Off to a good start

The Bears didn't take long to dip into the free agent market. Chicago has inked RB Thomas Jones to a four-year deal and QB Jonathan Quinn to a two-year contract.

Jones is huge on potential, but the former first-round pick has never turned that promise into production on the NFL level. After three pedestrian years in Arizona, Jones was traded to the Buccaneers and in split time Michael Pittman had a career high 627 yards rushing.

While that number is nothing to get excited about, Jones finished the season in strong fashion. Over the final 7 weeks of the season Jones averaged 76.5 yards per game and 4.9 yards per attempt. The Bucs had wanted to re-sign Jones, but the Bears had targeted him from the beginning of their free agent evaluation.

Jones, 25, is still young enough to turn his career around. He has the speed that Anthony Thomas lacks and will fit into the scheme that Terry Shea plans to run. He's never caught more than 32 balls in a year, but has the hands to see that number go up in an offense that will feature him out of the backfield.

"This opportunity for me is a great opportunity to go out and finally be able to show exactly what I can do in different situations as far as getting the ball out of the backfield, and just getting the ball a little more consistently," Thomas said.

Jones' deal is reportedly worth $10 million including a $3.5 million signing bonus. Other backs the Bears were interested included the Raiders' Charlie Garner, the 49ers' Garrison Hearst, the Eagles' Duce Staley and the Patriots' Kevin Faulk.

It's uncertain how Thomas now fits into the Bears plans. He wouldn't bring a lot in the trade market, so Thomas will compete with Jones for playing time. There is a chance they could compliment one another, but it's clear the new regime doesn't believe Thomas will play a major part in the future.

"I think whenever you go out into free agency and you bring a player in, you think that he's a guy that can come in and really help you right away, and we think that way about Thomas," said head coach Lovie Smith. "From what we've seen out of the tailback position other places, it fits it more, yes. But again, we think there are enough carries for both of the guys to be happy."

Smith talked to Thomas following the signing. When asked about the running backs reaction to the new Smith called Thomas a competitor.

"Everybody wants to be the man," Smith said. "You've got to keep in mind you have a starting rotation with everyone, and from their performance - everybody of course thinks that if they perform well, they're going to get a chance to play. Wherever Anthony is he's going to have to compete with someone. It's like that with every position."

Quinn has spent the past two seasons in Kansas City and knows Shea well. Despite being a number three QB behind Trent Green and Todd Collins, Quinn could be Rex Grossman's backup in Chicago. There is still a chance that Chris Chandler will not be back with the club in 2004 and is ready to take a step up after six years in the league. Quinn should also be a major help to Grossman because he's spent time in the KC offense.

"It's a high-volume offense, multiple formations, multiple shifts, vertical passing game," Quinn said of the scheme the Bears intend to run. "It's the volume, it's the terminology of it. You're going to have 300 pass plays and numerous run plays, but once you learn the language it's not that difficult to learn."

Quinn also admitted that six months is enough time for Grossman to grasp the offense.

Neither signing broke the bank and it appeared the Bears would have money to pursue DE Jevon Kearse and DT Cornelius Griffin. However both signed big money contracts with NFC East teams.

Griffin signed a six-year deal worth $24 million with the Redskins.

Kearse signed a record breaking deal for a defensive lineman, receiving an eight-year deal worth $66 million including a $16 million signing bonus. Bears GM Jerry Angelo admitted the Bears were in the running early, but when pressed to make a quick decision he felt it was too expensive.

"The stakes got high early," Angelo said. "They were moving very quickly. We didn't like necessarily the direction for us and we weren't prepared to do something when they wanted to do it. A lot of it is poker on their part as well obviously and we just felt like we weren't prepared to do something right then and there so to speak and we just moved into a different area and so be it."

Still the Bears aren't giving up the free agent search. The next area they intend to address is the offensive line, which took a hit Wednesday when Chris Villarrial signed with the Buffalo Bills.

"We were disappointed not having Chris come back to us," Angelo said. "We were very aggressive with him last night. He just felt that it was time for a change. We respect that. Chris did a great job for us but when a player gets out into free agency you have to be prepared to lose him.

"We have Terrence Metcalf so we do have a replacement for Chris. But we want to get more linemen in here to create good depth if nothing else."

KC tackle John Tait is a player that interests the Bears. The Chiefs put the transition tag on the veteran, which gives them 7 days to match any offer he signs.

"We're looking at all possibilities and we're looking at the best players and he certainly is a very good player and there are other players as well," Angelo said.


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