NFL free agency is on as planned, and the Bears officially can begin negotiating with players Monday. They’ll do so armed with extra salary-cap space now that the new collective-bargaining agreement is done, but that influx will spike market values across the league.
There was concern the NFL would delay free agency because of coronavirus concerns, but it will remain on schedule and the new league year will start Wednesday. That’s when all 2019 contracts expire and any recently agreed upon trades will be processed.
The Bears will have a couple of days to make pitches during the legal tampering period before players officially can sign at 3 p.m. Wednesday. The main obstacle the coronavirus presents is that players might be averse to commercial air travel, making it difficult to conduct physicals.
As always, though, back-channel discussions happen before the official negotiating window. Some teams already have re-signed important players, likely based in part on hearing from potential free-agent targets who are looking elsewhere.
The Titans, for example, withdrew from the Tom Brady race Sunday by re-signing quarterback Ryan Tannehill to a four-year, $118 million extension. While it might seem absurd for someone of Tannehill’s stature to get $29.5 million per season, the inflation is a ripple effect of the new CBA.
Also Sunday, the Ravens traded for 33-year-old Jaguars defensive end Calais Campbell and signed him to a mostly guaranteed two-year, $27 million contract.
The uptick in salaries probably will negate teams’ gains in cap space. They will have roughly the same ability to chase free agents as they had before the CBA was ratified.
Spotrac ranks the Bears 25th in cap space at $21 million after they re-signed inside linebacker Danny Trevathan last week. They need to fill starter vacancies at safety, cornerback and wide receiver, as well as address issues at quarterback, tight end and on the offensive line.
General manager Ryan Pace hinted at a fairly quiet free agency for the Bears when he said last month he wasn’t worried about the lack of cap space because his roster didn’t have as many holes as it did in previous offseasons.
It’s possible they will re-sign safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, but he indicated last season he intended to play his way into a lucrative long-term contract after doing a one-year deal with the Bears. They have young players who could replace cornerback Prince Amukamara and wide receiver Taylor Gabriel, but none has a been regular starter in the NFL.
One of their most pressing decisions is whether to rescind their $13.2 million fifth-year option on outside linebacker Leonard Floyd. They have until Wednesday to nix it, and that might hinge on how they fare in the legal tampering period.
Floyd has only 18œ sacks in four seasons, including a career-low three last season, but $13.2 million looks a little more modest in the NFL’s new marketplace.
At tight end, the most important non-quarterback position in coach Matt Nagy’s offense, the Bears are seeking a proven talent to play with — and act as an insurance policy for — Trey Burton.
They were interested in two-time Pro Bowl player Austin Hooper of the Falcons, but his price already was escalating beyond their budget last month. They were not thought to be high on Colts free agent Eric Ebron, but backup plans start looking more attractive as the market dries up.
Ebron, 26, had 31 catches for 375 yards and three touchdowns last season. He averaged a much more enticing 57 receptions, 643 yards and six touchdowns in the previous four seasons. Spotrac estimated his market value at $38 million over four years.
Cheaper options include Packers castoff Jimmy Graham (33 years old), former Titans mainstay Delanie Walker (36) and journeyman Darren Fells (33).
The Bears already signed Demetrius Harris to a one-year, $1.6 million contract last month. He was with Nagy for four seasons with the Chiefs, and his most productive of them was 18 catches for 224 yards and a touchdown in 2017.