Running back Matt Forte hopes former Pro Bowlers Henry Melton and Charles Tillman return to the Chicago Bears’ defense during free agency, but he also has confidence in general manager’s Phil Emery’s plan to rebuild a defense that allowed more yards last season than any in team history.

“We love those guys,” Forte said Thursday. “As a player, you want to see a team stay loyal to them. Henry unfortunately had the ACL last year. We were looking for a big year from him, but he has been working hard to rehab his knee and get back. Hopefully the business side works out to where we can get both of them back. If it wasn’t for injuries, we’d have had a heck of a defense last year.”

Forte has closely monitored the Bears’ activity in free agency so far and is encouraged by the team’s signings of defensive ends Lamarr Houston and Willie Young and safeties Ryan Mundy and M.D. Jennings.

At the front of his mind is how Emery’s offensive line overhaul last offseason helped him make the Pro Bowl in 2013.

“I think Phil is doing a good job,” Forte said at an appearance for his new charitable foundation. “Everybody knows that last season he shored up the offensive line, and so you kind of got to start there with our defense now. We’ve been piecing it back together. Hopefully in the draft we get a couple guys that can contribute early.

“Phil is very, very intelligent. He does a lot of scouting on his own. He used to be a scout. He knows what he’s doing when he’s evaluating talent. It’s not like he watches some guy for a little bit—he really studies them. So he knows what guys are going to best fit our defense as a whole and piece it together. He did a great job knowing Coach (Marc) Trestman and knowing what parts we needed and getting those. And knowing (defensive coordinator) Mel Tucker, he’s going to get the parts we need for that, too.”

Forte’s 1,339 rushing yards and 594 receiving yards last season were career highs. As the defense undergoes significant changes, he smiled Thursday at the thought of all 11 starters returning to the offense.