Will 49ers pay to bring Briggs back home?

As the 49ers compile their list of top free agents to throw huge money at, Lance Briggs hovers somewhere near the top. He's the kind of versatile, free-wheeling linebacker who'd fit nicely into their defensive scheme, and he may be interested in returning to his Northern California roots. The question is, if he is interested, how much of the big moolah it will take to bring Briggs back home.

One thing is certain: It will take an awful lot.

Briggs is going to be a rich man very soon. And it remains to be seen whether or not it will be the Chicago Bears picking up the tab.

Briggs had another sensational season from his weakside linebacker position, leading the team with 113 solo tackles. He also contributed a sack, two interceptions, four forced fumbles, and nine passes defensed. Although he skipped out on the game to rest his body after a hellacious season, Briggs was named to his second consecutive Pro Bowl and finished just behind San Diego's Shawne Merriman and Baltimore's Adalius Thomas for All-Pro honors. Thomas is another impending FA the 49ers will consider coming after with the full force of the NFL-high $37.5 million in space the team currently has underneath the salary cap.

Originally a third-rounder out of Arizona in 2004, Briggs has quickly become one of the best LBs in the NFL and another draft day defensive bargain for Bears general manager Jerry Angelo. Strong enough to shed blocks at the line of scrimmage and fast enough to run down any ball-carrier, he is a perfect fit for head coach Lovie Smith's version of the cover-two scheme, and he also would fit well into the true 3-4 scheme envision by 49ers coach Mike Nolan.

Playing alongside perennial All-Pro Brian Urlacher, Briggs forms arguably the best linebacker combination in the league.

Urlacher is being paid like a superstar as evidenced by the nine-year, $58 million contract he signed back in 2003. Briggs, on the other hand, is still looking for his big payday. The 49ers have the wherewithal to provide that big payday.

"His instincts are unbelievable," Urlacher said before the NFC championship game against New Orleans. "And his anticipation is great. The guy knows what he's doing."

When asked about the possibility of losing his partner in crime, Urlacher apparently doesn't even want to think about that.

"I'm going to plan on him being here," he said.

The Bears do have a few options available to them should they decide to keep Briggs, although it's going to be incredibly expensive one way or another.

They have until Feb. 22 to decide whether or not they want to slap the franchise tag on him. Briggs would then be guaranteed a one-year contract valued at the average of the five highest-paid players at his position, which is currently about $7.2 million for linebackers. Fortunately for the Bears, that figure is only up half a percent from last year. By comparison, the 2007 franchise fee for quarterbacks jumped to a little over $12.6 million. That's a 43.5 percent step-up from 2006.>

The $7.2 million is a lot of money for a player who would then be an unrestricted free agent again next season, so the Bears have some decisions to make about how badly they want to keep Briggs around, particularly considering what they're paying Urlacher. Not to mention the fact hat every penny will count against the `07 salary cap, which will be in the neighborhood of $109 million.

In contrast to the 49ers, the Bears have approximately $17 million in cap space this offseason, but that still gives them the ability to franchise Briggs and still have enough money left to sign their draft picks without having to cut a high-salaried veteran such as wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad or defensive end Adewale Ogunleye.

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Defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, now a top candidate for the vacant head-coaching position in San Diego, knows how crucial Briggs has been to his unit's success the last three years.

"In all honesty, I think there are times when Lance is playing [so] well that he overshadows Brian," Rivera said during Super Bowl week in Miami. "It is one of those types of defenses that, based on how you attack it, that [weakside] linebacker can make a lot of plays."

Rivera doesn't have any say in the matter, but Briggs would be back in Chicago if he were the one writing the checks.

"You'd hate to lose a guy with that kind of ability," he said. "Believe me, when it's all said and done and they ask me how I feel about him, I'm going to tell them."

If the Bears plan on signing Briggs to a long-term deal, it may take Urlacher-type money to do it. That being said, if they get creative with the numbers, he will have a much smaller cap number in 2007 than the franchise figure of $7.2 million. Although it's certainly going to require an eight-figure signing bonus to keep Briggs in Chicago, cap-wise, that money can be spread over the life of the contract.

If the Bears sign Briggs to, for argument's sake, a seven-year, $42 million contract with a $14 million signing bonus, his cap number already comes down to an average of $6 million per season. Angelo can create even more wiggle room by back-loading the contract so that the last few years of the deal are worth more in terms of salary than the first few. With fellow Pro-Bowlers like defensive tackle Tommie Harris and cornerback Nathan Vasher soon to sit at the bargaining table, the Bears are going to need all the cap space they can get.

NFL contracts are largely smoke and mirrors because they are not guaranteed, but Angelo still needs to pull a Houdini if he wants to keep the core of his defense intact.

If Briggs is serious about coming back to the West Coast, the 49ers could easily package a deal that would be even more attractive than the one mentioned above. Briggs was a prep star in Sacramento before moving on to Arizona and he still has ties to the area.

Briggs firmly believes that he deserves what's coming to him, although he admits that the process is largely out of his hands.

"I've played well," Briggs said upon his arrival in Miami before the Super Bowl. "I've played hard for four years, so obviously good things are going to happen. I don't have a whole lot to say on that one."

But can he possibly see himself playing in another uniform next season? A red-and-gold uniform, perhaps?

"Yeah, I've thought about it," he said. "There's a lot of different scenarios that run through my mind, but it all ends up good. Good things are going to happen."

Whether those good things continue to happen for him in Chicago remain to be seen.

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