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.

21 responses to “Are the Bears Facing a Cap Crunch?”

  1. Chuck

    Jay, I suggest you take a look at this article from Brad Biggs. It changes the ENTIRE CONTEXT of your post. All of the recent deals (including Cutler’s) have an “automatic conversion clause” to convert salary to signing bonus if cap space is needed. That gives them a ridiculous amount of flexibility, without touching Marshall’s deal or cutting Peppers.

    http://www.chicagotribune.com/sports/football/bears/ct-jay-cutler-contract-bears-spt-0107-20140107,0,316899.story

    (paywall)

    If there are some good defensive players they want to sign this year, or some of our own they want to extend, and they need the cap room, they can go get it “as needed”

  2. mdavis

    very good point. regardless i think Peppers is gone… you just can’t take an $18+ mil hit for a player in the decline with the lack of production. Want to see Wooton back. I could see a Marshall extension happening to lower his number. and I’d be shocked if Bush is a Bear next year. But i’m sure they will have plenty of flex, i’m not concerend.

    1. frank

      That may be true. I guess they’ll try to determine whether he’s on the decline or if this is a result of the lack of production from the rest of the line allowing other teams to focus on him. Even with the ineffectiveness most of the year, he still lead the team in sacks. And if they convert McClellin to LB, you go into the free agency period with Wootton (whom I too, would like to see return), and David Bass as your starting DEs. I wouldn’t be surprised if they try to renegotiate with Peppers.

  3. crute

    Unless Briggs suffers some sort of significant injury in the offseason, there is zero chance he becomes a cap casualty. He’s the best player on defense, has the skills to play in any scheme, and is making a team friendly amount of money.

    1. mdavis

      agreed. i dont think briggs gets cut, and i’d like to see them bring back James Anderson. That being said, if a guy like Shazier is there in the 2nd round, i hope they pull the trigger as the heir apparent to Briggs. I think Greene may be better suited at the Sam.

  4. Matt

    I think it’ll be very interesting to see what Melton gets, either from the Bears or from someone else.

    1. mdavis

      definitely interesting. he wasn’t exactly playing lights out before the injury. and i found Emery’s comments interesting, where he mention he needs to dedicate himself and his focus to football. kind of telling. I’d take him back on a year low base +incentives type of deal.

      1. frank

        Agreed.

  5. 5412

    Hi,

    I feel that there is a two step process. First you dump under performers like Peppers. He is too inconsistent. His current performance can be replaced.

    Once you do that, then you look at decent players who are overpaid and try to work it out. If you can’t then trade or cut.

    Regards,
    5412

  6. Dan

    They will sign anyone they want by converting Cutler into a signing bonus

  7. Emery Jam Band

    I trust that Emery has a plan and that it will reveal itself in due time. For now, I’m very pleased to have Cutler, Slauson, and Jennings all locked down.

  8. DrReiCow

    Jay,

    This article has made me curious about the cap system in general. Would you be willing to write-up a guide to it sometime in the off-season?

    Moo.

  9. abe

    We don’t need to fix everything in one year. If we redo the d-line. It could make conte look 10 times better

    1. frank

      True–as I’ve mentioned before, if the defense was just bad, as opposed to historically horrifying, the Bears would’ve won the division.

  10. Marc

    Conte was never this bad..untill the d-line couldnt get any pressure on the QB while im not saying Conte goes without blame the D was just so bad up and down

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  12. Chicago4life

    Very good salary cap article on the flexibility the Bears have in FA this year. It shows that the number we see isn’t the actual number and the Bears have the flexibility necessary to make it all work. The re-signed bears mostly were all front loaded for a reason.

  13. Chicago4life
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  15. Fastball

    Love Peppers but sadly his career is winding down. In the old days he would just go to the Raiders and have 3 more pro bowl seasons. I really want them to get Peanut resigned. We need leaders on this defense he was sorely missed. I will not surprised at how well this defense gets retooled this off season. Briggs will be back IMO along with Wooton. Could care less if Conte or Wright ever play another down for the bears. Greene has speed to play strong safety and better support the run. Not every player plays where they were drafted to line up.

  16. Fastball

    Love Peppers but sadly his career is winding down. In the old days he would just go to the Raiders and have 3 more pro bowl seasons. I really want them to get Peanut resigned. We need leaders on this defense he was sorely missed. I will not surprised at how well this defense gets retooled this off season. Briggs will be back IMO along with Wooton. Could care less if Conte or Wright ever play another down for the bears. Greene has speed to play strong safety and better support the run. Not every player plays where they were drafted to line up. He could be a Polamalla type.

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