Chicago Bears free agency: Why Bears can’t “afford” to be major players in 2015

Chicago Bears free agency: Why Bears can’t “afford” to be major players in 2015

Halas Hall is ripe for change on the eve of the upcoming 2015 NFL off-season, and the biggest of those changes are yet to be made. The Bears interviewed a number of head coaching candidates over the weekend, and will transition into general manager interviews early this week. But while the maintenance crews begin changing nameplates in the front office, similar work will be done down in the team locker room.

Chicago Bears free agency begins in-house, with 24 players out of contract in 2015. Aging defensive stars like Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman are up, along with notables in Chris Conte, D.J. Williams and Stephen Paea. And for a unit that allowed 442 points (27.6 per game), 31st in the NFL, one cannot help but wonder how the new GM and head coach will attempt to repair the broken defense.

Chicago Bears 2015 free agents

  • Lance Briggs
  • Charles Tillman
  • Christopher Conte
  • D.J. Williams
  • Stephen Paea
  • Brian De La Puente
  • Jimmy Clausen
  • Sherrick McManis
  • Danny McCray
  • Dante Rosario
  • Josh Morgan
  • Trevor Scott
  • Jeremy Cain
  • Darryl Sharpton
  • Eben Britton
  • Zach Miller
  • Demontre Hurst
  • DeDe Lattimore
  • Al Louis-Jean
  • Anthony Walters
  • Montell Owens
  • Jay Feely
  • Austen Lane
  • Trevor Coston

For the past few years, the biggest part of the Bears’ annual overall improvement plan has come via NFL Free Agency, which will begin again on March 10th of 2015, 3:00 p.m. CST. And the pool of talent potentially available may be one of the best in a long time, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. Most notable of all could be Lions’ DT Ndamukong Suh, who would come at a $26.7 million franchise tag figure if Detroit wanted to lock him in. Which is exactly why the Lions may indeed allow him to explore other options.

Other defensive difference makers who could be on the market include Chiefs’ OLB Justin Houston, who led the NFL in 2014 with 22 sacks, and Patriots’ CB Darrelle Revis (the Pats have a 2015 option on Revis, but at $20 million, they either restructure or he hits the market). Or how about guys like Giants’ DE Jason Pierre-Paul, or Panthers’ DE Greg Hardy?

The list goes on, perhaps not as spectacularly, but the point is that there will indeed be veteran players on the market to help any defense in trouble. Or how about on offense? The Bears certainly have more talent in place on that side of the ball, but still struggled along the offensive line in 2014. A guy like 49ers’ guard Mike Iupati could go a long way toward solving that problem.

But for a team in transition, like the Bears, going into too much depth dissecting potential free agent moves could be somewhat of a fool’s errand. Right now, we don’t even know what specific brand of offense or defense the team will run in 2015. For that matter, some have even speculated on the future of the team’s highly paid quarterback Jay Cutler, and whether or not the Bears might try to find a way to move him via trade, or eat a hefty portion of his contract and simply send him on his way.

If I had to guess, I’d say Cutler is probably the guy through 2016. But again, speculation exists and a guess is only a guess.

Right now, though, the question is a little simpler: can the Bears even “afford” to be big players in 2015 free agency? Because while former Chicago Bears’ general manager Phil Emery has officially hit the road, he left the team with a number of rather large, and downright bad, contracts. Most notable would be that of the afore mentioned Jay Cutler, who received $38 million in guarantees the moment he signed on the dotted line.

(There’s more to Cutler’s contract — much more, in fact — but I won’t bore you with it here. If you want an excellent synopsis of just how that deal pays out, you can check out Michael Ginnitti’s breakdown on Spotrac.)

Or take 32 year-old (33 prior to the start of the 2015 season) defensive end Jared Allen’s contract with $15.5 million in guarantees. Emery could not have been more proud of that deal and his covert tactics to make it happen back in March of 2014. But Allen had his lowest sack number since entering the league in 2004 last season with 5.5 — his only non-double digit year in eight consecutive seasons. Sacks aren’t everything, but Allen was brought in purely to disrupt the quarterback, and it didn’t happen nearly enough. It’s another hefty, underperforming deal these new Bears are stuck with courtesy of Phil Emery.

Other free agent signings, such as that of Jermon Bushrod, Lamarr Houston and Martellus Bennett rank among those highest paid on the Bears roster, and contract extensions for Brandon Marshall and Tim Jennings put them in a similar tier in terms of pay scale. But when one considers the fact that of 20 Phil Emery draft selections, the only very clear hits have come in Kyle Long and Alshon Jeffery (Kyle Fuller may indeed have a bright future as well — we’ll see), it’s no wonder Emery spent some money. One just wonders what it went for in the end.

If the NFL has proven one thing time and time again, it’s that the biggest spenders in free agency do not often reap the biggest rewards. The Bears, as of late, have been moderate to high spenders, only not very good ones. Couple that with an inability to consistently match free agent signings with solid draft selections and you have a big part of the reason why Phil Emery is no longer employed by the McCaskeys.

But there was at least reasoning behind all that spending before. The thought was that the Chicago Bears were on the cusp of success. The thought was that Marc Trestman would finally tap into Jay Cutler’s potential for greatness. The thought was that Jared Allen would inject a much-needed pass rush into the Bears’ defense. Instead, the team regressed from 10-6 to 5-11 over two seasons, and it’s now abundantly clear that they have a long way to go to compete with the best in the NFL. If a window ever truly existed, it’s been slammed shut, locked tight and barred for good measure.

There is no doubt that the Bears could improve statistically in 2015. Teams go from one end of the spectrum to the next in the NFL sometimes. But until they can build a young core through the draft and clean out some of the mess left behind by Emery, especially in terms of getting back to a healthy salary pool, it’s going be unlikely that any success is of the championship variety or sustainable.

The NFL, however, is not like Major League Baseball. It’s not likely that whoever the next general manger turns out to be comes in and tells the media on Day 1 that the Bears are going to stink for a couple of years as he works to rebuild the system the right way from the ground up. The stated goal is still going to be winning now, and that’s fine. Just so long as said GM quietly understands the right way to go about doing that.

And while it may make you all warm and fuzzy inside to imagine Ndamukong Suh stomping all over Aaron Rodgers while wearing a Bears uniform, locking up even more of the Bears’ salary pool in high-end free agent signings may not be what’s best for the team in 2015. With somewhere around $110 million in 2015 player contracts, the Bears could have anywhere between $28 and $32 million to spend on rebuilding the roster, depending on the league’s final cap figure.

Some of that could go to resigning a former draft pick like Stephen Paea, who notched six sacks in 2014, but a good portion of it will have to go rebuilding a roster that has just 38 players under contract for next season. So while it’s obvious that the Bears will look to free agency to fill some needs, I would not — at this point, anyway — expect them to be major players for some of the more enticing names.

Hey, there’s always next year. Or the year after that.

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