Combine Over, Free Agency Looms

The Lovie Smith soap opera finally came to a conclusion on Wednesday, as the Big Sandy, TX native signed a four-year, $22 million contract extension. GM Jerry Angelo was also extended and is now under contract through 2013. Free agency starts on Friday and the Bears have some work to do on both sides of the ball, so now is the time to get back to the business of improving the roster.

Fortunately for newly-extended head coach Lovie Smith, his list of free agents is a short one. Even better, that list contains very few key components from last season's Super Bowl team. The majority of the talent is still relatively young, and most of the free agents are considered to be somewhat expendable.

Here is the latest on who may be coming back and who may be leaving Chicago for good:

DT Alfonso Boone - UFA
Boone played both tackle and end for the Bears this past season and compiled 23 tackles and two sacks in 12 games. He was in the rotation quite a bit after Tommie Harris tore his hamstring and Tank Johnson was dealing with his legal issues, yet he was not a factor in the postseason. The Bears rotate their defensive line quite a bit, but Boone is probably not in the cards next season with Dusty Dvoracek coming back from injured reserve and Antonio Garay also in the mix.

Boone has played six years in a Bears uniform, but at 31 years old with no more upside left, the team would be wise to let him go and start developing younger players.

LB Lance Briggs - UFA (Franchised)
Briggs was one of the bigger bargains in the NFL last season, earning a second consecutive Pro Bowl berth on a $721,600 salary. He has consistently outperformed the financials of the rookie contract he signed back in 2003, and the Bears recognized that by naming him the team's franchise player and guaranteeing him a one-year tender offer of $7.2 million. Briggs is still seeking a long-term deal and isn't thrilled about being slapped with the franchise tag, but one way or another, he stands to be a very rich man quite soon.

There have been grumblings around the league that the Bears are possibly shopping Briggs because of his outlandish contract demands, but expect him to sign the tender offer and be back alongside Brian Urlacher in 2007.

OG Ruben Brown - UFA
Brown may have turned 35 years old last month, but he is still one of the best guards in the game and just competed in his ninth Pro Bowl. There was speculation that the 12-year veteran might have hung up his spikes for good had the Bears won Super Bowl XLI, yet he dismissed that talk and promised that he has a few good seasons left in his tank. Brown started every game at left guard between All-Pro center Olin Kreutz and tackle John Tait, and the Bears would like to have him back again next season.

Brown should be more interested in winning a championship than chasing the biggest contract offer at this point in his career, so look for the Bears to make a fair offer and do their best to retain him.

WR Justin Gage - UFA
Gage only caught four passes for 68 yards in eight games this past season, and he was on the inactive list for Super Bowl XLI. With the emergence of Bernard Berrian and the potential of Mark Bradley at flanker, plus the surprising success of Rashied Davis in the slot, Gage was the odd man out in the receiving corps. He got his biggest opportunity in Week 9 against Miami with Berrian on the sideline nursing bruised ribs, but he lost a fumble in that game and never made another reception the rest of the year.

Despite ideal size at 6'4" and 212 pounds and some flashes of ability along the way, Gage failed to develop in four seasons and has surely played his way out of Chicago.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

S Todd Johnson - UFA
Johnson made a few starts at strong safety after Mike Brown was lost in Week 6, and he finished the year with 33 tackles, one forced fumble, and three passes defensed in 12 games. He played relatively well before spraining an ankle in the second half of the season and was replaced in the starting lineup by Chris Harris down the stretch and in the postseason. Johnson continues to be a capable special teams performer, but his skills appear to be limited in the secondary.

It's no secret that the Bears need an upgrade at safety and will most likely select one on the first day of the NFL Draft in April, so Johnson's future with the Bears is cloudy at best.

TE Gabe Reid - RFA
Reid played in 13 games this past season and totaled four receptions for 37 yards. The Bears usually only have one fullback active on game day, and Reid showed his versatility by lining up in the backfield as a lead blocker when Jason McKie was limited because of injury. He is not as good of a receiver as Desmond Clark and not as good of a blocker as John Gilmore, but his ability to play a few positions and contribute on special teams increases his value.

Reid is a restricted free agent and would bring the Bears draft-choice compensation should he be signed away, although the team can certainly use a young tight end who could develop into a better receiving threat in the passing game.

DT Ian Scott - UFA
Scott racked up 23 tackles, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, and six passes defensed in 15 games this past season. He was replaced in the starting lineup by Tank Johnson in the early going and curiously on the inactive list for Week 5's tilt with Buffalo, but he saw the field plenty after Tommie Harris was lost for the year. Scott is a quality run-stuffer and can be an effective player on first and second down, yet he lacks the pass-rush ability that Lovie Smith so desperately needs from the front four in order for his cover-two scheme to work.

Some team will likely make Scott - still just 25 years old - a fairly significant offer because of his prowess against the fun, but the Bears seem content to let him go and take their chances with Dvoracek, Garay, and maybe a draft pick.

S Cameron Worrell - UFA
Worrell saw limited time on defense in 2007, but he was credited with 22 tackles, one sack, and one forced fumble while participating in all 16 games. Like Todd Johnson, his upside appears to be limited as a safety but he makes his money as a special teams player. Although he did see significant action in the Week 17 holiday game against Green Bay, and he produced seven tackles, a sack, and a forced fumble.

Like Johnson, Worrell runs the risk of not being back with the Bears because the team will no doubt add at least one safety either through free agency or in the draft.


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