There's a very good chance the Chicago Bears' best player at an already lacking position will either need to accept a significant pay cut in 2014 or risk receiving his walking papers.
Defensive end Julius Peppers, who turned 34 years old last month, is scheduled to count almost $18.2 million against the Bears' salary cap in 2014. His ridiculous cap number, when combined with age and declining production, make it improbable that Chicago will go through this offseason without either restructuring Peppers' deal or flat-out releasing him.
However, the Bears have more to consider here than just money.
The Chicago defense is coming off one of its worst seasons in franchise history, a year that included new team records for points and yards allowed.
Overall, the Bears gave up the third most points and yards in the NFL, while also ranking dead last in rushing yards allowed and yards per carry. Chicago became just the fourth team since 1978 to give up 20 or more points in all 16 regular-season games.
Peppers was obviously a part of that historically bad defense, and his early-season struggles led to new individual three-year lows in sacks (7.5) and total pressures (40). Through seven games, the veteran had just one sack and eight tackles, with three contests in which he didn't record a single statistic.
Yet releasing Peppers now would leave the Bears dangerously thin on both talent and depth at defensive end.
Behind him, Chicago has the following players at defensive end: Shea McClellin, Corey Wootton, Cornelius Washington, David Bass and Cheta Ozougwu.
|RDE||Sacks in 2013||LDE||Sacks in 2013|
|J. Peppers||7.5||C. Wootton||3.5|
|D. Bass||1.0||S. McClellin||4.0|
|C. Ozougwu||1.0||C. Washington||0.0|
McClellin, a former first-round pick, has struggled to establish himself as a 4-3 defensive end. He's tallied just 6.5 sacks over 28 games and 10 starts, and a move to linebacker could be in his future.
Wootton, 26, is an impending free agent who is coming off hip surgery.
Washington, a sixth-round pick in 2013, played in just two games last season. Bass and Ozougwu combined for two sacks in 19 games.
This is a position lacking both impact players in the present and projected assets to the future. Last season, Peppers was the only member of the defensive line—after Henry Melton went down with an ACL injury—who forced opposing offenses to adjust game plans. At times, he could still wreck havoc from right or left defensive end.
Still, the Bears received just 21 sacks from the defensive line in 2013.
Take away Peppers and his team-high 7.5 sacks from that group, and defensive end becomes an even more urgent need for the Bears this offseason. Chicago would be forced to acquire one or even two players—through the draft or free agency—who could play right away.
Keeping Peppers would take some financial finagling.
The Bears would seem unlikely to ask Peppers to simply restructure his deal. He'll need to take a significant pay cut—which contrasts from simply moving money around in a restructure—to remain in Chicago through 2014. Transferring money to next year, which Chicago could do by converting base salary in signing bonus, would only complicate cap matters in 2015.
Peppers should have incentive to take a cut. He'll know that no NFL team—if he is eventually cut by the Bears—will be willing to pay him anything near $18 million next season. Instead of testing the market, where aging defensive ends haven't fared well in recent years, Peppers might make more in 2014 by finding a middle ground with the Bears to stay in Chicago.
Then again, veteran NFL stars can be a prickly bunch, and there's a possibility that Peppers could scoff at the idea of hacking away at his next season's earnings. If that's the case, the Bears will have little other choice than to release the 34-year-old defensive end.
A straight-up cut does have monetary advantages.
While releasing Peppers at any time before June 1 would cost the Bears almost $8.4 million in dead money next season, it would also free up nearly $10 million in cap space in 2014 and more than $17 million in 2015.
What should the Chicago Bears do with Julius Peppers?
Another option would be using the June 1 designation on Peppers, which splits the dead money cost over two seasons. In that scenario, the Bears would save roughly $14 million in 2014 and $16 million in 2015. The dead money costs would be $4.18 million in each season.
The overall savings could eventually be very important in locking up new deals for Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall.
Cutting Peppers might simply be another step in general manager Phil Emery's re-haul of the defense. He was unafraid to wave goodbye to Brian Urlacher last offseason. And keep in mind, Peppers was signed to his mega deal before Emery came on board.
At 34 years old, and with a skill set that is regressing, Peppers probably isn't going to factor heavily into any defensive revival in Chicago.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Peppers finished 2013 with his worst overall grade since signing with the Bears in 2010. He finished as the 36th ranked defensive end among 52 qualifying players.
He was still the Bears best pass-rushing defensive lineman last season, but that was mostly by default. His career arc is clearly trending down, like most at age 34.
Parting ways with Peppers will leave the Bears even more desperate for defensive end help, but there's simply no smart way to keep the veteran on the roster for more than $18 million. In a best case scenario, Peppers would take a massive pay cut and help ease the Bears into the next defensive era.
Discussions of this sort rarely go that smoothly. Peppers' future in Chicago is very much in question.
Salary cap information courtesy of OverTheCap.com.