General manager Ryan Pace said during at the outset of the Combine last month that he liked the makeup of the Bears' tight-end “room,” mentioning Trey Burton, Adam Shaheen, Ben Braunecker and Daniel Brown. Reminded that the latter two were not under contract at that point, Pace remarked cryptically, “It’s all part of our plan.”
Part of that “plan” should snap into place shortly with Braunecker, the No. 3 tight end behind Burton and Shaheen, expected to sign a new two-year contract with incentives. The deal will set up the Matt Nagy offense for having its top three tight ends together through 2020, with Burton’s deal running through 2021.
Braunecker, who made the roster as an undrafted rookie out of Harvard in 2016, has appeared in 36 games, with four starts, and developed into a four-phase player on special teams, tying for fifth last season with three solo tackles. Braunecker had three catches for 42 yards during the regular season while playing 119 snaps (11 percent) on offense.
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Depth in the form of quality backups and in particular rookies are critical, both on the field and on the books where rookie contracts give their team some financial breathing room while youth matures and develops (see: Trubisky, Mitch).
But the performances of running back Jordan Howard and linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski, entering the fourth and final years of their rookie (2015) contracts are costing the Bears. Both received fourth-year bumps from their scheduled $720,000 to $2.025 million by virtue of the NFL’s proven-performance bonus. The escalator raises the fourth-year salary to the lowest restricted-free-agent tender that season if the player participates in 35 percent of his team’s offensive or defensive snaps over two of his first three years, or 35 percent combined for the first three years.
Meaning: Kwiatkoski and Howard cost the Bears a combined $4.05 million this year instead of their original combined $1.44 million. How vulnerable it makes either player remains to unfold over the offseason, training camp and preseason, with $2 million for a backup looming as perhaps pricey for a team a little more cap-squeezed this offseason that previous ones.
Not that the escalators foreshadow exits: The Bears ante’d up an additional $1.2 million last year for safety Adrian Amos after he more than earned the escalator in the course of starting 40 of the Bears’ 48 games over his first three seasons.
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Speaking of Amos, the three-day window for teams to negotiate with players still under contract with their old teams begins on Monday in advance of the start of the league year on Wednesday, March 13, when new contracts can be signed.
What that holds for Amos in a market with a list of starter-grade safeties (Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Landon Collins, Tashaun Gipson, Lamarcus Joyner, Tyrann Mathieu, Earl Thomas) warrants watching, given that the Bears as of Sunday appeared willing to let the market take the lead in setting Amos’ price.
The Rams just signed veteran safety Eric Weddle to a two-year deal for $10.5 million. That won’t be a market ceiling, but teams typically do not pay two safeties at the top of the position’s pay scale and the Bears have Eddie Jackson coming up in two years -- right when Mitchell Trubisky heads into playing under his fifth-year option that will cost the Bears north of $21 million.
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Speaking of Howard, the trade of wide receiver Antonio Brown from the Pittsburgh Steelers to the Oakland Raiders in exchange for Oakland picks in the third and fifth rounds of next month’s draft does have some ripple effects for the Bears – they face the Raiders and their new wideout in London, likely in October.
But the deal also suggests that the Bears won’t be seeing much above a No. 5 (Howard’s round in the 2016 draft) even if they do find a taker for Howard, 24, whose yards per carry have declined each of the past two seasons since his 5.2 yards per carry as a rookie.
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The Arizona Cardinals released quarterback Mike Glennon last week, cutting their losses (as the Bears did) one year into a significant contract mistake depressingly similar to the one/ones the Bears made in 2017.
The Cardinals signed Glennon to a two-year deal worth $8 million, with $4 million guaranteed. Glennon was part of a makeover at quarterback that consisted of going from Carson Palmer-Blaine Gabbert-Drew Stanton in 2017 to Glennon-Sam Bradford-Josh Rosen last season. Glennon or Bradford were to have allowed the Cardinals to ease Rosen in, the way Glennon was to have been the bridge to Mitchell Trubisky.
Bradford started Arizona’s first three games, all losses, whereupon the Cardinals didn’t waste the time the Bears did (four starts) finding out what Glennon couldn’t do, going to Rosen for the final 13 starts. The Bears got those four starts for their $18.5 million; the Cardinals, who’d signed Bradford for one year at $20 million, got Bradford’s three starts (ending, coincidentally, vs. the Bears) and 21 pass attempts from Glennon for their combined $24 million.
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Kyle Long restructuring his contract down to a manageable cap number of $5.6 million for 2019 kept him in a Bears uniform for the year and gave the Bears nearly $3 million of additional cap space for this offseason. But the Bears’ 2020 O-line situation is a bit dicier.
Long’s cap number goes back to $9.6 million in 2020, coinciding with tackles Charles Leno and Bobby Massie commanding $8.9 million and $8.3 million, respectively. Center Cody Whitehair, coming off a Pro Bowl alternate 2018, is in line for an extension before the start of this season. While center is traditionally the least-expensive O-line spot, the Bears project then to have four of their five offensive linemen in at least second, pricier contracts.
Few teams (Dallas has La’el Collins, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, Tyron Smith currently with 2019 cap hits of $9 million and above) can afford that positional payroll. Long faces a form of prove-it year in terms of health after starting 8-9-8 games over the past three years. Whether that prove-it is for the Bears or his next team is problematic.
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