The Bears are six games away from facing the worst reality an NFL team can confront: Needing to find a new starting quarterback and make significant offensive line upgrades, all while doing so with a meager budget.
The Bears legitimately might be in the worst position for 2021 of any team in the NFL.
In a normal year, worrying about cap space can be pointless. There’s always money in the banana stand, etc. But 2021 will not be a normal year – the league’s salary cap may drop by as much as $23 million.
Maybe the cap won’t decrease, or will only go down by a few million. Even so: The Bears will need to free up cap space to meet the demands of the free agent market.
There are four easy ways to do it: Cutting Charles Leno, Bobby Massie, Jimmy Graham and Buster Skrine would free up about $22.7 million. Two other moves: Convert some of the base salaries of Khalil Mack and Eddie Jackson’s contracts into signing bonuses, which for cap purposes could free up $15 million or thereabouts.
My rough estimate – extremely rough – is the Bears will wind up with about $24 million in cap space after making those moves, but also accounting for the need to build out an entire roster (the Bears have 32 players under contract next year; cutting those four would drop it to 28). This is with the cap dropping to $175 million, which would be a decrease of that full $23 million.
But here’s where you start running into problems.
First: What do you do with Allen Robinson? The franchise tag for wide receivers is projected to be a little over $16 million in 2021, per OverTheCap. Franchising him would leave you with barely any money to address the offensive line.
Robinson would, too, be well within his rights to demand a trade after being tagged – he could target a team that not only wants to pay him a market value extension, but also has a good quarterback.
And if the Bears go into 2021 without Robinson, how could there be any hope that this offense could get better? Would it matter if you rebuilt your offensive line and found a new quarterback if there’s not a clear No. 1 target to throw to?
Second: The Bears are old. The 32 players the Bears currently have under contract in 2021 are an average of 27 years old, third-oldest in the NFL behind the New Orleans Saints and San Francisco 49ers.
Cutting Leno (29), Massie (32), Skrine (32) and Graham (34) would lower the average age of the team a bit, but the cocktail of 1) having a low number of players under contract, 2) those players being on the older side and 3) little cap space to work with is not encouraging.
Third: The Bears, with that meager amount of cap space, have to find one or two new starting tackles in free agency, address right guard and maybe pursue a new quarterback. The thought here is to address quarterback in the draft, preferably with the first Bears’ first-round pick since 2018. Maybe the Bears could use their second-round pick on a tackle.
But at some point, the Bears do need to invest something significant – a first-round pick, a ton of money – into a tackle. Maybe you find a solid player in the second round, but most top-level tackles are picked over by the time Day 2 of the draft begins.
And if you use that first-round pick on a tackle, are you really using a second-rounder on a quarterback – a position that, like tackle, is usually barren by the time pick No. 33 is on the clock?
I’m not sure what the right answer is between drafting, say, the fourth-best tackle or fourth-best quarterback in next year's draft.
But it feels like every time you try to open a door in 2021, another one shuts. Keep Robinson around? Shut the door on significant offensive line improvements. Make major changes to the offensive line? You probably can’t keep Robinson. Draft a quarterback in the first round? Who’s he throwing to – or who’s protecting him?
There may very well be a path out of this seemingly-bleak situation. It probably involves incredible pro scouting, a delicate tightrope walk with the salary cap and a level of drafting and developing that’s escaped the Bears on offense in the Ryan Pace era. Or maybe it involves a little bit, or a lot of bit, of luck.
The other path would be a total tear-down. That means trading Kyle Fuller and Akiem Hicks – and basically anyone you can trade away for draft picks. Maybe even Mack. And that’s a column for another day.
But whoever the Bears’ general manager is next year will have an extraordinarily difficult decision to make: Try to thread the needle for another year with a top-level defense, or blow this whole thing up with an eye on re-opening your window to win in a few years?
And in a way, well, it’d be easier to be the New York Jets at this point.