Bears rewarding corners but not budging stance on Briggs
The five-year, $28 million extension to which the Chicago Bears signed Nathan Vasher on Monday, and the reports the team is prepared to lay out big money to retain fellow starting cornerback Charles Tillman, are an indication of the kind of commitment the defending NFC champions have made to keeping together the nucleus of their defense.
It's not a sign of things to come, however, for disgruntled Lance Briggs, the two-time Pro Bowl weakside linebacker who has been designated as a franchise player, but who is still unsigned and has stayed away from all of the Bears' offseason workouts.
Although the Bears signed Vasher to a five-year deal through 2012 that included $14 million in guaranteed money, and are believed to have proposed a similar extension to Tillman, who is entering the final year of his contract, the negotiating stance toward Briggs is unchanged. Chicago has remained intransigent in its proposal to Briggs, not budging from a one-year qualifying offer for a franchise linebacker, a tender that carries a price tag of $7.206 million.
There have been no substantive negotiations with Briggs and agent Drew Rosenhaus on a multiyear contract. And the long-term deal for Vasher, and possibility of one for Tillman, might mean Chicago is even less inclined to modify its Briggs strategy.
For his part, Briggs continues to insist that he wants a long-term contract and that, in lieu of one, he will wait until the 10th game of the season to report. That would allow the four-year veteran to play the minimum number of games required to earn an accrued season toward his league pension and to perhaps become an unrestricted free agent next spring.
In March, when the Bears were involved in the Rosenhaus-instigated trade discussions with the Redskins, Briggs essentially agreed in principle with Washington on a deal that would have guaranteed him $20 million. So while the $14 million in guarantees Chicago awarded Vasher is a huge payday, it falls well shy of Briggs' expectations in terms of upfront money.
And there are these elements as well: The Chicago organization doesn't feel at all compelled to lay out $20 million for Briggs, doesn't consider him worth that kind of money, and seems confident it has young linebackers with whom to replace him in a unit that statistically rated No. 5 in the league a year ago.
Posturing or not, the coaches claim to be impressed with second-year pro Jamar Williams and rookie Michael Okwo, fourth- and third-round picks, respectively, and certainly have hinted that they consider both as viable contingencies should Briggs not report. Reports are that the two have similar athletic skills to those Briggs possesses.
Chicago is already paying five-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker Brian Urlacher more than $6 million per year, and management doesn't think it's especially prudent to have another big-money player at the position.
A much more pressing priority for Chicago is a long-term extension for Tommie Harris, the standout defensive tackle who has two seasons remaining on the rookie deal he signed as a first-round pick in 2004. Harris is only 24 years old, has been named to a pair of Pro Bowl games, and is viewed as essential to a defense that has been decimated at tackle this spring by free agency defections and the Monday release of Tank Johnson.
Look for Harris, who seems to be well on his way to a full recovery from the hamstring surgery that ended his 2006 season after a dozen games, to be the next target of the Bears' front office for a long-term extension.
For most Tampa 2 defenses, the weakside linebacker position manned by Briggs is a high-premium one, and some franchises that employ the mostly-zone scheme attempt to get by with more modestly paid cornerbacks. But Vasher and Tillman are not typical Tampa-2 cornerbacks, and Chicago is miscast as a Tampa-2 team.
Over the second half of the 2006 season, the Bears played about 40 percent in man-to-man coverage. Vasher has 16 interceptions in three seasons, and Tillman has 14 pickoffs in four years, and both are more adept at single coverage than most Tampa 2 cornerbacks.
Also, the Bears don't have as many contingencies at cornerback as they do at weakside linebacker. If the team failed to keep Tillman and he eventually left as an unrestricted free agent next spring, it might mean switching second-year veteran free safety Danieal Manning to cornerback.
So, while the Bears are well on their way to resolving a potential crisis at cornerback, the team's largesse on defense means little to Briggs' future with the franchise.
Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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