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Smart spending: Bears have salary-cap flexibility now — and for the future

PHOENIX — As eager as the Bears were to acquire outside linebacker Khalil Mack from the Raiders, general manager Ryan Pace and director of football administration Joey Laine held firm on one aspect of their impending blockbuster move, especially if they were going to part with two first-round picks.

“They did a great job negotiating that deal and holding tight — and getting that second-round pick back,” Bears president/CEO Ted Phillips said.

The second part, though, was signing Mack to a six-year, $161 million extension through the 2024 season that guaranteed him $60 million when he signed.

“I have a strong faith in Ryan and Joey,” Phillips said recently. “[It’s] the way they handle player contracts and the cap and the cash. They understand that every year isn’t going to be a Khalil Mack year.

The Bears signed kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson in free agency. | Associated Press

“Nobody operates that way. The timing was right. They did a great job getting him — and you saw the results.”

The arrival of Mack changed the Bears’ outlook — they’re a legitimate Super Bowl contender after going 12-4 last season — but also their finances. Massive deals will do that. The Bears also have an extension to work out in the future for quarterback Mitch Trubisky.

With the NFL holding its meetings at the Arizona Biltmore this week, it’s a good time to evaluate the Bears’ books. The first couple of waves of free agency have passed, and the draft is quickly approaching.

More on Mack

The Bears caused a stir around the league early in free agency when Mack’s renegotiated contract was filed. It created more than $10 million in cap space for this year.

The team was back in position to be aggressive in free agency.

Instead, Pace sought affordable — and capable — replacements for safety Adrian Amos and nickel back Bryce Callahan in Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Buster Skrine.

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The Bears freed up that space — which is expected to be used on extensions for their own players — by converting Mack’s salary for 2019 into a signing bonus and prorating it over future years.

According to spotrac.com and OverTheCap.com, Mack’s cap hit is $11.9 million for this season after being $13.8 million last season. It will jump dramatically to $26.6 million in 2020.

But an affordable exit remains built into Mack’s contract. That comes in 2023. His release that year could potentially free up nearly $23 million in space while leaving $2.6 million of his recently prorated signing bonus on the Bears’ books.

Cap management

According to the NFLPA’s most recent report, the Bears have $17,795,716 in cap space with 64 players under contract. It’s the 16th-most cap room in the NFL.

Overall, the Bears were very mindful with their spending in free agency this year.

Skrine signed a three-year deal, but he’s guaranteed $8.5 million over the first two years of it. Wide receiver/returner Cordarrelle Patterson received a two-year contract, but it’s essentially a one-year commitment for $5 million.

The same is true for running back Mike Davis. His two-year contract is basically a one-year deal worth $3 million.

Pace said more than once at the NFL Scouting Combine that the Bears were operating with future extensions in mind. They will be the Bears’ next significant financial commitments.

That process starts with picking up the fifth-year option for outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, the Bears’ first-round pick in 2016, and extending the contract for center Cody Whitehair, their second-rounder that year.

The Bears previously signed left tackle Charles Leno Jr. (August 2017) and defensive lineman Eddie Goldman (September 2018) to extensions before they played in the last years of their respective rookie contracts.

With that in mind, safety Eddie Jackson and running back/returner Tarik Cohen — two first-team All-Pro selections last season — are in the same boat as Whitehair. They could be looking at possible extensions after the 2019 season.

Making more moves

The Bears believe they’ve built a Super Bowl contender for the foreseeable future — the result of good moves in free agency and solid, roster-building selections in the draft.

But the construction of some of the Bears’ largest contracts also provide the organization with considerable flexibility if it’s required.

After the 2019 season, the Bears could release Leno, cornerback Prince Amukamara, right guard Kyle Long and wide receivers Taylor Gabriel and Allen Robinson without significantly hurting their books.

That’s unlikely to happen in full, of course. The Bears have only five picks in this year’s draft, starting with No.  87 in the third round.

Releasing all of the aforementioned players would result in $8.3 million in dead money, according to spotrac.com and OverTheCap.com. But it also would create more than $40 million in space if the Bears needed it.

The point is that the Bears are in win-now mode, but they have options to spend and reload in the future. It’s also a reminder that cap space always is fluid, and the Bears invariably have acted with the future in mind.