As they near the start of free agency Monday and the start of the NFL year two days later, the Bears intend to get under the salary cap by reworking the long-term contracts of some of their top players.
With plans to convert base-salary money into signing-bonus money for linebacker Khalil Mack, safety Eddie Jackson and offensive lineman Cody Whitehair, ESPN reported they will clear $23 million in cap space.
That comes with a price, of course, as the money gets kicked down the road, but it was a necessity for the Bears.
The NFL Players Association has the Bears at $22.4 million over the 2021 cap, which doesn’t include the aforementioned upcoming moves or what they’ll save with the expected release of right tackle Bobby Massie. The Bears already cut cornerback Buster Skrine two weeks ago to save about $2 million.
Only the Rams ($23.5 million over) and Saints ($30 million over) are in worse shape, according to the NFLPA. The Bears have more work to do to accommodate the $18 million franchise tag for receiver Allen Robinson and to make necessary upgrades at quarterback and on the offensive line, among other needs. For a team that went 8-8 and barely made the playoffs, those needs are glaring.
Mack would have been the Bears’ biggest cap hit for 2021 at $26.6 million, followed by cornerback Kyle Fuller ($20 million), Robinson ($18 million), outside linebacker Robert Quinn ($14.7 million) and defensive tackle Akiem Hicks ($12 million). Restructuring Mack’s contract essentially eliminates the possibility of him being traded this offseason, which was unlikely anyway.
Things are more uncertain for Hicks and Fuller. While both have played exceptionally well, their large cap numbers put them in jeopardy of being released if the Bears need the space to address a weakness.
Their future likely hinges on how the Bears fare in free agency and the simultaneous trade frenzy that usually accompanies it. When asked recently, general manager Ryan Pace declined to commit to either player being back next season. Instead, he responded by saying that this year, with a drastically slashed salary cap to offset the NFL’s pandemic-related revenue loss, will be about ‘‘adjusting’’ and that ‘‘there will be some decisions to make.’’
Teams are allowed to negotiate and agree to deals starting Monday, but nothing can be finalized until Wednesday. The Bears also can try to renovate via the draft, where they have a first-round pick (No. 20) for the first time since 2018.