2023 Off-Season Primer: Plenty of Money, Plenty of Needs

| January 10th, 2023

The 2022 season is finally over, meaning it is time for fans to shift their attention to the off-season, that magical time of year when every team turns all of their weaknesses into strengths and enters training camp as a legitimate Super Bowl contender.

I kid, of course, but the offseason is a time to improve the roster, and the Bears showed this year that they need plenty of roster improvement. To give us an idea of what might be possible in the next few months, I want to take stock of where the Bears currently are. We’ll explore:

  • Who is still under contract vs. entering free agency.
  • What upgrades are needed.
  • What the salary cap situation looks like.
  • What players could be eligible for extensions.

Current Depth Chart

Let’s start by looking at who the Bears currently have under contract for 2023. This is based on players currently signed as of January 9.

As you can see, the roster is going to undergo a significant overhaul this offseason for the second year in a row. As of right now, there are only 41 players on the roster, and many of them are fringe guys who may not make the team next year.

(Quick side note: there are 2 players that did not fit on this depth chart: TE Chase Allen and safety Adrian Colbert. I didn’t want to add a 3rd string just for them, and they’re practice squad guys who likely won’t factor into the 2023 roster anyway).

Though the Bears can at least pencil in a “starter” at most roster spots, many of those players should not be starting in 2023, and the team should be looking to add new starters at the following positions this offseason:

  • RB – Khalil Herbert is a great runner, but the Bears clearly don’t trust him in the passing game, so they at the very least need a more pass-oriented RB to pair with him.
  • WR – Equanimeous St. Brown is not a starter.
  • C – Lucas Patrick is not a starter.
  • RT – Larry Borom and Alex Leatherwood can compete for the top backup OT spot.
  • DE (2) – Trevis Gipson and Dominique Robinson can be productive rotational options. Al-Quadin Muhammad does not belong on the roster.
  • DT (2) – Maybe Justin Jones starts, but to me he’s ideally your top backup DT.
  • LB (2) – Jack Sanborn can start. The other two starters are not currently on the roster.
  • CB – Corner is a position where you need multiple bodies, but Kindle Vildor should be competing with Jaylon Jones to be the top backup.

That’s 11 starters, and doesn’t include left guard, where Cody Whitehair was awful after his early season injury and could be a cap casualty (more on that below).

Free Agents

As you might expect from the sparse depth chart above, the Bears have many players slated to hit free agency this off-season. Here is the full list of unrestricted free agents grouped by position, with players who started at least five games for the Bears in 2022 indicated with an asterisk.

  • QB: Nathan Peterman, Tim Boyle
  • RB: David Montgomery*, Khari Blasingame
  • WR: Dante Pettis*, Byron Pringle, N’Keal Harry
  • TE: Trevon Wesco, Ryan Griffin
  • OL: Riley Reiff*, Michael Schofield, Dakota Dozier
  • DL: Armon Watts*, Mike Pennel, Angelo Blackson
  • LB: Nicholas Morrow*, Joe Thomas*, Matthew Adams, Elijah Lee
  • S: DeAndre Houston-Carson*, Dane Cruikshank
  • ST: Patrick Scales*

The Bears also have several free agents they still have some sort of control over:

  • C Sam Mustipher*, RB Darrynton Evans, DL Andrew Brown, LB Javin White, and CB Breon Borders are restricted free agents, meaning the Bears can choose to put a fairly inexpensive tag on them to keep them around for one more season.
  • CB Josh Blackwell and G/C Dieter Eiselen are exclusive rights free agents, meaning the Bears can bring them back to camp on a minimum-level deal with no guaranteed money if they so choose.

All told, this list includes 29 players, 8 of whom started at least 5 games for the Bears in 2022. That might seem like a lot, but most of those are not players you want to be starting. The only possible exception is David Montgomery, though I would argue that he is more of a rotational player than quality starter as well (more on that later this offseason). These players starting as often as they did is a big reason the Bears were one of the worst teams in the NFL.

If the Bears do choose to bring any of these players back, it will most likely be on cheap deals to serve as high quality backups, or at the very least compete for playing time. None of them besides Montgomery are likely to command a starter-level contract.

Salary Cap Situation

Now let’s take a look at where the Bears stand with respect to the salary cap. This is complicated by the fact that we don’t yet know exactly what the new cap will be, thanks to new TV deals that are still taking shape. The most recent reports say it will be “at least” $220 million, so we’ll go with that as a conservative estimate.

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.

As you can see, Chicago has plenty of money to spend; in fact, they currently lead the NFL in projected cap space by a wide margin. Like we noted above, the Bears have a whole lot of needs this offseason, but unlike the last few years, they’ll actually have the money needed to address those in a meaningful way.

I’ll note that my numbers are a little different from Over the Cap’s, because I factored in the Bears’ recent signing of 7 players to futures contracts by allotting them the minimum NFL salary of $750,000. This is for 41 players, so even factoring in 10 more minimum signings would remove another $7.5M to fill to the “top 51” cap charge the NFL uses for salary cap counting in the offseason, when rosters are bigger. The exact numbers don’t matter too much here; suffice it to say the Bears have plenty of money to spend.

Possible Cuts

Of course, the Bears also can create even more money if they want to, because there are a few players they could decide are not worth the money they are due and cut them. 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 thoughts:

  • This is a pretty short list, in no small part because so many guys who would have been on it have already been cut or traded in the year since Ryan Poles took over. I think Poles made plenty of mistakes in his first year on the job, but I have to credit him for not wasting any time getting rid of Chicago’s bad contracts.
  • Eddie Jackson was phenomenal before getting hurt in 2022 and should be back.
  • Trevor Siemian is actually pretty cheap for a backup QB, and he’s a solid backup, so I don’t see any point in cutting him.
  • Justin Jones was the rare Ryan Poles free agent signing from 2022 who actually lived up to his contract, so it makes sense to keep him around for the last year of it.
  • Al-Quadin Muhammad and Lucas Patrick, two other 2022 free agency signings, were both really bad this year, and that money can be spent on better players. I would assume they will be cut.
  • Cairo Santos really struggled down the stretch in 2022 but cutting him doesn’t save all that much money. I won’t be shocked if Poles keeps him around and brings in competition.
  • Cody Whitehair is the most difficult evaluation for me. He was pretty good before getting hurt in week four, and then really bad after coming back in week nine. Given his rising age (he’ll be 31 in July), injury history, and questionable results the last few years, it might make sense to cut him, but eating over $8M in dead money to save less than $6M against the cap doesn’t make that a guarantee. This might be another situation where it makes sense to bring him back to camp but give him competition and reserve the right to cut him depending on how the rest of the roster shakes out.

Cutting Muhammad and Patrick would add bring Chicago up to around $118M in cap space, and that number would rise to $124M if they moved on from Whitehair as well. At this point, it doesn’t make a ton of sense to worry too much about the specific numbers. The Bears will have no shortage of money to spend, so you can expect them to be active in free agency. I would guess they will target 3-4 high priced free agents, and then sign 5-6 more mid-level starters on top of that.

Extension Candidates

The Bears could also look to spend some of that money to keep what little homegrown talent they do have around for a while. Per NFL rules, drafted players are eligible for extensions after their third NFL season, one year before their initial rookie contract expires. Chicago has four notable starters who fit that bill and could be looking for big deals:

  • WR Darnell Mooney
  • WR Chase Claypool
  • TE Cole Kmet
  • CB Jaylon Johnson

All four players have firmly established themselves as NFL starters, and early extensions are often the best way to get a team-friendly deal since it gives players life-altering money a year earlier than required, thus minimizing their injury risk. However, none of the four have conclusively proven themselves to be stars, which really complicates the negotiations. Does Poles value any of them enough to hand them long-term deals with large guarantees and average cap hits in excess of $10M? I will be fascinated to see how extension talks proceed with each of them this offseason and will likely take a look in the next few months at what extensions might reasonably look like for each player.

Wrapping it Up

The Bears have their quarterback in Justin Fields, but the rest of the roster is in pretty bad shape.

This offseason is when they can start to fix that, with the first pick of the draft (and the possibility of trading down for multiple high draft picks) and at least $120 million to spend. When the dust settles, Chicago’s roster should be significantly better in 2023 than it was in 2022.

With that said, it’s important to remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and a Super Bowl champion won’t be built in one off-season. The Bears have the resources to put a playoff team around Fields in 2023, but the gap between them and the NFL’s best is too sizable to climb all at once. Poles will need to stack multiple quality off-seasons together to build up the roster talent and depth to a point where a Super Bowl championship is realistic. With any luck, Bears fans will point back to this offseason as the first step of that journey, but it certainly won’t be the last.

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