When NFL free agency opens every year in early to mid-March many forget that it's actually the official start of a new league year. That means the weeks between the Super Bowl and that March deadline essentially become a financial sprint for teams to get their salary cap situation in as stable a place as possible. In many ways, free agency is seen as a solid compliment to a good draft. A manner in which a team can jump to contention in a hurry. In others, it's a period of bad investments and poor professional scouting, of which makes up for many cap casualty cuts each year.
The Bears of last season fit the latter description, as they’ve already parted ways with Josh Sitton and Jerrell Freeman. With free agency a little under three weeks away, the expected potential non-futures of Quintin Demps, Dion Sims, Markus Wheaton, Marcus Cooper, Willie Young, Pernell McPhee, Mike Glennon, and Bobby Massie still all hang in the balance. If the Bears are to rebound aggressively this March, they have a lot of work to do to tidy their own in-house situation.
General manager Ryan Pace has previously spoken about free agency being "dangerous" and "stepping through landmines" referencing the perils it presents. A novel and smart concept as an over investment on the open market of any kind can truly sink a team's salary cap situation: something Pace learned during his time with the Saints. It's one thing to preach good faith and patience. It's another to be hit or miss constantly as Pace has done so far through his three years in Chicago.
Of each of his 17 signings to this point - mostly marked by an abhorrent 2017 shopping spree - only Akiem Hicks and Danny Trevathan in 2016 could be counted on as plus additions to a contending core. Late summer additions such as now former Bear Josh Sitton literally fell into Pace's lap. Others such as Glennon and McPhee, have proven to be disastrous for both general ineffectiveness and health while juxtaposed to what Pace initially expected.
Much of the 2017 class has become a black mark on Pace's record as a lead personnel man. And for good reason. That's regardless of the low level commitments paid out to each of these players. Yes, Pace set himself up summarily with low risk and middle level reward on some of these pieces such as Cooper and Demps. Not constraining yourself to deals you don't want to make is how you maintain flexibility and breathing room for when you're ready to push your chips in.
But it speaks to an overall flaw in the Bears' professional scouting department. While they've relatively drafted well and added to a promising core around their hopeful face of the franchise in Mitchell Trubisky, the portion of Halas Hall that evaluates players already in the NFL has a left a lot to be desired evaluation wise. The fits and commitments determined by this group have left the Bears hanging out to dry. Effective team building comes in the scouting of amateurs and established professionals, not one or the other.
If the Bears are going to make any kind of leap in 2018 and beyond, and leave the malaise of last place in the NFC North, Pace will have to have a nearly perfect free agency this March. He'll have to be decisive, persuasive, and have checked every box in contracts he hands out. Chicago can't afford another lost free agency. Neither can Pace, with his marriage to his new and second coach in Matt Nagy beginning. The clock on his tenure, and Trubisky reaching his potential, begins now.
With the ousters of Freeman and Sitton, the Bears have an approximate $52 million in cap space according to Over The Cap. By trimming off the fat of their potential cuts, they can rise all the way to roughly $89 million. That is an excellent position to be in provided Pace uses the room wisely. It won't be the most. That distinction belongs to the 49ers and Browns: who are slated to have around $100 million in space each. Though, San Francisco has already dug into their purse for Jimmy Garoppolo. But it's enough to take the Bears to the mountain of which Pace has been professing they'll climb for some time.
An area that not many consider and where Pace will keep his eye on, is the possible cap casualties of other teams. The roster clean up is a universal concept for all 32 organizations. After looking at early reports and cap health around the league, here are four names that fit the Bears well once the release dust settles.
Robert Quinn, Edge, Los Angeles Rams
- 2018 cap hit: $12.3 million
- Age during 2018 season: 28-years-old
- Height and weight: 6-foot-4, 250 pounds
- Reason for cut: Restructure, greener pastures
- New projected contract figures: Four years, $40 million, $18 million guaranteed
As the Rams begin to put the pieces into place for an Aaron Donald extension, early reports have had them center in on Quinn taking a pay cut. A former Defensive Player of the Year in 2013, Quinn hasn't recovered optimally from back surgery two years ago. That led to him playing a total of 17 games in 2015 and 2016 while not living up to his pedigree. A rebound 2017 season with 8.5 sacks put him back on the map. Discussions will center in on Los Angeles asking Quinn to restructure his deal. There are serious doubts as to whether he'll accept, and instead look to enter the open market.
This is where the Bears should pounce on Quinn's addition as he presents a sizable upgrade at outside linebacker. He'd be the ideal edge partner for Leonard Floyd as while he's the same build as Floyd, he's more of a well-rounded pass rusher with a repertoire that features speed and power moves. An athlete that hasn't lost his burst or bend when on the field, but merely has struggled to stay available. An athlete who would help give the Bears’ their own “Bash Brothers” duo. This is a player of whom once you let him run roughshod, you're not going to slow him down. Not to mention that the prime Quinn significantly mitigates the need for outside pass rush help.
This is move that would require a bit of foresight and good faith that Quinn has reached a good place of health to bet on. Think of moving on him to the Seahawks similarly making moves for Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril several years ago. Quality players either not being fully maximized and or being bought on immense upside.
Ja’Wuan James, OT, Miami Dolphins
- 2018 cap hit: $9.3 million
- Age during 2018 season: 26-years-old
- Height and weight: 6-foot-6, 317 pounds
- Reason for cut: Fifth-year option rescinded
- New projected contract figures: Four years, $20 million, $10 million guaranteed
A former first round pick in 2014, how the Bears, or any team, feels about James will be similar to anyone with health concerns. When he’s on, meaning starting all 16 games in the 2014 and 2016 seasons, James is a stable right tackle that can hold his own in pass protection against some of the best. No one will confuse him for an All-Pro, but he doesn’t receive enough credit for graceful feet, a powerful setting punch, and a consistent base that puts him in position to succeed against terrific athletes.
Which is why it’s perplexing that per the Miami Herald’s Armando Salguero, the Dolphins will elect to rescind the fifth-year option on James’ rookie contract: an option they picked up last spring. For a team lacking game breaking talents on offense, it’d behoove Miami to retain one of their foundational guys up front. The Dolphins’ offensive line isn’t a solid group with their arguable best talent in James in the fold. Letting him go only makes a team further stuck in purgatory even more mediocre.
In regards to how James fits for the Bears, he’d be an immediate starter with relevant experience and high upside provided he’s more of the 2016 version. Massie could be replaced without Chicago drafting a developmental project, and the Bears would get an upgrade. New offensive line coach Harry Hiestand is also acutely familiar with James, having coached the tackle in his first two seasons at college with Tennessee. A familiarity that can’t be disregarded.
Locking James up would mean the Bears have a tackle duo with Charles Leno Jr. that can be together through the primes of their careers. It would mean they wouldn’t have to concern themselves with their starting tackles for a good while too. James will be one of the better discounts available that proves to be the Bitcoin of this year’s free agency: overlook him now, but don’t lament that you missed out how he (or they) get you rich years later.
Muhammad Wilkerson, Edge, New York Jets
- 2018 cap hit: $20 million
- Age during 2018 season: 29-years-old
- Height and weight: 6-foot-4, 315 pounds
- Reason for cut: Cap casualty
- New projected contract figures: One year, $6 million, fully guaranteed
The degree to which Wilkerson trade rumors have been roaming in the NFL undercurrent the last two years is almost understated. Every off-season, and before every trade deadline, somehow, someway Wilkerson has been involved in murmurs of a change of scenery.
You’d think with a player such as Wilkerson that is a two-time Second-Team All-Pro, wouldn’t be involved as much in an eager deal to jettison his services. But inconsistency and frankly, an abject lack of motivation have plagued Wilkerson in both 2016 and 2017. So much so, that at the moment he’s a far cry from the player that once wrecked game plans on his own with double digit sacks and an unmatched tenacity.
A contract extension handed out back in 2016 to Wilkerson - a deal that gave him $53 million guaranteed - looks like a horrendous move by the Jets in hindsight. He’s nowhere lived up to his responsibilities. As he’ll carry a $20 million dollar cap hit if retained on New York’s roster this season, he’s one of the easier figured cap casualties in the entire league. Wilkerson has been so disappointing that the Jets would rather eat $9 million in dead money than take on his crippling contract for another year.
Turn to the Bears, and there could be a spot for a 3-4 defensive end with some gas left in the tank. If the problem is motivation in a lackadaisical situation that Wilkerson doesn’t want to be a part of, then a fresh invigorating environment with Matt Nagy and the old school, gruff Vic Fangio is perfect in contrast. While the Bears possess Akiem Hicks, a current wrecking ball on one side, they have hardly anything proven or impactful yet on the other.
One of Jonathan Bullard or Roy Robertson-Harris has to become a solid contributor if Chicago’s defense is making any kind of leap towards elite. If the Bears don’t believe that that enlightening could happen with either of their young bucks, then a short term risk in a re-inspired Wilkerson would be the next logical step.
At his best, Wilkerson could be perceived as one of the top-tier run defenders in football. His pad level and hand use when he’s on are what lent to his All-Pro selections. As a pass rusher, he’s akin to Hicks in that he overpowers tackles and guards because of an explosive bull rush combined with his size. Provided Wilkerson lands in the right situation after his release, an NFL team will have quite the freakish monster at a slashed price.
Jeremy Maclin, WR, Baltimore Ravens
- 2018 cap hit: $7.5 million
- Age during 2018 season: 30-years-old
- Height and weight: 6-foot, 200 pounds
- Reason for cut: Cap casualty
- New projected contract figures: One year, $3.5 million, fully guaranteed
Once one of the more underrated downfield weapons in football, Maclin has fallen off a cliff in recent years. Ever since a peak 1,300-plus yard season in 2014, he's steadily dropped off in production each year. After two seasons with Kansas City, the Chiefs elected to release the declining veteran last summer. Maclin then struggled in the Ravens' anemic passing offense in 2017 attaining only 40 receptions for 440 yards and three scores. Part of that was being led by the "elite" and magnanimous quarterback Joe Flacco. And part of that was Maclin's own ability reaching a slow standstill.
Maclin in that respect, is less of a sure thing and more of another bet that he can return to a moderate level of play as a depth receiver. The Bears signing Maclin wouldn't be their first option. It would rather be a supplement to two or other three moves as they fill out their receiving corps. At his best, he'd be a weapon that can stretch the field and act as a reliable possession receiver. At his worst, Chicago would bury him at the bottom of the roster and or make a quick release. They’d then neuralyze the fact that this decision ever happened much like some of their recent free agent decisions.
The moral of this Bears’ bargain bin shopping story is buy low, show belief, and get all the rocking good deals. Because in the NFL, there are sometimes low prices. Sometimes.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times, an editor for Windy City Gridiron, and is a contributor to The Athletic Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.