General manager Ryan Pace will be the first to admit that he’s no expert when it comes to managing the salary cap. But he knows he’s in a good situation.
“We’re healthy with our cap right now,” Pace said during the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. “So if we want to be [active in free agency], we can.”
Nearly two weeks later, the Bears’ cap situation has become more clear. The NFL Players Association announced Monday that the salary cap will be $143.28 million for the 2015 season. The Bears also carry over $1,545,934 of unused cap space from last season, giving them an adjusted cap of $145,168,434.
According to spotrac.com, a website that specializes in salary-cap matters, the Bears are looking at approximately $25 million in cap space, although the new deals for tight end Zach Miller and nickel back Demontre Hurst were not factored in.
The $25 million figure also takes into account signing the 2015 draft class (approximately $6 million) and that only the top 51 player salaries count against the cap in the offseason.
According to the NFLPA, there are 22 teams with more adjusted salary-cap space than the Bears. But salary-cap figures are always fluid because of cuts, trades and restructurings.
And free agency is looking more compelling after the deadline for using the franchise tag passed Monday. Neither Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh nor Patriots safety Devin McCourty was slapped with the franchise tag. The Bears, of course, could use help at both positions.
Suh’s coming payday might be too rich for the Bears, but they’re familiar with how dominant he can be. If Pace is looking to make a major splash in his first year, Suh would fit the bill.
A generational talent who transcends scheme, Suh is set to become the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history, commanding more than Texans defensive end J.J. Watt’s yearly $16.7 million average from his six-year extension.
Because of contract restructurings, Suh had a $22.4 million cap charge in 2014, meaning he was due a 20 percent raise from the cap number — or a $26.9 million tender — if the Lions put a tag on him.
The Lions still have until 3 p.m. on March 10 to get a long-term deal completed with Suh before he can officially sign with other teams. The NFL’s three-day negotiating window opens Saturday, but the Lions always have remained optimistic that a deal can be reached.
“When you talk about good players, you talk about spending money to get those guys signed,” Lions general manager Martin Mayhew said at the combine. “So we’re prepared for what it takes financially to get him signed.”
McCourty, meanwhile, should pique the Bears’ interest. He’s the best safety on the market, it’s widely considered a thin draft class and the only safeties under contract are Ryan Mundy, Brock Vereen and Anthony Walters.
The Bears’ new decision-makers also come from organizations that put a premium on safeties and were willing to pay in free agency for them. The Saints and Pace signed Jairus Byrd to a six-year, $54 million deal ($26.3 million guaranteed), and the Broncos and coach John Fox added T.J. Ward with a four-year, $22.5 million contract ($14 million guaranteed).
Money never has been an issue under chairman George McCaskey, and it won’t be for Pace. With money to spend, it helps to have Cliff Stein, the Bears’ chief negotiator and financial architect, at Pace’s side.
“[The contract value of players is] a newer part of the role for me, and that’s where Cliff has been huge with his background,” Pace said. “We have daily conversations with that. And I’m able to say, ‘Hey, Cliff, this guy is very similar to this player,’ and we can start doing market analysis from there.”