Unbearable market could doom Chicago

INDIANAPOLIS – Eyeing the free agent bloodbath on the horizon, Chicago Bears general manager Jerry Angelo preached “sobriety in the marketplace” – the act of keeping your head, spending money wisely, and not corrupting prices in the NFL’s free agent period.

“Because you have the money,” Angelo said, “doesn’t mean you have to spend all the money.”

In a way, it sounded like a verbal white flag from the team most likely to get raided when free agency begins on Friday. Of all the years to allow talented free agents to get to the open market, Chicago gambled and stumbled upon the worst. A solid period of free agency has been gutted by contract extensions and franchised stars such as Albert Haynesworth, Jared Allen and Terrell Suggs. The result is a confluence of cap space and second-tier stars who are poised to break the bank.

Salary cap sobriety? If anything, Angelo and the Bears are about to get a first-hand lesson on the lack of it. Perhaps no team will suffer more from this offseason’s lack of free agent talent.

Chicago has three unrestricted free agents all sitting at or near the top of their respective positions: outside linebacker Lance Briggs, wideout Bernard Berrian and special teams ace/linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo. All three are Drew Rosenhaus clients, and all three are expected to draw offers on the open market that will be too rich for the historically budget-minded Bears to match.

“I would project that those guys would at least get to free agency or at least the beginning of it,” Rosenhaus said earlier this week. “But the Bears are going to be in the mix as we continue to talk with other teams. We’re going to have a good, healthy dialogue with them.”

Rosenhaus was dipping deep into his bag of diplomacy heading into the free agent period, knowing he still has to negotiate a long-term extension for Bears defensive tackle Tommie Harris next season. But other personnel executives expressed skepticism over whether the Bears will ever get a sniff of Briggs or Berrian once the free agent period begins.

“If they get to the market, they’re not going back,” said one NFC general manager, who asked to remain anonymous because of the league’s rules on tampering. “(Briggs and Berrian) are one week guys. They’ll have a half dozen visits set up right out of the gate, and with the little bit of talent that’s out there, I’d bet they don’t make it past one or two of those trips before someone overpays to get them. Someone will pay for (Ayanbadejo), too. A player who gives you depth at linebacker and a good special teams player, those will draw a good premium in this class.”

Opinions varied on what Berrian and Briggs could draw in free agency, but they have more than just the talent vacuum working for them. With the ailing back of Brian Urlacher last season, Briggs was Chicago’s best defensive player. Meanwhile, Berrian still proved to be Chicago’s best and most consistent threat, despite being plagued with erratic quarterback play all season. And both players have youth on their side, with both turning 28 late next season.

Briggs should draw somewhere in the neighborhood of the $20 million in guaranteed money given to Miami’s Joey Porter and New England’s Adalius Thomas last season, despite Briggs being a pursuit 4-3 weak side linebacker rather than a sack specialist in a 3-4 alignment. As for Berrian, one AFC general manager said he believed the receiver could land something approaching the six-year, $39 million pact given to Deion Branch by the Seattle Seahawks in 2006. That deal included about $13 million in guarantees. That’s a remarkable sum for a player who had his best season last year but still didn’t manage 1,000 receiving yards, finishing with 951 and five touchdowns.

It already sounds like Angelo and the Bears have reached a maximum contract figure in their heads with Briggs, Berrian and Ayanbadejo. Whether the market exceeds that number will mean the difference between keeping or losing them.

“You have to put values on players and then you have to stay disciplined to that, or else what you are going to wind up doing is you’re going to keep all those players at an exorbitant amount of money—way beyond how you valued the player,” Angelo said.

And the open market value of their own players will likely be a rough reality for a Bears team that is suddenly feeling a distinct talent depression since falling in the Super Bowl a little over a year ago. Besides the possibility of losing Briggs, Berrian and Ayanbadejo, Chicago released Muhsin Muhammad and Fred Miller, on top of having traded away workhorse running back Thomas Jones last offseason.

The Bears also gave a low tender to wideout Rashied Davis, who appeared ready to emerge as a diamond in the rough after a solid 2006 season. Instead, Davis’ production suffered along with the rest of the Bears offense in 2007. Now he will likely draw interest from teams needing a dependable slot receiver who can also return kicks – potentially leaving Chicago with only Mark Bradley and Devin Hester in a suddenly thin group of receivers.

The loss of talented young pieces, combined with the release of aging veterans and a one-year contract for quarterback Rex Grossman has left Chicago looking like a team in flux. But Bears coach Lovie Smith waved off any notion the Bears are suddenly in transition.

“We’re definitely not rebuilding,” Smith said. “As far as Super Bowl window, it was a long time ago it seems like we played in the Super Bowl. But we like the core of our team still. I feel like we’re close. It’s a fine line between winning and losing. This past season it went the other way for us. The Super Bowl champion New York Giants had an excellent year, we were right in it with them right up until the end. So we feel like we are close.”

How close Chicago remains will be hashed out in the next several weeks. But whatever happens in that span – whether the Bears are raided for key pieces or find a way to retain them – marketplace sobriety is likely to have little to do with it.

Charles Robinson is the senior investigative reporter for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Charles a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Feb 28, 2008