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What's next (cont.)

Posted: Monday February 5, 2007 12:12AM; Updated: Monday February 5, 2007 3:43PM
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Lance Briggs could be one of the highest-paid free agents this offseason.
Lance Briggs could be one of the highest-paid free agents this offseason.
Damian Strohmeyer/SI

The Bears are in great shape to keep the core of their NFC champion roster together. With a projected $26 million to spend under the $109 million cap, there shouldn't be the kind of financially motivated moves that many winning teams face each offseason. Chicago will have the wherewithal to address its needs and keep the players it chooses to retain.

The Bears' big free-agent question mark is Pro Bowl outside linebacker Lance Briggs. He's expected to draw plenty of interest on the market, but that's only if Chicago allows him to get there. Though the Bears have never used the franchise-player tag on anyone since general manager Jerry Angelo was hired in June 2001, there's always a first time for everything and Briggs might be that exception.

With Chicago having so much money to spend under the cap, current Bears thinking appears to be leaning toward applying the $7.2 million franchise tag to Briggs if they can't work out a long-term deal by March. Briggs said Tuesday at Super Bowl Media Day that he might even be open to giving the Bears a hometown discount in contract talks. We'll see how quickly agent Drew Rosenhaus talks him out of that notion.

It first appeared that defensive coordinator Ron Rivera would be the latest victim of the Super Bowl assistant coaching paradox -- his team's success made him less likely to land a head coaching job -- but that might not be the case after all. Dallas is waiting to interview Rivera, and he could be a candidate for the Cowboys defensive coordinator slot if he isn't the winner on the head coaching front.

Rivera and Bears special teams coach Dave Toub both have contracts that expired after the Super Bowl, making them free agents. Chicago wants them back, but Rivera and Toub have the advantage of exploring all options. They have been rumors that Toub will rejoin the Eagles as their special team coach, a position he held in Philadelphia from 2001 to 2003, before joining Chicago.

But Job One for Bears team president Ted Phillips is to extend the contract of Bears head coach Lovie Smith, who was the league's lowest-paid head coach at $1.35 million this season. Phillips said last year he wanted to see Smith put another strong season together before upgrading his deal. Smith did his part, leading the Bears to their first Super Bowl in 21 years. Now it's time for Chicago to do right by Smith, who just finished the third season of the four-year contract he signed in January 2004.

If you thought the Bears fattened up on their weak schedule this season, you might be tempted to say the same thing about their 2007 slate. Chicago faces seven teams that made the playoffs in 2006, but that's a bit deceiving if you dig a little deeper. San Diego, New Orleans, Philadelphia are its only opponents who won at least 10 games this season (Dallas, the Giants, Kansas City and Seattle were all playoff teams with nine wins or fewer).

Chicago's interconference foes will be from the AFC West, with tough trips to San Diego and Seattle, who the Bears beat twice this season, including in the divisional round of the playoffs. Besides their six NFC North games, the Bears also will face the NFC East teams, with the Giants and the Cowboys coming to Chicago, and the Bears traveling to Philly and D.C.

Don Banks covers pro football for SI.com.

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