Bears Must Address Imbalanced Roster Construction

| November 20th, 2020

Yet again in 2020, we see that the Bears have one of the best defenses in the NF,L coupled with one of the worst offenses. This combines to give them a team that is not good enough. It’s Groundhog Day all over again, a continuation of 2018-19, all of the Lovie years, and the 1980s after Jim McMahon got hurt.

Normally I’d use the bye week to do an in-depth look at the numbers for Chicago’s offense and defense, but honestly I don’t see the point. Their defense is really good, their offense is really bad, and you don’t need advanced stats to tell you more than that. I’m sure I’ll still do some of that analysis in the offseason but for right now I want to focus on a bigger question: WHY is the defense so much better than their offense?

The answer here is really not that surprising: the Bears are investing more in the defense. The table below shows how much money they have invested in the defense compared to the offense, as measured in 3 ways:

  • 2020 cap dollars. How much current money is being spent.
  • Average yearly salary. This accounts for the fact that contracts don’t have even distribution of cap hits every year. For instance, Robert Quinn has an average salary of $14M per year in his contract, but only has a 2020 cap hit of $6M. This will give a better picture of true spending.
  • % of salary. This looks at how much of your total spending is focused on one side of the ball, based on the average annual salary of players. It’s a good measure of how lopsided your investment is on offense vs. defense.

The table below shows the Bears’ values for offense and defense in each category, as well as the NFL average and where the Bears rank. All data is from Spotrac.

A few thoughts:

  • Notice how back-loaded their defensive contracts are. Their average yearly salary is $23M higher than their 2020 cap hit. Some back-loading is normal, but that’s a very high amount, and they’ll be paying for it in the next few years.
  • Based on the average yearly salary, the Bears have $34M more than average invested in their defense, and $14M less than average invested in their offense.
  • This gets even worse when you only look at the starters. The average annual salary for Chicago’s starting defense is $94M, more than $7M higher than the next team and $35M higher than the NFL average. The Bears have the most expensive starting defense in the NFL by a wide margin, which is less than ideal.
  • Of the bottom 10 teams in % of money spent on offense, only 2 – Baltimore and Miami – have a winning record. Failing to invest in the offense is not a winning strategy.

To put it simply, the Bears have a great defense and a bad offense by choice. They have chosen to continually invest in building and maintaining a great defense, and that doesn’t leave them the resources needed to build an offense. (Side note: the Bears also underperform their offensive investment, which is a separate issue.) This roster is constructed with the goal of having a great defense and acceptable offense, which is not the best way to win games in the NFL.

It’s no surprise, then, to see that Chicago is going to be hard-pressed to make significant upgrades on the offense this offseason. They currently have only $600k in 2021 cap space according to Over the Cap, and that’s without factoring in signing their rookie class. They also have a number of free agents, most notably Allen Robinson, who will likely require a contract in the range of $18M a year to re-sign. The Bears currently have almost twice as much 2021 cap space invested in the defense ($118M) as they do in the offense ($63M).

If they want to fix their offense, they’re going to need money to do it. In order to free up money, they need to move on from some high-priced defenders.

  • The Bears have six players on defense making more than $10M per year, and Roquan Smith will soon become a 7th.
  • No other NFL team has more than five, and of the five teams with five, only one has a winning record. (That’s Baltimore, who added two short-term rentals for this year in Calais Campbell and Yannick Nagokue and will only be at 3-4 going forward). Paying a lot of defenders big money is not a winning strategy in the NFL. The Bears’ goal should be to get that six down to four this offseason, with another they can shed in the next year or two when Roquan gets paid. Let’s look at the options, sorted by their contract status.

Can’t Escape Yet

  • Robert Quinn. Quinn is the player on this list the Bears would most like to dump, but it doesn’t make any financial sense to do so. Quinn’s 2021 cap hit would actually rise by almost $10M in 2021 if he is cut. They could cut him after 2021 to save $7M on their 2022 books, but even then they’d be eating $9M in dead money to do so. And nobody is going to trade for this contract when Quinn is currently getting outplayed by Barkevious Mingo, who is a journeyman on a veteran minimum contract. This is why you don’t give back-loaded contracts out of desperation in free agency.
  • Eddie Goldman. Goldman is not an option to be cut, as it would mean his 2021 cap hit is about $5M higher than if he’s on the roster. The fact that he just sat out a year probably kills any trade value he might have, so the Bears’ best option is likely to hold on to him. He’ll also only be 27 next year, meaning he has several years of his prime left, and thus a good chance to play out his contract through 2032 and provide solid value.

Could Trade, But No Immediate Cap Relief

  • Eddie Jackson. Jackson’s new extension kicks in next offseason, so trading him wouldn’t really save any money for 2021. He’s only 26 (turning 27 in December), so he is just entering his prime. They could consider trading him if the draft return is great – Seattle did just give up two 1st round picks for Jamal Adams – but his combination of age and elite coverage ability makes him one of the guys they should build their defense around.
  • Khalil Mack. Like Jackson, trading Mack would be a roughly cap neutral move for 2021. It would, however, free up more than $20M from their cap in 2022, 2023, and 2024. Mack is really, really good, but that’s a lot of money you could invest on the offense. He’s going to turn 30 in February, but pass rushers usually age pretty well, so that’s not something the Bears (or a team trading for him) have to be super worried about yet. Mack would probably bring a solid return, since the team trading for him would have him under contract for 4 years at less than $18M per year. Yannick Ngakoe brought 2nd + 5th round picks in return when he was traded this offseason, and Mack is better (though older) and already signed for a below-market deal long term (below market for the team acquiring him, since bonus money stays with Chicago). A 1st round pick wouldn’t be out of the question here, but I would think a 2nd + another 2nd or 3rd is the minimum price he would fetch.

Should Trade

  • Kyle Fuller. Fuller is turning 29 in February and has a contract that expires after 2021, which means the Bears could clear $11M in immediate cap space by trading him. The trade return would probably be pretty good too; Darius Slay brought a 2nd rounder back when he was traded last offseason, and I imagine Fuller’s value would be similar.
  • Akiem Hicks. Hicks just turned 31, and like Fuller has a deal that expires after 2021. Trading him would free up $10.5M in 2021 cap space. The return here probably wouldn’t be as great due to Hicks’ age; the most recent comparable trade involved Calais Campbell, who went from Jacksonville to Baltimore for a 5th rounder last offseason. Hicks is 3 years younger than Campbell was at the time of the trade, so maybe he has a little more value, but a 3rd or 4th rounder would be the best the Bears can realistically hope for.

The Path Forward

It’s going to be painful, but Chicago needs to trade Kyle Fuller and Akiem Hicks this offseason. They’re both really good players, but the Bears have too many of those on defense and can’t afford to keep paying them all. Moving on from them will give Chicago over $20M they can spend on the offense, plus a few more mid-round picks to acquire cheap talent (which they’re also short on after four straight drafts of not enough picks).

If they really want to get bold, the Bears could look to trade Eddie Jackson or Khalil Mack as well (I would lean Mack if they had to choose one due to the combination of age and cost), but they can make it work to keep both of them. After all, Roquan Smith won’t really get expensive until around the time they can finally dump Robert Quinn, so that won’t be too much of an overinvestment on defense.

Dumping Hicks and Fuller will undoubtedly hurt the defense, but it’s the only way to meaningfully improve the offense. We’ve seen in the last few years what a really good defense gets you when coupled with a bad offense, and right now the Bears have so much invested in the defense that it’s not leaving them enough money to build a good offense. They need to balance out the roster, and that means making painful decisions.

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