The Bears are in the midst of looking for a new general manager and head coach, but what is the roster situation they’ll be inheriting?
I’m glad you asked.
Let’s take a look at who is on the roster, what the salary cap situation is, and what options they have to free up more space.
Current Depth Chart
Let’s start by looking at who the Bears currently have under contract for 2022. This is based on players currently signed as of January 18.
As you can see, there’s a lot of room for flexibility here. The Bears only have 40 players on the roster, and 11 of them are on futures contracts, which have no guaranteed money and thus are essentially camp tryout players. A standard NFL roster carries 53 players, so there will be extensive opportunity for a new coach and general manager to re-work the roster as they see fit, pretty much immediately. We could easily see half (or more) the week 1 roster in 2022 be players who were not with the Bears in 2021.
It stands to reason, then that the Bears have a long list of free agents from their 2021 roster, and that is indeed the case. Here is the full list of unrestricted free agents, grouped by position. Those who started at least five games for the Bears in 2021 are indicated with an asterisk. All free agent information is pulled from Over the Cap.
- QB: Andy Dalton*
- RB: Damien Williams
- WR: Allen Robinson*, Jakeem Grant, Marquise Goodwin, Damiere Byrd
- TE: Jimmy Graham*, Jesse James
- OL: Germain Ifedi*, James Daniels*, Jason Peters*, Elijah Wilkinson
- DL: Akiem Hicks*, Bilal Nichols*, Margus Hunt
- ILB: Alec Ogletree*, Christian Jones, Joel Iyiegbuniwe
- OLB: Cassius Marsh, Bruce Irvin
- CB: Artie Burns*, Marqui Christian
- S: Tashaun Gipson*, Deon Bush, DeAndre Houston-Carson
- ST: Pat O’Donnell*, Patrick Scales*
These players are all unrestricted free agents, meaning the Bears have no special rights over them. There are also a number of restricted free agents, who the Bears can choose to put a fairly inexpensive tag on to keep around for another year. They are listed below:
- CB: Xavier Crawford
- OL: Alex Bars
- TE: JP Holtz
- CB/S: Teez Tabor
- RB: Ryan Nall
Finally, the Bears have some exclusive rights free agents, who they can bring back on a minimum-level contract with no guaranteed money if they so choose. They are listed below:
- C: Sam Mustipher*
- TE: Jesper Horsted
- OL: Lachavious Simmons
Add it all up, and that is a total of 35 players, 14 of whom started at least 5 games in 2021, who the new regime will get to make an immediate choice to bring back or not. Some will be easy choices – Andy Dalton and Jimmy Graham won’t be back, for example – but others could have a reasonable argument made either way.
Salary Cap Situation
Now let’s take a look at where the Bears stand with respect to the salary cap, which is projected to be $208.2 million. The table below shows the Bears’ current cap limit (grey) against their current cap charges (blue), giving a current listing of cap space (orange). All data is pulled from Over the Cap, but they don’t have the futures signings added in yet, so I added in 11 more players at the NFL minimum salary of $705,000. Once again, all information is current as of January 18.
On the surface, nearly $35M in cap room seems like plenty of money, but as we noted above, the Bears need to sign a lot of players, so that money will have to stretch pretty far. For a little context, the free agents listed above took up an average of just over $88M/year on their last contracts, so the Bears will be losing significantly more than they bring in during free agency, at least in terms of money.
Of course, the salary cap in the NFL is fluid, and there are always ways to shift some money to the future or cut players to get out from under contracts. Let’s look at some of their options to create cap room for 2022.
The simplest way to create more cap space is to cut players. The table below shows every player who would free up at least $1.5M in cap space if they were cut. I’ll note that I am not advocating cutting all of these players, simply showing all possible options.
A few quick thoughts:
- Dead money is cap charges that would stay with the Bears even after the player was cut. So, look at the ratio of dead money to space cleared to get an idea of whether a cut is worth it. For instance, cutting Khalil Mack saves $3M but leaves $27M – 90% of Mack’s cap charge – still on the books, which means it is not even something to be considered. The same goes for Robert Quinn, and it probably makes good financial sense to keep Nick Foles around as a backup QB as well.
- The numbers would be the same if a player was traded for virtually all of these guys. The only ones who teams would be remotely interested in trading for are Mack and Quinn anyway.
- You might be wondering where some other notable veterans, like Danny Trevathan, Cody Whitehair, and Eddie Jackson, are on this list. All three have contracts such that cutting them would actually increase their 2022 cap hits. I’m sure the Bears would love to get out of Trevathan and Whitehair’s contracts, but there’s no easy financial path to do that.
- One option the Bears could consider is doing a post-June 1 cut, which moves some of the dead money to 2023 and creates 2022 cap room. I think the Bears will likely go that route with Trevathan. This would give them $3.5M in 2022 savings but mean that $6M of the Bears’ 2023 cap space is devoted to Trevathan. That contract was one of the worst moves former GM Ryan Pace ever made.
If I had to guess, the new GM will cut Eddie Goldman, Tarik Cohen, Jeremiah Attaochu, and Danny Trevathan (with a post-June 1 designation), which would bring the Bears up to about $49M in cap space.
Another option to create immediate cap room is to restructure a player’s contract. This takes their 2022 salary and converts it into a bonus, which can then spread the cap hit out over multiple seasons. Like with a post-June 1 cut, this is good news now and bad news later. For example, if a player has a $10M salary and you make it a bonus, you can spread the cap hits out over 5 years, so $2M applies to each year. That saves you $8M for 2022, but costs you $2M/year in 2023-26.
The Bears could do this with Robert Quinn ($12.8M salary), Khalil Mack ($12.1M salary), Eddie Jackson ($11.0M salary), or Cody Whitehair ($8M salary), but I don’t think it would be wise for any of those situations. They’ve already done it for Mack, Jackson, and Whitehair in the past few years, which is part of why those players all have higher salary cap hits this year. Mack, Whitehair, and Quinn will all be 30 or older at the start of the 2022 season, which means you need to start preparing to be able to move on from them when age and/or injuries catch up. Moving their money to the future makes it harder to do that and can create a situation like what the Bears currently have with Danny Trevathan.
Thus, I don’t think the Bears should seriously consider restructuring anybody this offseason, and hopefully a new GM doesn’t feel the pressure to win now so they can make prudent decisions for the future.
Wrapping It Up
To me, the key word to describe the roster this offseason is flexibility. The Bears have a long list of free agents, which provides the flexibility to quickly re-work the roster. They have some money to spend but will have to pick and choose their spots because of how many holes need filling (especially since the Bears have only 5 draft picks, including no 1st rounder). Terrible salary cap management by Ryan Pace over the last two off-seasons will leave the hands of the new GM a little tied, but they should still be able to target a few decently priced players in free agency.
If you feel like this is not a super optimistic article, I’m simply trying to be realistic. And this isn’t some sort of anti-Bears bias on my part either. National analytics folks have also pointed out the Bears as a team that doesn’t have a ton of resources available to them to improve this offseason.
That doesn’t mean all hope is lost, however. The Bears’ biggest hope for improvement in 2022 comes from within. The largest improvement for QBs typically comes from year 1 to year 2, and Justin Fields making a leap would do wonders for the entire offense. If Fields is good in 2022, the Bears should be good as well (though probably not at the level of a Super Bowl contender). If Fields is not good, the Bears won’t be either.
If you would like a chance to play through what you think the offseason should look like for the Bears, Quinten Krzysko (@ButkusStats on Twitter) created an interactive tool you can use to make all the cuts, trades, signings, and draft picks you would like. Go play around with it, see what the best depth chart you can build is while staying within the salary cap, and share your results in the comments below!