A project that could have potentially been put off one more year is expected to be at the forefront for the Bears demanding immediate attention.
Veteran right tackle John Tait is seriously considering retirement with one year remaining on his contract according to two sources, and a third source close to the team called it a done deal although no official word came Friday when the club announced its first cuts, releasing three players including veteran wide receiver Marty Booker.
Tait's departure would hasten the need for the Bears to strike up negotiations with impending free agent John St. Clair on a contract and make it probable general manager Jerry Angelo will use a high draft pick in April on a tackle to one day pair with Chris Williams, the first-round pick from 2008. Expectations have been the Bears will target a tackle again in the 2009 draft but a shakeup at the position created by Tait leaving earlier than expected would place more significance on the development of a second young tackle.
Tait remains under contract through 2009. He has a base salary of $4.8 million with a $50,000 workout bonus. His salary cap number is $5.35 million and if he retires it will create a cap savings of $4.85 million. The 34-year-old was asked during the final week of the regular season about his future.
``You notice little things that didn't happen when you were younger,'' he said. ``It just takes a little bit longer to recover from games. I think you have to do a lot more maintenance, just the upkeep, that's the biggest thing. If you would have asked me after my rookie year if I was going to play 10 years in the league, I would have told you were you were crazy. I'm just happy I am still going.''
Tait's agent Ethan Lock declined to comment on his client's future when reached Friday evening. In an era when many athletes go for every last dollar, Tait could be deciding to walk away from a game that has made him and his family wealthy before he faces the prospect of ailments that will affect his quality of life. He's been very involved in local charities and was the Bears nominee to be the NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year in 2004 following his first season with the team. He's also been a steady performer although his play slipped this past season when he returned to right tackle after three years on the left side. He's battled injuries for the last few seasons but has made starts in 73 of 80 regular-season games since arriving.
An official announcement would leave Williams, who didn't start a game last season following back surgery, as the only tackle on the roster with the exception of Cody Balogh, an undrafted free agent from Montana who spent 2008 on the practice squad. There are a handful of veteran tackles available in free agency although given St. Clair's experience in the system and desire to return if there is a starting job for him, the search would likely start with him.
"I want to be a starter, definitely,'' St. Clair said earlier this week. "They know how I feel. I don't know what's going on."
Scouts consider this another strong draft for offensive tackles but there isn't as much depth as there was last year. Here's a look at one site's rankings for the position.
At this point, the Bears have to be exploring all options.