The perils of NFL free agency, be it from outside players or homegrown talent, are well known. The open market is filled with landmines if not taken care to attack properly. Bears general manager Ryan Pace hasn’t always approached this portion of team building with ideal tact, but generally hasn’t hamstrung his roster in an unnecessary fashion either. He alluded to how he sees the official open of the league year back in March.
‘‘Just because you have cap space doesn’t mean you can be reckless with these decisions,’’ Pace said. ‘‘So we have to be strategic, disciplined and calculated as we enter free agency.’’
Even when the Bears have had ample cap space, like being armed with over $80 million this spring, Pace has traditionally not been reckless and structured deals in a fashion that’s comfortable and of no long term danger to Chicago. The 2017 Bears’ free agent class, an objective disaster in terms of impact on the 2017 season itself, did little to hurt the Bears anymore than last year. Deals guys like Mike Glennon, Quintin Demps, and Markus Wheaton received were effectively one year in terms of guaranteed money.
The Bears’ 2018 free agent class headlined by Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, and Trey Burton maintains a consistent three-year deal structure (again, in guaranteed money) for it’s big fish. It’s Pace pushing his hand in realizing that Chicago has to succeed under his guidance now, but not egregiously overcommitting even if they do. A sense of constant cautious optimism and high bets with low floors of failure.
That being said, Pace and the Bears’ cap management in the past three and a half years hasn’t always been perfect. That’s in contracts and occasionally questionable judgments of talent he makes. However, the sum of Pace’s tenure to this point isn’t all relevant to evaluating the present. So we’re going to focus on Chicago’s cap health going into the 2018 regular season alone.
From cap space remaining, looming contract extensions, and the agreements that put the Bears in ideal and precarious positions, let’s comprehensively overlook Chicago’s 2018 financial situation with training camp on the horizon.
Cap health and standouts
For the fifth straight year, the NFL’s salary cap per team went up at least $10 million. That gives the Bears an approximate $177.2 million ceiling to spend on their top 51 players. At the moment, Chicago has spent $146,841,089 of that cap space according to Over The Cap Interestingly, the Bears have allocated roughly $92 million to their offense, and $69 million to their defense. That’s what happens when much of your defense, such as Leonard Floyd, is awaiting new (eventually earned) money. And when the philosophy of your organization shifts towards building around the quarterback in Mitchell Trubisky. Chicago has an approximate $26 million in cap space remaining barring further moves.
Until the first week of the 2018 regular season, the Bears have more breathing room and don’t have to account for most of the players on their pending 90-man roster entering camp. This is done to facilitate summer competitions, and to give teams ample time and resources to eventually shrink down their roster to the customary 53. Naturally, this is called the “Top 51 Rule”, where only the top 51 paid players are factored in until September.
The Bears player with the highest 2018 cap hit is Robinson at $11 million. He’s followed by Akiem Hicks ($9.6 million), Kyle Long ($8.8 million), Prince Amukamara ($7.5 million), and Danny Trevathan ($7.1 million). This order would be different if factoring base salary, but that’s the money guaranteed to players each year, not the space they take up.
You get an extension, you get an extension, and you get an extension!
Just because the Bears look like they have a healthy amount of cap space, doesn’t mean it’s going to last. Every year every NFL team must spend at least 89 percent of their salary cap space as a salary floor to encourage balance and avoid a collective bargaining violation with players. As it stands, Chicago has only spent around 82 percent of their current cap space, so financial juggling in the two months before meaningful action is coming.
That juggling comes in the form of extending their defensive front anchor Eddie Goldman, and potentially Adrian Amos too. Goldman and Amos’ names have been lurking in the shadows in regards to new deals as the fourth-year veterans enter the last year of their rookie contracts.
At this juncture, Goldman is more likely to latch on with the Bears given his proven value and the murmurs of the off-season. Anywhere from $9 to $11 million per season over four years would be a fair shake for the 24-year-old that holds Chicago’s defensive integrity together. The Bears are well aware of his importance to their defense and aren’t inclined to let him go. Expect a contract to be agreed upon before camp opens, or near the eve of the regular season like with Goldman’s line mate in Hicks in 2017.
Meanwhile, Amos faces tough sledding next spring if he can’t find a home with the Bears. The safety market has come to a crawl this year with stalwarts like Eric Reid (though not completely related to solely football) and Kenny Vaccaro still unemployed only several weeks before the preseason. Money talks and NFL teams aren’t speaking to safeties with their wallets open.
If Vaccaro and Reid are struggling to find work, two players one could reasonably argue are both better than Amos, what happens when Amos has to potentially compete in a market alongside the likes of the Seahawks’ Earl Thomas, Giants’ Landon Collins, and HaHa Clinton-Dix in 2019? It’s no guarantee these elite names all hit the market next off-season. But it’s something to consider in an NFL seeking true difference makers at safety, not guys that simply do their job well like Amos.
There is no glaring problem with Amos as a Bears’ player. He’s sound with his assignments, a solid tackler, and is reliable. You just don’t pay players lucrative money that don’t move the needle when you don’t have to. Impact talents at safety, those who make plays on the ball, are the only individuals who get paid summarily for their services. Someone who does their job, and doesn’t extend any further like Amos, waits in the wings. You don’t shoehorn yourself with replaceable players in comparison. Paying a guy like Amos more than he’s worth is how teams enter eventual salary cap hell: something Pace is familiar with from his time with the Saints for over a decade.
If everything goes according to plan, soon the Bears have to entertain the ideas of extending Floyd, Cody Whitehair, and maybe Jordan Howard. After that, the mega deal of Trubisky comes along if this franchise’s ultimate vision is realized. Goldman’s expected piece of the pie is already a sizable deal for a nose tackle cutting into Chicago’s operating space, making that end goal a tight squeeze.
Sure, reasonable cuts that can be made after 2018 like Long and Dion Sims might create a place on the wagon for Amos. But it’s not likely. Not unless he can prove he can tilt the field with a jump in turnovers.
Worth every penny
Akiem Hicks, DE (Four years, $48 million, $30 million guaranteed, signed in 2017)
In this landscape you can count the number of stellar pass rushing 3-4 defensive ends, traditionally two-gap run defenders, on one hand. Hicks gets a finger on that hand. In relation to guys at his specific position, only the Texans’ J.J. Watt, Jaguars’ Calais Campbell, and Steelers’ Stephon Tuitt are compensated more handsomely. Watt hasn’t played anything close to a full season in two years, Campbell is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate year in and year out, while Tuitt is one of the most underrated names in the NFL. Quality company for Hicks to keep.
If the Bears are getting close to eight sacks a year and consistent pressure from a 3-4 defensive end like Hicks, they can happily afford the 28-year-old once his cap hit rises to over $10 million after next season. If not and in the event of an emergency, Chicago can cut the stalwart with only $4.5 million in dead cap money next winter: a number that decreases by a third every ensuing year. Something says Hicks likely plays out the end of his deal near top form, though.
Everything must go
Dion Sims, TE (Three years, $18 million, $10 million guaranteed, signed in 2017)
Logically, Sims has the worst contract on this Bears’ roster. Any time your No. 3 tight end has a $4.6 million dollar cap hit for one of the smallest roles with the team, that’s not good business. Chicago is fortunate they don’t have many other extension considerations beyond Goldman and Amos this year. Sims is fortunate too, because otherwise he likely isn’t with the Bears in that situation.
Also logically, this figure only hurts the Bears in 2018: mitigating the damage caused by Sims’ deal and explaining why he remains with the organization for another season. The Bears weren’t going to eat $4.5 million in dead cap space for a player of whom they hadn’t seen his potential in an archaic Dowell Loggains offense. Their commitments to him end once next spring rolls around ($333,334 in dead money if cut). So why not roll the dice and see what you have in an offense centered around tight ends?
Under the microscope of one season and purely being performance based, it’s difficult to stomach that a player who sometimes might not reach double digit snaps in games like Sims: has the eighth-highest cap hit on the Bears’ roster.
In tip-top shape
Sustained success, something that Pace reiterates time and again in public appearances, is galvanized by accumulated, well-coached talent. It’s further groomed by rigid, thorough, and necessary salary cap management.
Without constantly balancing the present and future financial ledger, most every NFL contender eventually falls apart. Even when the cap is taken care of, most contention windows only last for a few years. It’s here where Pace clearly looks to separate himself, because of the health of your cap in these inevitable downturns determines how quickly you rise back up, if at all. Don’t have unnecessary commitments drag you down, keep your present players satisfied at the same time, and the ability to retool is easy. A matter of flexibility that must be regularly monitored.
As he enters his fourth year and hopeful first contending window, Pace has done more than an admirable job of Bears cap housekeeping to put them in that advantageous position.
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.