Special teams coordinator Dave Toub has been through this before. In 2008, he lost Brendan Ayanbadejo to free agency. Then the team released Tim Shaw before the start of 2010. Yet never has losing key contributors stopped Toub from building a unit that has regularly been on of the NFL's best the past seven years.
This year, though, things look a bit bleaker.
The top six special teams tacklers for Chicago last season are all scheduled to become free agents. Corey Graham (25 tackles), Garrett Wolfe (18 tackles), Brian Iwuh (18 tackles), Rashied Davis (16 tackles), Rod Wilson (11 tackles) and Josh Bullocks (10 tackles) could all be on different teams next season.
To make matters worse, one of the team's best return men, Danieal Manning, is scheduled to hit the open market as well. Nick Roach, who had three special teams tackles in last year's playoffs, also has an expiring contract, as does P Brad Maynard.
Toub may be great at what he does, but never has he faced so much uncertainty heading into any given offseason.
Corey Graham & Garrett Wolfe
The coaches have made it clear re-signing Graham is a priority, but he's looking for an opportunity at more playing time in the defensive secondary, something Chicago isn't able to offer him. Other organizations have already expressed interest and will entice him with the chance to play defense. The odds Graham is in the navy and orange next year are slim.
Manning chose not to re-sign with the team last year, passing up a three-year, $6 million contract offer, and will almost assuredly be with another organization in 2011.
The team did not offer Wolfe a free agent tender. He could be replaced by RB Harvey Unga, whom the team gave up a seventh-round pick for in the 2010 Supplemental Draft. Yet Wolfe was one of the most-consistent contributors the past few seasons, racking up 48 special teams tackles since 2008. He will not be easily replaced. Chicago may try to re-sign him at lower price, thus avoiding the $1.2 million RFA minimum they would have had to pay him, but that would create a glut at the running back position, especially if they add another back in the draft. When it's all said and done, there may not be enough room on the roster for Wolfe.
Citing NFL sources, ESPNChicago.com reported the Bears are attempting to re-sign Iwuh to a two-year contract, which would keep at least one of the better tacklers on the team. But that still leaves many other holes to fill.
Maynard lacks a big leg but is a great directional kicker, something that comes in very handy for a team like the Bears, which relies heavily on winning the field position battle each week. The team recently signed P Richmond McGee to a futures/reserve contract, but he's never kicked a ball in a live NFL game. Chicago might make the two compete in training camp.
These potential special teams losses could alter Chicago's strategy come draft day. The second day of the draft is where Jerry Angelo and Co. look for special teams contributors. It's very wise, as starters on offense and defense aren't typically found in rounds five through seven. Yet because of Unga, the Bears are without this year's seventh-round pick. That leaves rounds five and six, just two picks, to fill a potential hole of eight key special teams contributors.
For a team that puts so much emphasis on its special teams, this is a borderline crisis.
Angelo has never been averse to trading down in the draft so as to grab additional late round picks. If he doesn't like the players available at the spot the Bears are drafting, he'll trade out of that round for more second-day options, thus boosting the crop of potential special-teams contributors. It's a sound strategy most of the time, although it can be very frustrating for the fans.
Yet because the team will be without so many accomplished special teamers, the odds of the Bears trading down become that much more likely. Like it or not, it shouldn't come as any surprise if Angelo moves out of the third or fourth round so he can grab some additional fifth- and sixth-round picks. It's not the sexiest option, but it might be the most practical.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.