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Reader Q&A: Dan Pompei's Bears mailbag

The Tribune's Bears columnist answers readers' questions about salary-cap space, Hester's contract, Knox's future, and the legality of Tillman's punch.

By Dan Pompei

Chicago Tribune reporter

3:30 PM CST, November 7, 2012

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Jay Cutler's contract needs to be taken care of soon, and rumors of Brian Urlacher's demise seem to have been exaggerated. How much cap space do the Bears have left for this year, and do you think one or more of these guys might be signed before the end of the season? What's the deadline for using the rest of this year's cap space? -- Mark Early, Arlington, Va.

The Bears have $4.2 million of cap space left, so they don't have flexibility to do multiple big deals. I would say they probably could do one though. We know they have already been engaged in talks with Henry Melton, whose contract is up after the year. He probably is the most logical candidate because there is no doubt the team will make sure he returns in 2013. The Bears could sign Melton at any point before the last Sunday of the regular season. But to use new money as 2012 salary, as opposed to a signing bonus that would prorate over the length of the deal for cap purposes, the Bears would have to do a deal by next Tuesday. Don't be surprised if the Bears sign one of their players to an extension before then.


Devin Hester has been one of our most popular and important players over the last several years. He's possibly a future hall of famer. But this year he has not been much of a factor either on returns, or as a receiver. Devin is due a big roster bonus next year (how much is unclear as it's incentive based). If he does not produce much the rest of the year, do you think Hester's job is in jeopardy for 2013? -- Ron S., Sammamish, Wash.

Injuries aside, I would say any player who doesn't produce much over the last half of the season probably is going to be in jeopardy of losing his job. But it's not like the Bears won't be able to afford Hester if they believe he can help them. He has a base salary in 2013 of $1.857 million, and a cap number of $2.94 million. He is not due a big roster bonus next year, but there is an escalator clause in his contract that could bring his salary to $4.42 million. It is not expected that he will enact that bonus because it was mostly tied to wide receiver production. The escalator clauses were put in Hester's contract to protect him in the event he became a star wide receiver. That has not happened, but he remains one of the better return specialists in the NFL, and an asset to the Bears. I'll be shocked if he's not on the team in 2013.


How do you see things playing out when Johnny Knox comes back next year? Let's assume Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey are our No. 1 and No. 2 for years to come. Earl Bennett is Cutler's second favorite receiver, huge on 3rd down, and hopefully our slot guy for a long time. Does Knox move back into the fourth spot? He's better than Hester and should be getting more snaps. Does that relegate Hester to just a receiver for special packages? Isn't Knox better than a fourth receiver? -- Ray C., East Granby, Conn.

Good question. If Johnny Knox in 2013 is the same Johnny Knox we saw in 2011, or a better version with more experience, he's going to be on the field for the Bears. He has to be. He'll make the offense better and give it a dimension it has lacked. My guess is he would take snaps away from both Jeffery and Bennett, and Hester would be relegated to mostly special teams. But we have no idea if Knox will be able to return to being the same type of player he was. We won't know anything until the pads come on next summer. It sounds like it could be a nice problem to have.



Hi, Dan. Where's the floppy hat? That's not really my question. My question is: With all the talk this week of Bears-Texans setting up as a Super Bowl preview, how often has the SB been a rematch from the regular season? -- Mike, Evanston

The Super Bowl has been a rematch of a regular season game 12 times. One team has swept both games six times, and the teams have split the other six times. Last year the Super Bowl was a rematch, as the Giants beat the Patriots 24-20 in the regular season before defeating them in the Super Bowl 21-17. There was another rematch you might remember. In 1985, the Bears beat the Patriots 20-7 in the regular season before spanking them 46-10 on Super Sunday.



Top 10 QB. Top 10 RB. Top 10 WR. 25th ranked offense. Am I missing something here? -- George Cukor, Waukegan

Yes you are. Blocking. Game planning. Play calling. Chemistry. Time in the system. Familiarity with one another. Leadership. Clutch play. This isn't the NBA. You can't put three great players together, add water and grow a championship team. And a couple of corrections: statistically, they have neither a top 10 QB nor a top 10 RB. Jay Cutler ranks 18th in the NFL passer rating, 21st in passing yards per game, 14th in yards per attempt and 23rd in completion percentage. Matt Forte ranks 16th in the league in rushing yards.



OK, is the closed-fist punch that Peanut Tillman uses legal? What does the NFL rulebook say about limits on punching stuff and closed-fist attacks? -- Southside Clify, Chicago

Section 3, article 1 of the 2012 Official Playing Rules and Casebook of the National Football League says it is unsportsmanlike conduct to throw a punch at another player. But it says nothing about throwing a punch at a football.



When do you think Chris Conte's cheap shots and Brandon Marshall's push-offs are going to cost the Bears a game? -- Marc, Downers Grove

I don't consider Conte a cheap-shot safety. I think he's smart for making receivers think twice about coming over the middle, and I don't think he did anything wrong to draw a penalty and fine against the Panthers two weeks ago. Titans coach Mike Munchak appeared to be upset about Conte knocking down wide receiver Nate Washington after a third quarter touchdown. Conte probably could have avoided Washington, but really all he did was run into him and put his hands out. If he really wanted to lay him out, he could have. He chose not to. As for Marshall, he has been penalized once all year, for a false start. Marshall pushing off has not been a problem for the Bears. I think he does it very well and knows what he can and can't get away with.



While it seems every two years the knee-jerks back home start wringing their hands over Lovie Smith's future, it also is apparent that whenever Smith's future with the team is "on the line," the Bears step up. What gives? Do the players in the locker room love him that much? And what's it going to take for Chicago to start to love him just as much? -- Jim Sacco, Abingdon, Va. (By way of Chicago's Taylor Street)

One of the trademarks of Lovie Smith the head coach is his teams don't stay down long. Another trademark is they really don't bottom out as much as they dip slightly. It took him one year to establish his program, and since that time the Bears have been below .500 only twice. They were 7-9 in 2007 and 7-9 in 2009. His overall record is 78-58. And he has achieved this without ever having a quarterback make the Pro Bowl. Like every head coach, he has strengths and weaknesses. But he runs a pretty good, pretty consistent program. I'm not sure what it will take for the fans to love him as much as his players do, but I think a Super Bowl victory would do wonders for his popularity.



With talk of Lance Briggs being a potential Defensive Player of the Year candidate, it dawned on me how difficult it is to be recognized today as a 4-3 outside linebacker and how Lance's accomplishments are all the more astonishing. When you look at the All-Pro and Pro Bowl rosters, almost all of the OLBs are pass rushers from a 3-4 scheme. I'm also afraid that not being a pass rusher will hurt Lance's Hall of Fame chances when he retires. To me, he's taken the baton from Derrick Brooks and has been without question the best at his position of his era in the most prevalent scheme in the NFL. Since you're a HOF voter, Dan, what are your thoughts? -- Tod, Pontiac

You make some good points. It is difficult for an outside linebacker who does not rush the passer to achieve a lot of honors. One of Briggs' predecessors at outside linebacker in Chicago, Joe Fortunato, hasn't gotten any hall of fame traction despite playing in five Pro Bowls. There are a lot of really good outside linebackers who can't get a hall of fame sniff. Many of them have similar credentials to Briggs. Check out some of these linebackers who are not in the hall: Maxie Baughan (nine Pro Bowls), Randy Gradishar (seven Pro Bowls), Andy Russell (seven Pro Bowls), Karl Mecklenburg (six Pro Bowls), Chuck Howley (six Pro Bowls), Matt Blair (six Pro Bowls), Isiah Robertson (six Pro Bowls). Briggs has played in seven Pro Bowls. If he can play in a few more and get some Super Bowl jewelry, he could make a very strong hall of fame argument for himself.



The only thing that has bugged me about this season so far has been the constant reshuffling at the bottom of the roster and on the practice squad. Is this really necessary? I'm pretty sure that the fourth tight end and the sixth cornerback are not going to make the difference in winning any games for us no matter who they are. The main reason this irritates me is that these guys are only here for a few weeks and then discarded for some other guys who we know nothing about. How about trying to develop the same practice squad for the entire year? Doesn't continuity count for anything in football today? Can't we show a little more courtesy and kindness to these fringe NFL players? -- Victor Seastrom, Lincoln

There are a couple of reasons for the reshuffling, Victor. The first is general manager Phil Emery wants to make sure he has the best 53 players who are available. If a player becomes available he thinks is better than a player on the roster, it makes sense to make a move. Or if a player who is on the bottom of the roster is disappointing with his performance in games or practice, or with his behavior, it makes sense to look for a replacement. The other reason is injury replacements. When it looked like Sherrick McManis was going to miss the game against the Lions with an injury, the Bears went out and found another player, Zack Bowman, who could do what McManis does. But the Bears had to cut another player, who turned out to be Chris Williams, to make room for Bowman. If the Bears have a young player they believe is worthy of developing, trust me he will not be let go. If it is courtesy and kindness you are looking for, I would not suggest following the NFL.


Do you cheer for the Bears? Like do you actually want them to win or do you just worry about writing about what happens? -- John, Dublin, Ireland

As a journalist, I am paid to be objective and that means I cannot cheer for a team I cover. But I can cheer for a good story. And the Bears are that this year.

dpompei@tribune.com Twitter@danpompei