Off-Season Review

For the most part, the Bears have been content to stand pat in the off-season, confident in the belief that their 22 returning starters are enough to take the next step after last season's 11-5 NFC North title campaign.

But they did add a player who gives them an insurance policy at a position that has often been their demise in recent years. Unrestricted free agent Brian Griese gives the Bears their best backup at quarterback in a long time. Considering the so-far fragile health of starter Rex Grossman, a player of Griese's stature ostensibly allows the Bears to run the same offense at the same level of efficiency even if Grossman suffers another serious injury, as he has in each of his first three NFL seasons.

The Bears also addressed a shortcoming in the secondary that was exposed in the playoff loss to the Panthers when wide receiver Steve Smith torched them for 12 receptions, 218 yards and two touchdowns. They added restricted free agent Ricky Manning Jr. to play nickel corner behind starters Nate Vasher and Charles Tillman. The Bears lavished a five-year deal that could be worth as much as $21 million on Manning, which many considered exorbitant for a non-starter. The largesse of the deal was questioned further when Manning was arrested for assault near the UCLA campus a day before he officially became a Bear when the Panthers opted not to match the offer. The Panthers' decision was a no-brainer according to team sources, who said the team never considered paying anywhere close to the Bears' offer to keep a player they considered a solid nickel but not much more.

Manning may very well be a major upgrade as the Bears' third corner, but his signing has already caused some negative fallout. Vasher, a Pro Bowler last season in just his second year, has stayed away from voluntary workouts the past two weeks. He and agent Michael Sullivan are upset that under the fourth-round pick's current deal, he will make approximately $900,000, while Manning gets about $9 million.

The Bears aren't depending on a huge contribution from their 2006 draft class, but their second second-round pick Devin Hester could be an instant-impact player on special teams. Hester has a lot to learn at cornerback because he also played wide receiver and running back at Miami. But, as a kickoff and punt returner, he can change field position faster than anyone but the referee. From the first day of the first off-season practice, Hester has looked more natural than any player on the roster as a returner, and he is a threat to go the distance every time he touches the ball.

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (not tendered offers): QB Jeff Blake; S Bobby Gray; LB Marcus Reese.
DRAFT CHOICES SIGNED: RB J.D. Runnels (4th); DE Mark Anderson (5th); OG Tyler Reed (6th).
PLAYERS RE-SIGNED: TE John Gilmore; LB Hunter Hillenmeyer; DE Israel Idonije; OG Terrence Metcalf; TE Gabe Reid.
PLAYERS ACQUIRED: QB Brian Griese; CB Ricky Manning; CB Dante Wesley.
PLAYERS LOST: CB Jerry Azumah; WR Eddie Berlin; S Mike Green.

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