And there are only so many dollars to go around.
The Bears lost several players in free agency after the 2006 season, but none of them were considered big contributors. Safeties Todd Johnson and Cameron Worrell played well in reserve duty at times, but trading for Adam Archuleta and drafting Kevin Payne in the fifth round quickly filled those holes. Neither wide receiver Justin Gage nor tight end Gabe Reid was going to be a key component on offense in 2007, and adding the likes of Devin Hester and Greg Olsen to the mix should only make this unit better.
Briggs was designated the team's franchise player in February, guaranteeing him a one-year tender offer at $7.2 million or the average of the top five salaried players at his position. The two-time Pro-Bowler is yet to sign and threatening to sit out the entire season because he feels the organization robbed him of his opportunity to test the free agent waters after his initial four-year contract expired. The Bears did offer Briggs a $33 million extension before the start of 2006, but he turned it down with hopes of being able to eventually market himself to the other 31 teams in the league.
The entire Briggs situation has been an unmitigated disaster for all parties involved, but the free agency fracas might be even more of a mess after 2007.
It's safe to say that the biggest question on the horizon will be what to do with quarterback Rex Grossman.
A first-round draft pick in 2003, Grossman looked like he was finally going to live up to his potential at the outset of last year. After battling injuries in each of his first three campaigns, he earned NFC Offensive Player of the Month honors for September and was garnering early consideration for league MVP as the Bears opened the 2006 season 7-0. He was racking up wins, putting up big numbers, and doing his best to help erase two decades of quarterbacking ineptitude for the Monsters of the Midway.
Unfortunately for Grossman, the second half of last season was a tumultuous roller-coaster ride that almost saw him get benched in Week 14 at St. Louis. He was arguably the most heavily scrutinized player in the entire NFL along the way and took a lot of the blame for the Bears coming out on the losing end of Super Bowl XLI. And on top of that, he was booed vociferously at Soldier Field on more than one occasion.
Head coach Lovie Smith and GM Jerry Angelo have been two of Grossman's staunchest supporters, but if he struggles for a lengthy spell next season, don't be shocked if the move to Brian Griese is made since the franchise will have no further obligation to Grossman after 2007.
Two of Grossman's best weapons, receivers Bernard Berrian and Rashied Davis, are also free agents to be. Berrian had a breakout season in 2006 and wants to become the primary target in this offense, and he'll get that opportunity since Muhsin Muhammad is on the back nine of his career. Davis came up with some big catches out of the slot this past year after being converted from cornerback, but he might be the odd man out the more Hester is involved on offense.
Berrian will have to prove he can be a No. 1 option this year if he's going to see some big money next season, while Davis might be expendable since Hester is more of a threat in the open field.
Briggs could indeed still be Bears' property by the end of 2007, but it's a foregone conclusion that the door to his long-term future in Chicago closed a while ago.
The defensive backfield, on the other hand, is far from certain. Cornerback Nathan Vasher was selected to the Pro Bowl in 2005, and his partner in crime, Charles Tillman, was deserving in 2006. The two of them form one of the more reliable combinations in the NFL, but with both of them scheduled to become free agents after this season, the odds of keeping them together much longer are not very good.
Although neither is considered to be that much-coveted shutdown corner, Vasher has a nose for the football and Tillman can be physically imposing for many opposing receivers. Vasher missed two games in 2006 with a bad hamstring and Tillman sat out two games because of back spasms, and the pass defense suffered greatly as a result. Backup Ricky Manning Jr. played very well in the nickel package, but he was not nearly as effective as a member of the starting lineup.
Keeping both of them for 2008 and beyond is incredibly unlikely because of the salary cap ramifications, so assuming the Bears have to choose between the two, look for Tillman to get the nod over Vasher because bigger corners tend to be a better fit in this Cover 2 scheme.
The Bears have had one of the best special teams squads in football for quite some time, even before Hester set the world afire as a rookie in the return game. Fortunately, All-Pro kicker Robbie Gould and reliable veteran punter Brad Maynard will be around a while. Money-in-the-bank long-snapper Patrick Mannelly is inked through 2010, so coach Dave Toub has to feel good about his kicking game for the foreseeable future.
That being said, Brendon Ayanbadejo – a Pro-Bowl performer on special teams in 2006 – is now in the last year of his deal. A demon on the coverage units, Ayanbadejo is a big reason why Bears' opponents were forced to start drives inside their own 20-yard line after kickoffs 19 times a season ago – tops in the league. He is also an excellent blocker and was instrumental in Hester breaking an NFL record with seven return touchdowns.
Some of the aforementioned will get paid and others will be set free, but unlike Briggs this time around, next year's franchise tag will most likely get quite dusty.
|John Crist is the Publisher of Bear Report and Editor in Chief of BearReport.com. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.|