The salary cap is set. Unfortunately for NFL teams, the cap has dropped since the 2020 season began, largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, teams are scrambling to meet the cap for a single year, hoping the cap rebounds in 2022. Although the Bears aren't in awful shape, they need to find a little bit of space to safely be under the cap for 2021.
There are two major routes the Bears can take to get under the cap at this point. After cutting Buster Skrine, the Bears sit at $190 million. The Bears receive another $5.4 million in relief once they officially part ways with OT Bobby Massie. That leaves the Bears needing roughly $3 million in space to get under the league cap.
The Bears could easily want to sign some free agents, meaning more money would need to be cut. If that were the case, then more action involving the two scenarios we'll analyze would be required.
That said, let's dive into the scenarios and what implications they would have on the state of the Bears.
Ah yes, cuts. In 2020 especially, we have seen a much larger number of cuts as teams are working to get under the salary cap. At the time of writing this article, Kansas City parted ways with BOTH of their starting offensive tackles. That was quite a surprise and is the unfortunate repercussion of empty stadiums in 2020.
Nevertheless, the Bears seem to be in a better position than some other teams. Granted, the Bears cap situation can transform at any moment if a trade for one of the top-two quarterbacks supposedly available were to happen, but as of now, the Bears don't need to clear a lot of money to get this current roster under the cap.
The first method of clearing money is via cuts. As previously alluded to, it's a massacre this week in the NFL and the Bears could easily cut someone who is a surprise. Who are the names eligible to become cap casualties? We're glad you asked.
Charles Leno Jr.
Charles Leno Jr. has been a focal point of criticism in recent years. In reality, he's actually been fairly effective for the money he is paid. Leno's $11.294 million cap hit comes with speculation that he is a cap casualty candidate.
However, I believe that Leno's departure is not worth the small amount of cap room cutting him creates. The Bears would get under the cap if he is cut, but he has been incredibly valuable to the Bears. Last season, Leno played 1,066 snaps, which ranked ninth among NFL offensive tackles. With playing over 1,000 snaps, Leno only allowed five sacks and committed six penalties, both top-15 figures in the NFL for offensive tackles.
He may be a scapegoat of sorts when the line struggles, but Leno has been a staple of consistency for the Bears over the years. Replacing both him and Bobby Massie might be too much in an offseason with little flexibility. He should remain with the Bears and protect whoever is playing quarterback behind him in 2021.
When Jimmy Graham initially signed with the Bears, fans were irate that he landed such a lucrative contract. However, Graham stepped up to the challenge in 2020. Despite inconsistent quarterback play between two different signal-callers, the veteran tight end still hauled in 50 receptions for 456 yards and eight touchdowns. Graham proved he still has plenty left in the tank at age 34.
Not only was Graham productive on the field, but he was also an essential part of rookie tight end Cole Kmet's growth in 2020. Kmet wasn't shy when sharing his feelings about Graham, noting he "didn’t know how [the] relationship would work out, but it turned into an awesome friendship." Graham also shared how much he enjoyed playing with Kmet. “I always said, I enjoyed being on the field with him,” Graham said. “Every time we played in a two-tight end set, I took that personal, you know? Because I wanted to make sure I was on that field with him, to enjoy those moments with him."
Now, Graham is unfortunately in an interesting spot. He easily could be cut to create cap space for the Bears, but he has also been rumored as a piece of a trade for a quarterback. Graham's future with the Bears may be the most uncertain of any player on the roster this offseason.
It pains me to include Akiem Hicks in this section. Hicks has arguably been the Bears' most important defensive player in the Ryan Pace era. Yes, even more than Roquan Smith, Khalil Mack, Kyle Fuller, and Eddie Jackson. Hicks is a literal bear in the middle of the defensive line, swallowing up the run and torturing offensive linemen on passing plays.
Hicks started 15 games last season, only missing the game in Green Bay due to injury. In those 15 games, Hicks recorded 49 tackles, seven tackles for loss, 21 QB hits, and 3.5 sacks. Hicks' sack numbers may have regressed, but he was still an integral piece of the Bears defensive line.
That said, Hicks is entering his age-32 season and carries a $12 million cap hit. His dead cap amount is also low at only $1.5 million if he was cut.
Although there are cap savings to be had, I think the only route for a potential Hicks departure would result from being part of a trade for a quarterback, which is completely plausible due to his cap dollars. If Hicks is gone, then it's safe to assume the Bears believe Bilal Nichols is capable of taking over Hicks' role on the defense.
There are certainly other players who could become cap casualties. When considering the big picture, I firmly believe the Bears don't want to cut ties with players unless it is in a trade.
This route is likely GM Ryan Pace's preferred method to ensure the Bears comply with the 2021 salary cap. Pace has not been shy about restructuring contracts, as players such as Charles Leno Jr. and Cody Whitehair have had their deals restructured over the past few seasons.
With that in mind, Whitehair could have his contract readjusted again, and Eddie Jackson is also a prime restructure candidate after signing a monster deal that made him the league's highest-paid safety.
Khalil Mack, Danny Trevathan, Eddie Goldman, and Robert Quinn are also players that Pace could restructure. If the league believes the cap will rebound and skyrocket in 2022, then teams can get through 2021 by deferring more money to later years.
For the Bears, this means keeping their defensive stars without creating a major void on the roster. There are still plenty of moves to be made, but by restructuring some contracts, the Bears could add players while other teams continue to subtract.
There are numerous moving pieces in each of these scenarios. A subtle move here or there could add further complexity to each case. Even so, it feels like the Bears are in a better position than some teams when it comes to the salary cap.
The Bears still need a quarterback and important players such as Cairo Santos and Cordarrelle Patterson are still in need of new deals. Pace does not have an easy task ahead of him, but there will be a lot of movement occurring within the Bears organization in the near future.