Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Pace is new in his role, both in team and in title, and has to be a bit excited when he looks at the books for 2016. He walked into a bit of a disaster in his first year with the team, but purely from a numbers standpoint, next year he will have much more creative flexibility in building his roster.
This will be incredibly important not only to Pace, but also to new head coach John Fox and coordinators Adam Gase and Vic Fangio, assuming that all of them will be back for at least one more season. Gase could use a couple more solid offensive linemen, not to mention weapons to work with, and Fangio will be hoping for better players for his newly-formed 3-4 defense.
Strictly the numbers:
2016 NFL salary cap projection: $150,000,000 (est.)
2016 Chicago Bears cap space: $59,000,000 (est.)
Before we go out and start spending $60 million, understand that number comes with plenty of caveats:
- Current number of players under contract for 2016: 35
- Current number of players set to be free agents: 28
For a look at the updated list of players currently in their final year, click HERE.
The biggest questions surrounding expiring contracts are obviously RB Matt Forte and WR Alshon Jeffery. Forte will be 30 years old in December, but is still playing at the top of his game. We've seen a trend recently in teams becoming reluctant to shell out game-changing money to running backs, especially those who have been in the league for 6-7 years, but Forte is having an All-Pro year this season and showing very little wear on his tires. It's worth noting that the Bears have an excellent backup behind Forte in Jeremy Langford, who very well could be the starter of the future when Forte moves on.
And of course, there is no way at at all to project what the team will want to do with Jeffery-- and they probably have no idea either. Jeffery set off plenty of alarms when he missed Training Camp and preseason with a soft tissue injury, then was knocked out of the regular season after only one game with another. After finally returning to action in Week 6, Jeffery flashed his potential, but if he's hoping for a big pay day after the season, he needs to run the tables for the rest of the year. Keep in mind the Bears could also use the franchise tag on him next year if they still aren't completely sold on a long-term deal.
But for a team that is clearly in rebuilding mode (or simply 'building' as John Fox has said), they've got plenty of wiggle room next season to work with. If Pace can have a successful Draft next Spring, and the team is able to connect on a couple of homerun swings in the free agent market, we could see a pretty quick turnaround in Chicago in 2016 and 2017.
That's a tall order for a first-time GM, but he's got a veteran head coach that he's working with, and one of the best contract negotiators in the NFL, Cliff Stein, waiting in the wings to assist.