Heading into the 2020 Off-Season, a Primer.

| January 6th, 2020

A disappointing 2019 season is over, and it’s time to start thinking about what the Bears can do over the next several months to set up a 2020 rebound. To start the offseason, let’s take a look at where things currently stand for the roster.

Salary Cap Situation

The 2020 salary cap has been projected between $196.8M and $201.2M. We’ll play it safe and use the low end of that estimate. As you can see in the table below, the Bears don’t currently have a lot of money to work with (bottom row). All cap information courtesy of Spotrac.

So the Bears currently have around $13.5M in cap room for 2020, though that could be around $18.5M if the cap hits more optimistic projections. Now let’s look at who they lose from 2019.

NOTE: these numbers are before the Eddie Jackson extension. I’ll update once the exact figures for that come out, and then remove this note. I’m guessing they’ll only drop the 2020 space by 1/5 of his signing bonus, which will probably come out to $2-3M.

Key Free Agents

The Bears actually don’t have a huge number of free agents this year, at least in terms of players who were significant contributors. I’ll briefly list and discuss the main ones here, sorted by position.

  • Inside linebacker: Danny Trevathan, Nick Kwiatkoski, and Kevin Pierre-Louis. All three played like high-caliber starters when on the field this year, and the Bears need to figure out which one (or two) they’re going to re-sign. The most difficult decision will be between Trevathan and Kwiatkoski. Trevathan is the better player, but is older (30 vs. 27 for 2020 season) and has a longer injury history. The Bears might be able to sign Pierre-Louis to be the top backup, but he might have played well enough this year to earn a bigger contract/more playing time elsewhere.
  • Safety: HaHa Clinton-Dix (and Deon Bush). Clinton-Dix outplayed his 1 year, $3 million deal in 2019, and now will be looking to get paid. The Bears will have to consider whether they want to be the ones to pay him. The decision is complicated by the fact that Clinton-Dix and Eddie Jackson have very similar skill sets, and playing Clinton-Dix more deep this year forced Eddie Jackson closer to the line of scrimmage, limiting his opportunities to make game-changing takeaways. The Bears defense as a whole might be better off letting Clinton-Dix walk and replacing him with somebody who allows Jackson to play more deep coverage. Top backup Deon Bush is also a free agent. He’s never played much on defense, but I thought was worth mentioning here simply because of the multiple guys at one position who are free agents. If the Bears like Bush enough, they could go cheap at safety by having him compete with a draft pick, but I think some sort of veteran, be that Clinton-Dix or an outside signing, is more likely.
  • Defensive Line: Nick Williams. The soon-to-be 30 year old had a breakout 2019 in Chicago, notching 6 sacks (the first of his 6 year NFL career) to finish 2nd on the Bears. He seriously faded down the stretch, though, failing to record a single sack, QB hit, or tackle for loss in the last 7 games of the season. I’m very curious to see what his market looks like considering he’s been a fringe roster guy for all but about 2 months of his career. If the price is right, I could see him back in Chicago, but they also have Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, Bilal Nichols, and Roy Robertson-Harris (restricted free agent, nearly a lock to be back), so Williams might find there’s more money and snaps to be had elsewhere.
  • Edge Rusher: Aaron Lynch. Lynch has been Chicago’s 3rd edge rusher for 2 years now, and shouldn’t cost much to bring back ($1.5M 2019 contract) if the Bears want him. They might look to upgrade that position, however, to find more pass rush opposite Khalil Mack. It’s a longer shot, but the Bears could also rescind Leonard Floyd’s 2020 tag ($13.2 million) and look to find more pass rush from the starter opposite Mack as well. Floyd is a really solid all-around player, but doesn’t offer much rushing the passer.
  • Special Teams: Sherrick McManis. The longest-tenured Bear has been a stalwart special teams ace for years, but is 32. It might be time for the Bears to move on, especially with similar special teams contributors like like Cordarrelle Patterson and DeAndre Houston-Carson on the roster.
  • Backup QB: Chase Daniel. Daniel is as good as gone, because the Bears need a QB who can compete with Trubisky to start at an absolute minimum. I fully expect the Bears will invest far more than Daniel’s $6M 2019 cap hit in the non-Trubisky portion of the QB roster for 2020.

That’s pretty much it. Most of the roster is still under contract, because this is a team that was built to be basically the same in 2019 and 2020 in what was supposed to be a Super Bowl window. Unfortunately, Mitchell Trubisky going bust derailed that, but the rest of the contracts are still in place.

Cost-Cutting Options

The salary cap is fluid, and there are always moves you can make to create space. Some possibilities the Bears will likely consider include:

  • Cutting expensive veterans who aren’t living up to their contract. The two most obvious candidates who are almost certainly gone are Taylor Gabriel ($4.5M savings) and Kyle Long ($8.1M). Prince Amukamara ($9M) is a strong possibility as well. The only other cut that would save significant money is Cordarrelle Patterson ($4.75M), but that’s a more complicated decision. Patterson doesn’t do much on offense, but may have been the best special teamer in the NFL this year. Is that worth the money, or could the Bears better spend it elsewhere?
  • I’m sure the Bears would love to cut Trey Burton, but it doesn’t really make financial sense to do so (saves $1M, leaves $7.5 M in dead cap). For that price, they’re probably better off hoping he can return to something resembling his 2018 form in 2020, though they can’t afford to count on that and leave the position intact.
  • Extend Allen Robinson. He has 1 year left on his current deal with a cap hit of $15M. Any extension would likely have an average annual value of at least that amount given his 2019 performance, but they could easily structure a new deal to make his 2019 cap hit lower than that. Of course, the downside of that is then they’re moving money to the salary cap in future years, which is always dangerous.
  • Restructure Khalil Mack. The Bears already did this last year by converting salary to a bonus, which gives Mack his same money but spreads out the cap hit across multiple years. They also did something similar right at the end of 2019 with Kyle Fuller. Mack currently has a 2020 cap hit of $26.6M, and they could turn some or all of his $13.3M salary into a bonus, which would divide evenly among the 2020-2023 salary cap. That could conceivably clear up to around $10M in cap room, but again you want to be careful about moving too much money to the future.

Just by making the logical moves of cutting Gabriel, Long, and Prince, the Bears would free up a little over $20M in cap space, This would give the Bears around $35M total. Extending Robinson and/or restructuring Mack could add another $10-15M, but then they have more money moved to the future, which is always dangerous.

Biggest Needs

Now let’s look at what positions the Bears need to upgrade this offseason.

  • Quarterback: Mitchell Trubisky was one of the worst starting quarterbacks in the NFL in 2019. At the very least, the Bears need to bring in somebody who can compete with him for the starting spot in camp. Don’t be surprised to see them go beyond that and look for somebody who would make Trubisky the clear-cut backup.
  • Right guard: Kyle Long is almost certainly gone. We saw enough of Rashaad Coward in 2019 to know he’s not the answer. We didn’t see any of Alex Bars, so we can’t assume he will be. The rest of Chicago’s starting offensive line is locked in for 2020, so improvement to a unit that struggled in 2019 – especially in run blocking – has to come here (and from tackles Charles Leno and Bobby Massie returning to previous form).
  • Tight end: I rank this need slightly lower than the first two simply because Trey Burton is a perfectly adequate tight end if he’s healthy. At this point, however, the Bears can’t assume he’ll be healthy. He never was in 2019, and the position was an absolute wasteland because of it. The other guys at this spot need to be drastically upgraded, such that any production they get from Burton in 2020 is a bonus, not an expectation.
  • Safety/inside linebacker/cornerback: These needs are dependent on what they do with guys currently on the roster. If they keep Prince Amukamara, re-sign HaHa Clinton-Dix, and lock up one of Danny Trevathan or Nick Kwiatkoski, they’re set. Any of those guys who leave creates a hole that needs to be filled.

Again, that’s it. It’s not a terribly long list of pressing needs. That might seem surprising given how frustrating Chicago’s 2019 season was, but this is a roster that still went 8-8 despite atrocious quarterback play because they’re actually pretty good at most spots. There’s always room to upgrade virtually any position, but the Bears don’t have many glaring needs on their roster.

This is a good thing, because they won’t have much money or draft capital to work with, and addressing the quarterback position – one of the few glaring needs they do have – is extremely expensive. If the Bears opt to trade for an established starting QB (think Cam Newton, Derek Carr, or Alex Smith), they’re looking at using $16-20M of that just on quarterback. You need to go into training camp with at least $10M of wiggle room, so realistically that’s most of Chicago’s budget for this offseason. This is the conundrum they face: do they go big at QB – the most important position on the field – and then have to pinch pennies at other needs, or look for a cheaper vet to compete with Trubisky and build the best possible roster around the QB?

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