After a disappointing 8-8 season, Ryan Pace moved aggressively this off-season to revamp the Bears for 2020.
On defense, he re-signed Danny Trevathan, upgraded Leonard Floyd with Robert Quinn, signed Tashaun Gipson as a cheap replacement for HaHa Clinton-Dix, and drafted Jaylon Johnson to replace the aging Prince Amukamara.
On offense, he traded for Nick Foles to
compete with upgrade Mitchell Trubisky, replaced oft-injured veterans Taylor Gabriel, Kyle Long, and Trey Burton with Ted Ginn, Germain Ifedi, and Jimmy Graham, and drafted Cole Kmet to hopefully give Chicago their first long-term solution at tight end since Greg Olsen was shipped out of town a decade ago.
That’s an impressively long list of moves for a team that entered the off-season with surprisingly low amounts of cap space and draft capital. And it has left the Bears with what appears to be a pretty solid roster, at least on paper, though it’s fair to say that questions at quarterback certainly limit the optimism.
But things start to look much more questionable when you gaze beyond 2020. You see, the only way Pace could spend money this off-season was by borrowing from the future salary cap, and he did that quite heavily. Several players have had their contracts restructured within the last year+ to clear up immediate cap space by moving money to 2021 and beyond. This totaled around $20M from a combination of Khalil Mack ($7.8M), Kyle Fuller ($4.5M), Charles Leno ($4.2M), and Cody Whitehair ($3.2M).
On top of that, most contracts Pace handed out this off-season were absurdly back loaded.
- Robert Quinn has a $6M 2020 cap hit on what is essentially a 3 year, $43M deal (a 2020 savings of over $8M from the average cap hit for the deal). The downside is he will still have total cap charges of $37M remaining in 2021 and beyond, and will likely only play in Chicago for 2021-2022. To make matters worse, those will be his age 31 and 32 seasons, when his play will likely start to slip. He’s a speed rusher that relies heavily on that one skill, so it’s possible that decline will be very pronounced.
- Danny Trevathan has a $4.2M 2020 cap hit on what is essentially a three-year, $21.7M deal. That saves about $3M in 2020 cap, but means the Bears will still have $17.5M on cap charges for his remaining 2 seasons, in which he will be 31 and 32 and likely start to see his play decline.
- Jimmy Graham has a $6M 2020 cap hit on what is essentially a one-year, $9M deal. That saves $3M in 2020, but means the Bears will have that cap hit in 2021 when he is likely not on the team (if he is on the team, he’ll have a $10M cap hit, which is not ideal for a player who will turn 35 during that season and has already started showing signs of decline).
Add it all up, and these three contracts saved the Bears roughly $14M in cap space, which they’ll pay for in upcoming years. Between these back loaded deals and the restructures, plus the June 1 cut of Trey Burton that moved some of his dead money to 2021, the Bears have pushed over $35M of 2020 cap space to 2021 and beyond. That’s roughly 17% of this years’ $198.2M cap.
Because of these moves, the Bears already have $183M in cap charges for 2021, with roughly $30M in projected cap space. A few caveats to that:
- There has been ample rumor and speculation about the 2021 salary cap being lower than expected due to the financial impact of Covid-19, and this $30M number doesn’t account for that possibility.
- The Bears also have a slew of 2020 contributors who are currently free agents in 2021 and thus don’t count in that $183M number, including Allen Robinson, Cordarrelle Patterson, Roy Robertson-Harris, Tarik Cohen, Ted Ginn Jr., Germain Ifedi, and Tashaun Gipson.
- They currently only have $6.6M in cap charges for QBs in 2021, but that will undoubtedly go up. Assuming Nick Foles wins the starting job as expected, his cap hit for 2021 will increase by up to $6M depending on how he performs, and how well the Bears do. If he plays well enough, he can opt out of his deal, forcing the Bears to re-sign him for even more money or find another (presumably more expensive) option in free agency. If Mitchell Trubisky wins the starting job and plays well enough for the Bears to want to keep him around, the QB tag is expected to be somewhere in the neighborhood of $25M.
- There are players they can cut to help clear cap space (most notably Bobby Massie, Jimmy Graham, Buster Skrine, and Akiem Hicks), but each of them creates yet another hole that must be filled.
The Bears won’t have enough money to go around next year, and their options to create more room are limited by how much money they’ve already moved to the future. And as I touched on with Graham, Trevathan, and Quinn above, they also have a growing number of key players who are 30 or older, and thus will start to see their performance diminish. Chicago’s roster is also pretty light on young talent thanks to several straight years of not having a full slate of draft picks at their disposal. You can see in the table below the discrepancy between players 30+ and those who are 25 or younger at the start of the 2020 season.
Look at that list of players who are 25 or younger: how many of them are proven, quality starters in the NFL?
You could argue Roquan Smith, though he’s been inconsistent. Anthony Miller has shown flashes, but again has not proven it consistently. James Daniels looked pretty decent as a rookie but took a sizable step back in 2019. Tarik Cohen is the only one who has made a Pro Bowl, but that was for special teams, and he’s a free agent after this year. The Bears desperately need pretty much all of them to take a big step forward this year to solidify their roster and help replace some of the talent that will age out in the next few years.
Now look at the list of guys who are 30 or older. Not all of them are stars on the Bears, but that includes a sizable portion of their front 7 on defense (Trvathan, Hicks, Quinn), which is the clear strength of the team. This is where I mention that Khalil Mack is 29 and will be joining the 30+ list very soon as well, and the Bears are likely losing Roy Robertson-Harris in free agency next year. Two starters in the secondary are also on that list and likely gone after 2020.
And the years of light drafting means there aren’t many highly regarded options to replace them. The players listed in the 25 or younger table above include every single day 1 or 2 draft pick currently on a rookie deal. The only other young players on the roster were day three picks or undrafted free agents, who typically have only a small chance of becoming a starter in the NFL.
You could always look to the draft to get more young talent, and indeed the Bears will finally have an almost full slate of picks in 2021 (they traded a 2021 4th for 2020 5th round pick Darnell Mooney) for the first time in ages. But they will likely need to draft a quarterback, which probably means trading up. The most notable recent trade-ups for a team drafting in the 20s (where I think the Bears are likely to be following a solid 2020 season) were the Chiefs and Texans in 2017 to draft Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson at 10th and 12th, respectively. Both cost 2 1st round picks, and the Chiefs also gave up a 3rd rounder. If the Bears trade up for a QB in 2021, they will have a depleted draft to fill other holes for the 5th year in a row (and likely 6th in 2022 as part of that trade). If they don’t trade up for a QB in 2021, they will have Nick Foles and no QB of the future on the roster.
I wrote following the 2018 season that the Bears’ window for a Super Bowl was wide open. They had built a quality roster around a young quarterback who was now entering his 3rd year as a starter, and they had a two year window in 2019-20 to capitalize on that before he got expensive. Unfortunately, Mitchell Trubisky went bust, and with it the Bears’ window was shot.
The Bears’ flexibility this off-season was limited because they had no money or draft picks and most of their contracts didn’t make sense to get out of through at least 2020 (Ryan Pace absolutely constructed this roster with that 2019-20 window in mind). The situation called for a roster re-set that would give them maximal flexibility to rebuild around a different young QB starting in 2021, but instead Pace doubled down on chasing a ring and mortgaged Chicago’s future in the process. That’s a really
foolish bold strategy when you don’t have a top 20 quarterback on the roster.
The 2020 Bears have an aging and expensive roster that they are only able to afford by borrowing heavily against the future. They are lacking in young talent due to years of not having enough draft picks, a problem that is likely going to continue in 2021 when they will need to trade up to try again at quarterback.
The 2020 Bears should be a pretty good team. Fans would be wise to enjoy that, because 2021 and beyond don’t look as though they’ll be quite as much fun.