NFL free agency is only a few weeks away and that means some of your favorite players may be on the chopping block. Usually, the salary cap is an afterthought during the NFL season, but this year has been a little different.
All season long, reports surfaced about revenue losses due to COVID-19 potentially forcing the NFL to lower their salary cap. The NFL's salary cap has only decreased once, which came after the lockout in 2011. Since 2012, the NFL has increased its salary cap by a minimum of $10 million per year. The 2020 NFL ratings did take a hit in what was an unconventional year, to say the least. The seventh playoff seed and the new NFL TV contracts raised skepticism that the cap would decrease dramatically.
Then this happened.
Last year, the cap floor was $175 million and the ceiling was $198 million, giving teams a $23 million dollar window. Earlier in the year, it was reported that the 2021 salary cap could be as low as $190 million. If the cap floor is now $180 million, that would reduce the window to $10 million. That would be a tough task for front offices. I predict the salary cap be +/- $2 million from the 2020 figure ($198M).
The Bears need my prediction to be correct. They're currently sitting at $194 million and their draft class's contracts aren't factored into that figure. They also don't have a quarterback or a number one receiver. No matter what happens with the salary cap, the Bears will be forced to make cap space somehow. While everyone likes to say "the salary cap is a myth," the Eagles felt that way too. They aren't in Narnia. They went all in and it resulted in a Super Bowl followed by a rebuild. While one Super Bowl sounds nice, the idea of sustained success is much more enticing.
The chart below outlines the five cut candidates on the docket for the 2021 Bears offseason.
Let's just rip the bandaid off. I hate writing this as much as you hate reading this. If the Bears decide to cut Akiem Hicks to save that $10.5 million, it would be listed as the Dictionary definition of a "cap casualty".
Hicks came to a battered Chicago defense and has been a building block in recreating the type of defense Bears fans are accustomed to. No one wants to see the guy who growled at Drew Brees leave the Chicago Bears, including the front office. Unfortunately, it could be one of those "business decisions" we always hear about.
Cutting Hicks would be the most profitable move for the Bears this offseason in terms of salary cap. If the Bears had a 25th-ranked defense and top-ten offense, then this wouldn't be a discussion. If the Bears had a quarterback on their roster, this wouldn't be a discussion. As we know, neither scenario is the case and that's why it has to be discussed. The emergence of Bilal Nichols and the expected return of Eddie Goldman makes it even more of a discussion.
Ryan Pace has a proven ability to find utility signings on the defensive line for cheap. Will this be Pace's thinking when deciding Hicks' fate? Pace and Hicks have a history together. Hicks still plays at a high level but the injury bug and father time have been catching up to him. Maybe Ryan Pace asks Hicks to take a pay cut or finds the cap space elsewhere. All I know is that Akiem Hicks would be greatly missed if he wasn't a Bear in 2021.
Anthony Miller's situation is completely different than that of Akiem Hicks. The Bears can save a little over $1 million in cap space if they cut Miller. Bears fans and George McCaskey have never been on the same page until they saw Anthony Miller punch C.J. Gardner-Johnson. Now it seems like everyone wants Miller out of Chicago.
Aside from the ejection, Miller's production has decreased since 2018. In his rookie season, it looked like Miller could be a highly productive slot receiver. But over the last three years, we kept getting the 'attention to detail' reports. Miller was always running his routes one yard too deep or one yard too shallow. Matt Nagy wants to run a systematic offense and Miller strives as an improvisational player. It seems like Miller is either making miraculous catches or dropping routine catches. Personally, I believe the talent is there and it's another mismanaged situation by Nagy. Inconsistent snaps lead to inconsistent play and Matt Nagy's unwillingness to adjust to the skill set of Anthony Miller limits his production. I wouldn't be shocked if we saw Miller go to another team and look like a completely different player. It happens so often I'm about to coin the term the Nagy Effect.
Cutting Miller should be dependent on Allen Robinson or a different number one UFA receiver. If Robinson lands an extension or receives the franchise tag, every million helps. If Robinson doesn't get tagged, then the $1 million will get you a player like Ted Ginn.
Bobby Massie is one of the more likely cut candidates. The $6.7 million cap savings heavily outweighs the $2.6 million dead cap figure. Both Massie and Charles Leno get dragged by Bears fans regularly. First, the Bears are getting what they paid for. Leno is the 19th highest-paid tackle and Massie is 29th. Second, neither player was a problem until Matt Nagy entered the building. I won't defend some of the play we've seen from the Bears tackles but it's fair to point some of the variables out.
That said, Massie's decline in production combined with missing 14 games over the last two seasons make this a pretty easy decision for the Bears front office. Bears fans may have seen the last of Massie in navy and orange, but Charles Leno won't be a cut candidate until next year.
Buster Skrine is the most obvious cut candidate. At this point, it's predominantly about his health. Skrine has suffered six concussions in his career. His last concussion against the Jets in 2020 seemed to be most alarming. Skrine missed the last five games of the season and his situation is giving the same impression as Taylor Gabriel's concussion in 2019. Gabriel chose to opt-out for the 2020 season and I wouldn't be shocked if Skrine decides to retire. Skrine has had a long career and his health concerns may rank above his Super Bowl aspirations at this point in time. Either way, the Bears owe him $6.1 million and can save $2.8 million if they cut him. The play of Kindle Vildor and Duke Shelley late in the season should be enough to make this an easy decision.
The signing of Jimmy Graham was the most criticized move of the 2020 offseason. I'd bet if you asked Graham's immediate family if he was overpaid off the record, they would have said yes. Graham was the eighth-highest paid tight end in 2020. He saw 4.75 targets per game (19th) and logged 456 receiving yards (19th) in addition to eight touchdowns (4th). It was hard to believe that an aging Graham was going to be the same yardage eater he once was, but he was the same red-zone threat. Inside the ten-yard line, Graham only trailed Travis Kelce by one target and one touchdown. Kelce obviously adds a lot more outside the red zone, but the aforementioned figures aren't bad for a 34-year-old.
The Bears brought Graham in to replace an injury-prone Trey Burton and he played all 16 games. He brought a stable veteran presence to a tight end group that was in shambles the previous year. The argument that he may have been slightly overpaid can carry some weight, but saying that he was a bad signing is excessive. The Bears could save $7 million dollars by cutting Graham and it's quite possible. Graham has stated that he'd like to finish his career in Chicago, but we're not sure what Ryan Pace has in store for his old friend from New Orleans.
Every year, NFL general managers have to make "business decisions" regarding their rosters. Sometimes it's an obvious cut and other times there are more variables to the equation. No matter how much people say "the salary cap doesn't matter," it does. The salary cap forces teams to cut players every year. Who will it be for the Bears this year?