There have not been decisions like this for Bears general manager Jerry Angelo in regards to free agency since shortly after he came on the job in 2001. The club has been that good at keeping its own players in-house, and now it faces the possible exit of two Pro Bowlers, the top receiver over the last two seasons and the quarterback that took the team to Super Bowl XLI.
Yes, big decisions loom and the Bears are not the one with complete control of the situation any longer. The players have a say in their futures. While the focus is on linebacker Lance Briggs, wide receiver Bernard Berrian and quarterback Rex Grossman, who all will become unrestricted Feb. 29, they’re not the only ones.
The organization needs to determine at what price they will go after these players, and chart a course of action in the event that dollar amount does not get the job done. There are going to be plenty of factors at play, and they’re not even the only unrestricted players. Special teamer Brendon Ayanbadejo would be a nice piece to the puzzle, but is seeking top dollar. Third tight end John Gilmore is also headed to the open market.
Then there are two restricted free agents to consider: safety Brandon McGowan and wide receiver Rashied Davis. The deadline for submission of qualifying offers by clubs to their restricted free agents whose contracts have expired and to whom they desire to retain a right of first refusal/compensation is Feb. 28.
Angelo has said he cannot count on veteran Mike Brown to return healthy, and it’s unknown if a decision on him has even been made. Brown is under contract for one more season. Safety remains a need position but McGowan could be part of the future. He came on down the stretch and was second to only team leader Brian Urlacher in tackles over the final five games.
McGowan has had trouble staying healthy, being forced out in 2006 with a ruptured Achilles tendon, and tearing an ACL in the final game of 2005. An elbow injury cost him two games during the middle of this past season. He plays with reckless abandon and was improving as the season ended.
``I think I stepped up and did what I had to do as a player,’’ McGowan said. ``I think I still should have made a few more plays. Overall, I think I played pretty well. From week to week and day to day, coming in here and watching film, I got better every day. Working with the coaches more it helped me out a lot.
``My mind set is going into next season as a starter. You never know what will happen.’’
For the most part, the Bears have not had to deal with RFA’s much because the organization began a consistent policy in 2003 of having draft picks from rounds three on down sign four-year contracts. By paying a higher signing bonus (and setting up an escalator on the back end) the Bears avoided players hitting the semi-open market as an RFA after their third season. That’s when other teams can have a say in how you conduct your business, and how the Bears snagged cornerback Ricky Manning Jr. from the Carolina Panthers.
It’s part of the reason cornerback Nathan Vasher had his nose wrinkled after reaching the Pro Bowl at the end of his second season. He was on the hook for two more seasons with his rookie contract. It’s something that fueled Briggs’ ire when he was drafted, but his only recourse was to hold out as a third-round pick. That would have been a worse decision than signing a four-year contract. But the Bears have been consistent—seventh-round picks get the higher signing bonus on a four-year deal even though their chances of making the roster are remote.
In the case of McGowan and Davis, neither were draft picks so there can be no compensation at the low level tender.
Here are the tender numbers for 2008 restricted free agents:
Level 1 Right of first refusal (ROFR) $927,000
Level 2 ROFR and original round draft pick compensation $927,000
Level 3 ROFR and second-round draft pick $1,417,000
Level 4 ROFR and first-round draft pick $2,017,000
Level 5 ROFR and first- and third-round draft picks $2,562,000
So the Bears could tender Level 1 offers to both players and pay them that salary for 2008 if the marketplace doesn’t bring any offer sheets.
With the offense struggling as it did, Davis didn’t take a step forward from his 2006 season when he emerged as a slot receiver catching 22 passes and two touchdowns, one a game-winner at Minnesota. He had only 17 receptions and went seven games without one. Still, he found a way to make more significant contributions on special teams when numbers were thinned, and might create interest from other teams who envision him doing more in their schemes.
It’s not altogether a bad thing to have another team negotiate a contract for an RFA, either. It establishes a market value for the player and allows you to decide if you want to pay the going rate. It’s what the Bears did with Israel Idonije when Buffalo signed the versatile defensive lineman to an $8.2 million, four-year offer sheet in March 2006. The Bears also matched an RFA offer sheet Minnesota had used to sign kicker Paul Edinger in 2003. Two years earlier, they passed when the Vikings signed receiver D'Wayne Bates away with an offer sheet.
If the Bears choose not to tender qualifying offers to the players, they will become unrestricted Feb. 29, free to negotiate with anyone. That’s entirely possible as the lowest tender is more than double the $435,000 Davis and McGowan each earned this past season.
So the question is, do the Bears want to more than double the pay of Davis and McGowan for 2008? At least the team is operating from solid ground with roughly $20 million in available cap space.