The Bears are expected to retain the top three of their five restricted free agents by tendering each at $1.907 million, the right-of-first-refusal level, but there is some risk.
Wide receivers Cam Meredith and Josh Bellamy, along with nickel cornerback Bryce Callahan, are expected to be tendered at the lowest of the three RFA levels, according to multiple reports.
Restricted free agents who are tendered can receive offer sheets from other teams beginning at 3 p.m. Wednesday until April 20. But the original team can match any offer within five days and retain the player.
However, if the Bears choose not to match an offer sheet for Meredith, Bellamy or Callahan, they would receive no compensation. The lowest-level tender comes with original-round, draft-pick compensation; but since all three were undrafted rookies, the Bears would receive nothing if they leave. Best guess is that the Bears would match any reasonable offer sheet, at least for Meredith and Callahan.
Had the Bears tendered any of the three at the next-highest level, $2.914 million, they would receive a second-round pick as compensation if they left. The highest RFA tender this year is $4.149 million and comes with a first-round pick as compensation.
Restricted free agents are players with three accrued seasons. An accrued season is one in which the player is on a team’s active roster for at least six games.
Meredith, who converted from quarterback to wide receiver halfway through his career at Illinois State, went undrafted in 2015. But he enjoyed a breakout season the next year when he led the Bears with 66 catches and 888 receiving yards and tied for the team lead with four touchdown receptions. He suffered a season-ending torn ACL and sprained MCL in his left knee in the third preseason game last year but is expected to be on the field when training camp begins.
Bellamy went undrafted out of Louisville in 2012 and did not have an accrued season in his first three years in the league. But he has been one of the Bears’ top special-teams players in his three seasons with the Bears, and his production as a pass catcher has crept up in each season. He had career bests of 24 receptions, 376 yards and a 15.7-yard average per catch last season.
Callahan has started 19 games in three seasons since signing with the Bears after going undrafted out of Rice in 2015. He started six games in the slot last year when the Bears opened in nickel defense. In 2016, the 5-foot-9, 191-pound Callahan started 10 games, five at nickel and five at corner in the base defense.
The Bears have until the start of free agency to tender their other two restricted free agents, linebacker John Timu and tight end Daniel Brown, or they become unrestricted and can sign with any team.
The Bears are not expected to tender an offer to their only exclusive-rights free agent, long snapper Patrick Scales. He could be back with the team since they have no long snapper on the roster. Scales missed the 2017 season with a torn ACL but was the Bears’ long snapper in all 16 games in 2016. Andrew DePaola was the Bears’ long-snapper last year but is unrestricted.