Free agency could hit Bears' special teams hard

The Chicago Bears announced the qualifying offers they have made to restricted free agents on Friday and not surprisingly running back Garrett Wolfe was not on the list.

The 12th player in NCAA history to rush for more than 5,000 yards in a career, the Bears have never found a place in their offense for the third-round draft pick in 2007. He carried the ball only 72 times in four seasons for 282 yards.

But Wolfe emerged as a core special teams player for the Bears and Chicago’s unit, which finished fourth in the rankings devised by Dallas Morning News sports writer Rick Gosselin, stands to take a major hit. The top six tacklers for special teams coordinator Dave Toub are projected to be unrestricted free agents.

The Bears made a restricted free agent tender to cornerback Corey Graham, but he has four years of NFL service and when the new collective bargaining agreement is hammered out, it’s expected that Graham will be a UFA. If so, the Bears face the prospect of having to replace their top six tacklers:

Corey Graham 25 total tackles, 25 solos, 0 assists
Garrett Wolfe 18 TT, 12 solos, 6 assists
Brian Iwuh 18 TT, 10 solos, 8 assists
Rashied Davis 16 TT, 8 solos, 8 assists
Rod Wilson 11 TT, 6 solos, 5 assists
Josh Bullocks 10 TT, 7 solos, 3 assists

Re-signing Graham is a priority for the Bears, but wanting to get him back and doing so could be two different things.

“When you say he’s not a starter, are you talking offense or defense starter?” Bears coach Lovie Smith said of Graham. “We look at that a little bit different. We have more than that. Special teams, that’s a starting group that we have. Corey Graham is a starter as I see it. He’s one of our core players that’s helped us win football games each year. And we look at even offense and defense. There are 11 guys. But we say the third receiver, maybe the second tight end. There are a lot of different positions. It’s more than just 11 on both sides of the ball.”

Graham wants a chance to play defense and might find that opportunity elsewhere. Wolfe could return even though he wasn’t tendered. It might be the Bears just don’t want to pay the RFA minimum of more than $1.2 million. The club could also re-sign Iwuh, who was on a one-year deal and also performed well as a reserve linebacker. Safety Danieal Manning, a solid option as a kickoff returner, is also likely to be unrestricted. As it stands right now, the Bears have significant work to do on special teams.

Follow me on Twitter: @BradBiggs

Brad Biggs covers the Bears for the Chicago Tribune

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