The 2020 season is behind us, and now it’s time to start thinking about what changes are coming in the offseason to prepare for next year. We will focus on the roster, examining the salary cap situation, looking at who’s still under contract vs. a free agent, and exploring potential options for freeing up money.
Salary Cap Situation
The 2021 salary cap is currently projected to be somewhere between $175 and $195 million. I’ll use $185 million, right in the middle of that, as our estimate for now. As you can see in the table below, the Bears are fairly tight up against the cap right now (bottom row). All numbers come from Over the Cap.
The Bears have very little cap room, and it’s worth noting this is with only 45 players under contract. The Bears will have to fill to 53 for a full roster, and the NFL minimum salary is $660k. Even if they fill out with minimum-salary players, that adds another $5.3 million, which puts them over the salary cap (or very close to it, depending on where exactly it ends up). That’s not to mention their draft picks, which will add a few million to that; the Bears pick 20th in round 1, and last years’ 20th overall pick had a $2.4M cap hit.
I’ll note these numbers are current as of about 10 PM Chicago time on Wednesday, January 13. They might have changed if the Bears sign more practice squad players to futures contracts (which basically adds in guys at that minimum $660k level).
So the Bears are currently a little over the salary cap, though there are always options to free up more money (more on that later). Who do they have under contract making all that money? The table below shows the current depth chart for all 45 players currently signed for 2021 (again, might be a little out of date as the Bears sign their practice squad players in the upcoming days).
That roster has a lot of holes on it. The QB and WR groups are terrible, as is safety outside of Eddie Jackson. There’s no depth pretty much anywhere, and they don’t have a kicker or punter signed. There is no realistic way they can fill all of those holes with minimum-level signings, so some money will have to be created (again, more on that later).
Key Free Agents
Now let’s look at what in-house players the Bears are at risk of losing this offseason. You can see a full list here, but the most important ones are listed below, along with some thoughts about how expensive they might be:
- WR Allen Robinson: He’s reportedly looking for a deal in the $18M/year range. Spotrac has given him a market value of $19.9M/year.
- QB Mitchell Trubisky: Spotrac estimates he’s looking at a top-level backup deal of around $8M/year.
- OL Germain Ifedi and Alex Bars: Ifedi was a minimum-level signing last year, and is probably looking at something similar this go around, though it wouldn’t be a shock if that salary bumps up to $1.5-2M after he had a relatively solid season. Bars is an exclusive rights free agent, which means he’ll be back in Chicago on a minimum level deal.
- KR/RB/ST ace Cordarrelle Patterson: His last deal paid him just over $4.5M/year, and I doubt he’ll be looking for a pay cut after back-to-back 1st team All Pro nods as a kick returner.
- DL Roy Robertson-Harris, Mario Edwards, Brent Urban, and John Jenkins: This is the entire backup group for Chicago’s defensive line, and they combined for 1092 snaps in 2020 after Eddie Goldman opted out. I don’t imagine any of them will be expensive to keep around (unless somebody else pays RRH coming off of an injury), and they all played pretty well.
- S Tashaun Gipson, Deon Bush, and DeAndre Houston-Carson: These are the only safeties besides Eddie Jackson to see the field in 2020, and Bush/Houston-Carson are core special teamers too. None of them should be expensive, but the Bears could look to replace Gipson with another cheap starter.
- OLB Barkevious Mingo: Mingo was another minimum-level depth signing who performed quite well for Chicago in 389 defensive snaps in 2020. He also played a big role on special teams, playing over 80% of the snaps there. He could make sense to bring back, but might require a small pay raise.
- K Cairo Santos: Santos was a minimum-level signing who is likely looking for a big deal after a great 2020 season. For a kicker, that’s probably something in the neighborhood of $4M/year.
- P Pat O’Donnell: O’Donnell’s last deal paid him $1.75M/year, and he’s probably looking to repeat or slightly improve on that after 2 solid seasons.
Ways to Create Cap Space
So that’s where things currently are for the Bears: they have no cap room and a few key free agents who need to be re-signed or replaced with money they don’t currently have to spend.
The good news in the NFL is that the salary cap is fluid, and there are always ways to shift money to the future (as Ryan Pace pointed out in his press conference yesterday) or get out from under some contracts. Let’s look at options they have to create cap room in 2021.
The table below is a complete list of every player they can cut to free up at least $1.5M in 2021 space. I will note I am not advocating for all of these players to be cut, but simply trying to provide a complete picture of their options to create much-needed cap space this offseason.
A few thoughts:
- I’ll start with the 2 biggest names/salaries on here: Kyle Fuller and Akiem Hicks. Cutting either player doesn’t make much sense to me. More realistic options will be discussed in the extensions or trades section below.
- Jimmy Graham and Buster Skrine are easy players to cut and free up close to $10M.
- I figure one of the tackles – Massie and Leno – are likely gone, but replacing those players in free agency will be more expensive than the money saved if you want anybody remotely competent, and you can’t count on two rookie tackles starting, so they’re probably keeping one of them (I would guess Leno stays).
- Those three cuts would open up about $15M in space for the Bears, which probably gives them the breathing room they need to sign their draft class and fill out the roster with small signings (minimum salary or slightly higher).
- The Bears, unfortunately, can’t get out of the 3 contracts they would most like to: Nick Foles, Robert Quinn, and Danny Trevathan. All would have higher cap hits if they are cut than if they remain on the roster.
Extensions or Trades:
Akiem Hicks and Kyle Fuller both have contracts that expire after 2021, meaning the Bears could easily do a back-loaded extension to lower their 2021 cap hit. This is especially true for Kyle Fuller, who has a $20M 2021 cap hit and could cut that in half (saving $10M) with an extension. The same could be said for Hicks, though they likely wouldn’t save more than $3-4M of his $12M 2021 cap hit with an extension.
It should be noted, however, that there is no free lunch. A back-loaded extension, which pays the player money upfront but doesn’t count it on the cap until later, can create space now, but teams will pay for that at a later date. I would argue it doesn’t make much sense for the Bears to borrow future cap dollars to pay for a current roster that is clearly not winning a Super Bowl.
With that in mind, the Bears could look to trade Fuller and/or Hicks to free up the same money as if they cut them ($11M for Fuller, $10.5M for Hicks). This would likely be an unpopular move, and would certainly make the Bears worse in 2021, but I believe it is in their best interests overall, as I explained in depth a few weeks ago.
The final option to create 2021 cap room is by restructuring a player’s contract. This is usually for contracts with large salaries, as teams can convert the salary to a bonus. Then the player gets the same money as they would have anyway, but the cap hits for it spread out over multiple seasons. As with a back-loaded extension, this is good for now but bad for later.
The Bears could do this with Khalil Mack ($17M salary), Robert Quinn ($11.5M salary), or Eddie Jackson ($9M salary). You can spread that salary out over 5 years of cap hits, so basically make 80% of it disappear this year, which means they could save up to $13.6M with Mack, $9.2M with Quinn, and $7.2M with Jackson. But again, I want to caution that this hurts the future salary cap; this moves money to the future, it does not make it disappear. It is not really a move that makes much sense when a team is not currently a strong Super Bowl contender.
To recap where we are right now:
- The Bears are currently slightly over the cap for next year when you consider them filling in their roster with draft picks and minimum-salary players.
- They have a few free agents slated to sign deals well above league minimum, most notably Allen Robinson.
- Due to this, they need to create salary cap room, but can’t really get out of the worst contracts on their books.
If that sounds awfully bleak, it is. With no QB, no salary cap space, and no easy options to create a bunch of it, Chicago is in a really bad spot this offseason, which I already pointed out before the 2020 season started. With that said, they have three options for how to approach the offseason:
- Tank. One of Chicago’s problems is that they’re too good to get a high draft pick (and thus a premium QB prospect). That can easily be fixed this offseason. Trade everybody with value, which includes Akiem Hicks, Kyle Fuller, Khalil Mack, and Allen Robinson (via a tag and trade approach). Sign nothing but minimum-level, 1 year deals in free agency this year to maximize whatever compensatory picks you might get for somebody like Cordarrelle Patterson (or Robinson if they can’t tag him). Use the draft (with many extra picks scattered throughout days 2 and 3 from the trades listed above) to build up the offense around the QB as much as you can (OL/WR/TE), lose a bunch of games with Nick Foles next year, draft your QB in 2022, and have a bunch of money to spend on the roster around him.
- Live Within Your Means. Make the obvious cuts of Skrine, Graham, and Massie. Either keep Fuller and Hicks and let Robinson walk, or trade at least one of Fuller and Hicks and use that money to re-sign Robinson. Fill out the rest of your roster with mostly minimum-level free agents and draft picks. Try to get a QB in the draft to compete with Foles. Understand you are not winning a Super Bowl in 2021, but remain competitive while getting your cap situation to a healthy spot and having a realistic turnaround to a playoff team in 2022.
- Stay Aggressive. This would basically be repeating Ryan Pace’s 2020 offseason strategy. Move money to the future with back-loaded extensions for Fuller and Hicks, move money from Mack, Quinn, and/or Jackson to the future via restructures, tag Allen Robinson or sign him to a back-loaded extension, and use free agency to aggressively fill holes with back-loaded contracts. This gives you the best 2021 team (that is still not a serious Super Bowl contender) but continues to damage your future.
I really don’t care if the Bears choose option 1 or 2 this offseason – reasonable arguments can be made for both approaches – but they cannot afford to do option 3 again. That’s what they did last offseason, and it basically cost them 2 years (2020 and 2021). Doing it again will likely ruin any chance they have at seriously competing in 2022 or 2023.
UPDATE: I wrote all this without knowing what would happen with Ryan Pace. Yesterday’s press conference all but announced that option #3 is what is happening this offseason. This is very bad news for the Bears’ long-term prospects. My fear is that the 2021 offseason will double down on last years’ mistakes to set this franchise back for years to come.