1,047 yards and nine touchdowns in 2015 with Tyrod Taylor at quarterback, and his value goes beyond just his statistics when considering the focus opposing defenses commit to him.
With restricted free agent Cameron Meredith coming off a serious knee injury and former first-round draft pick Kevin White having been derailed by injuries for three consecutive seasons, the Bears may feel safer investing in Watkins rather than Robinson.
If the Bears were to land Watkins and slot receiver Albert Wilson of the Chiefs, they would dramatically change their offensive personnel for Trubisky’s second season and Year 1 of the Matt Nagy era. Free agency opens at 3 p.m. Wednesday.
Interestingly, the Packers reportedly have been linked to Watkins and Robinson, signaling a new era in Green Bay under first-year general manager Brian Gutekunst. Some believe the Packers could wind up releasing veteran Jordy Nelson, who is 32 and averaged 9.1 yards per catch last season, not nearly as productive after the catch as he was earlier in his career.
Eagles tight end Trey Burton is believed to be on the Bears’ radar. Burton could benefit from the deal Cameron Brate, a restricted free agent, signed with the Buccaneers on Monday. How the money is paid out remains to be seen, but it’s reported to be worth $40.8 million with $18 million guaranteed. Burton has drawn interest from multiple teams, including the Lions.
The Bears wound up securing two of their own wide receivers when they tendered qualifying offers to restricted free agents Meredith and Josh Bellamy. Both were tendered at the original-round level, $1.907 million, giving the Bears the right of first refusal if they sign offer sheets elsewhere. Because neither was drafted, the Bears would not receive compensation if they decline to match an offer sheet.
Meredith, 25, is coming off a torn ACL and partially torn MCL in his left knee suffered last preseason. He emerged in 2016 as one of the organization’s best undrafted discoveries in a long time when he had 66 receptions for 888 yards and four touchdowns in just his second season.
Bellamy, 28, who first appeared in an NFL game in 2012, has traveled a long road to free agency. He caught 24 passes for 376 yards and one touchdown last season and remains one of the better special teams players on the roster. His playing time on special teams dipped last season as he was needed on offense more as injuries depleted the depth chart.
The Bears also tendered an original-round qualifying offer to nickel cornerback Bryce Callahan, who like Meredith is a former undrafted free agent and is coming off his best season. He had two interceptions, six passes defended, a sack and forced fumble and returned a punt for a touchdown in 2017. Durability has been an issue for Callahan, who missed four games last season (knee), but he was still on the field for 48.4 percent of the defensive snaps.
The Bears got the day started Monday when they agreed to terms on a two-year contract for versatile offensive lineman Bradley Sowell, who appeared in all 16 games last season with two starts, one at right tackle and one at left guard. He projects as a possible swing tackle. The team is believed to be in the process of working to re-sign more of its own free agents.
Dolphins kicker Cody Parkey has emerged as the Bears’ top target at a position that has been unstable the last two years. Parkey made 21 of 23 field goals for the Dolphins last season, including 7 of 9 from 40 yards and longer.
The 26-year-old has said he’d like to re-sign with the Dolphins to help stabilize a four-year career during which he has been with four teams (Colts, Eagles, Browns and Dolphins). But a deal with Miami wasn’t done before the negotiating window opened, so Parkey is in play for other teams now. He made the Pro Bowl as a rookie with the Eagles in 2014 after breaking the rookie scoring record set by Bears kicker Kevin Butler in 1985.