Estimated 2015 Cap Space: $24.9 million ($140M cap limit)
Players Under Contract: 48
Pro Bowlers: 1
Unrestricted Free Agents: 18(1 with 50%+ playtime)
Draft Selection: 7
Salary Cap Breakdown
Free Agents to Re-sign
There was little good to say about the Bears defense in 2014, but Stephen Paea had a good season and developed into a nice pass rusher. The one thing about a player like Paea is that it if you re-sign him it needs to be at the right price. His history does not indicate a high price tag and maybe trying to model off the Sen’Derrick Marks contract would be a fair compromise…I was a little surprised that the Bears re-signed Roberto Garza at season’s end and assumed they would have preferred to turn the position over to Brian De la Puente who is scheduled to be a free agent. Chicago had signed De la Puente to a one year deal for $1 above the minimum to keep the possibility of extending him open. He did not get much interest as a free agent last season so if the Bears can convince him he’ll get opportunities they should keep him again on a low cost deal…Outside of bringing back low cost players to minimum deals to be either deep backups or special teamers it is hard to make a compelling case for anyone else to return.
Free Agents to Let Walk
Lance Briggs has been unhappy with his contract seemingly forever and after a poor season where some said he was just going through the motions I can’t imagine any reason to consider his return….Charles Tillman had previously said he wants to return again in 2015, but with a new GM in place it is probably time to move on from the old guard. I would not be surprised if Tillman retired rather than going through what Champ Bailey went through this offseason…DJ Williams will be 33 next season and has only played in 25 games over the last three seasons. The Bears need to rebuild the defense with young players not keep their fingers crossed that older players can last 16 games and be effective in those 16 games.
Contracts to Modify
Chicago should give strong consideration to extending wide receiver Alshon Jeffery. He should be part of the solution for the Bears and those are the kind of players you lock up. I think there is a feeling that he did not have a great season, but he had 1,100 yards and 10 touchdowns, which many teams would kill for. His salary is so low in 2015 (just over $1 million) that the Bears should get an injury protection discount that won’t exist in free agency next year…Going into this season I was certain that Matt Forte was a sure fire cut in 2015, but he is their most consistent offensive player and someone that they probably need to lean on in the future. He is set to earn $8.2 million in 2015, which is his final season under contract. While I am not a big fan of extending players at this age if Forte is willing to accept a fair extension they could create a few more dollars of cap room by adding two more years to his contract….Shea McClellan is a bust in every sense of the word but he has $775,000 guaranteed next season and it’s debatable he would get another job that offsets that. His total salary is about $1.5 million and they should negotiate his non-guaranteed bonus out of the contract with a chance to earn it back through performance.
Players to Consider Releasing
I’ve been a Brandon Marshall fan of sorts since he was a rookie, but last year was the first signs of a decline as his numbers sunk to by far the lowest value since his rookie season. Marshall reportedly had some outbursts in the locker room and I think it’s fair to say he may have already begun to turn his attention to post career opportunities, where he looks like he could be successful. Marshall has the skillset to play for many more years if he desires, but if Chicago can get value for him it may be worth exploring the trade market, especially if they feel the need to shake up the locker room. Marshall’s $7.5 million salary becomes guaranteed on the 3rd day of the 2015 League Year so they have time to consider all options with him. A trade or release creates $3.95 million in cap room…The Bears overpaid to get Lamarr Houston last season and if they were able to release him the day after the Super Bowl they can avoid sinking another $6 million into a player who got paid and turned it off. Unfortunately that salary is guaranteed for injury so they probably can not release him and avoid the payment, but I am sure many fans are wondering about it which is why I’m including him here.
Jay Cutler made a convenient scapegoat for last season but the Bears problems run far deeper than Cutler. Cutler played poorly and his attitude rubs everyone the wrong way, but that’s the way he has always been. The only difference is Cuter this year had a monster contract rather than a moderate one so he came under a microscope.
The problem with the Bears began in 2013 when their general manager refused to commit to a large number of players with expiring contracts or contract situations that gave the team significant leverage. Rather than working existing salaries of players who were guaranteed roster spots in 13 like Cutler, Tim Jennings, and Marshall into early extensions he waited the extra year. What made it even stranger is that, other than maybe Marshall, who was extended with one year left on his original deal, they used no leverage in those deals signing the players to highly guaranteed contracts that exceeded their levels of performance.
2013 also set the stage for what turned out to be a bad run at free agency in 2014. Lovie Smith is a popular figure in the NFL and when the team failed to have the same record in 2013 as they had in 2012 under Smith, but looked better on offense, I think it drove some bad decision making. They overpaid on Houston, who is more of a run stopper than pass rusher, and made a very short sighted decision to sign Jared Allen after their basic spending was done. The roster became a wasteland of haves and have not’s with a few high priced players and a boatload of one year minimum contracts. When the high priced players failed the rest of the roster was exposed, specifically in the back 7 where they were terribly underinvested.
The Bears are more or less stuck with the core for at least one more season due to heavy guarantees and really need to rebuild from the ground up on the defensive side of the ball. Though they should have around $26 million in cap room and do not have salary cap issues I don’t really see free agency as a viable solution unless they can make a strong offer for a very young free agent, though I think the teams with the big cap space like the Raiders and Jets would make such offers irrelevant. They can compete next season but if they go the free agent route they are probably better off in signing a few moderate cost players than one expensive player and a lot of minimum players, which is how they built the team last season.
The Bears best avenue for success is going to come by focusing on the draft and rebuilding their defense that way. If they keep Cutler, Forte, and Martellus Bennett along with Jeffrey and possibly Marshall there is enough talent on offense to be competitive while the defense improves and if they really hit in free agency they might have a one year window in 2016 where the offense and defense come together.
If the offense falters at least they can get experience for a young defense that can hopefully hold the fort when the Bears make a turn to a young QB in 2016. But if they go heavy in free agency I tend to think that the Bears will get pulled in the wrong direction and be in a worse spot two years from now. The Bears should consider making a trade or two to amass some added picks this year. If they stand pat they need to come out of the draft with a defensive end, linebacker, and cornerback that project as quality starters by 2016.
Jason is the founder of OTC and has been studying NFL contracts and the salary cap for over 15 years. Jason has co-authored two books about the NFL, Crunching Numbers and the Drafting Stage, which are widely circulated in the industry and hosts the OTC Podcast. Jason’s work has been featured in various publications including the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, NFL Network and more. OTC is widely considered the leading authority on contract matters in the NFL.