Drafted out of New Hampshire in 2007, Corey Graham was expected to come in and be a meaningful part of Chicago’s cornerback rotation. That never happened. He was given an opportunity in 2008, starting nine games, but it soon became clear he was not an every down CB in the NFL. When Zack Bowman failed as a starter last year, Lovie Smith chose to go with Colts castoff Tim Jennings instead of Graham, which says a lot.
Yet the Bears front office kept him on the roster because he is their top special teams player. While he was underwhelming at corner, he excels at kickoff and punt coverage. Last season, Graham led the league in special teams tackles with 23. Pro Football Focus uses a statistical analysis tool to rank special teams players. Graham finished fifth overall last year.
As a four-year veteran whose contract is up, Graham is currently considered a restricted free agent. But many with knowledge of the current labor negotiations believe four-year veterans will be considered unrestricted free agents once the new CBA is signed, which means Graham will have the opportunity to test free agent waters.
Many experts at the NFL Scouting Combine felt Graham will be a highly coveted player on the open market. He’s a talented athlete with good size. Many defensive back coaches would love to give him another shot at being a full-time member of an NFL secondary. But even if that doesn’t work out, the team that signs him will be getting one heck of a special teams contributor.
So should the Bears pony up and hang on to a player whose only value comes during punt and kickoff coverage?
This situation is similar to that of Brendan Ayanbadejo’s in 2008. Ayanbadejo, a Pro Bowl special teams player, wanted playing time at linebacker, something the coaching staff couldn’t provide him. He chose to walk and signed with Baltimore. In three years, he has started just one game, but he’s still a valuable contributor on special teams.
While Ayanbadejo was outstanding, Chicago’s special teams didn’t miss a beat. They were the No. 1 unit in the NFL last year, due mainly to special teams coordinator Dave Toub. As long as Toub is running the show, no player will be indispensable, which is why Jerry Angelo should let Graham walk.
Manning rejects offer
According to sources, the Bears offered Manning a three-year offer worth $6 million, with $2 million guaranteed, during last season. Manning rejected it. Last week the team offered him an original-compensation tender of $1.29 million.
Because he has plenty of experience as a starter and is a very good kick returner, Manning could earn well more than $2 million per year on the open market. Yet if the free agency guidelines stay the same and Manning, who only has four years experience, is still considered a restricted free agent, he will lose out considerably. As a restricted free agent, any team can sign him, but that team would have to hand over a second round pick to Chicago -- which doesn’t happen very often, especially not for a player of Manning’s caliber.
If no other team signs him, Manning will have no choice but to sign the $1.29 million tender, thus losing out on the $6 million he could have made. He’s playing a very dangerous game, one that could force him to sign a reduced contract. A player who feels slighted is an unhappy player. If he has to play for less than what he feels he deserves, things could get messy.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.