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Positioning for free agents now will heat up

INDIANAPOLIS -- Sometimes players need the opportunity to see if there is more green on the other side of the fence before deciding to re-sign with their current team.

So expect a good handful of the Bears' pending free agents that general manager Phil Emery has said he would like to keep at least to explore the open market next month. There is risk involved in losing players when you let them venture into free agency but often it's the fastest way to facilitate a deal.

"Those players want their opportunity to get into the open market and that's OK," Emery said. "That's good for both sides. The No. 1 job of a front office collectively and that of an agent always is to know the player's market. So when (that's) established, it (can make) the conversations better, more fluid, and we can come to a conclusion quicker."

By the time the NFL's scouting combine is over most agents will have a clear idea of what awaits their clients in free agency. General managers aren't just watching draft prospects run around in T-shirts and shorts. They are greeting a steady stream of agents in their hotel suites.

Which Bears could be headed to the market? Defensive tackles Henry Melton and Jeremiah Ratliff, cornerbacks Charles Tillman, Zack Bowman and Sherrick McManis, center Roberto Garza, linebacker D.J. Williams and quarterbacks Josh McCown (who cannot re-sign until after free agency opens) and Jordan Palmer. All are candidates to return.

Familiar fits? A lot of people have tried to connect the dots between Tillman and former Bears coach Lovie Smith, now heading up the Buccaneers. But Smith has a nice depth chart at the position already with Darrelle Revis and Johnthan Banks, an impressive second-round pick from last year.

A reunion that would make more sense, if Tillman were to depart, would be with former Bears defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, the Panthers head coach. The Panthers are expected to do what it takes to retain defensive end Greg Hardy and will not have a lot of cap flexibility but the defending NFC South champions have clear needs at cornerback and secondary coach Steve Wilks previously worked for the Bears.

It would not be a surprise if the Chiefs pursued McManis, who was the Bears' best special teams player. He ranked second on the team in tackles. The Chiefs' interest would be natural as former special teams coordinator Dave Toub is there.

The Ravens always prioritize special teams and could look at McManis as a replacement for former Bear Corey Graham, who is coming out of contract.

Trading fullback Tyler Clutts to the Texans for McManis before the start of the 2012 season turned into a fine move.

Show of hands: Measurements were the talk of the combine Friday. Specifically Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, who came up short of 6 feet.

He was measured at 5-113/4 but that shouldn't affect him too much as Russell Wilson stood 5-105/8 here two years ago and he's three weeks removed from winning the Super Bowl. Manziel's hands measured 97/8inches and that is above average. Bears quarterback Jay Cutler has 93/8-inch hands, which is about average for the position.

Some scouts were concerned how Eastern Illinois' Jimmy Garoppolo would measure and his hands were 9\. If fumbling is a concern, hand size is the first question people want to know about. NFL folks take a closer look at it for quarterbacks who will be playing in colder climates.

Hot reads: Buzz continues that the Packers, led by draft-and-develop boss Ted Thompson, could be players in free agency for the first time in a long time. They have not signed an unrestricted free agent in three of the last four offseasons. But has hit with them before. He added cornerback Charles Woodson and defensive lineman Ryan Pickett in 2006. ... Fourteen teams had a rookie 16-game starter on their roster last season and the Bears were the only one with two -- right guard Kyle Long and right tackle Jordan Mills. They look to be mainstays on the line for several seasons but one personnel man pointed out the Bears aren't the only NFC North club with talented second-year linemen. Lions right guard Larry Warford, a third-round pick from Kentucky, started all 16 games and La'Adrian Waddle, undrafted out of Texas Tech, emerged to start eight games. The 6-6, 321-pounder was impressive.

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