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Wednesday, March 2, 2011
Bears' free agents brace for lockout

By Jeff Dickerson
ESPNChicago.com

Free agents across the NFL are stuck in a state of limbo.

Until a new CBA is reached, veteran players coming out of contract with six or more accrued seasons of service cannot sign with new teams. Young players whose deals expired following the past season with fewer than six accrued seasons must wait and see what type of language is present in the new CBA regarding the amount of service time necessary to qualify for unrestricted free agency.

Before the uncapped year of 2010, players needed four accrued seasons to hit unrestricted free agency. Last season, that number climbed to six years, which allowed teams to tender those free agent players who came up short of six accrued seasons as restricted free agents.

Among those forced to play the waiting game is running back Garrett Wolfe. Selected by the Bears in the third round of the 2007 draft, Wolfe's contract expired at the end of last season, but with only four years of service in the league, the running back out of Northern Illinois isn't sure what his free agent classification will be in the new CBA. The Bears have yet to tender Wolfe (they have until 2 p.m. CT Thursday to do so), meaning the running back will likely be able sign with any team once the labor situation clears up.

ESPNChicago.com reported Monday the Bears are believed to have tendered qualifying offers to quarterback Caleb Hanie, linebacker Nick Roach and cornerback Corey Graham. The Bears did extend the original-compensation tender worth $1.29 million to safety Danieal Manning, according to NFL sources.

"It's a situation that's totally out of my hands," Wolfe told ESPNChicago.com. "I choose not to worry about it, but I've prepared myself for the worst. I've prepared myself financially for a lockout, so if that happens, I'll carry on each day the way I've carried on the past four years because I've put myself in a great situation financially. Granted, I'll miss work just like the next man because I don't have income, but I've prepared myself financially for it.

"In terms of being a football player, if we had a lockout it would hurt in a major way because all I'm doing is getting a year older. With the NFL, there are only so many years you can play, and when you get to a certain age, whether you can play or not, the powers that be deem you incapable of playing just because you reach a certain age. Plus, running back has the shortest life expectancy of any position, and there are only so many years where you can earn money."

Although veteran tight end Desmond Clark doesn't have to worry about qualifying for unrestricted free agency, Clark, like Wolfe, finds himself in a career holding pattern.

The ninth all-time leading receiver in franchise history, Clark suited up for only five regular season games in 2010, but still wants to play in the league for a few more seasons. While the door may not be completely closed on a return to Chicago, the tight end is anxious to test the free agent waters.

"This is a position I've really never been in before," Clark told ESPNChicago.com. "I tested free agency once before -- after my fourth year in Miami -- but I didn't have to wait that extended period of time to talk with teams. That's going to be the strange thing, you can't talk to anybody. You can't talk to any team representatives to get a gauge of who has interest for you, or what your pay scale might be at because there is so much up in the air as far as a salary cap. You really don't know what the next step will be. Usually when you're a free agent, you probably have a feel for the three to five teams you might go to, and based on the salary cap and how everybody got paid the year before, you can estimate being paid around a certain area. But you don't have that this year at all, because the salary cap situation could change and nobody is going to be communicating as far as management and players after March 4 possibly."

Clark declined to speculate on which teams might be interested in his services, but he has strong ties to Indianapolis head coach Jim Caldwell and Jacksonville tight end coach Rob Boras. Caldwell was the head coach at Wake Forest during Clark's record setting collegiate career -- Clark finished his Demon Deacon career as the all-time leading receiver in the ACC -- and Boras served as the Bears' tight ends coach from 2004-09.

"I really won't have a feel if it's going to come down between this team or that team," Clark said. "I have no clue, because I couldn't talk to anybody before March 4, and after March 4 I may not be able to talk to anybody. So basically, you're left out there to wonder and speculate where teams might have needs, but then again, they might have a need and you just may not be their guy.

"Until you can actually have real conversations, we are all just guessing."

Jeff Dickerson covers the Bears for ESPNChicago.com and ESPN 1000.