- Michael C. Wright, ESPN.com Spurs Reporter
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LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- As Khalil Bell stuffed socks and laundry in a black trash bag, his neighbor Garrett Wolfe, a locker over, giggled uncontrollably to the point at which he was lying down.
Call it nervous laughter. Bell admitted as much while jokingly posing for the cameras assembled in front of his locker at Halas Hall, a day after the Chicago Bears’ disappointing loss in the NFC Championship Game to the Green Bay Packers.
“I’m [gonna] stay here as long as I can,” Bell said, laughing.
That’s because he doesn’t know when, or if, he’ll be back. Like 15 other Bears set to become unrestricted free agents, Bell said his goodbyes Monday as the players cleaned out their lockers at Halas Hall in preparation for the ultimate offseason of uncertainty. In addition to the ambiguity brought on by the labor situation, the Bears know it’s just not possible for every player to get a shot at returning for another run at a Super Bowl title in 2011.
“I like this team,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said. “We’re gonna try to keep as many as the guys as possible and try to keep this core group together. There’s no reason to start breaking it up.”
But it’s inevitable. As general manager Jerry Angelo pointed out Monday, the Bears “would be able to field a 21-man [roster of] starter[s]” if they “had to go out and start the season next week.”
"We feel good about the nucleus of this football team, the foundation we've laid going forward," Angelo added. "I feel that our focus is going to be on continually building this team to get to the goal that we all want here in Chicago."
Of the starters, center Olin Kreutz is the only player of which there’s uncertainty about a possible return due to his contract expiring. On the positive side, there doesn’t appear to be a proven heir apparent at his position, although the team could shuffle some of the pieces to find a possible replacement (Roberto Garza -- signed through 2011 -- was listed on the postseason depth chart as a backup center). Kreutz didn’t produce what anyone would call a banner year in 2010, but his value in blitz recognition and as a traffic controller on that offensive line can’t be diminished.
Offensive linemen Frank Omiyale, and Chris Williams are signed through 2012, while J'Marcus Webb Webb is signed through 2013. Contracts for tight end Greg Olsen and running back Matt Forte expire after next season. Interestingly, blocking tight end Brandon Manumaleuna -- who struggled in 2010 to put it lightly -- is signed through 2014.
“That’s not my call,” Kreutz said on possibly returning in 2011. “I’ll keep trying to play. I’ve said a million times that when you’re not good enough the NFL will let you know. So if no one wants me, I’ll retire. If someone wants me, I’ll play.”
Backup quarterback Caleb Hanie is also set to hit unrestricted free agency. Inactive for most of the season as the third quarterback, Hanie was thrust into action in the NFC Championship Game, and performed well, considering he hadn’t taken any snaps with the first-team offense in the week of preparation leading up to the contest.
Hanie played with poise in engineering two scoring drives, which included a touchdown pass against a blitzing Packers defense. That brief appearance could pique the interest of other teams looking for a talented young backup with mobility, while making a possible push by the Bears to re-sign Hanie difficult.
“It’s hard to pinpoint that kind of stuff. You’ve just gotta go out and play. That stuff is gonna work itself out,” Hanie said. “I already went through all that coming out of college. You don’t worry about what teams are thinking. You just go play, put the best product you can on the field and hope for the best. It’s always great to have game tape, especially in a playoff game.”
The club also needs to determine whether to re-sign receivers Devin Aromashodu and Rashied Davis, tight end Desmond Clark and backup offensive lineman Edwin Williams. Clark doesn’t think he’ll be back. It’s believed Aromashodu doesn’t want to return, considering how he appeared on the way to finally breaking through as an NFL wideout at the end of 2009, only to become an afterthought this season in Mike Martz’s offensive scheme.
Davis and Williams appear to be legitimate candidates to return. Davis adds value as a backup receiver and major contributor on special teams, and Williams started three games early in the season at right guard.
Wolfe, meanwhile, could return -- but it appears to be uncertain at this point -- because of his contributions on special teams. Wolfe tied for second in special-teams sacks, but didn’t contribute as a backup running back; nor did Bell, who was inactive for all 16 regular-season games, and likely won’t be re-signed.
“We’ll want to bring some of our own back, and I’m confident we’ll be able to do that,” Angelo said. “There’s probably going to be a few new faces in there somewhere -- better competition -- all of it to make us better.”
The club approached Manning during the regular season about an extension, but the financial terms appear to fall short of what the safety will be able to command on the open market. Adams, meanwhile, started all 16 games at defensive tackle and played an important role as a run stuffer for a unit that finished the season ranked No. 3 against the rush.
The club recently signed defensive tackle Matt Toeaina, who started 10 games in place of Tommie Harris, to an extension. So in addition to trying to re-sign Adams, the Bears will have to figure out whether to release Harris, who is signed through 2012, but reportedly due a roster bonus on June 1 of $2.5 million.
Harris said he “was just getting started” towards the end of the season after a slow start, and would like to return to the Bears in 2011 “if they still want me”.
Smith was coy in discussing Harris’ future.
“Every day I’ve been here, Tommie’s been here,” Smith said. “I don’t see why we would say he wouldn’t be here. I’d say that about the rest of our guys. I saw improvement the last few games from Tommie. We’ve all done some good things at the end, but just looking at yesterday’s game, of course you can’t be too excited.”
With the Bears seemingly set to lose Manning in free agency, they’ll also need to determine whether to extend Chris Harris, whose contract will expire after next season. Brought to Chicago in a trade with Carolina, Harris -- teamed with Manning, who finally came into his own as an NFL safety -- brought stability to a position sorely in need of it.
Harris tied Charles Tillman for the team lead in interceptions (5), and finished fourth in tackles (96) while Manning contributed 85 stops, and an interception. If the team lets Manning walk in free agency, it will need to consider extending Harris to start alongside Major Wright, who just finished his rookie season. The Bears also need to make a decision about bringing back Josh Bullocks for depth. Bullocks saw increased snaps near the end of the season, but he becomes a free agent in March.
A product of Northwestern, Roach expressed a desire to remain “close to home”, while Tinoisamoa showed some depth and emotion in assessing his future.
“Man, that’s a good question. I don’t know. I’m a little emotional about that,” Tinoisamoa said. “I’m kind of insecure, too, honestly. I’m like, ‘Man, is he looking at me like I’m gonna get cut?’ [I’m like] ‘Hey, coach didn’t look at me the same. Does that mean something?’ I try to read too much into it, but that’s my own thoughts; my own crazy head. That’s what I have to deal with.”
“The truth is I only signed a one-year contract. It will be up soon, I’m getting older and things like that. I don’t know what the situation is gonna be,” he added. “But I know that this team is gonna be all right. I came here to win, and the fact I had a chance to get to the Super Bowl is bigger and better than anything I could’ve imagined. It was worth it to me. Even if it’s my last year to play, by going out like this… this is awesome to say I was a Bear, I was a Monster of the Midway. Man, they can’t take that away from me, and I’m proud about that. I can keep that with me.”
Time for the Bears to think about how many players will return next season.