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Analysts’ opinions vary on Bears’ draft plans

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Illinois defensive lineman Whitney Mercilus could be selected by the Bears with the No. 19 overall pick in the first round of the NFL draft. (AP photo)

CHICAGO – Bears general manager Phil Emery earned high marks this month when he acquired proven veterans such as Brandon Marshall, Michael Bush and Jason Campbell.

Now comes Emery’s specialty: Scouting college players.

The NFL draft begins four weeks from today, and Emery is likely to use every one of those 28 days to focus on the best ways to bolster the Bears’ roster. The Bears have a pick in each of the seven rounds of the draft, including the No. 19 overall pick in the first round.

Which player will the Bears target with their first-round pick?

It depends on which so-called draft expert you ask.

A sampling of six mock drafts by national writers includes six predictions as to which player the Bears might select on April 26. The positions are easier to peg – offensive tackle, defensive end and wide receiver – although that also could be subject to change if a projected top-10 cornerback or linebacker somehow falls to the Bears at No. 19.

Longtime ESPN draft observer Mel Kiper Jr. projects that the Bears will draft offensive tackle Mike Adams from Ohio State.

Kiper’s colleague, Todd McShay, agrees that the Bears will draft an offensive lineman but projects the pick to be Jonathan Martin of Stanford.

Either player offers size and strength that would be sure to please Jay Cutler.

The Bears allowed 49 sacks last season, fifth-most in the NFL. That marked a slight improvement from 2010, when the Bears allowed a league-leading 56 sacks.

However, Bears coach Lovie Smith has insisted he is happy with the current composition of his offensive line. Second-year tackle Gabe Carimi is expected to be fully recovered from a knee injury that limited him to two games in 2011, and third-year tackle J’Marcus Webb showed signs of progress in between several rough games last season.

Perhaps Smith is pushing for his new boss to bolster the defense in Round 1.

If that happens, the Bears’ top priority likely will be to improve the pass rush. Julius Peppers earned his second consecutive Pro Bowl selection last season, but 31-year-old Israel Idonije registered only five sacks last season and appears to be on the downslope of his career.

NFL Network analyst Charley Casserly, who spent 24 seasons as an executive with the Washington Redskins and Houston Texans, projects the Bears to select Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus with the No. 19 pick. Meanwhile, NFL Network analyst Bucky Brooks has the Bears selecting Clemson defensive end Andre Branch.

Then again, wide receiver could remain on the radar as questions swirl about the long-term health of Johnny Knox, who still is recovering from surgery after he suffered a fractured vertebra last season. The Bears added a No. 1 receiver in Marshall, but a rookie could fill Knox’s role as a vertical threat and allow Earl Bennett to thrive on underneath routes.

If the Bears target a wide receiver first, NFL Network’s Charles Davis projects they will select Michael Floyd of Notre Dame. Another national analyst, Rob Rang of CBS Sports, has the Bears selecting Baylor receiver Kendall Wright with the No. 19 pick.

Ultimately, the decision is Emery’s.

But as Emery has indicated, Smith and the team’s scouts also will have a say.

“Sometimes, you need that outside voice to open up your mind to other possibilities,” Emery said. “And I’m very open to those discussions.

“There will reach a point during the process where it will be coach Smith and myself developing a plan at the end. And it will be on players that him and I agree upon, in sync, that these are the right players for the Bears.”

Bears, Thomas strike deal: The Bears and receiver Devin Thomas have agreed to a one-year contract. He was mainly a special-teams contributor for the Giants last season.

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