One of the more overlooked aspects of a re-building team is their salary cap health. Lets explore the Bears current situation and how that will affect the team moving forward as more talent is accumulated.
Often in the early stages of a re-build, teams are forced to go in one of two directions: They will either ride out the veteran contracts that eat up large chunks of cap space; or they just cut everyone who they deem expendable to clear roster spots for younger players.
In my opinion, there is a very clear correct way to handle this situation, which just so happens to be how the Bears have handled it. They didn’t start cutting players that they wanted to rid themselves of. Prime example of this is Jay Cutler. It was clear that Ryan Pace wanted to move on quickly but after not finding a willing trade partner, his contract proved to be too prohibitive to move on from.
To cut Cutler in 2015, would have cost the Bears $15.5M in dead cap space and an additional $16M in 2016. By waiting until 2017, the Bears are only on the hook for $2M because of the 2014 restructure by Phil Emery, which pushed back $5M in bonuses to remaining five years. The $2M dead space represents what was still owed to him.
As you can see, this can put a team in a precarious position, especially if multiple high-priced veterans are cut. Not only have the Bears been smart in waiting to move on from players like Cutler, but Pace has been shrewd at the negotiating table when it comes to guaranteed money (the root cause of salary cap purgatory).
Sticking with quarterbacks, the Mike Glennon deal comes to mind when looking at these types of front-loaded contracts. By putting $14M of the $18.5M guaranteed into the first year, Pace has given himself an out after the 2017 season and leaving a $4.5M dead cap hit in 2018. A relatively small price to pay if it doesn’t work out but a bargain of a contract if it does.
Now that we have established that the Bears have handled the cap wisely, let’s take a look at where that puts them now and into the future.
According to Over the Cap, the Bears currently have $24,803,472 in available cap space for 2017. Note that this does not include the Mitch Trubisky contract, which has yet to be signed. For reference, Carson Wentz signed a contract for 4 years / $26,676,338 in 2016, which breaks down to $4,850,243 in year one.
For the sake of round numbers, let’s assume that the Bears have $20M of cap space. I have been told that an NFL team typically keeps between $1.5M and $3M for operating expenses, or street free agents when the inevitable injury occurs. This puts the Bears safely at $17M in actual cap space for 2017.
For comparison, the Bears rank 7th in available cap space, but since they still have a high-priced rookie to sign, they will likely drop down to 8th. But of those eight teams, the Bears rank second in dead cap space with $3,750,648, $2M of which should be donated by the Phil Emery Memorial Fund for signing Cutler to that deal.
This bodes well for the future. It tells me that the cap health looks like it is here for the long-term and not just the present. Additionally, the extra cap space a team doesn’t use can be “rolled-over” to the following season.
So what does 2018 look like? As of now, the Bears have $50,899,265 available, but only 44 players under contract. So While that still ranks in the top-ten, it appears to be a tad more dubious than the 2017 situation. When you dig a little deeper though, you see some positives, which again goes back to the way that Pace has structured contracts during his tenure.
Mike Glennon ($11.5M), Pernell McPhee ($7.075M), Lamarr Houston ($8M), Josh Sitton ($8M), Bobby Massie ($5.6M), Markus Wheaton ($5M), Danny Trevathan ($4.65M), Marcus Cooper ($4.5M), Quintin Demps ($3.666M), Willie Young ($4.5M) and Jerrell Freeman ($3.5M) are all cut possibilities at the end of the season. Cutting all of those players would gain an additional $65,991,666 in cap space.
This would put the total at over $115M, which would put them far beyond the other teams on the list. This would put the Bear in the driver’s seat for the 2018 off-season and would allow them to really patch the major holes in the roster.
Based on my belief of the timeline for the rebuild, which seems to line-up with Pace’s contract, the 2018 off-season should be very exciting. If the young players and recent draft picks continue to improve, and a few of them prove to be studs, there is no reason why this team couldn’t go all-in for 2018.
Just in case you were wondering, here is the current list of free agents for 2018. Any names on your wishlist?
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