5 Cuts That Could Create Serious Cap Space for the Bears

Andrew Dannehy@@ADannChiBearsCorrespondent IFebruary 6, 2014

5 Cuts That Could Create Serious Cap Space for the Bears

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    As the Chicago Bears enter the offseason, they have a lot of holes but not a lot cap space to fill them.

    According to Over The Cap, the Bears have less than $6 million to spend on free agents and draft picks. There is a lot they can do to make more space, and they've been known to be creative in the past.

    The biggest cap hit on the team will be quarterback Jay Cutler, who is set to count for more than $22 million against the salary cap. If the Bears were to cut Cutler, they'd save over $15 million for next year, but, obviously, that isn't going to happen.

    As Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune wrote, the Bears have an "automatic conversion" clause in Cutler's contract, which means they can move money around to create salary cap space as needed. That could play a big role in how they can spend this offseason.

    The best way to get more cap space, however, is to cut players. The Bears have some players who simply haven't performed up to the level that their current contracts will pay them.

    In the following slides, you'll see five cuts that the Bears could realistically make that would create more than $16 million in cap space for them to spend this free agency period. 

    Of those five players, only three are starters, but the other two are considered to be valuable reserves. As I go through the cap hits and savings the Bears would make, I'll also go through the cons of cutting each player and why the Bears may elect to keep them.

    Note: All salary cap information courtesy of Over The Cap, unless otherwise indicated.

Michael Bush

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Savings: $1.85 million

    Michael Bush was one of general manager Phil Emery's first free-agent signings and possibly his worst, as the backup running back is set to count for $3.85 million against the team's salary cap space next year.

    The former Raider was thought to be an elite short-yardage back and reliable backup. He looked to be that in his first season with the Bears when he ran for 411 yards and five touchdowns in relief of Matt Forte, but he struggled last season.

    Even with a late season surge, in which he ran for 113 yards, Bush had only 197 yards with an average of 3.1 yards per carry. 

    He also hasn't proven to be a reliable receiver or blocker out of the backfield. He has caught just 11 passes with the Bears after never catching fewer than 17 in four years with the Raiders.

    So, why might the Bears keep him?

    While the savings seem like a lot, it isn't all that much when you consider that they'll have to replace him. Third-string back Michael Ford played some special teams this season, but he did not receive a single carry.

    While Forte has been durable—playing in 91 out of a possible 96 games in his career—the Bears still need someone reliable in case something were to happen to him. They might have a hard time finding a second-string back for the amount that they'd save by cutting Bush and may not want to use a draft pick on the position with so many holes on defense.

    Add in the fact that they're going to have to pay Bush $2 million regardless of if he plays a snap for them next season, they may want to just keep him and eat the extra $1.85 million.

    All that said, the primary reason they signed Bush was for insurance in case Forte left as a free agent. Forte is on the team and will be for the foreseeable future. If the Bears are confident in Ford or that they can get a bargain free agent, they should send Bush packing and use the money they save elsewhere.

Adam Podlesh

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Savings: $1.025 million

    When the Bears needed a big punt, Adam Podlesh was a good bet to shank one.

    Podlesh was one of former general manager Jerry Angelo's last acquisitions and one that current GM Phil Emery almost certainly wishes he wouldn't have made.

    According to Spotrac, Podlesh has the 11th-highest average annual salary at his position and is set to count for $1.825 million against the team's salary cap in 2014. He ranked 33rd in punting average, 29th in net average and in a four-way tie for 13th in punts inside the 20.

    So, why might the Bears keep him?

    Like with Michael Bush, if they cut him, they'll have to invest in a replacement, and a reliable one may not be worth the savings.

    While Podlesh was bad when the Bears really needed big punts and doesn't have a particularly strong leg, he did do a good job of limiting the other team's returners. Opponents averaged just 7.4 yards per return against Podlesh, the sixth best mark in the league.

    The reality is that the Bears couldn't release Podlesh before this season because the savings wouldn't have been worth it. He was due $2 million—$1.2 million last season and $800,000 this season—regardless of if he was on the roster. A total hit of $2 million was probably a bit much to take for a punter, $800,000, it manageable. 

    It will be interesting to see if they release Podlesh before free agency or if they wait until training camp and see if he can win a competition, like he did prior to last season.

Chris Conte

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Savings: $1.389 million

    Chris Conte had a much better shot at sticking with the team before a performance escalator upped his contract by nearly $750,000. He is now set to count just more than $1.5 million against the team's salary cap, which would be a pretty good haul for a player of his caliber.

    The Cal product has been a starter since his rookie season and appeared to be progressing until this past season, when he was among the worst starting safeties in the league. 

    Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded Conte as the fifth-worst safety in the league. The Bears figure to be in the market for an upgrade, but it may not be that easy.

    So, why might the Bears keep him?

    Conte wasn't anywhere near as bad in his first two seasons as he was in 2013. The Bears breakdown in the front seven showed his flaws and perhaps exaggerated them a bit. In 2012, they proved they could have a top five defense with him–and Major Wright, for that matter—so they may focus their resources elsewhere.

    Whatever bad things that can be said about Conte's 2013 season are probably correct, but it's hard to ignore his potential.

    He may never be a great tackler or the kind of safety who can play in the box, but he has excellent speed and range. Most of his mistakes in 2013 were mental, things that he can learn from. This was just his third season playing the position after being a cornerback in college. He regressed, but that doesn't mean he can't be better in the future, especially in a contract year.

    The Bears will likely have one starting safety to replace, with Wright hitting unrestricted free agency, along with several holes in their front seven. They may be better off sticking with Conte and seeing what they can get out of him than spending money or draft picks on a replacement.

Earl Bennett

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    David Richard/Associated Press

    Savings: $2.45 million

    Once considered the team's top receiver, it may be time to move on from Earl Bennett.

    It's popular to blame Bennett's lack of production on the fact that he was playing with so many good players around him. That seems logical on the surface, but when you dive into the numbers more, it simply isn't true.

    Bennett still had 44 passes thrown his way, and of the 170 NFL players who had at least 40 targets, only four had fewer receiving yards. Three of those four—Ben Tate, C.J. Spiller and Steven Jackson—were running backs, and only one—Darius Johnson—was a wide receiver. It wasn't that he didn't have chances, it was that he didn't take advantage of the chances he did have.

    The Vanderbilt product averaged 0.67 yards per route run, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), ranking him 166th in the league. He managed just 7.6 yards per catch.

    Now go back to all the players he has around him. He certainly had favorable matchups with safeties and linebackers, but he wasn't able to win those consistently enough.

    So, why might the Bears keep him?

    He's reliable. He runs good routes and has great hands, and because of those attributes, quarterback Jay Cutler trusts him. 

    His logical replacement, Marquess Wilson is still young. While he oozes potential, Wilson wasn't ready to play a big role last season and may not be ready this season. It's not uncommon for receivers to take two years to develop. Keeping Bennett on the roster would give Wilson another year to learn.

    Like with Chris Conte, Bennett's past production suggests he's capable of much, much more. He's made a lot of big plays for the team and even made a few last season.

    Perhaps former general manager Jerry Angelo jumped the gun in giving Bennett a big contract, but if he didn't, there's reason to believe someone else would have.

Julius Peppers

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Savings: $9.9 million (roughly)

    Here's the big one and perhaps the most difficult call the Bears will have to make.

    Julius Peppers is due to count for more than $18 million against the Bears salary cap, the second-highest mark on the team behind Jay Cutler.

    In 2013, Peppers wasn't the dominant player he had been, but he wasn't as bad as some seem to think. While the Bears had injuries all around him, Peppers was the only defensive player who got extra attention from the opposing offenses. 

    His 7.5 sacks were the third-lowest total of his career, but that may be misleading. The Bears weren't in many games where they had big leads, and teams were in obvious passing situations, which allows pass rushers to tee off. Their run defense was also so bad that opponents only attempted 507 passes against them this season, the second lowest total in the league.

    That said, Peppers was a part of the problem. There were many times when he just didn't seem to be playing hard. He faced his fair share of double teams, but he was also taken out by tight ends and fullbacks, which should never happen to a player with his size and talent.

    He's 34 years old and will turn 35 during the playoffs next season. It's possible that he just doesn't have it in him to be a full-time player anymore.

    So, why might the Bears keep him?

    Turn on either of the team's games against the Packers last year. Or their first game against the Lions. Perhaps you want to watch him against the Ravens, or when he dismantled the Vikings in their second meeting.

    There were quite a few games when Peppers looked like the dominant player the Bears have gotten used to seeing. He still has it in him, he just didn't show it every game. Perhaps if he had better players around him and saw fewer double-teams we would've seen it more?

    As much as the Bears would save by cutting Peppers, there's no guarantee that they'd get an upgrade. As good as Michael Bennett and Greg Hardy have looked with the Seahawks and Panthers, they were also playing on dominant defensive lines, making it nearly impossible to double-team them without someone else getting pressure.

    Peppers shouldn't get what he's scheduled to make. The Bears should ask him to take a drastic pay cut.

    It's not something players like to do, but Peppers will have to do it one way or the other. It doesn't seem very likely that another team will be willing to pay an aging defensive end coming off a season with just 7.5 sacks top dollar. 

    If the Bears can convince Peppers to cut his contract in half, they should keep him.

    It's something he should consider as he might not be able to make up the difference elsewhere. Last season, the Falcons signed Osi Umenyiora for $8.5 million over two seasons, Peppers is nearly two years older and has a lot of wear and tear on his body.