Bought & Sold: Free Agency, American Sport and the Question of Language

| March 20th, 2023

[Note: These ideas are not entirely fleshed out. But since I have this space, I thought I would start fleshing them out in public.]

Writing a unique NFL column at this time of the year is often a difficult proposition. Look around the internet and you’ll understand what I mean. Everybody writes their “free agents to target” piece, and then their “free agents acquired” piece, and then their “free agents still available” piece, and then their “free agency round-up” piece. The kids doing this can utilize video and throw around buzzy terminology like “sudden route runner”. The byline brigade will get their off-the-record scout sources to take a break from filing a 13-page report on some Vanderbilt slot corner to provide some punch-up quotations. (“Our pro personnel guys see him as a starter.”) None of it is offensive. But none of it is particularly interesting, either.


So today I want to consider something that has long interested me when it comes to the NFL, and really the whole of American sport: language. When a European soccer club acquires a player, they “buy” him and the club they buy him from “sells” him. When a team gives a player to another team, that player is said to be out “on loan”. Players are property, athletic commodities possessed by supremely rich ownership groups, and the language used to reflect their movement in the sport reflects that. It’s honest. It’s real.

But we don’t use that kind of language here. Why? The Bears just bought Tremaine Edmunds. They own his ability to play football for the length of their agreed-upon contract. (For the Marxists in the audience, this would be his “labor value”.) But we use language like “signed him” because it’s a fine way to pretend the player possesses an autonomy he does not, in fact, possess. There is a softness to the word “signing”. It gives the player agency, as he is the one always photographed doing the signing. (We never see George McCaskey putting ink to paper.) “Buying” denotes the harsher reality.

When we hear language like, “Team X cut Player Y to Save Z” do we actually acknowledge that phrase as meaning “The Moon Monkeys fired Jim Tawilliger to save a buck”? A “cap casualty” is an economically driven pink slip, an acknowledgement to the player that the contract initially signed was (in the long run) bullshit and a reminder that his child most likely needs to make a whole new set of friends in a whole new city. Can you imagine this language being employed in any other profession on the earth? “Sorry, Bill, you’re a good employee but now you cost too much and we have set an arbitrary limit on how much we can spend on our workforce.”

And what of the salary cap, generally? ESPN pays $1.1 billion annually for Monday Night Football. Amazon pays $1 billion a year for Thursday Night Football. The three networks also kick in about a billion each year, with YouTube now ponying up another $2 billion for Sunday Ticket. That’s more than $7 billion dollars, which divided by 32, means television contracts ALONE bring each team about $220 million annually. Before a ticket is sold. Before a beer leaves the hand of a vendor. Before you get your kid that Justin Fields jersey for Christmas. The reported revenue for the Chicago Bears was $520 million in 2021. What is the salary cap next year? $224.8 million. And folks wonder why the owners pay Roger Goodell what they do.

One might argue that the European model is not a good comparison since teams don’t technically sell players to other teams. Well of course they do. They just don’t do it transparently, for money, because of the salary cap. Baseball trades often involve cash considerations, and those considerations are rarely disclosed. NFL trades don’t involve cash because it would just be billionaire owners lining each other’s pockets and that would appear unseemly. So, they trade another commodity: the draft pick. To front offices and coaches, draft picks are players that can make the roster better. To owners, draft picks are price tag.

We use the language we do for one reason: it’s easier on us. Soft terminology allows us to distance ourselves from the reality of this ruthless business. The fan relationship with sport is dependent upon a belief that the players on the field want to win a championship as much as they do. And while most are desperate to win a chip, most also don’t care where they win that chip. Their value is in their athletic ability, and they want to play where that ability yields the most financial security. In other words, they are for sale, whether we want to acknowledge that or not.

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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:

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Flexibility: Previewing the 2022 Off-Season (Depth Chart, Free Agency, the Cap)

| January 20th, 2022

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.


Free Agents

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.

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Bears Roster Will Look Very Different in 2022

| May 26th, 2021

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).

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Roster, Cap, Future: An All-Encompassing Primer for the 2021 Off-Season

| January 14th, 2021

The 2020 season is behind us, and now it’s time to start thinking about what changes are coming in the offseason to prepare for next year. We will focus on the roster, examining the salary cap situation, looking at who’s still under contract vs. a free agent, and exploring potential options for freeing up money.

Salary Cap Situation

The 2021 salary cap is currently projected to be somewhere between $175 and $195 million. I’ll use $185 million, right in the middle of that, as our estimate for now. As you can see in the table below, the Bears are fairly tight up against the cap right now (bottom row). All numbers come from Over the Cap.

The Bears have very little cap room, and it’s worth noting this is with only 45 players under contract. The Bears will have to fill to 53 for a full roster, and the NFL minimum salary is $660k. Even if they fill out with minimum-salary players, that adds another $5.3 million, which puts them over the salary cap (or very close to it, depending on where exactly it ends up). That’s not to mention their draft picks, which will add a few million to that; the Bears pick 20th in round 1, and last years’ 20th overall pick had a $2.4M cap hit.

I’ll note these numbers are current as of about 10 PM Chicago time on Wednesday, January 13. They might have changed if the Bears sign more practice squad players to futures contracts (which basically adds in guys at that minimum $660k level).

Depth Chart

So the Bears are currently a little over the salary cap, though there are always options to free up more money (more on that later). Who do they have under contract making all that money? The table below shows the current depth chart for all 45 players currently signed for 2021 (again, might be a little out of date as the Bears sign their practice squad players in the upcoming days).

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Ryan Pace Has Gone All-In on the 2020 Season

| June 24th, 2020

After a disappointing 8-8 season, Ryan Pace moved aggressively this off-season to revamp the Bears for 2020.

On defense, he re-signed Danny Trevathan, upgraded Leonard Floyd with Robert Quinn, signed Tashaun Gipson as a cheap replacement for HaHa Clinton-Dix, and drafted Jaylon Johnson to replace the aging Prince Amukamara.

On offense, he traded for Nick Foles to compete with upgrade Mitchell Trubisky, replaced oft-injured veterans Taylor Gabriel, Kyle Long, and Trey Burton with Ted Ginn, Germain Ifedi, and Jimmy Graham, and drafted Cole Kmet to hopefully give Chicago their first long-term solution at tight end since Greg Olsen was shipped out of town a decade ago.

That’s an impressively long list of moves for a team that entered the off-season with surprisingly low amounts of cap space and draft capital. And it has left the Bears with what appears to be a pretty solid roster, at least on paper, though it’s fair to say that questions at quarterback certainly limit the optimism.

But things start to look much more questionable when you gaze beyond 2020. You see, the only way Pace could spend money this off-season was by borrowing from the future salary cap, and he did that quite heavily. Several players have had their contracts restructured within the last year+ to clear up immediate cap space by moving money to 2021 and beyond. This totaled around $20M from a combination of Khalil Mack ($7.8M), Kyle Fuller ($4.5M), Charles Leno ($4.2M), and Cody Whitehair ($3.2M).

On top of that, most contracts Pace handed out this off-season were absurdly back loaded.

  • Robert Quinn has a $6M 2020 cap hit on what is essentially a 3 year, $43M deal (a 2020 savings of over $8M from the average cap hit for the deal). The downside is he will still have total cap charges of $37M remaining in 2021 and beyond, and will likely only play in Chicago for 2021-2022. To make matters worse, those will be his age 31 and 32 seasons, when his play will likely start to slip. He’s a speed rusher that relies heavily on that one skill, so it’s possible that decline will be very pronounced.
  • Danny Trevathan has a $4.2M 2020 cap hit on what is essentially a three-year, $21.7M deal. That saves about $3M in 2020 cap, but means the Bears will still have $17.5M on cap charges for his remaining 2 seasons, in which he will be 31 and 32 and likely start to see his play decline.
  • Jimmy Graham has a $6M 2020 cap hit on what is essentially a one-year, $9M deal. That saves $3M in 2020, but means the Bears will have that cap hit in 2021 when he is likely not on the team (if he is on the team, he’ll have a $10M cap hit, which is not ideal for a player who will turn 35 during that season and has already started showing signs of decline).

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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.

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A Thorough Breakdown of the Chicago Cap Situation

| January 16th, 2019

After a heartbreaking playoff loss, it’s time to shift from in-season coverage to looking ahead to what’s in store for the Bears this offseason as they prepare for 2019.

And that starts with looking at the money, because after all, the NFL is a business. So let’s get a feel for where the Bears are with respect to the cap, what moves could be made to clear up space, and what players are scheduled to be free agents.

Current Cap Situation

The table below shows the Bears’ current cap situation. All data comes from Spotrac.

As you can see, that looks a good bit different than in years past. The roster has gotten significantly more talented, but also significantly more expensive, which means they don’t have much money to spend. So don’t expect free agency to be nearly as exciting as it’s been the last several years. A few other notes:

  • All of these figures are flexible. There are always ways to change the cap situation, and I’ll look at a few of them below.
  • The 2019 cap projection is currently somewhere between $187 and $191 million. I went with the conservative estimate, but they might have a few million more than this to work with. We’ll know more sometime in the next few months (it was set in early March last year).

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Sunday Data Entry: Understanding Where the Bears Currently Stand with the Salary Cap

| February 11th, 2018

The questions…

  • Where do the Bears now sit relative to the cap?
  • How much money do they have to work with?
  • How much can they create with cuts?
  • What players of their own do they have to re-sign before looking for improvements elsewhere?

I know the salary cap can be confusing, so I try to break it down step-by-step as much as possible here. If you’re not interested in the specifics, you can just jump to the end for general numbers. All salary data comes courtesy of Spotrac.

Current Cap

The table below shows the Bears’ current cap situation.

Every line is important for the math, but the bottom line, highlighted in yellow, tells you they have roughly $32.1 million to spend after accounting for the likely contracts of their upcoming draft picks.

If you care where that number comes from, I’ll explain below the table. If not, just keep that $32.1 million in mind and jump to the next section.

The gray areas up top are the current cap expenses the Bears have.

  • Their 51 players under contract have a combined cap hit of $143.8 million.
  • They have $1.2 million in dead cap (money previously paid to cut players that didn’t count under previous caps).
  • Their draft picks are estimated to use up $7.6 million of cap space.

This all adds up to $152.6 million. Those numbers are broken down on a player by player basis here.

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A Digital Representation of the Bears Salary Cap, Position-by-Position

| August 11th, 2015

Got an email from a digital agency guy called Matt Zajechowski, who created a graphic on the Bears salary cap with Olivet Nazarene University. Usually I ignore these emails. This one I kind of found cool. And I’m not even remotely a salary cap guy.

Here’s the description:

In 2015, the Chicago Bears are projected to have a salary cap of $144,606,834, with total liabilities (or guaranteed money) of $136,298,355. For those of you doing the math (as most Bears fans are), that leaves exactly $8,309,479 in cap space. So how do Da Bears fare against the salary cap, both as players and as position groups?

The graphic breaks down the cap for the Bears position-by-position. It is the largest image I’ve ever posted so it’s coming after the jump sop as not to ruin this site on mobile devices. Enjoy.

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