Breaking Down Chicago Bears' 2014 Salary Cap: Where Is Money Best Spent?

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Breaking Down Chicago Bears' 2014 Salary Cap: Where Is Money Best Spent?
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Armchair general managers, this article is for you! Everything you need to know about the Chicago Bears’ spending situation this offseason is just a few scrolls away.

But first, a quick quiz.

Question: Based on current salaries, which NFL player will count the most against the 2014 salary cap?

A. Tony Romo
B. Drew Brees
C. Jay Cutler
D. Ndamukong Suh

If you said Cutler, congrats! According to Business Insider, Cutler’s $22.5 million cap hit tops the list. If that worries you, I recommend skipping the four facts that follow.  

Fact: At $18.2 million, Julius Peppers carries the eighth-highest cap hit in the league.

Fact: The Bears have $112.8 million in 2014 contracts, per overthecap.com

Fact: They only have 33 players under contract, the lowest number in the league, per overthecap.com.

Fact: The 2014 cap is projected at $126.3 million, according to a December tweet by NFL.com’s Albert Breer.

Let’s do some math. As it stands the Bears have $13.5 million remaining to sign more than 20 players. About $5.4 million will be allotted to draft picks, of which the Bears have eight. That leaves $8.1 million to sign at least a dozen players.

I know.

It looks about as bad as last weekend’s weather forecast.

But don’t curse Phil Emery just yet. Because, believe it or not, the Bears are in decent shape—for two main reasons.

 

No. 1: Some Players Won’t Be Back

The Bears can free up cap room by dropping players. Below is a list of players Chicago could release, including how much cap space the move would bring.

  1. Julius Peppers, DE: $9.82 million
  2. Earl Bennett, WR: $2.45 million
  3. Eric Weems, WR: $1.10 million
  4. Michael Bush, RB: $1.85 million
  5. Adam Podlesh, P: $1.03 million

Those are the players with whom the Bears will consider cutting ties. If they part will all five, their $13.5 million in cap space jumps to $29.8 million. Of course, it also adds five more players to replace, but the result still puts the Bears in better financial standing.

There’s an outside chance they’ll also look to let Lance Briggs go; Emery did say he’s focused on getting younger on defense, per Rich Campbell of the Chicago Tribune, and the move would open up $5.5 million in cap space—enough to pick up a solid linebacker in free agency—but I think the Bears like Briggs’ leadership on defense, and he’s still a quality linebacker.

 

No. 2: The “Automatic Conversion” Clause

Reported by Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune, all of the Bears’ recent signings—Cutler, Robbie Gould, Tim Jennings, Matt Slauson and Tony Fiammetta—include an “automatic conversion” clause in the terms of the contract. 

This means, at any point, the Bears can convert a portion of the salary into a signing bonus, which would be prorated over the duration of the contract. The result: The cap hit in subsequent years of the deal would increase marginally, while the 2014 cap hit would decrease substantially.

For example, Cutler’s 2014 cap number is $22.5 million. However, if the Bears converted $14 million of that to a signing bonus, that $14 million would be spread evenly—$2 million per year—over the seven years of the contract. The math to find the new 2014 cap hit looks like this: 22.5 – 14 + 2 = 10.5. So Cutler’s 2014 cap hit would be $10.5 million. And, voila, $12 million in cap space was just created.

The Bears can do this with the other four newly signed players as well. However, because the dollar amounts are much smaller in their contracts, the effect would be less significant.

It’s not as if this restructuring gets the Bears out of paying. They’ve just given themselves flexibility regarding when they want to make their payments. The biggest drawback is that, what you don’t pay today, you have to pay tomorrow. And also, the larger the signing bonus, the more expensive it becomes to drop these players (Read: Cutler) later on.

OK, so the Bears do have some spending money after all. Cutting the five players above and restructuring the deal as I showed in the example gives Chicago $41.8 million in cap space. Similar restructures to the Gould, Slauson and Jennings deals could bring the total up to around $45 million. If they use the same clause in addition contracts, that number could climb higher still.

Spending $45 million or more is not the goal, however. That’s more like the limit. They’d be happier spending closer to $35 million; $40 million is probably most realistic.

Knowing all that, the big question remains: How do they spend that cash?

 

Mo’ Money, Less Problems

If you're a future GM, it's time to play along. Get out a piece of paper and your favorite pen, put your thinking cap on, and settle in. Cause free agency is a long ride.

On your paper, make a list with the following entries:

  1. Starting defensive tackle
  2. Starting defensive end No. 1
  3. Starting defensive end No. 2
  4. Starting cornerback
  5. Starting free safety
  6. Starting strong safety
  7. Starting inside linebacker
  8. Starting center
  9. Others: $15 million
  10. Rookies: $5.5 million
  11. TOTAL: (should not exceed $45 million)

The positions above represent the Bears’ biggest needs this offseason. As we go through various possibilities, fill in your choice with a realistic salary estimate. (I’ll help with that in some cases, though it’s all speculation, so your guess may be better than mine.)

Should you choose a rookie for one of those starting roles, don’t add additional salary. The combined rookie salaries come out to about $5.5 million, and that has already been factored in (No. 10 on the chart).

I’ll be working on the assumption that all five of Peppers, Bennett, Weems, Bush and Podlesh will be cut. If you disagree with dropping any of those players, add the amount of cap savings listed for that player to "others" total (unless you're keeping Peppers, in which case add his name and savings to one of the defensive end spots).

I’ll mention backups and other less significant roles from time to time. Those players are already factored into the chart in the “others” slot. I’m making an estimate that the Bears will spend about $15 million to fill out the roster. That includes a backup quarterback, a punter, a wide receiver or two and a slew of other backup positions.

Alright, without further ado, let’s get started.

 

Chicago’s Free Agents

The Bears still have some talented players set to become free agents in March. Henry Melton and Charles Tillman headline a list that also includes Corey Wootton, Roberto Garza, Nate Collins, Zackary Bowman, Jeremiah Ratliff, D.J. Williams, James Anderson, Major Wright, Patrick Mannelly, Eben Britton and Devin Hester—all regular contributors in 2013.

The Bears want Melton and Tillman back. Melton provides a pass rush that was severely lacking in 2013, and Tillman provides turnovers, solid coverage and veteran leadership. But what the former Pro Bowlers are asking for will likely be more than the Bears would like to spend.

It’s improbable both will return to Chicago next season without testing the free agent waters. If it comes down to choosing one to keep, Tillman may be the wiser choice. He brings intelligence and toughness to the defense. He’s a lifetime Bear and a fan favorite—he’d probably prefer to stay in Chicago, too.

In addition, he may be the Bears answer at free safety. Charles Woodson and others have successfully transitioned from corner to center field in their later years, and Tillman may very well be the next to do so.

Melton, on the hand, is younger and more explosive. But he’s coming off a worse injury, an ACL tear, and he was arrested in December for assault and public intoxication. On the field, he’s always been more flash than grind. Looking at Melton’s Pro Football Focus grades (subscription required), his sack totals may have slightly inflated his overall value. 

Personally, I’m worried that he won’t return as athletic or explosive as he was pre-injury. For that reason, I wouldn’t offer much more than $3 million. But he made $8.5 million this year. I don’t see him settling for such a drastic pay cut without testing free agency. Most likely he’ll sign a big incentive-laden contract for a team looking to improve its inside pass rush.

The Bears, then, would be wise to offer Tillman a three- or four-year deal for about $5 million per year, which is in line with what they offered his counterpart, Tim Jennings.

After that, the Bears should lock up Wootton, Garza, Collins, Bowman, Williams and Britton. All are quality players who should be relatively inexpensive signings.

For better or worse, signing Williams means the Bears are probably set at linebacker. They’ll have Briggs, Williams, Jon Bostic, Khaseem Greene and Shea McClellin, which is a pretty good mix of young potential and veteran ability.

Going back to the chart, I’m adding Tillman at cornerback with a $5 million cap hit, Williams at inside linebacker for $1.25 million (that’s about what he signed for last year) and Garza at center for $1.75 million. I want Wootton and Collins as rotational lineman, so for now I’m putting them and the rest into the “others” category, but those two may end up competing for starting roles on the d-line.

If you’re keeping Melton, stick a fair number next to his name. In my eyes, he’s going to cost at least $5 million. Without Melton, I’ve got up to $16.5 million left to spend, but I still need to find my two starting safeties and a lot of help on the defensive line.

 

What to Do at Safety

Though I think it warrants discussion, I haven’t heard much talk about moving Tillman to free safety, which probably means it isn’t going to happen in 2014. Therefore the Bears are left to free agency and the draft to find their fix.

At this juncture it’s tough to say who will be available in free agency, as some of the players set to become free agents will be signed by their own teams before hitting the market, and others who are currently under contract will be cut.

If free agency started today, however, the Bears’ No. 1 target has to be Cleveland Browns strong safety T.J. Ward. One of the best run-stoppers at his position, Ward also does an above average job in pass coverage. The 27-year-old is one of the most dependable safeties in the league.

What would it cost to sign him, or other top-notch safeties like Buffalo Bills free safety Jairus Byrd, San Francisco 49ers strong safety Donte Whitner, Cincinnati Bengal free safety Taylor Mays, Miami Dolphins strong safety Chris Clemons or Tennessee Titans strong safety Bernard Pollard?

Byrd, probably too much. He’s been one of the best safeties in the league for three years now. The rest, if they actually reach free agency, would probably cost $5 to $8 million per year.

In my mind, this is a big acquisition the Bears have to make. Ideally, they wind up with Ward, but if that doesn’t happen, then one of the others will be acquired. On my chart, I’m marking a free agent pickup for $6 million.

To fill out the other safety spot, I’d target Ha Ha Clinton-Dix from Alabama or another touted collegian in the first two rounds of the draft. Chris Conte will compete with the rookie for the opening day start.

Now, all I’ve got to do is find three-fourths of a defensive line with my remaining $10.5 million.

 

The D-Line

In my plan, the Bears will sign two free agents on the defensive line and pick one up in the draft, preferably with their first- or second-round pick.

One free agent the Bears should pursue is Martellus Bennett’s older brother—Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett. Among 4-3 defensive ends, PFF ranks Bennett in the top seven over the past three years. By their data, he is one of the most well-rounded ends in the league, as his pass-rush and run-stopping tallies are both well above average. 

Martellus Bennett has already voiced that he’d like his older sibling to join him in Chicago. Michael Bennett made $4.8 million on a one-year deal in 2013. If the Bears offer a multi-year deal, they might be able to secure him for a smaller yearly average. Then again, the bigger the offer, the more likely it is he winds up here.

For $15 million over three years, he’d be a perfect addition to the defense.

That leaves a little money left over for another free-agent pickup, either at defensive end or tackle. I’d like some experience on the inside, so I’d look for one of the following defensive tackles:

For $5 million per year, the Bears could probably land one of those players, so that’s what I’ll mark on the chart, which now looks like this:

  1. Starting defensive tackle: Free Agent, $5 million (or Nate Collins)
  2. Starting defensive end No. 1: Michael Bennett, $5 million
  3. Starting defensive end No. 2: Draft Pick (or Corey Wootton)
  4. Starting cornerback: Charles Tillman, $5 million
  5. Starting free safety: Draft Pick (or Chris Conte)
  6. Starting strong safety: Free Agent, $6 million
  7. Starting inside linebacker: D.J. Williams, $1.25 million
  8. Starting center: Roberto Garza, $1.75 million
  9. Others: $15 million
  10. Rookies: $5.5 million
  11. TOTAL: $44.5 million

I’m cutting it pretty close by using $44.5 million, but that dollar amount is within the realm of possibility. What it really comes down to is how many pieces the Bears think they need to add on defense. They could bring in four impact players (including Tillman and/or Melton), plus their draft picks.

That’s what fans should be tracking this offseason: How many impact free agents do the Bears sign? Four or more and they’ll be in good shape next year. They could probably get by with three if they draft well. Less than three, though, and it could be another long season defensively.

How do you think they’ll spend their money? Who do you think they’ll bring in? Copy and paste your chart or simply share your thoughts in the comments below.

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