Bears could lose Earl Bennett if they’re not on the ball
By Sean Jensen firstname.lastname@example.org November 12, 2011 12:50AM
Updated: November 13, 2011 2:35AM
Receiver Earl Bennett, who is scheduled to be a free agent after this season, isn’t all that excited to test free agency. ‘‘First and foremost, the Bears get first dibs,’’ Bennett said this week. ‘‘They drafted me here, and I got a lot of friends here, and I love the city and my teammates. But at the end of the day, I have to do what’s best for my family.”
Bennett is one of 13 players on the roster whose contracts expire after this season. The others are Kahlil Bell, Matt Forte, Corey Graham, Caleb Hanie, Israel Idonije, Brian Iwuh, Tim Jennings, Brandon Meriweather, Amobi Okoye, Craig Steltz, Edwin Williams and Roy Williams. Edwin Williams and Bell are restricted free agents.
General manager Jerry Angelo repeatedly said that running back Forte was the team’s top priority heading into the season. But negotiations are at a standstill, and Forte seems destined to land the franchise tag.
If that’s the case, then the Bears have no recourse to retain Bennett, which makes the coming weeks all the more important. Bennett missed five games with what the Bears described as a chest injury. But he returned against the Philadelphia Eagles last Monday and was one of the game’s MVPs, with five catches — three of them on third-down conversions — for 95 yards and a touchdown.
His best season was 2009, when he had 54 catches for 717 yards, and his career high is three touchdowns in a single season, in 2010. But Bennett has been clutch on third downs, he’s a good punt returner, and he’s clearly quarterback Jay Cutler’s favored receiver. Cutler noted Wednesday during his news conference that he’s ‘‘been with Earl a long time,’’ referring to their playing days at Vanderbilt.’’But later, in an interview on ESPN-1000, Cutler said ‘‘Someone is going to throw some money at that dude".
‘‘He can do it in all phases,’’ Cutler said. ‘‘Obviously I want to keep him here, and I’m going to make a push for him.’’
Bennett’s ability to work the slot alone is an asset, ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski said. ‘‘I think the slot position is so critical in the NFL,’’ Jaworski said, highlighting Bennett’s inteligence and hands. ‘‘Then you got to be tough. When you catch the ball inside, you got safeties, linebackers, and D-linemen with one ambition: to smash you. ‘‘He’s got all the attributes.’’
During free agency, Bennett could be appealing to a team with a legitimate No. 1. That’s what the Detroit Lions were thinking when they brought in veteran Nate Burleson to complement Calvin Johnson. His production, though, has been spotty (26 catches for 245 yards this season), considering he signed a five-year, $25 million contract that included $11 million in guarantees.
Regardless, the Bears have $15 million in salary-cap space, so they’ll make a push to sign some of their players to extensions before this season ends. Bennett, Okoye, Graham, Jennings and Idonije should be players the Bears make a run at.
But since we’re already into November, these players may be more inclined to finish out the season and become unrestricted free agents. That, of course, means the Bears may have to sweeten the pot to get a few of these players to sign now. And Bennett should be near the top of that list.
PRO BOWL PLAYER
As you consider voting online for the Pro Bowl, seriously consider Bears cornerback Corey Graham. Last season, he led the league with 22 special-teams tackles, although the Bears counted 25. This year, he’s again leading the Bears.
‘‘I feel I’m that caliber a player,” Graham said. ‘’If I’m not, who is? But I can’t control what people say. As long as our team finishes No. 1, that’s all that matters. We consider ourselves one of the best special-teams units.’’
Don’t get Bears special-teams coordinator Dave Toub started on Graham. He obviously has been disappointed Graham hasn’t been honored yet.
IN THE CLUTCH
According to STATS, Antonio Brown of the Steelers, Wes Welker of the Patriots and Roddy White of the Falcons are tied for the league lead with 13 ‘‘clutch catches,’’ defined as a reception on third or fourth down that results in a TD or first down.
Greg Jennings of the Packers and Calvin Johnson of the Lions are among the receivers tied for second with 12 clutch catches.