The Bears agreed to a lucrative contract extension late Thursday with perhaps the most important member of their defense, and it wasn't middle linebacker Brian Urlacher.
Defensive tackle Tommie Harris, who already has been voted to three Pro Bowls and still is just 25, got a four-year extension worth $40 million in new money, making him the highest-paid defensive tackle in NFL history.
The deal, which includes $18 million in guaranteed money and will pay Harris $27 million over the next three years, is the richest in Bears history in terms of yearly salary.
The 6-foot-3, 295-pound Harris played all 16 games last season despite nagging groin and knee injuries, the latter of which required off-season surgery.
He still made the Pro Bowl and was second on the team with 8 sacks, just 1 behind team leader Adewale Ogunleye.
Harris, the 14th overall pick in the 2004 draft, would have been an unrestricted free agent after the 2008 season, and there was speculation that the Bears would slap the franchise tag on him for 2009 rather than allow him to leave.
That would have guaranteed Harris a salary of $6.36 million but kept him from cashing in on the huge chunk of guaranteed money that he will receive as part of the extension.
Unlike Urlacher, who has stayed away from almost all of the Bears' voluntary off-season work to protest the lack of progress in his bid for a multimillion dollar extension, Harris has been at Halas Hall working out and practicing with his teammates.
Earlier in the off-season Harris downplayed his contract situation, declining set deadlines or issue threats.
"I owe them one year, so there's not really a deadline," Harris said. "It's not a distraction, but to have security over your career or to guarantee security and to be able to get paid for your accolades, I believe that's what all of us do, and that's what we all come to work for."
Bears president and CEO Ted Phillips was confident months ago that an agreement with Harris could be hammered out before training camp started.
"We believe in rewarding our own," Phillips said, "and that's what we intend to do."
If he stays healthy, Harris will have another opportunity for a gigantic payday, since he will only be 29 when his new deal expires.