Disclaimer: an early version of this article listed Sam Mustipher as a free agent, but he is an exclusive rights free agent, which means the Bears can keep him around for 2022 on a minimum level contract. The article has been edited to remove him. I apologize for the initial error.
The Bears’ roster stayed fairly consistent, with the same general core of players from 2018-20, but this offseason began to change that. Longtime starters like Kyle Fuller, Charles Leno, Bobby Massie, and Mitchell Trubisky were sent packing, and Justin Fields’ arrival in the draft represented the dawn of a new (and hopefully more successful) era.
The team will look a bit different on the field in 2021, but many of the 2018-20 core remains. Next offseason, however, will see greater roster flexibility (and thus likely greater roster turnover) than Chicago has had in a while.
To begin with, the following projected Bears starters are scheduled to be free agents in 2022:
- QB Andy Dalton
- WR Allen Robinson
- WR Anthony Miller
- TE Jimmy Graham
- C Sam Mustipher
- RG James Daniels
- RT Germain Ifedi
- DE Akiem Hicks
- DE Bilal Nichols
- CB Desmond Trufant
- S Tashaun Gipson
That’s a total of 10 starters – 6 on offense, 4 on defense. Additionally, the Bears will be able to move on from QB Nick Foles ($3M cap savings), DT Eddie Goldman ($6.7M cap savings), OLB Robert Quinn ($6.7M cap savings), and OLB Jeremiah Attaochu ($2.85M cap savings) if they want to. (With Goldman, that is highly unlikely.)
The Bears will also have greater financial flexibility than they have the last few off-seasons. Right now, they are scheduled to have about $39M in cap room according to Over the Cap, though that does not yet factor in the 2021 draft picks, who will probably drop that by about $10M. That’s also estimating a $200M cap, and it could end up a bit higher than that. Either way, they will have money to spend, with the ability to create more with cuts (as indicated above).
The combination of a high number of free agents and some financial flexibility means the Bears will have the ability to reshape the roster around Fields as they see fit.
However, there will still be financial limitations. With no first or fourth round draft picks, they will not have a large number of instant-impact rookies, which means they’ll need to re-sign or replace most of the starters listed above in free agency. They already have Dalton’s replacement in Fields, but most of the rest don’t have an obvious replacement on the roster unless late round draft picks really take a large step forward this year (notably Dazz Newsome at WR, Arlington Hambright and Larry Borom on the OL, Trevis Gipson at OLB, and Kindle Vildor, Duke Shelley, and Thomas Graham at CB).
To put some perspective on the situation:
The 9 players above (not including Dalton) have a combined average salary of just over $50M on their current contracts. Three of those ten – Daniels, Nichols, and Miller – are currently on rookie deals, and they will likely require a pay raise to stick around. The Bears are counting on Daniels and Nichols in particular to be quality starters for them, with a combined 2021 cap hit of around $5M. If they perform up to that level, they’ll be expensive to re-sign. The 15th highest paid guard contract – a quality player, but not a particularly great one – pays $8.5M/year, while that number is $9M/year for defensive tackles. Neither of those two players have to be stars to get significant raises. Roy Robertson-Harris, who Nichols is clearly better than, just signed a deal for $8M/year in Jacksonville, so Nichols especially is likely looking at a sizable deal.
And while some of the veterans are cheap and can be replaced cheaply, others will be expensive to re-sign, or big losses if the Bears can’t bring them back. Allen Robinson alone is likely looking at a contract north of $20 million per year, while highly paid veterans Akiem Hicks (currently $12M/year) and Jimmy Graham (currently $8M/year) surely won’t be looking for a pay cut. Given their advanced age – Hicks and Graham will be 32 and 35, respectively, next offseason – the Bears may well decide it is time to look for younger and cheaper options at those spots. I could particularly see Bilal Nichols essentially replace Hicks from a cap perspective, but the Bears don’t have a logical Jimmy Graham replacement on the roster (Graham is a U TE, while Cole Kmet is a Y. They are different positions).
This is not to say that Chicago is screwed financially, so please don’t take it to mean that. On the contrary, they have their 2022 starting QB and LT locked in on rookie contracts that will likely cost a cumulative $6M cap hit. Should both Fields and Teven Jenkins prove to be solid players, that is a savings of around $40M compared to having highly paid veterans in those positions. Even with that, borrowing so heavily from the future the last two off-seasons leaves Chicago with some cap space limitations, but they will be workable. The Bears will simply have to choose what players are worth investing in, and find low-cost options to patch holes elsewhere, which is something that Ryan Pace has been quite good at the last few years.
The last three off-seasons have seen Chicago without much flexibility, as most of the roster was designed to stay intact. 2022, however, will provide the Bears with their best chance to significantly re-shape the roster since 2018. That should see them able to move away from some of their aging, expensive veterans (Dalton, Graham, Hicks, Trufant, Gipson, Foles, and Quinn are all over 30) and shift more of their investment into the offense (they currently have about $50M in 2022 cap space spent on offense and $110M on defense).
Chicago’s 2018-20 roster was built around their defense, but 2022 and beyond should be built around Justin Fields and the offense. Next offseason will provide Chicago with the perfect opportunity to make that shift.