As NFL teams leave the Combine in Indianapolis, the NFL offseason is about to ramp up. A brief timeline of what’s happening in the next two months:
- Now: teams manage their current roster, finishing up cutting and re-signing their own players to make sure they’re under the salary cap before…
- March 13: free agency begins. Teams must stay under the cap at this point, and they can officially sign players from other teams who are not under contract.
- April 25-27: NFL draft.
Since we are just a few weeks away from the six-week period that features the main roster improvement time of the offseason, it’s a good time to take stock of where the Bears are at.
Let’s start by looking at players they already have under contract. A rough depth chart for that is shown below; players who have not played meaningfully in the NFL are not included. I should also note that I included the Bears’ 4 exclusive rights free agents, because those players are all but under contract unless the Bears decide not to sign them (equivalent to cutting a player currently under contract).
Areas to Improve
Now let’s take a closer look at that roster to see what areas need to be cleaned up, ranked roughly from most-to-least pressing.
- Nickel cornerback. Sherrick McManis filled in admirably after Bryce Callahan got hurt last year, but he’s a 31 year old career special teamer for a reason. I’d feel much better about this position group, both in terms of starters and depth, if a new starter at nickel was signed and McManis slots in to a backup role next to Kevin Toliver.
- 2nd or 3rd safety. Deon Bush also proved to be an adequate fill-in after Eddie Jackson got hurt, but the depth here is extremely thin. Four-year starter Adrian Amos seems likely to get a bigger contract elsewhere in free agency, so the Bears need to find somebody else at safety who can compete with Bush to start, with the loser being the top backup for both safeties.
- 3rd edge rusher. Aaron Lynch filled this role (until getting hurt) in 2018, but he’s a free agent and will probably get more money and a bigger role somewhere else. Isaiah Irving and Kylie Fitts haven’t really shown enough to think they can be trusted here, especially given Leonard Floyd’s long injury history. The need here is really for a pass-rushing specialist who can play 400 or so snaps and make the QB know he’s on the field.
- Kicker. Cody Parkey was supposed to solve this spot for the next several years, but then he double doinked his way out of town, and here the Bears are again. The only kicker currently on the roster is Redford Jones (who? exactly) and I’m not even sure he will make it to training camp with the Bears. With Robbie Gould franchise tagged by the 49ers, I don’t know what the Bears’ best options are, but I’m sure they’ll pursue all of them in one way or another.
- Interior OL depth. As of right now, Dejon Allen (who? exactly) is the only backup interior offensive lineman on the roster. The starting trio of Cody Whitehair, James Daniels, and Kyle Long has the potential to be one of the best in the NFL, but the Bears need somebody who can step in if one of them gets hurt and not completely suck. I for one would be a fan of bringing back Bryan Witzmann if the price is right, but there are other similar options out there who should be available.
- TE depth. I’m not thrilled with a starting tight end duo of Trey Burton and Adam Shaheen, but I’m not appalled by it either. Burton’s nothing special, but he doesn’t suck, and Shaheen is fine for the blocking TE role (when healthy). But they literally don’t have another tight end under contract right now, which is kind of a problem. Ben Braunecker and Daniel Brown are both free agents who could be back for cheap, but the Bears should absolutely look for guys who can compete with them. This is particularly important for 2019 because of Shaheen’s injury history, but long-term the bigger need is to find a replacement for Burton, who is definitely not worth his contract and could be cut to save over $5 million after 2019 if they can find a suitable replacement via the draft.
- Punter and long snapper. Combine these two with kicker, and the Bears have needs at all three specialists this offseason. Long snapper Patrick Scales is a free agent, and did just fine last year, so I’m fine with bringing him back. At punter, Pat O’Donnell is also ok, but if it’s a choice between paying an ok veteran $1.5-2 million or an ok undrafted rookie $500,000, I don’t think that’s exactly a difficult decision.
[Quick note about running back: I didn’t list it as one of the primary needs because the Bears would be in decent shape if they roll into 2019 with Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen as the main guys there again. However, I absolutely expect them to move Howard by draft weekend and bring in 2-3 guys between free agency and the draft to upgrade that room. But this is more of a fit improvement than a crying need. They’re not lacking at RB, they’re just going to make an already good spot better for this particular roster and offense.]
Those are the real areas of need on the roster right now. You can always argue for improved depth pretty much anywhere, but these are the spots that absolutely need to be filled before the start of the season.
Resources for Improvement
Now let’s think about what means the Bears have for addressing the holes listed above over the next two months. Since the main way to acquire players is through free agency or the draft, that means we need to consider salary cap space and draft picks.
We’ll start with the salary cap since free agency comes first on the calendar. After factoring in Kyle Long’s recent contract restructure, which freed up $2.9 million in space, and the upcoming $2.5 million credit from Mike Glennon’s contract offsets, the Bears currently have somewhere in the neighborhood of $18 million in salary cap space. A few things to keep in mind with that number:
- There are still a few players who could be cut or traded to clear a little bit of space. Most notably, that would include Nick Kwiatkoski and Jordan Howard, both of whom would take about $2 million off the books (though they would also create additional roster holes).
- The Bears can also re-work contracts to create more immediate cap space at the expense of future years. The most obvious candidate for this is Khalil Mack, as the Bears could shift about $9 million of his 2019 salary to future years if they wanted. There have also been recent rumors about a Chase Daniel extension that would create a little bit of 2019 cap room.
- Teams generally want to enter training camp with $8-10 million in salary cap space for in-season moves that are needed.
- Only the top 51 cap hits count in the offseason, and the Bears already have more than that under contract, so every player signed knocks a $500,000 contract off the cap calculations (thus a player signing for $1 million only counts for $500,000 in additional cap space, $1.5 million counts $1 million, etc.).
- So to sum up: the Bears have options, but generally cap space is limited. Still, they could probably manage to re-sign one of Adrian Amos and Bryce Callahan (probably $6-7 million/year), add a 3rd edge rusher in free agency (probably $4-5 million/year), and then fill some lesser holes for cheap (RB, CB/S, LS, interior OL and TE depth, ST guys like Josh Bellamy, etc.).
That brings us to the draft. Here is the full list of draft picks the Bears currently possess. Spoiler alert: it’s not long, and there are no high picks.
- Round 3, pick 87
- Round 4, pick 126
- Round 5, pick 162
- Round 7, pick 222
- Round 7, pick 238
Thanks to 2018 trades for Khalil Mack and Anthony Miller, the Bears have very little draft capital in 2019. Given Mack and Miller’s on-field impact, I am 100% ok with that. A few thoughts:
- With the picks they currently have, the Bears will be doing very well to land one player who’s a significant contributor to the offense or defense as a rookie. Most of their immediate needs will have to be addressed in free agency.
- The draft then should be about getting guys who can be developed into eventual replacements to expensive veterans. Danny Trevathan is currently only under contract through 2019, and Taylor Gabriel, Trey Burton, Prince Amukamara, and Kyle Long are all expensive veterans who could be cap casualties. Smart teams plan ahead for that possibility and get guys who can develop for a year before being asked to fill those holes.
- If the Bears do want to get more picks, they have options. Jordan Howard should be able to net a 5th rounder or so if traded, and Nick Kwiatkoski could probably get a 6th or 7th in return (in addition to saving the Bears $2 million in cap space). They could also look to trade 2020 picks; they currently have 2 2nds in 2019, and can afford to trade some mid-round picks since they’ll likely get 2-3 compensatory picks depending on which of their free agents are signed elsewhere (and for how much money).
Wrapping it Up
If reading through 1500+ words of my rambling is too much for you, then here’s the short and sweet summary. The Bears don’t have a lot of resources to fill holes on the roster, but that’s okay because they also don’t have many holes to fill. Instead, most of the focus over the next 2 months will be improving the depth of the roster while drafting players who can potentially fill holes a year or two down the road.