The Bears are sitting pretty in terms of cap space as they're expected to have $13.3 million available according to ESPN's John Clayton, but teams are always looking to save a buck. The Bears are no exception.
This is a key offseason for the Bears because they want to take a big step forward offensively, without losing anything from their defense. They appear to be set at their offensive skill positions, but their line is in need of a huge overhaul. It wouldn't be surprising to see them with four new starters next season, but they'll need to acquire them efficiently.
While they're sorting out their problems on the offensive line, they can't ignore their defense, where they are left with some big decisions. Defensive end Julius Peppers has a huge cap number and linebacker Brian Urlacher is entering free agency after an injury-riddled season, making it hard to determine his value. Defensive tackle Henry Melton is also a free agent, and as their best young defensive player, keeping him is crucial.
Although they have a new coaching staff, the Bears are hoping the players—outside of the offensive line—remain the same, with a few upgrades. It will be difficult for them to pull this off, but here are five ways they can do so without breaking the bank.
This one is much easier said than done. After a subpar season by his standards, Peppers is set to make a team-high $17.6 million next season according to the Chicago Sun-Times. He just turned 33 years old last week and it would seem his best days are behind him, but he would have almost no motivation to rework his deal. When he signed with the Bears in 2010 he cited Lovie Smith as big reasons why. According to the Sun-Times, the Bears also take a $9.5 million cap hit if they release him, so they have no leverage in negotiations.
Perhaps the Bears could convince him it is what is best for the team, but they may be better off paying him what he is due while they have the money and figure out other ways to keep fellow linemen Israel Idonije and Henry Melton.
Most people might think that Melton does not deserve the franchise tag, but he is one of the few young cornerstones of the Bears defense and they can't afford to lose him. He graded out as the Bears second-best defensive lineman on Pro Football Focus last year and players who can generate pass rush from his position are rare.
According to NFL.com, the tag would pay him a guaranteed $8.306 million next year, but that could be a bargain if he were to hit the open market and a team gave him a front-loaded contract. Tagging Melton would also give the Bears time to work on other aspects of their team during the offseason.
In an ideal world, the Bears would sign a franchise left tackle and never have to worry about Jay Cutler's blind side again.
However, the world is not ideal.
Franchise left tackles rarely hit the open market and when they do, the price tag is quite large. With the money the Bears have spent on other positions, it just isn't practical for them to invest huge money in just one spot on the offensive line.
Cherilus is a right tackle and he'll likely remain a right tackle, but he's a very good one. He allowed just four sacks, seven quarterback hits and 27 hurries this past season and has received a positive rating from Pro Football Focus every year since his rookie season.
The fact that Cherilus appears to be strictly a right tackle should lower his price tag, however it's worth noting that John Tait was viewed as a right tackle when the Bears signed him, but he made the move to left tackle and anchored the Bears offensive line from 2004-08.
Rinehart was a reserve in Buffalo this past season, but in 2011 he started 12 games and received the ninth highest grade among all guards on Pro Football Focus. He has experience at both left guard and right guard and could start at either for the Bears.
Even with these two signings the Bears should spend at least one of their first two draft picks on the offensive line, but they would have flexibility and no longer be locked into a tackle or a guard.
This would make sense on many levels, but little to do with current starter Jay Cutler.
Obviously the Bears shouldn't spend their first-round pick on a quarterback, but at some point they have to strongly consider taking one. This is mainly so they don't have to continue to pay a backup like Jason Campbell a lot of money to sit on the bench. Recent history has shown rookies can play in the league right away.
The Bears should still bring back Josh McCown or another cheap veteran for insurance, but they need to prepare for the future. As tough as Cutler has proven to be, he's suffered a number of concussions in his career and he may not have much time left.
There is also the possibility that Cutler would not mesh with new head coach Marc Trestman, and the Bears would be left looking for a replacement after the season. Even if things do click between Trestman and Cutler, the Bears would have some leverage when it came to contact negotiations and a valuable trade asset in the future.
This is a hard one to swallow. Urlacher has been the face of the Bears for over a decade, but he is not the player he once was, and there's no telling if he ever will be again.
Obviously, this is partly due to price. Urlacher had a base salary of $7.5 million last year, and unless he's willing to cut that in half, the Bears will be overpaying for his services. Out of the four Bears linebackers who played over 100 snaps, Urlacher received by far the lowest grade on Pro Football Focus. He was still adequate in coverage, but missed a team-high 10 tackles.
As hard as it is to believe, Nick Roach was actually an upgrade when he filled in for Urlacher at middle linebacker. Geno Hayes and Blake Costanzo were both solid in limited snaps.
Every Bears fan loves Urlacher and appreciates what he did for the franchise, but unless his most recent contribution will be a big pay cut, it's time to cut ties with the franchise icon.