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2020 Free Agency Primer

| March 13th, 2020

Free agency starts this week, so let’s take stock of where exactly the Bears’ roster is at. We’ll start by looking at who they currently have under contract, then move to the cap situation to get an idea of how much money they have to spend.

Offense

The table below shows a rough depth chart for the Bears based only on players who are currently under contract with the team. (disclaimer: these are accurate as of 9:00 am on Friday, March 13).

A few thoughts:

  • Everybody wants to talk about QB and TE on the offense, and with good reason, but right guard is the more pressing issue. Alex Bars was undrafted a year ago and played a total of 12 snaps last year on offense. Rashaad Coward, who started 10 games at right guard in 2019, is a restricted free agent, meaning it will be easy for the Bears to bring him back. Given his poor level of play, however, merely doing that wouldn’t solve the problem.
  • Their depth on the offensive line is also a concern. Sam Mustipher was undrafted last year and spent the whole season on the practice squad. I had honestly never heard of Dino Boyd before putting this together – he’s never appeared in an NFL game – but he’s currently the only backup tackle on the roster.
  • So overall the Bears need 3 solid players on the offensive line: a starting right guard, a swing tackle, and a reserve interior offensive lineman (potentially Rashaad Coward).
  • WR is another under the radar issue. Allen Robinson and Anthony Miller are fine as the top 2 receivers, but Javon Wims was bad last year, and Riley Ridley wasn’t good enough to take snaps away from him. None of these guys but Cordarrelle Patterson are fast, and Patterson has proven clearly on 4 teams over 7 years that he’s nothing more than a part-time player on offense. The Bears don’t have money to spend here, but a cheaper veteran for better depth might be a good option.

  • Then of course we have QB and TE, the two spots getting the most attention from fans and the media. The Bears clearly need upgrades at both, but these are both positions that are historically really expensive to address in free agency, and typically don’t give a great return on that investment. QB options appear to be a bit more abundant than usual this year, but I don’t think we’ll see a big name (and thus big money) TE added. Trying instead to find a competent player who’s not too expensive would be a more realistic goal. Somebody like Cameron Brate, should he be cut by Tampa Bay, would be a great fit.

Defense/Special Teams

And now a similar look at the defense and special teams. Again I’ll note this might be slightly out of date by now. It’s updated through the Danny Trevathan signing, but no moves after that. (UPDATE: Picture Roy Robertson-Harris on the 2nd string DL behind Bilal Nichols).

A few thoughts:

  • The most obvious need here is safety. Have you ever heard of Kentrell Brice before? I hadn’t before looking this up. He can’t be counted on to start, much less be a top backup, so they need at least 2 bodies here. DeAndre Houston-Carson is a restricted free agent, while Deon Bush and HaHa Clinton-Dix are unrestricted. I expect them to bring back at least one of Bush and DHC for fairly cheap, and look to replace HHCD with a cheaper veteran who can start.
  • Sticking in the secondary, cutting Prince Amukamara leaves the Bears with a bunch of young players – Kevin Toliver, Tre Roberson, and Duke Shelley – competing for a starting spot. I think they’ll probably avoid making a big move here due to lack of money. One of those three will either emerge to replace Prince or start in nickel and bump Skrine outside.
  • Re-signing Danny Trevathan leaves the Bears in good shape at inside linebacker, though they could probably use a better top backup than Joel Iyiegbuniwe. I’m assuming they’ll try to bring back Kevin Pierre-Louis if the price is right, but he might find more money and a better chance at a starting role elsewhere.
  • The Bears’ starters at edge are set, but the backup situation is atrocious. Bond is more of a special teamer, and Vaughters has played a total of 26 NFL snaps on defense. Neither has ever recorded a sack. Isaiah Irving is a restricted free agent who could be brought back for fairly cheap, but something more is needed here.
  • It’s also worth noting that Brad Biggs has hinted pretty heavily over the last week Leonard Floyd could have his $13.2M option for 2020 rescinded. That would clear cap space for the Bears, but they would likely need to spend a good chunk of that money on a starter opposite Khalil Mack. You can’t go into the draft counting on getting an immediate starter in a high-impact position like edge rusher when you don’t pick until the 40s.
  • Looking at the defensive line, depth is the main concern here. You need a 5 or 6 man rotation on game days, and right now the Bears only have 4 players under contract. Roy Robertson-Harris is a restricted free agent, while Nick Williams is unrestricted. I’m guessing we see one of those two back, and I’d probably think RRH. (UPDATE: RRH is back on a 1 year, $3.4M tag).
  • They need to sign a long snapper. I’m not worried about this; they’ll find somebody, and he won’t be expensive.

Salary cap

So the Bears absolutely need to sign a starting QB (or at least competition for Trubisky), starting RG, top backup interior OL, swing tackle, top backup inside linebacker, top backup edge rusher, starting safety, and top backup safety. That list doesn’t include any upgrades they might want to make at TE or WR.

Now here’s the fun part: they have to do all of that with only about $22 million in salary cap space (That number includes RRH’s cap hit, but not Trevathan’s, since his contract details aren’t out yet).

A few disclaimers:

  • We don’t actually know exactly what the salary cap for 2020 will be yet. It’s been projected at around $200M, so that’s the number I’m using for now, but the new CBA, which is expected to pass this weekend, might change that. I’ve seen reports ranging from a new CBA wouldn’t change the cap until 2021 to it will jump the cap by about $20 million this year, so that could certainly change things a good bit for Chicago.
  • Of course, you have to remember that a higher cap means players in general will cost more to sign. Even if the cap doesn’t jump this year, we’ll likely see bigger contracts because it’s expected to go up so much in the next few years due to the new CBA.
  • The Bears have options to give them more cap room this year. They can rescind Leonard Floyd’s 5th year option, which frees up $13 million but opens up another hole. They can restructure Khalil Mack’s contract and move about $10 million of his 2020 salary to count against the cap in future years. They can extend Allen Robinson, which could be structured in such a way to save them $4-5 million in 2020 cap space. Moving money to the future isn’t a free lunch, as that bill eventually comes due, but the Bears will likely go that route this year out of necessity.
  • Only the top 51 cap hits count against the cap, and the Bears already have 51 players under contract, so cheap signings won’t use up much cap space. For instance, if the Bears sign swing tackle Bradley Sowell to the same deal he had last year – 1 year, $1.5M – he displaces one of the minimum players making $510,000 from the cap, meaning his net change to the cap is a little under $1M.
  • Chicago can always structure free agent contracts such that their initial cap hit is very low. Somebody signing a deal for an average of $10M a year could have a 2020 cap hit of only $4-5M pretty easily. Of course, that means the future years of the deal will have a cap hit higher than $10M to make up that difference, so it’s really just another way of pushing money to the future.

Still, the bottom line is that the Bears have a long list of needs and not a lot of money to spend. Don’t expect multiple big signings like Andy Dalton ($17M cap hit), Austin Hooper (expected contract above $10M/year), and Graham Glasgow (expected contract close to $10M/year). Instead, look for the Bears to make 1 bigger initial move (maybe 2 if they really push it) and then wait for value signings in the 2nd and 3rd tier of free agency.

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