Contrary to popular belief, the NFL salary cap is not fake. It is not an artificial number that can simply be swam or ran around. Contracts and guaranteed money for players can be backloaded, and the bill can be pushed to the future, depending on your franchise’s circumstances in a given moment. But eventually, every team must pay its bills. These debt collectors are calculating and ruthless. They will take everything — there’s no other choice.
News of where the salary cap will land in 2021 is of particular interest to the Bears.
At this very moment, Chicago is up to $193 million in cap liabilities and has only a little over $10 million in cap space left; that’s not taking into account the approximate $10 million needed to pay a rookie draft class. Without the summary cap increase expected from a normal season thanks to the ongoing disaster of COVID-19, the Bears will be left holding the bag without financial forward thinking and ingenuity moving forward. Even while the league and NFLPA came to an agreement in July that the cap would fall no further than $175 million moving forward, there will still, in all likelihood, be a marked drop from the $198.2 million per club.
Changes are coming to Halas Hall, whether the Bears want them to or not. Ryan Pace now has to balance being cap-compliant and potentially filling in needs such as, oh, I don’t know, quarterback, offensive tackle, receiver, and inside linebacker, to name a few. The unfortunate and probable reality is that Pace won’t be able to dip his hands into both wells within reason. It’s not likely any he’ll be able to construct a competitive team next fall without sacrificing some measure of the near future. A Catch-22 even the best executives wouldn’t want to find themselves in.
A prudent move might be to sit back for a year, rebuild and retool aspects of the roster’s foundation, and hope to compete again once the upcoming cap squeeze concludes. The aggressive (familiar) move would be to push even more chips for 2021 and hope The House rules in your favor this time around. The House almost always wins, dear reader. The House sees all. I’m sorry but you cannot escape The House.
It’s up to Pace and his brain trust how they ultimately view the next half-decade unfolding.
In today’s 2021 off-season primer roundtable, our writers muse about potential cuts the Bears should and could make, and whether any blockbuster trades are worth the trouble for a team on the bubble.
In case you missed it:
What cuts would you like the Bears to make? What cuts should they make? What trades should they pursue, if any?
Erik Duerrwaechter: Oh boy. This could go many different ways. Primarily, I think the Bears should part ways with the following players: Jimmy Graham, Bobby Massie, and Buster Skrine. Those three alone would open up a good chunk of salary.
I see Nick Foles being dealt to another team. I’ve said numerous times that quarterbacks rarely return to their team the next season once they’re benched. You can say, “but he’s owed millions of dollars,” and I’ll point to you to what the Jaguars did last year with the same player. There’s always a way to get rid of a quarterback you don’t want. This isn’t the Jay Cutler situation; you can move Nick Foles, and other teams will be interested in him.
I’m also looking at extensions and or contract alterations for Akiem Hicks and Kyle Fuller. I’m not asking for a dime from Khalil Mack — that man has put up with too much nonsense to justify the Bears asking him for another contract revision.
Ken Mitchell: I think Bobby Massie is the biggest straight-up cut we will see. I expect Kyle Fuller’s contract to be re-worked, or even outright extended.
Josh Sunderbruch: Listen to offers for just about anyone, but Chicago doesn’t have a ton of trade-worthy assets. I would like to formally beg the organization not to trade away more future assets for mediocre players other teams have signed to bad contracts. Pace has proven he can do that on his own, he doesn’t need to give up draft picks for the honor. There’s one trade of picks-only I’d love to see that I’ll go into detail on under the draft heading.
Lester Wiltfong Jr.: Depending on the free agent quarterback market, the Bears may need to trade to find someone at that position. Whether that be a veteran on another team or a trade up to get their guy, expect Pace to aggressively make moves to bolster the quarterback room. As far as cuts, I think we’ve seen the last of Bobby Massie in a Bears uniform. He’s missed 14 games over the last two years and he’ll be 32 in August. Jimmy Graham is an obvious cut to save money and Buster Skrine could be gone, too. I would expect changes to their wide receiver room as well with Anthony Miller and or Javon Wims. Akiem Hicks is an ideal candidate for a restructure.
Will Robinson: Jimmy Graham, Bobby Massie, Buster Skrine, Anthony Miller, Javon Wims; all cut regardless. You don’t need them, and you can save cap by parting ways. If you are going after a high cost free agent quarterback (or are trading for one), then Akiem Hicks is probably going to have to go, too, as much as it pains me. You can save a ton of money by cutting him. As much as I love Hicks, a quarterback is more important than a 31-year-old defensive tackle, even one as good as he is.
Another guy who might have to go if you bring in a high cost quarterback is Kyle Fuller. He’s going to cost the team $20 million in 2021. Swinging a trade for him might be the only way to make out enough cap space. A back loaded extension could work too, but it’d have to be really back-loaded.
Robert Schmitz: Trade Akiem Hicks and Kyle Fuller to free up ~$25 million in cap while adding a fifth or sixth-rounder (Hicks) and a third or fourth (Fuller) to your draft pool. If you can get a third or more for Mack, they should probably trade him, too (though he doesn’t save the Bears much in 2021, and I don’t expect this to happen). While these trades would all hurt, they’d ultimately help make the Bears’ cap situation much more bearable and would help the team avoid a full-scale rebuild in 2022, opting instead for a smaller “retool” in 2021.
Cut Jimmy Graham outright ($10 million for Graham? Cole Kmet can fill his spot), then designate Bobby Massie and Buster Skrine as June-1st cuts. Skrine’s decline was obvious in the 2021 season. Duke Shelley or Kindle Vildor should be able to fill his nickel spot well enough. Bobby Massie failed to play a 16-game season in both of his last two years (10 games in 2019, eight in 2020). These June-1st designations help spread out both players’ dead money between 2021 and 2022 and give the Bears roughly $4.3 million more in cap space to play with.
Some may wonder why I’m not cutting Charles Leno, and that’s easy to explain — replacing one tackle in an off-season is hard enough. The idea of cutting both Leno (who has $5.1 million in dead cap anyway) and Massie in the same off-season sounds like a recipe for failure. Leno had a relatively good year in 2020, rebounding from a rough 2019 season while playing all 16 games. He’s still the perfectly average left tackle he’s always been. If the Bears can reasonably replace his production with the $6 million they’d gain from cutting him they might as well let him go, but I doubt they can. With that in mind, I’m okay keeping Leno for another year.
Bill Zimmerman: As I mentioned previously, Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy are entering this season in a win-now mode. That means I highly doubt Pace will make any moves that could be detrimental in the short term. Akiem Hicks is a popular choice to be let go, and there are plenty of reasons to do that, but it’s far more likely that Hicks is restructured with a low cap hit in 2021 and dollars kicked down the road. Hicks is going to be 32 this season and it’s safe to say that his best days are behind him. Of course he’s still valuable to the defense, but I can’t see Pace risking taking a massive hit up front while making Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn less productive by letting Hicks go. Kyle Fuller is another player the Bears could consider moving, but again, I expect Fuller to remain on the roster with a restructured deal.
In terms of cuts, Jimmy Graham is an obvious one. Graham was a valuable red zone target, but did very little between the 20s and was an outright detriment in the running game. Nagy wanted Cole Kmet and Ryan Pace spent a second rounder to draft him. It’s time for Kmet to take strides and be the player that Nagy expects him to be. Buster Skrine will also be a cap casualty as Duke Shelley or Kindle Vildor handle nickel duties in 2021. Bobby Massie will also most likely be shown the door. The Bears need to retool their offensive line and Massie makes too much sense.
This is a good time to discuss the quarterback position. Mitchell Trubisky has taken his last snap as a Chicago Bear. The only way he’s back is if this entire off-season blows up in the Bears’ face and they are unable to do anything they set out to do. It’d be great if Nick Foles could be shown the door as well, but Foles’ contract makes it difficult to do that this season (after 2021, no problem). Many people seem to think Foles will retire. Why? Who walks away from millions guaranteed? Foles will be the team’s QB2 and they’ll be looking for a win-now QB1.
Deshaun Watson is the shoot-for-the-moon quarterback, but what are the odds Chicago can put together a sweeter deal than some of the teams with high picks like the Dolphins or Jets? The Detroit Lions will never move Matthew Stafford to a division rival. Matt Ryan seems to be staying in Atlanta for another season as does Derek Carr with Las Vegas. I can’t see Dallas moving on from Dak Prescott unless Jerry Jones falls in love with Trey Lance. The Bears are in a tough spot. I keep seeing Jimmy Garoppolo as the guy that ends up being in Chicago, despite that being an unpopular idea (and I’m not saying it’s sexy). But, I can’t see the Bears entering the 2021 NFL draft with Nick Foles and someone like Tyler Bray on their roster, it’s too risky. They need a veteran.
Jack Salo: The obvious cut candidates that stand out to me are Jimmy Graham, Buster Skrine, and Bobby Massie. Besides that, a situation to watch is Akiem Hicks. I think the Bears are in love with his leadership and charisma, but he’s expensive, slightly injury-prone lately, and not a quarterback. He has $1.5 million guaranteed of his $12 million roster cap hit. I hate having to say it, truly I think if the Bears had the quarterback situation figured out then Hicks would retire as a Bear, but he may have played his last snap in Chicago. He could have trade value, so cutting him would be the last option.
For trades, Deshaun Watson is a situation to watch. I don’t see how it happens, with the Bears having less draft capital to trade than other quarterback-needy teams. Other than that, Nick Foles could probably be traded if the Bears packaged a draft pick along with him and got pretty much nothing in return. Otherwise his contract and poor play of late wouldn’t attract many callers. More likely, Foles and a rookie make up the Bears’ quarterback room in 2021. If I’m in the general manager chair, I get rid of both Foles (trade) and Trubisky (don’t re-sign) and bring in three new quarterbacks to battle it out.
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