And then there was one.
When the Bears decided Thursday to part with cornerback Kyle Fuller rather than pay a $20 million salary-cap charge this year, they whittled the number of homegrown first-round draft picks still on their roster to one: inside linebacker Roquan Smith, who was selected eighth in 2018.
Their failure to draft and develop first-rounders has hastened their plunge into cap hell. General manager Ryan Pace has had to pay free agents to replace failed first-round choices to the tune of almost a quarter-billion dollars — and that’s just counting replacements still on the Bears’ roster.
Pace signed up for some version of this high-wire act in 2018 when he traded his 2019 and 2020 first-round picks to the Raiders for outside linebacker Khalil Mack. He didn’t know the twin wind gusts awaiting him: That quarterback Mitch Trubisky would flop and that a pandemic would result in the 2021 salary cap plunging to $182.5 million. Two years ago, the 2021 cap reasonably could have been pegged at $210 million.
Pace’s inability to nail the first-round picks he has kept has cost the Bears dearly. Outside linebacker Leonard Floyd (2016) struggled early, prompting the Bears to pursue Mack and give him a six-year, $141 million deal. Floyd’s failings the next two years led to the Bears cutting him last offseason to sign Robert Quinn to a five-year, $70 million contract. Floyd has since signed two contracts with the Rams — one for $10 million last season and, earlier this week, a four-year, $64 million deal. Quinn had just two sacks last year. His contract might be the most onerous in the NFL.
Trubisky’s inconsis-tency led the Bears to trade for Nick Foles a year ago and rework his contract into a three-year, $24 million deal. When Trubisky, drafted No. 2 in 2017, became a free agent this week, the Bears signed Andy Dalton to a one-year, $10 million deal worth up to $13 million after incentives.
Four players — Mack, Quinn, Foles and Dalton — signed contracts worth $245 million. That’s a fast track to a cap nightmare.
And it will only get worse for the Bears going forward. While teams that drafted in the first round in 2019 and 2020 benefit from those players being on rookie contracts through 2024, the Bears will have to fill positions with more expensive veterans.
Later this offseason, Pace will guarantee Smith’s fifth-year option for 2022. He’ll eventually become the first Bear selected by Pace in the first round to play beyond his four-year rookie deal.
In the meantime, the Bears have been forced to rehab other teams’ first-rounders. Last year, they had six on their roster: Mack, Quinn, tackle Germain Ifedi, returner Cordarrelle Patterson, cornerback Artie Burns and outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo.
They added another Friday: cornerback Desmond Trufant (drafted 22nd overall by the Falcons in 2013), who will try to replace Fuller after spending last season with the Lions. Sources said Thursday the Bears were releasing Fuller, but he wasn’t put on the NFL’s transaction wire Friday. That leaves open the possibility the Bears could trade him instead. But given the league knows he’s targeted for release, the Bears would get little in return.