Berrian can shoot for the sky with help from unlikely source

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After New Englands Randy Moss, Bernard Berrian figures to be the biggest name on the free-agent market for teams seeking a wide receiver.

Berrian is coming off a career year with 71 receptions for 951 yards and five touchdowns, numbers that would have been slightly higher had the offense not gone into a run-first mode in the final three games with Kyle Orton at quarterback. Berrian had just seven catches for 68 yards and one score in those games.

Teams looking to add a vertical threat to their offense will look at him as a possibility, and interestingly general manager Jerry Angelo indicated that the franchise tag isnt out of the question for Berrian. Whats striking is that figure for a receiver next season will approach $8 million. Thats roughly the amount in guaranteed money the organization offered Berrian in a longterm extension last summer when it also made inquiries with cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Nathan Vasher.

While that offer was just an initial feeler to see where Berrian stood, it would mean his value has gone up substantially in the eyes of the club in a years time to pay him that much for just one season. Especially when most consider him a No. 2 receiver.

Someone has to catch the ball

Certainly, there is great need at the position. Muhsin Muhammad turns 35 and is in the twilight of his career. Former second-round draft pick Mark Bradley is coming off a season with six catches. While its a mystery who will be throwing the ball for the Bears when the season opens in September, its just as big a puzzle when you ask yourself who is going to be catching those passes. Certainly Devin Hester possesses all of the tools to continue excelling on offense, but to see him become a No. 1 next season, well, that might be wishful thinking. Berrian was certainly the closest thing to a No. 1 for the Bears in 2007.

Here’s where the help comes from

The Bears have plenty of salary-cap room to re-sign Berrian longterm. But theres a wild card out there and it has nothing to do with any of the other available receivers. Arizonas Larry Fitzgerald is expected to revamp the way receivers are paid. By being named to his second Pro Bowl in four seasons, Fitzgerald triggered a $10 million escalator in his contract that makes his salary nearly impossible for the Cardinals to handle. Hes coming his second 100-yard catch in three years and tied previous career highs with 1,409 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Fitzgeralds base pay for 2008 is scheduled to be $14,592,500. His cap figure for 08? An even more unpalatable $16.49 million. Couple that with a base pay for 2009 that is currently $17,355,000, and it screams restructure. And it will be a doozy when its re-done.

How high is the ceiling?

With Fitzgerald, the third pick from the 2004 draft, owed $31,947,500 over the next two seasons, what is he going to demand? A lot of agents use the money in the first three years of a deal to judge contracts side-by-side. The reason is a lot of times the big dollars in the back end of deals are never fully realized. If a star player signs a lucrative extension, chances are hes going to be around to collect every buck in the first three seasons.

Heres a guess at a figure Fitzgerald will be gunning fortry $40 million over the first three seasons of the contract. If hes owed nearly $32 million for the next two seasons, why would he angle for anything less? Indianapolis Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney picked up $37.5 million in the first three years of his blockbuster extension. Fitzgerald has hit the levers in his contract to trigger a massive pay day, or massive pay days, and his windfall is going to come one way or another.

For the sake of comparison, say Fitzgerald gets just that from the Bidwill family — $40 million over three seasons –where does Berrian stack up? No one is going to compare Berrian on the field to Fitzgerald, but in a pass-oriented system like Fitzgerald, Berrians numbers would be enhanced. In a market with multiple bidders, could he could approach half of that $40 million? Remember, after Moss there just isnt competition for Berrian, not after Patrick Crayton took that four-year extension for $14 million in Dallas. Crayton’s deal included only $6 million guaranteed, and no doubt many will want to use that as a measuring stick with Berrian.

Of course, timing will be an issue. Its not a matter of if the Cardinals go to Fitzgerald for a new contract, its when. If that occurs before free agency, or in the midst of the action, the ripple effect could reach Berrian. Certainly many teams would scoff at Berrian and $20 over the first three seasons of a contract. Probably even the Bears. But it only takes two teams to create a market.

Jerry said it best

“We are entering into a new marketplace, Angelo said. “I think thats why you didnt see a lot of extensions throughout the league because players, agents want to see what the marketplace is going to be now.

For what it’s worth, the deadline for placing the franchise tag on a player is Feb. 21.

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