Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune give 10 thoughts after the Bears victory over the Vikings Sunday. I thought the 7th was interesting:
7. The Bears might have limited options in free agency.
With the end of the season near and some huge obstacles ahead for the league and the NFLPA when you look ahead to the salary cap for 2021, I connected with someone who keeps close tabs on this. I had a good conversation with Jason Fitzgerald (@jason_otc), who runs overthecap.com and cowrote “Crunching Numbers: An Inside Look at the Salary Cap and Negotiating Player Contracts.”
The NFL and NFLPA have agreed to a salary cap floor of $175 million for 2021. It could be higher than that, but won’t be any lower based on lost revenue incurred across the league during the COVID-19 pandemic. OTC ranks the Bears 21st in available cap space for 2021, noting they will be over the cap floor of $175 million by about $90,000. If that holds true, the Bears will have to subtract before they add, and it would certainly reduce their options when taking the long view ahead to free agency.
“They do have more flexibility than teams like the Steelers and stuff like that, but it’s also a question of do you want to really continue to double down on some of these older guys,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s really the thing for them. They can create a bunch of cap space if they extend players like (Kyle) Fuller or (Akiem) Hicks (both will be in the final year of their contracts in 2021) or restructure (Khalil) Mack again. It’s like the team already, especially on defense, is so over-reliant on guys that are over 30 years old. Do you want to do that?
“Who knows what they’re going to do after this year or next. So it’s kind of a tricky spot. For them to really be able to do stuff in free agency, it’s a spot where they probably have to double down on some of these guys that most teams probably wouldn’t double down on. The other side of the equation is, do you just blow it all up? Do you trade Fuller? Do you trade Hicks? Do you look to see if you could get a bunch of stuff for Mack? Do you just go in that completely opposite direction, blow it up, ride it out for one year where it sucks with your salary cap and sucks with your roster, and then look to move forward the year after that? They don’t have a quarterback under contract for next year unless they’re going to go back to Nick Foles as the starter again, which I wouldn’t think they would do.”
The Bears have already restructured Mack’s contract once to free up cap space, and that shot his cap number to $26.6 million this year. It’s at $26.646 million in 2021. If the Bears considered something outside the box like trading Mack after this season — and I’ve got no idea what they could get in return considering he’s due so much money — they would take a $21 million hit in dead cap space in 2021 and carry another $12 million in dead cap space in 2022. He would be off the books, however.
“I think you’re only doing this if you’re looking at it and you say, ‘We’re going to rebuild now and start bringing some draft picks back here,’” Fitzgerald said. “I don’t know if they can get a first-round pick or not. If they can get a first-round pick and they clear their books of him completely in the future, that’s probably a big thing. If they’re going to come into next year thinking they’re going to compete, they’re probably going to dump more money into that deal, convert money to a bonus and create cap space.”
“They’re really in a weird spot. If they come back with the same general manager and same head coach, the level of heat that is going to be underneath them is going to be just like what happened in Atlanta or any of these spots where you’re basically dead man walking going into a season. So you’ve got to pull out all stops and at that point, you don’t really care about 2022. You care about keeping your job. You’re going to do everything you can to load up, sign some players and hopefully go out there and compete and if things don’t go well, you leave someone else with the mess to handle.”
Fitzgerald’s comments were interesting. But I don’t know that he 100% grasps what is going on in Chicago. If he did, he would have never suggested that they might rebuild. At least not while GM Ryan Pace is in charge.
From the time he arrived, Pace’s mission has been to be the New Orleans Saints. That means you squeeze every resource in order to be competitive at a high level year after year. The Saints are as aggressive as any team in the league. They are always up against the cap and always short on draft picks.
This works as long as you no longer need those resources to fill a lot of major holes. You are basically using them to keep the ball rolling at that point.
Pace’s transformation didn’t start right away because the Bears weren’t going to be competitive no matter what he did when he took over. So he drafted and signed younger free agents.
But the Bears aren’t in that state now and this year Pace pulled out all of the stops. As Fitzgerald points out, the Bears are now among the oldest teams in the league and rank near the top in snaps by players over the age of 30. Pace borrowed against the future to sign free agents like Robert Quinn. He did all this because he thought the Bears were ready to win a Super Bowl.
And he was wrong. And now the Bears are a mediocre team with no resources to fix their issues. Among them are needs at both tackle and quarterback, two of the hardest to solve, and they are well on their way to a problem at wide receiver with the possibility that Allen Robinson may be about to test the market.
Pace isn’t going to rebuild. For better or worse, the Bears are now the Saints. That means going for it every year. As Fitzgerald suggests, it means restructuring contracts to keep older players here even longer in order to sign more free agents to cover for more holes that Pace didn’t see coming.
Ownership has a major decision coming this offseason for the Bears. With Pace entering the last year of his contract and head coach Matt Nagy avoiding lame duck status by entering the penultimate year of his, the Bears were set up to allow each to have one more year to compete for a Super Bowl.
But now the Bears have to decide whether they want Pace choosing their next quarterback. And, even more than that, they need to decide if they want to risk allowing Pace to run the franchise into the ground as he mortgages the future to try to bring the franchise to a competitive level he already thought that they had achieved.
If they keep Pace and they’re ready to compete for a championship next year, the Bears win their bet. But if they lose, they’re staring at least a couple of very bleak years as the team recovers after he’s gone.
Pace’s judgment is in serious question and history is not on his side. Or that of the Bears if they risk keeping him around.