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Smart money: Bears potential cap casualties to monitor after 2018

The Bears have locked in their core for a good while. They could create salary cap flexibility with players that should be on notice.

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Carolina Panthers v Chicago Bears
Another up-and-down year could mean the end of Kyle Long in Chicago.
Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

What’s fascinating about aggressive spending for an NFL team is that it leaves little breathing room after the fact. Once a general manager pushes their poker hand in, that defines the end of an assertive ideal: for at least a few seasons. The nature of the salary cap, which according to the NFL Player’s Association will award roughly $177.2 million to each NFL team in 2018, necessitates that dramatic tinkering doesn’t happen once you’ve designated your hopeful winning core. Get the players you want in your building, and you’re stuck with them barring the structure of their contracts.

While every team in the NFL has to spend 95 percent of their salary cap under the collective bargaining agreement over a four-year period, it’s not defined how they have to spend their money. Every franchise’s pay allotment is different.

Some, like the early Reggie McKenzie Raiders of 2014-2016 were paying that requirement out with short deals that had limited commitments as they acquired core players like Khalil Mack and Derek Carr. Same goes for the 2017 Bears’ free agency where general manager Ryan Pace handed out little money to second, third, and even fourth tier free agents (hello Mike Glennon!) so as to not hamstring his roster before he deemed it ready to compete.

Now that the young Bears are past that hollow-fill phase, they fit the description of a team that has locked in it’s contending roster for the foreseeable future. Being on the rookie contract of Mitchell Trubisky, and having appropriately balanced out other rookies, free agent deals, and extensions accomplishes that.

Everything the Bears have acted on thus far in 2018 - an all-hands-on-deck off-season - spells out a mission to compete immediately largely with the players already on the roster. Aside from the potential of another edge pass rusher or long term right tackle, there aren’t many more noteworthy exterior additions the Bears are going to make over the next two to three years. It’s all about in-house development at Halas Hall now.

Chicago Bears Introduce Matt Nagy
Ryan Pace has always preferred to keep his team financially flexible.
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

That’s because the Bears, with the approximate $7.8 million 2018 draft pool included (they don’t have to spend that entire figure, it’s their cap on the class), have already used roughly $156 million of their 2018 cap space. Some of the remaining money, which is almost $26 million currently (remember that dead money plays a factor), is going to be used for a pending hefty extension of Eddie Goldman: the youthful anchor of the Bears’ defense. Figure around $7-8 million for Goldman whenever both parties reach an agreement. It’s a matter of when, not if.

With a possible extension of Adrian Amos on the way soon after (think $6-7 million per year if the Bears retain him), then Chicago is only slightly over $10 million in cap space when the dust settles. When you have that little spending money remaining, it means there’s room for one more emergency corresponding move due to injury or suspension, and nothing else.

This is maneuverability Bears general manager Ryan Pace has typically preferred to have, as he made sure Chicago had at least $6 million in cap space once the season opened in both 2016 and 2017, according to Spotrac. 2015 was the exception at just over $3 million. That can be excused as Pace’s first year with the organization and getting his ducks Bears in a row. 2018 becomes the major outlier with slightly more money unless the Bears back up bigger trucks for Goldman and Amos.

Long story short: the Bears can’t be high rollers in free agency anymore, or pay out huge extensions to other soon-to-be pending expiring rookie deals, until they make corresponding moves.

Those rookie deals are first going to be Leonard Floyd (who has his fifth-year option deadline coming next May), and Cody Whitehair. Jordan Howard, despite his limits as a receiving running back up, will also be up. Whitehair and Howard notably have only two years remaining on their deals.

These are players in their early and mid-20’s that are the core of the team and who decision makers value on a second contract provided they’ve produced appropriately. Only the rarest of special guys make it to a third contract with teams, as often that comes at 30-years-old when performance and health predictably drop summarily. NFL teams don’t like the proposed risk unless you’re a star quarterback.

For the purpose of this exercise, we’re going to assume each of Floyd, Whitehair, and Howard are deemed worthy of an extension following the 2018 season. So, the Bears need space and soon.

Meanwhile, the corresponding moves the Bears need to make for cap room are defined as cutting roster players that are almost entirely past the point of being worth a long term deal. Or, those that are soon to be on a declining path. In consideration of the dead cap, guaranteed money, and offset language structure in contracts (players have no rights or security if the unthinkable happens): the cruel business of the NFL means older veterans are released without remorse for financial’s sake.

Let’s examine the potential cap casualties the Bears can make after the 2018 season independently, and with pending extensions in mind. Since Chicago comfortably released Glennon this past March with $4.5 million in dead cap space, we’ll use that as the dead cap penalty bar for 2019. Anything at that number or below fits in. The players that should be on notice are determined by a combination of injury, age, performance, replacement plans, and cap room they can create with a release.

Every dollar counts.

Kyle Long, OG

Pittsburgh Steelers v Chicago Bears
Long has given everything to the Bears. They haven’t always returned the favor.
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Age in 2019: 30-years-old

2019 salary cap hit: $8.5 million

2019 dead cap: $3 million

Cap room created: $5.5 million

For five years, Long has been a worthy face of the Bears. To say that about any offensive lineman is high praise. He’s been a leader on and off the field, a likable voice making him a fan favorite in Chicago, and when healthy has been a Pro Bowl level player.

The only problem is that Long hasn’t been fully healthy since September 2016. Ever since severely injuring his ankle two months after, the injuries and surgeries have relentlessly piled up. Fortunately for his sake, he signed a deserved four-year $40 million dollar contract extension right before the madness. From rehab on the ankle that didn’t go swimmingly, a torn labrum he neglected to address in favor or working on his ailing wheel, to a neck issue that likely developed from his shoulder issues: it’s rained and poured for Long’s physical state.

In the past two years, the Bears’ stalwart has started only 17 of 32 games. Even in the 18 games Long has appeared in he clearly wasn’t 100 percent, as last season was cut short. None of this bodes well long term for a guy that plays a position that requires the most heavy lifting, and takes the most consistent punishment.

2018 carries significant weight to Long’s standing with the Bears. If he can stay healthy and play in a majority of the games, perhaps Chicago lets him stay through most of the rest of the three remaining years on his contract. James Daniels can only fix so much on one side, so why create a need until you absolutely have to address it? However, that’s asking a lot of someone coming off three surgeries and who isn’t participating in organized team activities.

The money says that regardless of what happens with Long in 2018, the Bears cut him soon afterwards. And years of Long being a good soldier to eventually play for a contending team likely go to waste. Blame the Bears for putting Long and themselves into this predicament.

Danny Trevathan, LB

Age in 2019: 29-years-old

2019 salary cap hit: $7.65 million

2019 dead cap: $1.25 million

Cap room created: $6.4 million

After acting as the “Mike” linebacker of the Super Bowl 50 champion Broncos, Trevathan was once the Bears’ big fish of their 2016 free agency class. That’s changed due to the emergence of Akiem Hicks as a superstar defensive lineman, and because Trevathan has been anything but reliable.

No one can argue that Trevathan is one of the NFL’s top playmakers as an off-ball linebacker. Since his de-facto rookie year with Denver in 2013, when Trevathan plays at least 15 games, he has produced at least a couple of turnovers each time. The rub is that he’s only played more than 15 games twice in his career. His penchant to tilt the field is minimized in the fact that he can’t stay on it.

The main reason for Trevathan’s latest woes in this department is a patellar tendon injury suffered in November 2016 (a cataclysmic month for Bears injuries). He did return faster than scheduled, as he was ready for a Week 1 start in 2017. But, he still missed four starts due to a combination of continual on-the-fly recovery from the injury that Chicago didn’t detail the extent of (just because Trevathan was playing in games, doesn’t mean he was okay); and a one-game suspension for an illegal hit on the PackersDavante Adams.

Carolina Panthers v Chicago Bears
There hasn’t been enough flexing by Trevathan at Soldier Field.
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Ask this question: how many aging inside linebackers that have missed 12 of 32 starts are worth more than $7 million with other pressing roster needs? None.

Keep in mind that inside linebackers are not deemed a premium position in comparison to pass rushers, quarterbacks, and offensive tackles. They’re the running backs of the defense: important collectively, but a dime a dozen in comparison to everyone else in their unit as high priced free agents.

The Bears agree, as detailed by their 2018 draft haul that included two inside linebackers in the first four rounds with Roquan Smith and Joel Iyiegbuniwe. Smith should start immediately beside Trevathan in 2018, while Iyiegbuniwe figures to take over under a proper developmental track. Both come on cost-controlled deals for at least the next four seasons and therefore fit better in Chicago’s long term plans.

Note: 2019 is the last year of Trevathan’s deal. Regardless of what happens in 2018, unlike Long, the Bears could play out his contract while seamlessly inserting Iyiegbuniwe afterwards. Unfortunately for Trevathan, also unlike Long, Chicago already has the replacement plan in place. If they want to move quickly on extending younger players next January, Trevathan is deemed expendable.

Dion Sims, TE

Age in 2019: 28-years-old

2019 salary cap hit: $6.3 million

2019 dead cap: $333,334

Cap room created: $6 million

Of each expected cap casualty next winter, Sims makes the most sense. He not only has the vaunted least emotional attachment among this group, but he’s objectively the worst player and most compensated for the smallest role. A No. 3 tight end in talent, on the depth chart, and a staggering 18th overall in salary at his position. The math doesn’t add up.

It was perplexing when the Bears elected to keep Sims around for the 2018 season with Trey Burton (sixth-highest paid tight end in the NFL) and Adam Shaheen (a 2017 second round pick) already in the fold. What it speaks to is:

1. Matt Nagy’s offense greatly valuing tight ends, to the point of using the most cap space and draft capital on the position of anyone else in the league.

2. Stomaching $4.6 million in dead cap for 2018 was too much for the time being. The Bears believed it better to wait another year when that hit drops to a nothing more than a scratch.

Atlanta Falcons v Chicago Bears
Paying a third tight end more than $6 million is ludicrous long term roster building.
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

For at least another season, Sims is going to get an opportunity to redeem himself after a poor showing in 2017 as a blocker and receiver. Nagy’s scheme will find a way to implement him into creative formations and maximize what he does offer unlike the previous coaching staff.

After this fall, when there is minimal commitment left to a No. 3 tight end, don’t expect Sims to last any longer. Chicago won’t take away snaps from it’s top two tight ends when they don’t have to. Burton and Shaheen are the next wave: the young players invested in for the future. Sims is a placeholder.

Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times, an editor for Windy City Gridiron and Inside The Pylon, and is a contributor to Pro Football Weekly and The Athletic Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.