New Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Pace inherited a franchise coming off its worst season in 10 years. The Bears went 5-11 last season, and with key veterans hitting the open market, $23.8 million in salary cap space, and six draft picks in May’s NFL Draft, Pace certainly has his work cut out for him.
But Pace will have to make both short and long-term moves as the Bears look to revamp their 30th-ranked defense this offseason, while finding a way to keep their talented but underachieving offense intact and several young defensive stars in 2016.
This year, the Bears have key veterans that appear to be on their way out, and some younger pieces they could retain. It could be called an end of an era of sorts with linebacker Lance Briggs, 34, and cornerback Charles Tillman, 33, both hitting free agency in March. There’s also free safety Chris Conte, 26, defensive tackle Stephen Paea, 26, and inside linebacker D.J. Williams, 32, free to sign with other teams.
And while Pace figures out whom to sign and let go from that group, he’ll have to consider the number of high-profile stars that are up for new contracts in 2016; specifically running back Matt Forte, receiver Alshon Jeffery, and strong safety and 2014’s tackle leader Ryan Mundy. There’s also the future of veteran center Roberto Garza, 35, defensive tackle Jay Ratliff, 33, and young outside linebacker Shea McClellin, who’s currently right behind Briggs on the depth chart.
With Garza, Ratliff and Williams already in their 30s, and Forte now 29, it can’t be ruled out that Pace will avoid paying all or most of them. He’s more likely to focus his cap room on Conte, Paea and Jeffery, and slowly building up through the draft at other positions over the next few years.
A quick fix at center could be signing soon-to-be free agent Brian De La Puente, who made $795,000 last season, and as Garza’s current back up the 29-year-old could seamlessly slide into the starting lineup.
With defensive tackle Lamarr Houston missing eight games last season, defensive end Willie Young stepped up and led the team with 10.0 sacks, with Ratliff coming up with another 6.5 sacks and Paea contributing 6.0 more. Houston, scheduled to make $5.95 million next season and representing a $6.99 million cap hit, is signed through 2018 and cutting him would add to Chicago’s very low dead money total of $105,000. Houston’s likely to stay on with Paea and Young complementing veteran pass rusher Jared Allen.
So if Pace chooses to cut any high-priced player it likely won’t be Houston or Allen, who totals a $12.5 million cap hit next season.
Instead, any major amount of cap space could be found by letting go of quarterback Jay Cutler or wide receiver Brandon Marshall, a duo that accounts for roughly $26 million of Chicago’s $120.9 million in salary obligations next season.
As of now, Marshall appears to be the odd man out, but neither the Bears nor pace have given any indication that they will cut ties with the mercurial but uber-talented receiver. For one, new head coach John Fox should control the Bears locker room far better than his predecessor Marc Trestman did.
Marshall, 30, took some heat for his comments to Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh during an interview on Showtime’s “Inside the NFL,” essentially asking the Super Bowl-winning coach about playing in Baltimore. But the comments also seem to suggest that Marshall wants to be on a winning club, and Fox is capable of making Chicago competitive again next season.
Secondly, a healthy Marshall is one of the best receivers in the game. He missed three games last season and still snagged 61 receptions for 721 yards and eight touchdowns, ranking second on the team in points scored.
And in the two seasons prior Marshall racked up 23 touchdowns and back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. In 2014 Marshall saw his string of seven straight 1,000-yard seasons snapped, which could be attributable to injuries as much as Cutler’s 18 interceptions and defenses focusing their attacks on shutting Marshall down.
Letting go of Cutler, would saddle Pace and the Bears with far more dead money that Marshall’s contract, and at times he’s looked like one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL. Not to mention the time it would take to find a replacement for Cutler.
Instead, with such little dead money weighing down the cap, Pace could take a more reasonable approach and spend his cap room on Conte and Paea, and giving the Cutler-to-Marshall connection another year together.
The way NFL deals are structured Pace can spread Conte and Paea’s deals out over time, and still keep some space for Mundy, Forte and Jeffery.
From there the Bears can focus on the draft for more depth in the secondary and along the defensive frontline, with Tillman and Briggs’ replacements likely coming from the next two draft classes.
At No. 7 overall, the Bears are in an excellent position to land a number of talented pass rushing prospects like defensive tackle Leonard Williams (USC), defensive tackle Danny Shelton (Washington), outside linebacker Dante Fowler (Florida), defensive end Randy Gregory (Nebraska), or even defensive end Shane Ray (Missouri) in the first round.
From there the Bears have five more picks spread out over the last six rounds, and a number of cornerback prospects could be taken in the second round. CBS Sports has projected Marcus Peters (Washington), Quinten Rollins (Miami University of Ohio), and P.J. Williams (Florida State) as cornerbacks who could go in the first or slip to the second round.