The Bears went from having $44 million of reported salary cap space for 2014 on Dec. 26, to just $11 million of reported spending ability a week later.
The fresh paper given to Jay Cutler, Tim Jennings, and Matt Slauson a week ago, on top of new deals for Robbie Gould and Tony Fiammetta on Dec. 27, stole Phil Emery’s show in what was expected to be a 2013 post-mortem with the media, featuring him and Marc Trestman. As the Cutler buzz continued throughout cyberspace last Thursday, the general manager and head coach took turns accepting their share of the blame for the biggest reason their team didn’t make the playoffs: the defense.
So after locking up just one defender in those five signings, the question now becomes whether $11 million can fix this defense. Will there be a scheme change? Can and will Mel Tucker be the man teaching whatever scheme they go with? And once that’s determined, where are they going to get enough quality bodies with the money that’s left, to effectively execute said scheme, so we’re not asking the same questions a year from now?
If Julius Peppers is released, the Bears are only gaining a little more than half of his $18 million it would cost to keep him around, courtesy of about $8 million in dead money they’d be forced to eat. If not, the reliance on immediate-impact draft “hits” on the defensive side this May becomes even more crucial. The pressure will be on Emery, regardless. A Peppers exit also means the team has no one on the defensive line under contract with legitimate NFL playing experience, or is starter-caliber-ready. Henry Melton, Jeremiah Ratliff, and Corey Wootton are all free agents. If the Bears even want any of them back, are they willing to come back “on the cheap,” when each will draw varied levels of interest on the open market, potentially with a higher pricetag than the Bears can offer? This is assuming Shea McClellin is now a linebacker, too.
At that position, Lance Briggs and Jon Bostic are accounted for under that cap. Let’s assume those are two of the starters. Would D.J. Williams want (or draw interest for) more than, say, a $1 million deal? Would they want to bring back James Anderson, as well, if the status quo is good enough next season at linebacker?
In the backfield, Emery needs to find three bodies to start with Jennings. It’s hard to see him going back to free agent Major Wright, or expect Chris Conte (under contract one more year) to make that big of a turnaround. And he’d need a big one.
Emery also wants Josh McCown and Roberto Garza back. At what cost would they chop into the cap reservoir? $3-to-4 million, conservatively?
So if he gets the center and backup quarterback in the fold, and the current remaining 2014 salary cap space of $11 million is to be believed, Emery’s working with $7-to-8 million to pay a draft class and fill up a defense with starters and backups who can play special teams. If Peppers has played his last game as a Bear, tack about $10 million onto that number. Would he want to restructure Cutler’s $22 million first-year number this quickly? Emery always has a plan. This seems to be a very complicated one, and the path of the 2014 Bears clearly depends on it.