By Robert Zeglinski
In the Chicago Bears’ season-ending press conference on January 4, general manager Ryan Pace and company discussed the ramifications of a 3-13 season. This concerned the many “critical, critical” decisions that lie ahead such as the team’s future at quarterback or a secondary in dire need of assistance.
The focal point was about the Bears eventually throwing away their soapbox of languished depths, by using the upcoming offseason as a springboard. In a set-up for one of the more interesting build-ups for this organization in a long time, here’s key perspective on salary cap space, the top available free agents, and more.
According to ESPN, the NFL salary cap is expected to increase by approximately $10 million and settle in around $163 to $165 million. That’s up from 2016’s figure of $155.27 million. Aspects such as carry over credit will determine the concrete number but this is great news for the Bears flexibility-wise.
Much like the league mandated cap for teams’ range, the Bears will initially fall between $59.7 million and $63.7 million without projected cuts such as quarterback Jay Cutler, wide receiver Eddie Royal, and outside linebacker Lamarr Houston. With these potential releases, Chicago can rise to around $83 to $87 million barring any other cuts of players.
There is a rookie pool teams receive to pay for their draft picks that descends by value each round. Based on a preliminary rough estimate, since Chicago currently possesses a pick in each round except for the sixth, and two in the fourth; the Bears will need to reserve $9,349,232 million total to pay their rookies.
While the team with the number one overall pick in the Cleveland Browns is projected to have the most space with $108,951,921 million, the Bears are still set up well to land some big fish and maintain their homegrown talent.
For what it’s worth, Pace did note how the Bears will be armed with “top-five cap space”. But that figure can only be reached if Chicago ascends above $70 million. So, expect some roster tinkering.
Positions of need
It’s difficult to argue the Bears couldn’t use an upgrade at most areas of the field save for running back or interior offensive line, but for the purpose of this exercise let’s nail down the main five groups.
Safety: Chicago hasn’t had a stable All-Pro talent at safety since the halcyon days of Mike Brown. Since 2009, the Bears have used 25 different starting combinations at safety. That’s way too much turnover and speaks of desperation.
According to the Athletic, the Bears primary safety duo in 2016 of Adrian Amos and Harold Jones-Quartey, each allowed a quarterback rating above 120 when targeted. That won’t get it done in a passing league emphasized around high-flying offense’s. Chicago needs a huge upswing at both slots.
Quarterback: Most expect the Bears to move on from Cutler this offseason as releasing him will create $14 million in cap space with only $2,000,000 million in dead money. Not to mention that veteran stopgaps of Brian Hoyer, Matt Barkley, and Connor Shaw hardly look like the answer.
Pace needs to find his man to hitch his wagon to, and it will either come through a trade or a high pick in April’s draft.
Cornerback: The Bears did have the NFL’s seventh best passing defense yardage-wise, but that was buoyed significantly by a unit that was 12th in the league in sacks with 37. There are potential keepers in Cre’Von LeBlanc or Bryce Callahan, but it’s way too early to make a judgement on LeBlanc. Meanwhile, the former undrafted free agent in Callahan has suffered injury issues during his first two years.
Add in questions surrounding the promising sophomore Deiondre’ Hall who missed a significant portion of his rookie season due to a high ankle sprain, as well as the Bears’ supposed waning belief in Kyle Fuller, and it becomes all too clear this defense needs a number one talent on the outside.
Edge: Qualifying a player as an “edge” defender merely means they are either a defensive end or outside linebacker depending on the defensive scheme they are deployed in. These are the pass rushers that define the modern championship defense.
While Chicago is stocked on the interior with Eddie Goldman, Akiem Hicks, and Jonathan Bullard, they would do well to acquire help on the outside.
Rookie sensation, Leonard Floyd, had a wonderful 2016, but is still too raw until further notice. The 28-year-old, Pernell McPhee, has been hampered by a bad knee in his two seasons in Chicago and would be best served in a reserve role. You could say the same for his merely solid 31-year-old counterpart Willie Young, but without the injuries.
An edge rushing force to compliment Floyd would make the Bears a terror for opposing quarterbacks.
Tight end: Incumbent 32-year-old Zach Miller is a fine player, but he’s never enjoyed a season above 500 yards receiving, nor has he ever caught more than 50 passes. One could attribute most of this to injury issues, as Miller will be coming off of a broken foot in 2017.
For the Bears, acquiring another tight end will add a dimension to their offense, have Miller in a platoon role, and would also groom said player to eventually take over full-time.
Top free agents available
Washington Redskins QB, Kirk Cousins: Cousins is likely to stay in D.C. as Washington would be foolish to let their best bet walk. Washington can choose to franchise tag Cousins for a second time, but that will cost them $23.94 million. If they can’t come to terms with Cousins, he’ll hit the open market and someone will pony up for a player who’s had a passer rating of 101.6 and 97.2 in consecutive seasons as a full-time starter.
*Kansas City Chiefs S, Eric Berry: The top available defensive free agent is the NFL’s best center fielder. Kansas City was unable to reach a deal with the now five-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro in the offseason. Now, they’ll have to either franchise tag Berry for a second time, or let him go as the Chiefs possess one of the tightest cap situations in the NFL. Berry is the exact mold of safety the Bears need and should be their number one priority.
Pittsburgh Steelers RB, Le’Veon Bell: There is no foreseeable future where Bell leaves Pittsburgh as arguably the league’s all-around best running back. You saw evidence of how the Steelers offense collapsed without it’s best player in this past Sunday’s AFC Championship Game. Reportedly, Pittsburgh will use the franchise tag on the 24-year-old Bell, which will pay him in excess of $10 million.
*Houston Texans CB, A.J. Bouye: After a long developmental track, Bouye was Pro Football Focus’s fourth highest rated cornerback in 2016. The 25-year-old was one of the league’s premier cover corners as he allowed just a 73.1 passer rating when targeted. Bouye has excellent technique, discipline, and make-up speed to hang with any receiver. Pace and the Bears should look to pair Bouye with Berry, as his top priority at corner.
*Los Angeles Chargers LB, Melvin Ingram: The Chargers may not be able to retain Ingram’s services, which will come at a high price. In a contract year, Ingram had 60 tackles, eight sacks, and was seventh in the NFL in pressures with 29. This is a player entering the prime of his career at 27 that will be an excellent compliment to any budding great defense. Ingram would be the perfect partner for Floyd.