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Can Kyle Fuller, Akiem Hicks survive a Bears salary cap purge?

Bears general manager Ryan Pace is hopeful, but couldn’t guarantee that both defensive stars would be on the roster in 2021. “Everyone’s prepping for a tighter cap,” Pace said. “We have a plan in place with that. There’s different ways to create room with our cap — not just releasing players.”

Bears defensive end Akiem Hicks (96, chasing down Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson) has been a leader on and off the field in five seasons with the Bears.
Bears defensive end Akiem Hicks (96, chasing down Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson) has been a leader on and off the field in five seasons with the Bears.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The Bears cut starting slot cornerback Buster Skrine on Monday to free up some salary-cap space, but that was the easy move.

The salary-cap reckoning the Bears are bracing for could be much more costly. Right tackle Bobby Massie and tight end Jimmy Graham are likely candidates to become cap casualties. But it will take some fancy footwork by Bears general manager Ryan Pace and director of football administration Joey Laine to avoid the kind of loss that can’t be absorbed as easily as Skrine, Massie or Graham.

The two biggest targets, just by the numbers, are cornerback Kyle Fuller ($11 million cap savings) and defensive end Akiem Hicks ($11.5 million). It’s possible that one might have to go.

Asked about his confidence level that both Fuller and Hicks would be on the roster in 2021, Pace declined to address it. Granted, Pace was in full cloak-and-dagger mode during a mandatory press conference in conjunction with what what normally be the NFL scouting combine and pretty much giving us only his name, rank and serial number. But he had a chance to say he was pretty sure two of his best defensive players would be back this season — and could not do it.

“Without getting into specific players, this is gonna be a year about adjusting,” Pace said. “We’re not the only team in the league [that] is dealing with these circumstances. Everyone’s prepping for a tighter cap. We have a plan in place with that. There’s different ways to create room with our cap — not just releasing players.

“That’s the hard part of the business. We had a difficult decision with Buster [on Monday] and there’ll be more decisions to make. I think you’re going to see more of that around the league than you’ve ever seen. But we’re prepared. We’re expecting the cap to be about [$180 million], so we’re prepared for that and we’ll operate accordingly.”

As Pace noted, there might be a way around drastic cuts, but he’ll need some cooperation — with the Bears currently over the cap and still in need of a signing a quarterback and either Allen Robinson or his replacement. The Bears can extend some contracts and re-work others to clear up space for 2021 — not only Hicks and Fuller, but outside linebackers Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn and left tackle Charles Leno among others. If there’s ever a time for Pace to kick the salary-cap can down the road, this is it.

Pace would like to do everything he can to give rookie defensive coordinator Sean Desai the strongest hand possible. The good news — Pace indicated that nose tackle Eddie Goldman would return in 2021 after opting out of the 2020 season because of concerns about the coronavirus.

“Obviously we missed him this year,” Pace said. “Excited to get him back in the mix. Coach [Chris] Rumph, our new defensive line coach, has communicated with him as well. Obviously [Goldman is] a big piece of what we’re doing. So we’re excited about that.”

Desai was promoted from safeties coach to replace defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano, who retired. Coach Matt Nagy said he interviewed nine candidates for the job.

“In the end, I was really excited for the direction that Sean saw this team moving forward,” Nagy said. “The thing I really like about Sean is his conviction and confidence and the way he’s gotten to this point. He’s really, really smart. But he’s really, really football smart, too. He has an unbelievable connection with these players.”

That’s an intriguing combination, especially with the Bears still having the core of what was one of the best defenses in the NFL in 2018 and 2019 — and likely needing a tweak more than an overhaul. Hiring proven veteran coordinator Mike Pettine to assist Desai has promise as well. All that remains to be seen is how much they have to work with.

“I’m excited and looking forward to [Desai] putting his spin onto this defense,” Nagy said. “He’s been waiting for this for a long time and now the opportunity is here. I’m really, really excited for him and our team.”