Smith’s level-headed demeanor and light touch when dealing with the media has masked what has become a hectic 2009 off-season for the franchise.
With the June 10 announcement that the last two Bears’ draft choices inked four-year deals, according to the team’s web site, the team ended a frenetic player acquisition process.
Both third-round draft choices—San Jose State University defensive tackle Jarron Gilbert and Oklahoma University wide receiver Juaquin Iglesias—will receive the same four-year contract given to the other seven Bears rookies, which is worth $1.75 million and will pay $310,000 in the first year (according to the NFL Players’ Association web site).
The Bears’ Cliff Stein, senior director of football administration, signed the team’s other seven draft choices June 5. Stein completed all the contract negotiations well ahead of the franchise’s July deadline and the Bears will be the first 2009 NFL franchise to sign all of its rookies.
When the Bears traded away the 2009 and 2010 first-round draft selections to the Denver Broncos for quarterback Jay Cutler, they removed the possibility of rookie holdouts and difficult contract negotiations.
Larger and longer player contracts are given to first and second round selections under the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement. And team salary caps are adjusted according to the number of draft choices and the round each player was selected.
Players selected in the first and second rounds receive higher salaries than those drafted in later rounds.
In addition to trading for Cutler, the Bears also signed free agents Pisa Tinoisomoa and Orlando Pace from the St. Louis Rams, Kevin Shaffer from the Cleveland Browns, Michael Gaines from the Detroit Lions, and Frank Omiyale from the Carolina Panthers.
The January hiring of defensive line coach Rod Marinelli and defensive backs coach Jon Hoke added to buzz at Halas Hall.
The contract signings aren’t the end to hectic 2009. They seem to set up a fierce series of battles going into training camp.
On offense, only five of 11 starters seem to have been decided: Cutler at quarterback, Matt Forte at running back, Olin Kreutz at center, Roberto Garza at right guard, and Pace at left tackle.
Hester will be a starting wide receiver, but the question is whether he will be primary receiver on passing plays or a down-the-field decoy that will draw away defenders from other players.
Forte or tight ends Desmond Clark and Greg Olson are the likely beneficiaries of Hester’s drawing double or triple coverage.
The rest of the offense’s starting positions seem to be up for competition. Most notably, last year’s first-round choice Chris Williams, will face competition from Shaffer at right tackle.
Omiyale and Josh Beekman have been splitting practice time at left guard. At wide receiver, Iglesias, Earl Bennett, Rashied Davis, and Johnny Knox will compete to be the second starter to complement Hester.
Defensively, only three players seem to have locked down starting positions—linebackers Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher, and corner-back Charles Tillman.
But numerous questions remain about the health of starters defensive tackle, Tommy Harris, and the other corner-back, Nathan Vasher.
Jarron Gilbert, Marcus Harrison, and Israel Idonije will compete to start alongside Harris at defensive tackle. Moore, Trumaine McBride, and Marcus Hamilton will press Vasher to become the Bears’ other starting corner-back.
The other starting positions on defense are open.
Tinosiomoa will transition from weak side linebacker—Briggs’s position—to strong side linebacker and will compete against Nick Roach.
Corey Graham, Craig Steltz, and Kevin Payne seem to be leading group of seven players competing to be the Bears’ two starting safeties.
And expect Mark Anderson and Henry Melton to pressure Alex Brown and Adewale Ogunleye at the defensive end positions.
It’s probably a good thing that Stein signed those rookies so quickly. Smith will need a lot of time to accomplish everything to prepare for training camp.
Marinelli and Hoke need to adjust to Smith’s Tampa-Two defensive scheme, coaches have to install new offensive and defense schemes, 80 players have to be evaluated for a 53-man roster, and second-string players need to be developed in case a starter is injured.
Looking back, Smith already knew that he was going to have a tumultuous 2009 off-season. After watching the Super Bowl, Smith announced at the beginning of February that the Bears were going to have their first mandatory mini camp March 17-19.
“Typically, it has been held in June, near the end of the off-season program,” wrote Brad Biggs, a Chicago Sun-Times sports reporter, on his blog.
So it seemed that Smith knew he was going to need a lot of time evaluate players and acquire free agents for the 2009 Bears squad.
Those of us in the media might have also missed a subtle message from Smith to his players:
"You’re going to need to prove yourself this off-season."
Going into training camp, it will be interesting to learn which players heard Smith’s message.