Status of tags around NFL could lead to upgrades for Bears

Status of tags around NFL could lead to upgrades for Bears
February 11, 2014, 10:45 am
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After using their franchise tag for each of the past two offseasons – on running back Matt Forte in 2012, defensive tackle Henry Melton in 2013 – and signing quarterback Jay Cutler to a long-term deal with some built-in flexibility, the Bears are among the many teams this offseason not expected to resort to the tag again.

[MORE: Bucs release former Bears first rounder Gabe Carimi]

Forte is signed through 2015 and Melton is coming off season-ending knee surgery that projects to position him for a one-year show-me contract, whether with the Bears or elsewhere. That deal will not threaten the $8.45 million the tag cost the Bears in 2013.

Who does or does not receive their teams’ tags when that period opens next Monday, however, may be very much of interest to the Bears. Mike Florio and his folks out at ProFootballTalk.com have assayed rosters and players, with some intriguing possibilities based on a couple of key position needs in Chicago:

Defensive line: The plum this offseason is Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy (15 sacks). The Panthers desperately want to re-sign him but their cap situation may let him reach open ocean as far as talking to other teams. Cincinnati has too much tied up in Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap to tag end Michael Johnson (3.5 sacks) for a second year; besides, Corey Wootton is a better investment.

[RELATED: Could the Bears select Missouri defensive end Michael Sam?]

Martellus Bennett’s brother Michael (8.5 sacks) played last season at $5 million for Super Bowl champion Seattle. The Seahawks want to do a long-term deal with Michael but without a tag on him, he is likely to be listening for a call from the Bears. And Seattle has myriad players looking for more money.

Safety: The Cleveland Browns would not like to let T.J. Ward walk, but they have just completely shaken up their front office with the exits of CEO Joe Banner and GM Mike Lombardi. How much the organization wants to tie up tag money for incoming GM Ray Farmer isn’t clear, and Cleveland does not have a recent track record of savvy personnel decisions.

[2014 Bears outlook: Defensive backs]

Donte Whitner was a solid member of the San Francisco 49ers secondary but won’t be tag-worthy, which puts him in line for the market that opens in early March.