Chicago Bears: Danieal Manning
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Here are Five Things We Learned from the Chicago Bears' 13-6 loss to the Houston Texans:
1. Bears are not the best team in the NFL: OK, that question got cleared up Sunday night. But just because the Bears lost to Houston doesn't mean they're about to go into some epic tailspin. Keep it in perspective: As poorly as the Bears played they only lost by seven points. If Robbie Gould makes that difficult 48-yard field goal and Brandon Marshall doesn't drop that long pass in the end zone, the Bears win. This team can still win games even if Jay Cutler is out for a week or two, basically because the defense is so good. Kudos to Houston for staying committed to the run, but it did take Arian Foster 29 carries to reach 102 yards (3.5 average per rush). No doubt the bad weather hurt the Texans' offense, but the Bears deserve some credit for Matt Schaub's 42.9 quarterback rating and two interceptions. One loss does not define a season. At 7-2, the Bears are still in the upper echelon of the NFL. If they get a chance to meet the Texans later in the year, perhaps their starting quarterback will play the entire game. Who knows if that will change the outcome.
"(Coach Gary) Kubiak asked me right before the team meeting if I wanted to speak in front of the team," Manning said. "I didn't know he was going to ask me.
"I told these guys last night in the meeting that we are a resilient group. We need to continue playing like that against this Bears team, because they are going to make their plays. If we just stay resilient we'll come out with the win."
The Texans did just that, thanks in large part to the efforts of Manning, who forced a pair of first-quarter turnovers against the team that selected him in the second round of the 2006 NFL draft.
Manning's first takeaway occurred on the Bears' opening offensive play from scrimmage when he separated Kellen Davis from the ball after the tight end caught a short pass over the middle for 6 yards.
Manning spent his first five NFL seasons in Chicago and enjoyed quite a bit of success, including making it to Super Bowl XLI as a rookie. But Manning signed with the Texans before last season after rejecting what he felt was a low Bears offer.
"To be honest guys, I can't even imagine what's going to happen," Manning said on "The Carmen, Jurko & Harry Show" on ESPN 1000. "I know right now, as this week started to approach, I'm trying my best not to make it too personal. I'm trying to stay focused. I try not to play it like we have to out-play their defense, and stuff like that, just make sure I'm doing what I need to do to put us in a winning position."
Manning has been impressed with the Bears defense, which leads the NFL with 28 takeaways. Seven of those have been interceptions returned for touchdowns.
INDIANAPOLIS -- The Houston Texans were no doubt pleased to hear Lovie Smith say on Thursday "I don't think we've been in this good of a position at safety" in regards to the current starting combination of Chris Conte and Major Wright.
If Smith felt differently, perhaps the Bears would have made a stronger attempt to re-sign Danieal Manning last year in free agency. Instead, Manning was allowed to walk and ink a four-year deal with the Texans that included $9 million in guaranteed money -- $11 million in the first two years of the contract.
Manning missed three regular-season games due to an injury, but his presence in the Houston defensive backfield helped solidify the Texans' revamped secondary. The former Bears second-round draft choice intercepted a pair of passes in the regular season and had one pick in Houston's home playoff victory over Cincinnati.
Texans general manager Rick Smith explained on Friday why the organization targeted Manning last year in free agency.
"He adds a dimension," Smith said. "You are always looking to add a dimension to your football team. We had a need at the safety spot and we obviously felt he was a talented football player. He has all the attributes as a safety, but he is also a heck of a kick returner. So he has everything you look for when it comes to going out an acquiring a free agent. He fit the bill. We have been extremely pleased with his addition to our locker room, practice field and team on game day.'
"He fought through an injury but continued to lead and play at a very high level."
- Quarterback Jay Cutler was sharp in his 2011 debut, completing 68.8 percent of his passes for 312 yards and finishing with a 107.9 passer rating. I think all of us would be satisfied if he repeated that outing for the next 20 or so game weeks. But Cutler continues to be a case example of how Total Quarterback Rating will take a different view of quarterback play. Cutler's performance currently ranks No. 13 among Week 1 performances, with a score of 60.4. QBR downgraded him for five sacks and a fumble, neither of which are included in passer rating. A QBR score of 50 is considered average and measures a quarterback's contribution to winning (or losing) a game. Again, I'm not totally sure how we will incorporate QBR in the context of our weekly discussions, but it's always interesting to consider a different vantage point. For now, we'll chalk it up to another example of the Bears encountering skepticism at every turn.
- In August we wondered if Henry Melton was up to the task of playing the three-technique position in a Tampa-2 defense. Melton, after all, was a running back for part of his college career and was drafted as a defensive end. But his seven quarterback hits, including two sacks, made for a stunning debut as a starter Sunday. It obviously helps when the offense is distracted by a parallel monster performance by defensive end Julius Peppers. We don't draw any conclusions based on what we see in Week 1, but Melton put himself in position to provide a definitive answer to our original question.
- Last week, coach Lovie Smith indicated that Johnny Knox would take kickoff returns while Devin Hester focused on punts. But I am fine with that little bit of misdirection. Hester took kickoffs as well Sunday, something I'm all for following the departure of Danieal Manning. That's nothing against Knox. But if I'm the Bears, and I've been pretty consistent about this in recent years, I want the best returner in NFL history maximizing his chances on special teams. Then I sprinkle him into the offense whenever possible, rather than the other way around. That's what the Bears did Sunday, and Hester responded with 127 all-purpose yards -- 60 yards on three catches, 53 on three kickoff returns and 14 on one punt return. That's ideal, as far as I'm concerned.
Based on our discussions around here, there is no secret that tailback Matt Forte is a perfect fit for Mike Martz's offense. His receiving skills mean he can impact a game even if an opponent has filled the running lanes. His 56-yard screen play Sunday was a perfect example of his open-field running ability. So I wonder if the Bears recognize that barring injury, Forte's value is only going to increase with every passing week. The team and Forte's agent haven't been able to agree on the terms of a contract extension, but his versatility (and motivation this year) makes it highly unlikely that something will happen on the field that would allow the Bears to devalue his production. Even if he isn't piling up rushing yards, it seems likely he'll have a substantive weekly contribution in the passing game.
The possible acquisition of a big-bodied receiving threat dominates discussions concerning the Chicago Bears with the NFL lockout lifted.
What about the man responsible for delivering the ball?
Let’s not forget that quarterback Jay Cutler absorbed a league-high 52 sacks in 2010, in addition to leaving one game with a concussion, and another with a sprained knee in part because of shoddy protection along an offensive line that went through five combinations of starters before eventually settling on continued inconsistency.
Twenty-four of Cutler’s sacks came over the final eight games -- after the Bears supposedly fixed the line -- begging the question: How do they expect to improve protection in 2011 utilizing virtually the same players (with the exception of first-round pick Gabe Carimi) as the year before?
They can’t. That’s why the receiver position, while important, shouldn’t take precedence over the offensive line during this upcoming period of unrestricted free agency. Without adding more than just a rookie first-round pick to the offensive line, there’s no way the team can realistically expect the unit to significantly improve.
“Free agency is a big part of our team,” running back Matt Forte said. “We’ve signed a lot of big free-agency deals the last couple of years, [and] I could see us picking up some more linemen in free agency.”
Surely, Cutler hopes so, too.
Here’s a list of positions the Bears might address in order of importance, and potential free-agent targets. Because of his uncertain status, Patriots guard Logan Mankins was excluded from consideration for this list.
Roberto Garza gradually improved after missing two games due to arthroscopic surgery. Still, the team needs to acquire Garza’s eventual replacement, while upgrading the left side, where former first-round pick Chris Williams played inconsistently.
With a rookie (Carimi) and second-year player (J'Marcus Webb) penciled in as starters at tackle, depth at that position might also be addressed in free agency. But it’s doubtful the club pulls the trigger on expected big-ticket players like Jared Gaither (Ravens), Willie Colon (Steelers) or Doug Free (Cowboys).
Harvey Dahl, Falcons: Dahl flashes the type of nastiness coveted by Bears offensive line coach Mike Tice. Because the Falcons have to find a way to re-sign three offensive linemen, Dahl -- who represents an upgrade -- might be in play for the Bears.
Evan Mathis, Bengals: Mathis makes this list because he could turn out to be a bargain-priced steal. Mathis didn’t start most of last season, but played well with limited opportunities. At worst, Mathis -- who possesses starting-caliber ability -- could provide strong interior depth.
Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs are the only Bears linebackers under contract, and the team needs to find a starter to play on the strong side. Nick Roach appears to be the most likely candidate, but Lovie Smith said the team will bring in competition at the position.
Keith Bulluck, N.Y. Giants: Bulluck has said he wants to play for a contender. His age (34) and recent injury history (torn ACL in 2009) are a concern, but his track record and leadership are undeniable. His salary demands may be more than what the Bears would pay.
Justin Durant, Jacksonville: The Jaguars don’t plan on bringing back Durant, who fought through nagging injuries during somewhat of a down 2010 season. Although he’s the type of run-and-hit style of linebacker the Bears like to utilize in their system, Durant would seem like an ideal fit for a two-down role.
Although the Bears would like to add a veteran to the group, several in the organization feel the team could get by with the players already on the roster. Santonio Holmes, Santana Moss and Mike Sims-Walker appear to be the most likely candidates, but players such as Braylon Edwards and Brad Smith figure into the mix, too.
Santana Moss, Redskins: Despite his age (32), Moss is an explosive deep threat, who fits what the Bears do offensively. Bears receiver Devin Hester told the Chicago Tribune he’d like to play with Moss. But Moss has stated his desire to remain a Redskin.
Mike Sims-Walker, Jaguars: Sims-Walker is somewhat of an enigma considering his size (6-foot-2, 214 pounds), deceptive speed and smooth route-running ability. Injuries and life outside of football (let’s be clear that he doesn’t have off-the-field issues) have kept Sims-Walker from reaching his full potential. The Bears may be able to acquire him relatively cheaply.
The Bears brought in Richmond McGee as a potential replacement for veteran free agent Brad Maynard, who isn’t expected to be brought back. But surely the Bears don’t trust the unproven McGee, which means there’s a chance they will bring in another player whether it’s an established veteran or rookie free agent.
Sam Koch, Ravens: He has a 43.7-yard career punting average (38.1 net), and he’s landed a Ravens franchise-best 149 punts inside the 20.
Steve Weatherford, Jets: Posted a 38.1 net average in 2010, and is believed to be the Bears' targeted player to replace veteran Brad Maynard. Weatherford punted a league-high 42 balls inside the opponent's 20-yard line last season.
Depth along the defensive line and secondary certainly make sense in free agency.
Strong safety Danieal Manning isn’t expected to return, meaning the team will need to find a capable backup to play behind Chris Harris and Major Wright.
At cornerback, the Bears are happy with Charles Tillman starting on one side, with Tim Jennings and Zack Bowman competing for the job at the opposite corner in training camp. Second-year man Joshua Moore figures into the mix, too, according to Smith. So with five players -- counting nickel corner D.J. Moore -- capable of contributing already on the roster, it’s unlikely the Bears use free agency to add a veteran unless they can swing a deal for a major upgrade.
Prior to the draft, the Bears wanted to add to the defensive line, and they did just that by drafting second-round pick Stephen Paea. There’s still a possibility they bolster the position in unrestricted free agency.
The Bears are reportedly interested in Seattle’s Brandon Mebane, who has ties to Tim Ruskell, the Bears' vice president of player personnel, and defensive line coach Mike Phair.
Somewhere in there he’s put together enough context clues from the team’s brass to string together the words: We want you back.
Perhaps he’ll finally hear that from the club in the coming days, with teams likely getting back to the business of free agency now that the lockout is close to coming to a conclusion.
“At both of the award ceremonies, they spoke very highly of me, and I kind of got a sense that they do want me back from the Ed Block courage award banquet and the Brian Piccolo award ceremony,” Adams said. “From both coach [Lovie] Smith and [defensive line] coach [Rod] Marinelli’s speeches, they want to have me back. I’ve just got to hurry up and wait.”
With new rules soon to be in place, it shouldn’t take long. The league is expected to assign a designated period of three days to sign undrafted rookies and their own free agents before full-blown free agency kicks off around the NFL.
An eight-year veteran, Adams falls into a vital group of Bears free agents -- which includes center Olin Kreutz -- the team will try to re-sign for the upcoming season during what’s sure to be a chaotic time for general manager Jerry Angelo, director of player personnel Tim Ruskell, and contract negotiator Cliff Stein.
Adams hopes (and likely will be) one of the top priorities among that group.
“I love it here, man. I love the crowd, the team, the coaches,” Adams said. “There are really no big egos on this team. We’ve got some pretty heavy hitters on this team, who believe in that team-first concept. That’s really great for someone like me.”
Here’s a look at the players from the 2010 roster that the Bears will be considering during the exclusive three-day window to bring back their own free agents:
DT Anthony AdamsPriority level: High
Unheralded because he doesn’t post gaudy numbers (36 tackles, two sacks) from his nose tackle spot, Adams is one of the key elements to the team’s stingy run defense. His preference is to remain a Bear, but the club won’t be able to bring him back if it extends the run-of-the-mill three-year, $6 million deal it offered several players before the end of last season.
Aromashodu flashed early last season, but quickly fell out of favor with offensive coordinator Mike Martz. Aromashodu doesn’t want to return to Chicago. The team likely feels the same.
Bullocks was solid on special teams last season, but needs to make a more meaningful contribution on defense to stick. If he re-signs, Bullocks will have a tough time making the team.
Clark shined at training camp last year, and is arguably the club’s most athletic player at tight end. But for some reason Clark never received a legitimate shot to contribute on offense. With time dwindling on his 12-year career, Clark will explore opportunities elsewhere.
QB Todd CollinsPriority level: Low
His struggles when called upon, Caleb Hanie’s emergence in the NFC Championship game and the team’s decision to draft Nathan Enderle likely have signaled Collins’ exit from Chicago. There’s still a slight chance for a return, however.
Davis continues to be a standout performer on special teams, but might warrant a more extensive look at receiver after a strong outing in the regular-season finale. Davis likely won’t be highly coveted in free agency, thus increasing the prospects for a return to the Bears.
CB Corey GrahamPriority level: High
Graham cranked out what probably should have been a Pro Bowl season on special teams (he led the league in special-teams stops) in 2010. The team’s problem, however, is Graham probably feels typecast as a special teams only player with no shot at receiving a real opportunity to contribute on defense. That might lead to Graham looking elsewhere.
LB Brian IwuhPriority level: High
Iwuh tied for second on the team in special-teams tackles (18) last season, and showed in his only start (team-high 12 tackles with 10 solo against the Seahawks on Oct. 17) that he’s capable of potentially cracking the starting lineup full time. The team offered a multi-year extension at the end of last season, and if the deal is still on the table during the three-day negotiating period, he’ll sign it.
C Olin KreutzPriority level: High
Not as dominant a player as he used to be, Kreutz still ranks favorably among other players around the league at his position. Fortunately for the team, the NFL instituted the three-day negotiating window. Otherwise, there’s a good chance the Bears would have competition for his services.
The priority level should be high here, but team sources indicate the club has no plan to offer more than the three-year, $6 million deal it extended prior to the end of last season. Manning missed just three tackles all last year, finally coming into his own at the safety position. If the Bears won’t budge on the financial package, he’ll go elsewhere. Several teams are interested.
Maynard seems to have fallen out of favor with some in the organization after producing somewhat of a down year in 2010. Kicker Robbie Gould has shown strong support for the punter, but it might not be enough.
LB Nick RoachPriority level: High
Injuries slowed Roach last season, but he should be in contention for the starting strong-side linebacker position in 2011. Roach wants to re-sign with the Bears, but the club could lose him if it can’t offer a strong deal during the exclusive period. Multiple teams are interested.
Because of his injury history, Tinoisamoa said the Bears will “try to find a way to devalue” him. When healthy, Tinoisamoa is a strong contributor. But the Bears probably won’t offer much more than a veteran minimum contract.
LB Rod WilsonPriority level: Low
Considered more of a special-teams player and reserve linebacker, Wilson could be brought back for depth reasons. But at this point, a return to Chicago seems unlikely.
Wolfe will only fall further down the depth chart with Harvey Unga returning from spending last season on the injured reserve. With the team already stacked at running back, Wolfe’s special-teams prowess still might not be enough to warrant a roster spot.
Note: QB Caleb Hanie is a restricted free agent, and in March received a low tender from the Bears. Running back Kahlil Bell is an exclusive-rights free agent.
Will any of the three re-sign with the Bears? Here is a quick look at each of the three players' individual situations and likelihood of staying in Chicago.
Danieal Manning - Five years of NFL service - The Bears made a half-hearted attempt to re-sign Manning during the 2010 season by offering the versatile defender an extension worth just $6 million over three years. There mere fact the offer was so low proves the Bears aren't interested in paying serious money to retain Manning, a 2006 second round draft choice who finished fifth on the team in tackles last year with 85. It's unclear exactly what kind of money Manning will command as an unrestricted free agent, but teams should be interested in a starting caliber defensive back (56 career regular season starts), capable of playing both safety positions, nickel back and cornerback, who also moonlights as one of the most productive kickoff return men in the league. Bears head coach Lovie Smith seems content to move forward with second-year safety Major Wright, which means Manning is expected to find a new home and hopefully a better situation in 2011.
Odds of staying: Slim
Corey Graham - Four years of NFL service - Graham wants to be in a situation where he has a legitimate chance to play cornerback. That will not happen in Chicago under Smith. Even though Graham played well when he made nine starts at cornerback in 2008, the former fifth round pick out of New Hampshire has been lost in the secondary shuffle the past two years. Instead of sulking after being slighted multiple times the last two years, Graham turned himself into arguably one of the best special teams players in the league and led the Bears with 25 special teams tackles in 2010. Unlike Manning, the Bears certainly want to keep Graham on the roster, but it might be too late. Graham wants to be more than a special teams ace, he wants to compete for a starting job on defense. The odds of that happening in Chicago don't look promising.
Odds of staying: Slim
Nick Roach - Four years of NFL service - Here's a major difference between Roach and Manning/Graham: Roach wants to keep playing for the Bears. The Northwestern product, who just turned 26, has already made 30 combined career starts at strong side and middle linebacker, and tied for the team lead with 10 tackles for a loss in 2009. When you consider the Bears only have two veteran linebackers currently under contract -- (Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs) -- bringing back Roach seems like a prudent move. Obviously, Roach, who's also a valuable special teams contributor, has dealt with a variety of minor injuries during his career and staying healthy is key, but at that age, with all that experience and athletic ability, the Bears are better off spending a little extra cash to keep Roach in the fold.
Odds of staying: Good
The most pressing issues at these meetings usually involve proposed rules changes by the competition committee, but the league's work stoppage -- which is now more than two weeks old -- remained at the forefront of most conversations Sunday in the lavish, gold-adorned lobby of the Roosevelt Hotel, the site of this year's meetings.
The league doesn't get down to the true business of these meetings until Monday, when it debates potential rules changes.
As for proposed changes, the most impactful for the Bears concerns the potential modification of the kickoff rules. Because of concerns about the growing number of injuries, the competition committee is proposing that kickoffs be moved from the 30-yard line to the 35. In addition, only the kicker will be allowed to line up more than 5 yards from the ball, which eliminates a running start by the kick coverage team.
"We are basically trying to shorten the field a little bit with respect to their running start," said Rich McKay, chairman of the competition committee. "We are hopeful the change will have an impact on the injury numbers."
Further changes to the kickoff rules concern touchbacks and blocking by the receiving team. Instead of placing the ball on the 20 for touchbacks, officials would place the ball on the 25 yard-line. In addition, the committee is looking to eliminate all forms of wedge blocking.
"The idea was to change the play but don't disadvantage either side; try to even out the effect to both the kicking team and the receiving team," McKay said.
But for a team such as Chicago, which possesses one of the league's most dynamic return units, the committee's desire to "even out the effect" could actually play a role in neutralizing one of the club's greatest advantages.
McKay said the average starting field position for teams is approximately the 27-yard line. But consider this: the Bears broke 16 returns in 2010 for 30 yards or more, including 10 for 40 or more. Since 2008, Bears return man Danieal Manning has returned 17 kickoffs for 40 yards or more, which ranks as the most in the NFL during that span.
So the proposed changes to kickoff rules could adversely affect the Bears -- whose average drive start at the 31.5 in 2010 tied the Jets for best in the NFL -- more than other teams. The Bears are one of just eight teams in 2010 to have 10 touchbacks or fewer. They had five, and their touchback percentage of 7.6 was third-lowest in the NFL.
The league hasn't admitted it, but the proposal to modify kickoff rules was designed to increase the number of touchbacks, which it hopes decreases the number of injuries on such plays.
"I wouldn't say that's the sole intent," McKay said. "I would say there is a byproduct. Do I think there will be a potential for fewer returns? Yes. Do we think it is a huge magnitude change? No."
The potential changes will be debated in an official forum on Monday, and the proposals need 75 percent approval by ownership to pass.
The other major rule change the committee proposes calls for instant-replay reviews on every scoring play, as opposed to just those called for by coaches on challenges. Automatic replay reviews are currently only used in the final two minutes of a half.
If the replay measure passes, it would naturally reduce challenges by coaches, which is why the league would do away with the third coaches' challenge afforded teams under the current rules.
We'll get into some of the other potential rules changes, and announcements such as compensatory picks for the upcoming draft, as more information becomes available.
In other news, we ran into Bears coach Lovie Smith hanging out in the lobby with Bengals coach Marvin Lewis on Sunday, and Smith seemed to be good spirits. In fact Smith said he looked forward to talking Bears football on Tuesday during the NFL coaches' breakfast, where the league's 32 teams sit down for an hour with members of the media.
So be sure to check us out on ESPNChicago.com for all Bears-related news coming from the NFL's meetings, which run until Tuesday. In addition, we'll also try to bring you the latest on some of the team's free agents such as Manning, center Olin Kreutz and defensive tackle Anthony Adams.
Moving on without certain special teams standouts is nothing new to Toub -- the Bears lost Brendon Ayanbadejo to free agency in 2008 and released Tim Shaw prior to the 2010 season -- but the sheer amount of potential losses gives reason for concern.
The top six special teams tacklers from last season (Corey Graham, Garrett Wolfe, Brian Iwuh, Rashied Davis, Rod Wilson and Josh Bullocks), punter Brad Maynard, kickoff return specialist Danieal Manning and versatile linebacker Nick Roach (three special teams tackles in the 2010 playoffs) all have expiring contracts.
While the Bears did tender Roach (four accrued seasons), Manning (5) and Graham (4) restricted-free-agent qualifying offers, all three could end up being unrestricted free agents once the owners and NFLPA finalize a new collective bargaining agreement.
Graham recorded 93 tackles in nine starts at cornerback in 2008, but he failed to win over head coach Lovie Smith and consistently crack the starting lineup either at cornerback or nickelback the past two years. Smith opted to use the combination of Zack Bowman and Tim Jennings opposite Charles Tillman at cornerback, while D.J. Moore beat out Graham for the nickelback spot last summer. With the writing clearly on the wall, the defensive back knows his best chance to be a full-time starter on defense is to sign elsewhere in the offseason, according to NFL sources.
Manning is also expected to leave the Bears if he qualifies for unrestricted free agency -- ESPNChicago.com reported last week Manning rejected a three-year, $6 million contract extension during the regular season -- but the Bears are stocked in the return game with Devin Hester and Johnny Knox.
The Bears failed to tender Wolfe, who doesn't appear to be in the Bears' future plans, especially since the team gave up a seventh-round pick to select running back Harvey Unga in the 2010 Supplemental Draft. However, despite standing only 5-7, Wolfe carved out a solid niche on kickoff coverage and also served as the all-important personal protect on the punt team -- Wolfe made 48 special teams tackles the last three years.
Meanwhile, Maynard's situation remains up in the air. Certain members of the Bears organization were unhappy with Maynard's average yards per punt (40.1) and net average (35.2) in 2010, but the veteran remains one the best direction kickers in the NFL (24 punts were placed inside the 20-yard line). Plus, some of Maynard's struggles can certainly attributed to a hip injury that forced the punter to miss much of his offseason work prior to last season, not to mention kicking the ball in inclement weather.
The Bears did sign Richmond McGee to a futures/reserve contract, but McGee hasn't attempted a single punt in an NFL game. Maynard, on the other hand, has punted the ball more than 1,200 times, in every pressure-packed situation imaginable for the New York Giants and the Bears.
Maynard, kicker Robbie Gould and long snapper Patrick Mannelly are considered the most consistent trio of specialists in the league.
Citing NFL sources, ESPNChicago.com reported the Bears are attempting to re-sign Iwuh to a two-year contract.
With so many moving parts, it should be an interesting offseason for the Bears' third phase.
Manning finds himself in an interesting situation.
Read the entire story.
CHICAGO -- Halas Hall remained quiet in terms of transactions Monday, the first day the Chicago Bears and the rest of the NFL could start releasing players.
Given there's a bit of a timetable to rid rosters of undesirables around the league (once the current collective bargaining agreement expires on March 4, league business ceases without a new deal in place), Chicago's relative inactivity would seem interesting considering it's believed to be pondering parting ways with a couple of players for reasons ranging from lack of production to high salaries, or in some cases both.
But that's not all that's under consideration for the Bears in the current climate of labor uncertainty.
With $104.9 million committed to players currently on the roster for 2011, the Bears are one of 20 teams around the league with more than $100 million already devoted to players for the upcoming season -- assuming there is one -- and the numbers don't even count toward the soon-to-come salary cap for free agents, franchise players (there's still disagreement between the league and union about whether the tags will even be applicable) or rookies.
It's still unknown what the cap for 2011 will be once a new CBA is reached. In 2007, the salary cap was $109 million, and increased to $116 million for 2008, and $128 million for 2009, the last capped season. The Bears allocated a reported $131.9 million in the uncapped 2010 season.
But based on the salary-cap increases of the past three capped seasons, the Bears likely won't find themselves in danger of going over the new cap once there's a new CBA. That doesn't mean the team is operating without taking the salary cap into consideration when planning for the future though.
Although the Bears have held preliminary discussions with representatives for running back Matt Forte on a contract extension, several of the team's players who are free agents still haven't even heard from the organization in recent days about possible returns, according to multiple NFL and team sources.
In addition to working out a lucrative extension for Forte and possibly safety Chris Harris, the team still has to find ways to bring back key veteran free-agent starters such as defensive tackle Anthony Adams, center Olin Kreutz and safety Danieal Manning while determining whether to bring back high-priced players such as defensive tackle Tommie Harris and running back Chester Taylor, or key contributors like special-teams ace Corey Graham and restricted free-agent quarterback Caleb Hanie.
Tommie Harris has two years remaining on a four-year, $40 million extension and is due a $2.5 million bonus before June 1. Taylor, meanwhile, is reportedly on the chopping block after receiving $7 million last season as part of a four-year, $12.5 million contract signed last March to be the backup to Forte.
It's certainly not out of the realm of possibility for Taylor to be on the way out, but a league source said the running back is expected to remain a Bear.
Besides that, the $7 million for Taylor is already spent, which begs the question: What type of production did the team expect from a backup? The fact he's scheduled to make $1.25 million in base salary in 2011 and $25,000 in a workout bonus would also make the decision to release him somewhat of a head scratcher if there's not a capable -- and cheaper -- alternative waiting in the wings.
Harris told "The Afternoon Saloon" on ESPN 1000 at the Super Bowl that "no one from the organization has talked to me about making any decisions. This is a time where the less you say is better."
Part of that stems from the widespread uncertainty for both the players and the organization.
The Bears have 48 players under contract, and it's difficult to fill out a roster by signing their own free agents, outside free agents, and draft picks while trying to maneuver within the unknown parameters of a yet-to-be-reached CBA that will include a salary cap, and possibly two additional games in 2011.
"Business as usual," Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said at the end of the season. "Like everybody else, we've just got to plan accurately."
Call it nervous laughter. Bell admitted as much while jokingly posing for the cameras assembled in front of his locker at Halas Hall, a day after the Chicago Bears’ disappointing loss in the NFC Championship Game to the Green Bay Packers.
“I’m [gonna] stay here as long as I can,” Bell said, laughing.
That’s because he doesn’t know when, or if, he’ll be back. Like 15 other Bears set to become unrestricted free agents, Bell said his goodbyes Monday as the players cleaned out their lockers at Halas Hall in preparation for the ultimate offseason of uncertainty. In addition to the ambiguity brought on by the labor situation, the Bears know it’s just not possible for every player to get a shot at returning for another run at a Super Bowl title in 2011.
“I like this team,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said. “We’re gonna try to keep as many as the guys as possible and try to keep this core group together. There’s no reason to start breaking it up.”
But it’s inevitable. As general manager Jerry Angelo pointed out Monday, the Bears “would be able to field a 21-man [roster of] starter[s]” if they “had to go out and start the season next week.”
"We feel good about the nucleus of this football team, the foundation we've laid going forward," Angelo added. "I feel that our focus is going to be on continually building this team to get to the goal that we all want here in Chicago."
Of the starters, center Olin Kreutz is the only player of which there’s uncertainty about a possible return due to his contract expiring. On the positive side, there doesn’t appear to be a proven heir apparent at his position, although the team could shuffle some of the pieces to find a possible replacement (Roberto Garza -- signed through 2011 -- was listed on the postseason depth chart as a backup center). Kreutz didn’t produce what anyone would call a banner year in 2010, but his value in blitz recognition and as a traffic controller on that offensive line can’t be diminished.
Offensive linemen Frank Omiyale, and Chris Williams are signed through 2012, while J'Marcus Webb Webb is signed through 2013. Contracts for tight end Greg Olsen and running back Matt Forte expire after next season. Interestingly, blocking tight end Brandon Manumaleuna -- who struggled in 2010 to put it lightly -- is signed through 2014.
“That’s not my call,” Kreutz said on possibly returning in 2011. “I’ll keep trying to play. I’ve said a million times that when you’re not good enough the NFL will let you know. So if no one wants me, I’ll retire. If someone wants me, I’ll play.”
Backup quarterback Caleb Hanie is also set to hit unrestricted free agency. Inactive for most of the season as the third quarterback, Hanie was thrust into action in the NFC Championship Game, and performed well, considering he hadn’t taken any snaps with the first-team offense in the week of preparation leading up to the contest.
Hanie played with poise in engineering two scoring drives, which included a touchdown pass against a blitzing Packers defense. That brief appearance could pique the interest of other teams looking for a talented young backup with mobility, while making a possible push by the Bears to re-sign Hanie difficult.
Besides that, second-team quarterback Todd Collins' stretch of ineffectiveness in the NFC title game made it clear that Hanie may deserve a legitimate shot for the primary backup job to Jay Cutler.
“It’s hard to pinpoint that kind of stuff. You’ve just gotta go out and play. That stuff is gonna work itself out,” Hanie said. “I already went through all that coming out of college. You don’t worry about what teams are thinking. You just go play, put the best product you can on the field and hope for the best. It’s always great to have game tape, especially in a playoff game.”
The club also needs to determine whether to re-sign receivers Devin Aromashodu and Rashied Davis, tight end Desmond Clark and backup offensive lineman Edwin Williams. Clark doesn’t think he’ll be back. It’s believed Aromashodu doesn’t want to return, considering how he appeared on the way to finally breaking through as an NFL wideout at the end of 2009, only to become an afterthought this season in Mike Martz’s offensive scheme.
Davis and Williams appear to be legitimate candidates to return. Davis adds value as a backup receiver and major contributor on special teams, and Williams started three games early in the season at right guard.
Wolfe, meanwhile, could return -- but it appears to be uncertain at this point -- because of his contributions on special teams. Wolfe tied for second in special-teams sacks, but didn’t contribute as a backup running back; nor did Bell, who was inactive for all 16 regular-season games, and likely won’t be re-signed.
“We’ll want to bring some of our own back, and I’m confident we’ll be able to do that,” Angelo said. “There’s probably going to be a few new faces in there somewhere -- better competition -- all of it to make us better.”
Of the seven free agents on defense, defensive tackle Anthony Adams and safety Danieal Manning appear to be the highest priorities.
The club approached Manning during the regular season about an extension, but the financial terms appear to fall short of what the safety will be able to command on the open market. Adams, meanwhile, started all 16 games at defensive tackle and played an important role as a run stuffer for a unit that finished the season ranked No. 3 against the rush.
The club recently signed defensive tackle Matt Toeaina, who started 10 games in place of Tommie Harris, to an extension. So in addition to trying to re-sign Adams, the Bears will have to figure out whether to release Harris, who is signed through 2012, but reportedly due a roster bonus on June 1 of $2.5 million.
Harris said he “was just getting started” towards the end of the season after a slow start, and would like to return to the Bears in 2011 “if they still want me”.
Smith was coy in discussing Harris’ future.
“Every day I’ve been here, Tommie’s been here,” Smith said. “I don’t see why we would say he wouldn’t be here. I’d say that about the rest of our guys. I saw improvement the last few games from Tommie. We’ve all done some good things at the end, but just looking at yesterday’s game, of course you can’t be too excited.”
With the Bears seemingly set to lose Manning in free agency, they’ll also need to determine whether to extend Chris Harris, whose contract will expire after next season. Brought to Chicago in a trade with Carolina, Harris -- teamed with Manning, who finally came into his own as an NFL safety -- brought stability to a position sorely in need of it.
Harris tied Charles Tillman for the team lead in interceptions (5), and finished fourth in tackles (96) while Manning contributed 85 stops, and an interception. If the team lets Manning walk in free agency, it will need to consider extending Harris to start alongside Major Wright, who just finished his rookie season. The Bears also need to make a decision about bringing back Josh Bullocks for depth. Bullocks saw increased snaps near the end of the season, but he becomes a free agent in March.
The contracts of backup cornerback and special-teams stalwart Corey Graham and punter Brad Maynard are also about to expire.
At linebacker, only Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher are currently under contract, while Brian Iwuh, Nick Roach, Rod Wilson, and Pisa Tinoisamoa will become free agents.
A product of Northwestern, Roach expressed a desire to remain “close to home”, while Tinoisamoa showed some depth and emotion in assessing his future.
“Man, that’s a good question. I don’t know. I’m a little emotional about that,” Tinoisamoa said. “I’m kind of insecure, too, honestly. I’m like, ‘Man, is he looking at me like I’m gonna get cut?’ [I’m like] ‘Hey, coach didn’t look at me the same. Does that mean something?’ I try to read too much into it, but that’s my own thoughts; my own crazy head. That’s what I have to deal with.”
“The truth is I only signed a one-year contract. It will be up soon, I’m getting older and things like that. I don’t know what the situation is gonna be,” he added. “But I know that this team is gonna be all right. I came here to win, and the fact I had a chance to get to the Super Bowl is bigger and better than anything I could’ve imagined. It was worth it to me. Even if it’s my last year to play, by going out like this… this is awesome to say I was a Bear, I was a Monster of the Midway. Man, they can’t take that away from me, and I’m proud about that. I can keep that with me.”