Phil Emery and the Bears made a splash at the beginning of free agency with Martellus Bennett and Jermon Bushrod, but arguably some of his best work this offseason has been happening the past two weeks. Filling out a roster that, after adding Bushrod and Bennett, still had holes across the board and minimal financial flexibility to do so, was going to be a difficult task. However, Phil Emery and Cliff Stein have worked some serious magic the past few weeks filling key roster spots with proven, veteran players still young enough to be in the prime of their careers, but old enough to be willing to take a one-year "prove it" deal in hopes of cashing in the following season.
Emery has had some help on his side, and I'm not talking just about Stein. The NFL free agent market is about as depressed as it can get, with proven veteran players signing shorter deals for way less money than expected. The best example is Cliff Avril, who turned down a 3 year, $30 million deal from the Detroit Lions last year because he expected - and most NFL people expected - that he would find a better deal in free agency. Instead, Avril signed with the Seahawks for 2 years and $13 million. As in $13 million total. Even Elvis Dumervil's contract (5 years, $35 million, $12 million guaranteed), while good, falls short of past big deals to pass rushers like Charles Johnson (6 years, $76 million) or Calais Campbell (5 years, $55 million).
So while the Bears spent big for Bushrod ($3 million cap hit in 2013, between $7-9 million for next four years) and got great value for Bennett ($2 million cap hit in 2013, roughly $6 million in 2014-16), Emery's most recent moves are really just fantastic in terms of "bang for your buck." For $3 million dollars against the cap - or roughly half a year's salary of what Urlacher wanted - Emery kept an improving defensive lineman (Nate Collins, $715k cap hit) and added two starting linebackers in James Anderson ($1.25 million cap hit) and D.J. Williams ($900k cap hit). According to Spotrac, between the three contracts only $200,000 is guaranteed, and that's to James Anderson as a signing bonus. Meaning if any of those three end up terrible, the Bears can cut them with very little hesitation or financial complications. Two starting linebackers, a solid rotation tackle, for at least what it would have cost to resign #54? Yes, please.
The other great way Emery and Stein (or Obi Wan and Yoda) have manipulated the Bears' cap space is the utilization of the "veteran's minimum salary benefit." According to the website NFLSalaryCapGuru:
The Bears have signed four different players to these type of contracts which offer small yet beneficial cap assistance. Johnathon Scott, Zachary Bowman, and Turk McBride all signed $715,000 contracts, but because of the minimum salary benefit, each will only count $620,000 against the cap. While McBride may be a strong candidate to be cut prior to the season, Bowman's special teams skills and depth as a corner make him well worth that deal. Scott, on the other hand, is a crucial backup option for the Bears at tackle, especially considering that right now Gabe Carimi is penciled in as the starting guard (well, its him or no one, so its him).
The last veteran minimum deal that helps the Bears is Kelvin Hayden's one year deal. Spotrac has Hayden's base salary at $840,000 with a $65,000 bonus, but the Bears cap hit goes from $905,000 to $620,000 thanks to the salary benefit. For a player like Hayden - who will be the Bears nickle corner and primary backup at the position - to have that low of a cap hit is fantastic. And while that $285,000 savings may not sound like much with a total salary cap of $123 million, add up the $290,00 savings from the trio listed above, and that's almost enough to add another player.
So while there is still work ahead for the Bears - calling all backup quarterback and interior offensive lineman! - Phil Emery has made some pretty impressive moves, adding players that have almost no chance of under-performing their contracts.