State of Rebuild – Chicago Bears

How do you build a winning football team?  Over the next few weeks I am going to look at a handful of teams that are either relatively early in their rebuilding process or on the verge of a possible rebuild.  The purpose of this is not to reflect on past regime decisions compared to the current decisions but rather to start the analysis from day one and evaluate personnel decisions along with contract structures and styles to see if certain trends help produce a winning franchise.

State of the Franchise and Front Office

When the Bears hired Phil Emery to replace Jerry Angelo as General Manager a year ago, it was said that then Head Coach Lovie Smith was safe for the year.  With one of the most feared defenses in the league and a defensive-minded head coach, Emery made it a priority to improve a struggling offense by trading a pair of 3rd round picks to the Miami Dolphins for mercurial wide receiver Brandon Marshall.  The defense continued its dominance in 2012, but despite an All-Pro season from Brandon Marshall, the Bears offense overall struggled again and ranked near the bottom of the league.  Despite the poor offense, the Bears managed to finish the season 10-6, with all 6 of their losses coming at the hands of playoff teams.  However, 10 wins were not enough to make the playoffs, losing a tiebreaker to the division rival Vikings, nor enough to convince Emery to retain Lovie Smith (or his long-time defensive anchor Brian Urlacher).  Again looking to improve the Bears offense, Emery hired offensive-minded Montreal Alouettes head coach Marc Trestman to fill the vacated head coaching position.

trestman emery

HC Marc Trestman and GM Phil Emery

Trestman spent 17 years in the NFL, mostly as an offensive coordinator and quarterback’s coach, before becoming the head coach of the Canadian Football League’s Montreal Alouettes.  Trestman lead the Alouettes to three Grey Cup appearances and back-to-back- championships in 2009 and 2010.  Personally, as a law student, the most interesting aspect of Trestman’s road to the NFL is prior to joining the University of Miami Hurricanes football program as a volunteer coach and quarterback’s coach; Trestman earned his law degree from the University of Miami School of Law and became a member of the Florida bar.

Contract Strategies and Trends

Finishing up his second offseason as General Manager, Emery has utilized standard roster bonuses, per-game roster bonuses, and workout bonuses to continue the improvement of the Bears offense.  After slapping the franchise tag on running back Matt Forte last year, and a contentious negotiation, the Bears and Forte agreed to a four-year extension through 2015 worth roughly $30.4 million.  Forte’s deal has a few nuances worth taking a look at.

The first of which is why Forte had a $5 million roster bonus due in the first year of his extension in 2012 compared to such a low P5 (base) salary of $800,000.  I am assuming that the roster bonus is paid up front and is not deferred, which is sometimes the case.  I first came across a scenario like this when looking at Paul Kruger’s new deal with the Cleveland Browns (Julius Peppers has a similar structure that was done under former GM Jerry Angelo).  Kruger is due a $6,285,000 roster bonus compared to his $715,000 P5 (base) salary in 2013, the first year of his new deal.  At first I could not wrap my head around the purpose of this.  Forte and Kruger were both guaranteed to make the team in the first year of their deals, so why make that guaranteed money a roster bonus and not just guaranteed P5 (base) salary or part of the signing bonus?  After some discussions with Jason and a little digging into the CBA, a few reasons made sense.

From the team’s point of view, they are creating cap flexibility by limiting 3rd year guarantees and higher prorated bonus hits by guaranteeing the money up front in a roster bonus.  This could be done through the P5 (base) salary as well, but players prefer to have the money up front rather than later in increments.  The trade-off for the team is a higher cap hit in year 1 of the deal, but with lower guarantees later, making it easier for the team to move on.  A look at Forte’s contract shows that he is not guaranteed any money in 2014 and 2015 and the only possible dead money costs would be the prorated amount of his signing bonus of $1 million each year, a cost of only $2 million to move on before the 2014 season and $1 million before the 2015 season with cap savings of $5,500,000 and $7,800,000 respectively.

From the player’s perspective, receiving the guaranteed money in the form of a roster bonus presents two interesting perks.  The first of which is rather simple and was mentioned earlier – when given the choice of receiving a $5,000,000 bonus, would you rather receive it in one lump sum up front or in weekly, monthly, or even yearly increments?  NFL players, like everyone else,  prefer to have that cash in hand as soon as possible; which is why they prefer the guaranteed amount in a lump sum roster bonus as opposed to P5 (base) salary in game checks.  The second perk for the players derives itself from one simple sentence in the CBA, which states,

“With respect to roster bonus, option bonus and reporting bonus, a forfeiture may only occur if the Forfeitable Breach occurs in the same League Year in which the bonus is scheduled to be earned.”

What this means is unless the player receiving the roster bonus, in this case Matt Forte, had breached his contract to the point where a forfeiture of salary was in order, the breach had to be in 2012, the same league year in which the roster bonus was received.  If Forte breaches his contract during the 2013 season, his $5 million dollar roster bonus would not be part of his possible salary forfeiture.  In contrast, if the same $5 million had been part of the player’s signing bonus or P5 (base) salary, the signing bonus money can always be attacked regardless of which year the breach occurred in or the player could forfeit P5 (base) salary if suspended.

The other interesting part about Forte’s contract is use of both standard and per-game roster bonuses throughout his deal.  On top of the $5 million standard roster bonus Forte received in 2012, he is due a $4 million standard roster bonus and $468,750 in per-game roster bonuses.  The 2013 per-game roster bonus is actually $31,250 per game but because Forte missed one game in 2012, for cap purposes the per-game roster bonus is treated as a LTBE (likely to be earned) incentive.  If Forte plays in all 16 games this year, he will earn $500,000 in per-game roster bonuses (31,250 x 16) and his cap number will be adjusted up accordingly.  The opposite is also true if Forte plays less than 15 games.  Forte is also due per-game roster bonuses of $53,125 per game in 2014 and $65,625 per game in 2015 as well as yearly $100,000 workout bonuses.

Another tool Emery has used to add veteran players without compromising future cap space is the Minimum Salary Benefit.  For a more detailed description of how the MSB works, click here to look at an article Jason wrote earlier this year.  The long and short of the MSB’s purpose is to help teams avoid signing a younger player over a veteran if the main reason is cost.  The CBA mandates a higher minimum salary for veterans based on how many years they have played in the league.  The choice of a cheaper younger player or an older more expensive veteran provides little incentive for the team to choose the veteran.  The MSB looks to provide an incentive to choose veterans who if not for the mandated CBA salary would likely play for cheaper to stay in the league.  Veterans have to meet the following criteria, which I grabbed from Jason’s article, in order to qualify for a MSB contract.

All players with at least 4 credited seasons are eligible for the MSB. However, to qualify for MSB treatment your contract has to meet specific criteria, explained as follows:

1.  The contract must only be 1 year in length

2.  Additional compensation can not exceed $65,000 in 2013 (this number rises by $15,000 every 3 years, with the next increase set for 2015), and that includes bonuses from other teams

3.  P5 guarantees can not exceed the P5 salary of a 2nd year player, which is $555,000 in 2013

The end result is veteran players who qualify can be signed and paid their mandated minimum salary but for cap purposes are only charged the amount it would sign for a player who has been in the league for 2 seasons.  The Bears have used the MSB on a handful of players including Zack Bowman, Jonathan Scott, and Kelvin Hayden, who was just lost for the season with a hamstring tear.

A quick look at the two major free agent signings for the Bears this offseason shows a very simple contractual setup. Left Tackle Jermon Bushrod received a 5-year/$35.965 million deal with $11.715 million guaranteed while Tight End Martellus Bennett received a 4-year/$20.4 million deal with $5.215 million guaranteed.  Both players received the first year of their deal guaranteed ($715,000 each), with no roster bonuses, and a yearly $100,000 workout bonus.

Biggest Upcoming Roster Decisionbears FA

The Bears are not rebuilding.  They weren’t rebuilding last year and they aren’t rebuilding this year.  They finished last season 10-6 and barely missed the playoffs.  They also are loaded with talent, having four All-Pro’s last year, with WR Brandon Marshall and CB Charles Tillman earning 1st Team honors and DE Julius Peppers and CB Tim Jennings earning 2nd team honors.  So why do I think the Bears should be looked at during our State of Rebuild Series?  A glance at the free agency statuses of the projected offensive, defensive, and special teams starters should help provide a little clarity.

Through most of the offseason, the fact that so many projected starters will be free agents after the 2013 season was enough for many pundits to speculate that Emery would be doing a serious roster overhaul next offseason.  Jason actually took a look at the Bears current status and upcoming decisions in his article The Chicago Bears: Past, Present, and Future, which touches on a lot of the premises discussed here.  With starting quarterback Jay Cutler, franchised defensive tackle Henry Melton, strong safety Major Wright and All-Pro cornerbacks Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman among others all set to be free agents after this season, the team was set to look a little different even with a few extensions.  Then Emery said this,

“…where we’re at with our current salary cap and the room that we have in our cap in our efforts to put together a championship team in 2013, I do not anticipate that we will do any extensions of contracts during this season. All those will occur, with the players it will occur with, will happen in 2014 and not during the 2013 season.”

While the Bears do only have $2,192,768 of cap room right now, after saving $555,000 with the release of DE Jamaal Anderson today, a few extensions could easily create some sizable room. Emery’s decision to wait on any possible extensions until after the 2013 season only furthers the speculation that this year’s Chicago Bears could look considerably different than next year’s team.  Considering that it would cost nothing for the Bears to move on from WR Brandon Marshall, $1 million to move on from OLB Lance Briggs, and $2 million to move on from RB Matt Forte, if they wished to do so, we could be looking at a possible ground-zero rebuild going into next offseason.  The fact of the matter is if this team flourishes under new head coach Marc Trestman, all of this is moot.  But for now, it remains a very plausible possibility that the Chicago Bears will be rebuilding next year.

So what is actually the single biggest upcoming roster decision for the Chicago Bears?  It could be what to do with All-Pro defensive end Julius Peppers in the event of a full rebuild.  Peppers is still due almost $37 million between the 2014 and 2015 season, and would cost $6,366,668 in dead money if cut or traded before 2014 and $3,183,335 if cut or traded before 2015.  It is highly unlikely that the Bears would outright release Peppers, but how much could they really fetch in a trade for a 34 or 35 year old defensive end?  If I had to pick one, it is whether to retain Jay Cutler.  Jason coincidentally wrote an enlightening article here, describing how Cutler’s market value may not match his play-level – barring a Joe Flacco -esque stock rise after his Super Bowl run.  However the simple answer is to close your eyes and throw a dart at the depth chart.  The question isn’t which single player presents the biggest question mark but rather whether the team as a whole will be remade.

Past ‘State of Rebuild’ Articles

Buffalo Bills

San Diego Chargers

Ryan Feder
Tulane University Law School
J.D. Candidate 2015