The Combine just ended and NFL free agency is about to kick off. Teams and agents were already talking in Indianapolis, and the official legal tampering period starts next Monday.
With that in mind, I’m going to lay out both positions and players I think the Bears should target. I’ll explain my rationale for each, detail why they are a good fit, and try to provide a contract estimate. I’m not going to address smaller depth needs – backup QB, 3rd RB, etc. Just the main contracts that will take up most of the cap room.
The Bears are currently projected to have around $80 million in cap space after accounting for their eventual draft picks, so they have plenty of money to work with. They could also clear up to another $15 million by cutting Dion Sims ($5.7 million), Markus Wheaton ($5 million), and Marcus Cooper ($4.5 million).
As we’ll see below, however, they have a number of significant needs to address, and that’s before you begin to consider extensions for in-house candidates like Eddie Goldman, Adrian Amos, and Cam Meredith, which GM Ryan Pace said at the Combine were being discussed.
The Bears have money to spend. But they can’t just throw it around willy-nilly because that money won’t go as far as many might casually think from looking at the large number.
I’ve already spent a lot of time talking about wide receiver this offseason, so this discussion is going to be short. I think the Bears should try to add two players, one to be a WR2 and one as a WR3. There are plenty of FA options available for both roles who fit their new offense well.
As I stated before, my ideal targets would be Marqise Lee as the WR2 and Albert Wilson as the WR3. Lee has proven to be reliable, while Wilson knows the offense, and seemingly has a strong relationship with Matt Nagy. Both are fits.
At WR2, I would prefer Allen Robinson over Lee, should he hit the open market, and Emmanuel Sanders, should the Broncos cut him. Taylor Gabriel seems like a good fit as a WR3 too, but Lee and Wilson would be my targets of choice. I already laid out and explained projected contracts for these players.
I would also cut Markus Wheaton, saving $5 million on the 2018 cap.
Contract Projections: cut Markus Wheaton (save $5 million), $9M/year (Lee) + $6M/year (Wilson)
Cap Space Remaining: $70 million
The Bears have Adam Shaheen lined up as their top TE for 2018, but could stand to upgrade Dion Sims as the TE2. Additionally, it would be good to get somebody who can be a move TE (like Zach Miller was with the Bears), as Sims can only be in-line, which is where Shaheen best profiles. So I would cut Sims and use that $5.7M in cap space to sign his replacement.
The TE everybody keeps talking about for the Bears is Trey Burton, and he would be a great fit next to Shaheen. However, he’s a little pricey for my tastes, as Spotrac projects his contract to be for about $7 million a year. That’s a lot of money to spend on a guy who likely won’t be a primary weapon. I also have concerns about Burton’s role if Shaheen gets hurt. Burton is too small to be a primary tight end, meaning you’d need a third tight end who can step up and be your in-line guy in place of Burton.
That’s why I think a better target for the Bears would be Luke Willson from Seattle.
Willson is athletic enough to be a move TE complementing Shaheen, but also big enough and a good enough blocker to move in-line as the primary tight end should Shaheen get hurt. He should also be a bit cheaper than Burton, as Spotrac projects him to make $3.5 million a year. I would happily give Willson the 2 year, $7 million contract Spotrac projects, but we’ll round up to $7.4M to make the math work out to whole numbers upon replacing Sim’s deal.
Contract projections: cut Dion Sims (save $5.7 million), sign Luke Willson ($3.7 million per year)
Cap Space Remaining: $72 million
Interior Offensive Line
After cutting Josh Sitton, the Bears need another starter on the interior of the offensive line to pair with Cody Whitehair and Kyle Long. Ryan Pace said at the Combine that Whitehair can play center or guard, meaning the Bears can add somebody at either of those spots and let Whitehair man the other.
The name everybody is talking about is Zach Fulton, the center from Kansas City, and on this I agree. He’s a solid player who knows the offense, and that has added value as a center who can help the offensive line make the transition. Peak Fulton isn’t as good as peak Sitton, but Fulton is 7 years younger (so entering his prime instead of aging) and has been a whole lot healthier. It’s hard to project offensive line contracts, and the only estimate I’ve seen has him at 4 years and between $25-30 million. That sounds a bit high to me, and has no real justification behind it in the article. I think JC Tretter’s contract (3 years, $16.8M) is a better estimate, but we’ll round up a bit because of inflation and say 3 years, $18M.
Contract projection: $6 million per year
Cap Space Remaining: $66 million
This is the position group on the roster that concerns me the most.
After cutting Willie Young and Pernell McPhee, the Bears have basically nothing left besides Leonard Floyd. Much like at wide receiver, I think the Bears are going to have to sign two players in free agency and draft one to address this position. But the options here aren’t nearly as good as at WR, unless somebody is unexpectedly cut. But for now I’m going to assume that doesn’t happen and only look at players who are currently available.
That starts with re-signing Lamarr Houston, who has been a solid if unspectacular player during his time in Chicago. There are injury concerns there, but he is at least a solid rotational piece who knows the defense and plays pretty well in it. A contract somewhere along the lines of Elvis Dumervil (2 years, $8M) or Lorenzo Alexander (2 years, $6M) seems reasonable. I’ll go with the low end there as Dumervil is better than Alexander and project 2 years and $6M.
With Houston as a rotational backup, and barring Nick Chubb landing in Chicago, the other free agent addition needs to be a starter. Unfortunately, those are few and far between in free agency, and all potential starters come with risks. The player I think fits best for the Bears is Trent Murphy, a power rusher similar in style to McPhee who had a breakout season in 2016 before tearing his ACL last August. Relying on somebody coming off a knee injury is risky, but honestly I don’t see any better options available.
The missed season due to injury also makes contract projections difficult. I think a 1 or 2 year deal full of incentives is likely to set up a bigger contract if he backs up his 2016 season. I’m just pulling numbers out of a hat here, but I’ll guess $7 million gets it done.
Contract projections: $7 million a year (Murphy) and $3 million a year (Houston)
Cap Space Remaining: $56 million
Chicago’s top 3 cornerbacks from last year are all free agents. I’d actually be just fine with bringing all three of them back, drafting a rookie to develop behind Prince Amukamara, and seeing what happens. I’d also be fine with upgrading the CB2 spot, as Prince Amukamara is always hurt and only mediocre when healthy. Since the Bears have plenty of money, I’m going to try for an upgrade at CB2. I would probably bring Kyle Fuller, and Bryce Callahan both back, and look at Bashaud Breeland as a CB2. He’s the type of long CB that Vic Fangio loves, and is a younger, healthier, and better player than Amukamara.
I wrote in detail earlier about what Fuller’s deal should look like, so we’ll roll with that estimate of 5 years at $13 million a year. Callahan is a restricted free agent who can be brought back on a tender for about $2 million. Breeland has a Spotrac projection of just over $7 million a year, but that seems a bit low to me. Their highest contract comparison is the deal Logan Ryan signed last year for 3 years and $30 million, and I think that’s a pretty good estimate of what Breeland’s deal should look like.
I would also cut Marcus Cooper and look to replace him as the top backup outside CB with a draft pick. This would free an additional $4.5M in cap space.
Contract projections: cut Marcus Cooper (save $4.5M), $13 million a year (Fuller), $10 million a year (Breeland), $2 million (Callahan)
Cap Space Remaining: $35 million
Here’s where my only real splurge comes in. The Bears are actually in decent position on the defensive line with Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, Johnathan Bullard, and Roy Robertson-Harris all under contract. They could add in some cheap depth and be ok there.
But they could look to upgrade their defense by adding another really good player on the defensive line, and Muhammad Wilkerson just became available after being cut by the Jets. Wilkerson has had a couple down years in New York, but is an absolute beast when motivated, and he’ll likely be looking for a 1 year prove-it deal now to rehab his image and earn one more big payday. I’d love to see that happen in Chicago, which can point to Akiem Hicks as a free agent who came on a smaller, shorter deal and got paid after playing well.
If Wilkerson returns to his 2015 and before form, the Bears would have one of the best defensive lines in the NFL, with three legitimate studs and 2 quality backups. That would help cover up for a likely shaky outside linebacker group and better quality depth would help the Bears rotate players more so Akiem Hicks doesn’t get burned out halfway through the season from playing too many snaps again. There are certainly no guarantees that Wilkerson cooperates, but the risk is mitigated on a short-term deal.
It’s hard to project exactly what Wilkerson’s contract will look like, and it will likely be heavily incentive-based. Like with Murphy, I have to pull numbers out of the air a little bit, but I’ll guess 1 year, $10 million.
Contract projection: $10 million
Cap Space Remaining: $25 million
So these are the main points of my free agent plan. It addresses the major holes on the roster without going overboard on any one position and leaves the Bears with some money to address lesser needs (backup QB, K, P, etc.) and extend their own players. It also leaves some money to go after a better and more expensive option at a position should they become available (such as Allen Robinson instead of Marqise Lee, which would probably cost about $4-5 million a year more). Finally, it leaves a little bit of money to add in a veteran running back who’s more of a threat in the passing game (Jerrick McKinnon?) as extra insurance just in case trading Jordan Howard is in fact a possibility.
I’m sure Ryan Pace will attack a little bit differently, but won’t be surprised to see many of these names popping up connected to the Bears.