Are the Bears Facing a Cap Crunch?

PhilEmeryConfusedIt’s safe to say that the Bears face an interesting salary cap situation. They just spent big money on Jay Cutler, and not-insignificant money on Tim Jennings, Matt Slauson, and Robbie Gould. They have an aging defense with some glaring holes up the middle, and a large number of players entering free agency. That means there is still work to be done. But will they have room to maneuver under the league’s (somewhat confusing) salary cap system?

Yesterday, 670 The Score columnist Dan Durkin sent out a couple of interesting tweets regarding the Bears cap numbers:


As Dan notes, that is a massive number tied to 33 players, which is obviously 20 players short of a full, regular season roster. Considering the Bears are presumably going to be active in the free agent market, along with possibly retaining some of their own free agents and signing drafted rookies, it’s fair to wonder just how exactly that is going to happen.

The answer comes in Dan’s second tweet: things are always fluid. The NFL cap isn’t a hard and fast numbers game. Take the Jay Cutler deal, for example. Had the Bears wanted, they could have reduced his 2014 cap hit substantially by giving him a signing bonus that would have counted toward the cap, but been prorated over the course of the contract. But it appears they chose not to do that.

In fact, according to this Adam Jahns piece for the Sun-Times, the Bears have committed “$33,827,500 in cap space for 2014 by locking in Cutler, cornerback Tim Jennings ($5.25 million cap hit), kicker Robbie Gould ($2.6 million), left guard Matt Slauson ($2,747,500) and fullback Tony Fiammetta ($730,000) in the last two weeks.”

While it’s scary to look at these numbers and wonder how exactly the Bears are supposed to improve the roster now, I’m actually not that worried, for one simple reason: the Bears know how it works. The front office (you know Phil Emery, of course, but another name to know is Cliff Stein; he’s the man in charge of salary negotiations and cap management) didn’t offer all of these new contracts and then suddenly realize that there’s a defense to rebuild and a roster to complete. The way these moves came in a flurry strikes me as the first step in a plan of action for the offseason.

Looking at these moves in that context, is there anything we can infer as to how that plan will unfold? That’s a more difficult question, and I’m not sure I’ve come to any meaningful conclusions as of yet. I do think the Bears will be active in free agency (which begins in March) and if I were to guess right now, a safety would be a top priority. A pair of second-team All Pros, Jairus Byrd of the Bills and T.J. Ward of the Browns, are potential free agents. But the market is still in flux, and it’s very hard to even try to guess where the Bears will look. Before the 2012 offseason, I remember a lot of speculation as to whether the Bears would sign Vincent Jackson or another wide receiver; instead, they surprised by trading for Brandon Marshall.

Regardless of who they target (and there will be plenty of time to talk about that) they’ll need to be able to fit any new acquisitions under the cap. Cutting Julius Peppers is looking more and more likely; cutting him would save something like $9.8 million against the cap. Of course, that also opens up a new hole at defensive end, but considering how Peppers’s production declined this year, it might be possible to find someone capable of producing at that level for less. (Or producing more for more, of course.)

That’s the most widely publicized name on the cutting board; glancing over Spotrac’s contract database, other players that might find themselves as cap casualties include Michael Bush, Earl Bennett, Chris Conte, and maybe even Lance Briggs. (While I’d personally like to see him back, there are a few other factors to consider: he’ll be 34 next year, and if the Bears switch defensive schemes, he might not be a fit. He’s been a great player, but if the Bears are looking to get younger, the potential to save $5.5 million in cap room might be very enticing.)

When you consider the potential cap room the Bears could still free up, by either releasing players or restructuring current contracts (a tactic I didn’t mention, but it is always possible) along with their ability to creatively structure free agent signings in order to minimize 2014 cap hits, I don’t think the current cap situation is anything to worry about. But as with all things cap-related, it’s a fluid situation.

Jay Rigdon is the editor and lead writer at Bleacher Nation Bears, and can also be found @BearsBN on Twitter.