When the Bears finally wrapped up a contract for Devin Hester at the start of training camp last summer, it finished a whirlwind spending spree for general manager Jerry Angelo. Hester was the 10th Bears player he had re-signed or extended in less than six months, a shopping adventure that ran a total of $185.39 million with roughly $59.2 million guaranteed.
Based on the 9-7 season that followed, it wasn't the best money the club ever spent. But the franchise's core group of players remains in tact, and the hope is they'll rebound to playoff form moving forward. When you factor in the deals given to cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Nathan Vasher the summer before, the total figure for 12 contracts approaches $250 million or so. Of course, not all of that money will be earned, it's the nature of NFL contracts.
But one of the real themes moving forward in 2009 is that the club is expecting more, particularly from some of the players it invested in. That will serve as a backdrop to our first question of the week in Four Down Territory. We'll knock one out every day this week through Friday. If you have any questions, shoot them in and we'll do our best to get to as many as we can.
Q: What is going to happen to Nathan Vasher? I read quite a bit anymore about the Bears' need for another quality cornerback due to the unknowns about Corey Graham as a regular starter and the unknowns about whether Vasher will return to form after two consecutive seasons ended on injured reserve. Obviously, if Vasher returns to form, that will be great, but what happens if he doesn't? Will the Bears keep him, trade him, cut him or do something else with Vasher? If he's traded, what do you think he'll be worth in return? If he's cut, which I'm guessing is unlikely, I'm sure that will count against the salary cap, but how much?
Andrew B, Parts Unknown
A: This has been a popular question recently and Andrew's is just one of many we have received on Vasher. Some have suggested he's on shaky ground this offseason. I don't see how.
That doesn't mean there is a starting job waiting for Vasher, necessarily, but he certainly figures to be in the mix in 2009. The Bears have paid for Vasher's services. Cutting him now, after two injury-riddled seasons, would be short-sighted no matter how frustrating the experience may have been for the organization. Why unload a player you've already paid? They've paid him $15,654,560 over the last two seasons. Get rid of him now and that money is really squandered. The Bears need to see if Vasher can return to form, and they're certainly looking for him to do so.
A right hand injury limited him to eight games last season. He underwent surgery following Week 4 and the was knocked out for the year when he reinjured the hand at St. Louis Nov. 23. This came on the heels of his 2007 season when a serious groin muscle tear kept him out of 12 games. Vasher was reinserted in the starting lineup in the middle of last season after missing three games even though Corey Graham had performed well in his absence. The sentiment at the time was that Vasher was a former Pro Bowl performer and a veteran who wasn't going to lose his job to injury. He's not in jeopardy of losing his job to injury now. He'll have a full opportunity to win a starting spot in the offseason.
The economics of cutting Vasher don't make sense either. He received an $11.5 million signing bonus with his five-year extension in the summer of 2007. Because 2010 is slated to be an uncapped year, the Bears couldn't spread out the remaining amortization of the signing bonus over two seasons if they cut him. They would be on the hook for the remaining $7,666,664 all at once, on their 2009 books. Subtract out his base salary for this coming season of $2.9 million, and you're looking at a cap hit of $4,766,664. The Bears have plenty of cap space for this season, but that's a lot of dead money for a player who is only three years removed from being a consistent, top performer.
Vasher has a base salary of $2.9 million this season, $2.95 million in 2011, $3.45 million in 2011 and $3.7 million in 2012. If he's a quality starting cornerback, those are numbers the Bears can live with easily. That's the point. They already bucked up for Vasher and now they're going to wait to see him buck up on the field.
Getting rid of Vasher doesn't make sense for another reason. It's not like the Bears are loaded with depth here. If Charles Tillman is moved to free safety, a possibility that doesn't seem to want to go away, then they're down a corner. Cut Vasher and then they're down two corners. He's got to at least go to training camp and prove what he can do. Then the club can begin to make judgments.
Q: Former Bears wide receiver Justin McCareins had a breakout year in Tennessee, or at least had a few big games and a solid season. Just checked and saw that he's an unrestricted free agent. He's a big target (something Chicago still lacks), a former Bear, and like a bunch of their former wideouts, is finally establishing himself. Devin Hester is getting the No.1 wideout money in Chicago and it doesn't seem like McCareins would demand No.1 money. Did he part with Chicago on good terms? Any chance he could come back?
Sean, Arcata, Calif.
A: I'm pretty sure you are thinking about former Bears wide receiver Justin Gage, who enjoyed a solid season in an offense that didn't do a lot of passing last season when he caught 34 balls for 651 yards and six touchdowns. Gage signed a $14 million, four-year deal last February and will not be going anywhere.
McCareins, however, is a free agent. The 30-year-old caught 30 passes for 412 yards. His agent Cliff Brady told the Tennessean that McCareins would like to return to Tennessee, where he began his career after becoming a standout at Northern Illinois.
"Justin really likes it there and is comfortable there,'' Brady said. "He would love to stay and try and leave there with a ring."
McCareins name has come up before with the Bears. He has decent size at 6-2, 215 pounds, but right now he'd have to be considered a complementary target. The Bears will or should be aiming a little higher considering the state of the position on their roster.
Q: I was wondering if you could provide any insight into the future at the offensive line positions at this time. With Chris Williams healthy this year the Bears have an answer at left tackle. Do you believe Dan Buenning gets a true chance to start at left guard? If he works out, it would give us a solid, young left side and allow us to focus on the right. Is Josh Beekman the future at center, or is the organization unsure of what to do with him? With John Tait having one year left, do they focus on another tackle this year in the draft? How serious do you feel our need is at the guard position?
Brendan H., Parts Unknown
A: I wouldn't jump right in with both feet assuming Williams is the lockdown answer at left tackle. What do you base this assessment on, a few plays in garbage time in a couple games? Williams will be given the job at left tackle, no question about it. But it's premature to suggest he's the answer you seasons to come. The club has every reason to believe the No. 14 pick will pan out and be a pillar on the offense moving forward. But he's yet to make a start and there is the issue of his back, which required surgery after one training camp practice without pads.
Based on this, I'd say tackle remains the top priority when examining the line. Combining the Williams' situation with Tait's contract status, it's a natural fit to draft one early, and it might even be a good idea to try to re-sign John St. Clair. Williams made tangible strides in the weight room, was a dedicated worker after practice on a daily basis and is a bright guy. He needs to prove himself in live action.
As far as Buenning, he lacks the one thing that carries a lot of weight around Halas Hall--draft status. He should get an opportunity to compete, we'll see where that goes. It would be a good idea to bring in another young guard, but the need at tackle is greater. As far as Beekman, he's the future at left guard until we're told differently, right? Future center? I don't think the Bears have considered replacing Olin Kreutz yet. He's signed through 2010 and there is a long, long list of needs to attend to before considering him.
Q: With Bernard Berrian departing as an unrestricted free agent last spring, what will the Bears receive in terms of a compensatory pick? And when are those awarded by the league?
Rob, Parts Unknown
A: Good question, Rob. It's one we covered a little while back right here. Don't forget that Pro Bowl special teamer Brendon Ayanbadejo and tight end John Gilmore departed as UFA's. The Bears didn't bring any on board so the chances they do well are good. It's possible they could land a third-round pick. Click the link for more details. The league awards compensatory picks at the annual meeting, which begins March 22 in Dana Point, Calif.
How about that? A Q&A posted before the late-night hours. Thanks for all of the questions and comments, and thanks for reading. We'll get into it again Tuesday.