The 2014 NFL season will officially kick off tomorrow afternoon at 3 p.m. CDT. At that moment, things will undoubtedly get out of control. All 32 teams will begin their personnel transactions, which promises to be a flurry of action that will leave many folks dizzy.
If recent history is any indication, the Chicago Bears will be at the forefront of the chaos, as Day 1 of free agency has been GM Phil Emery's time to shine. In his first year at the helm, Emery waited until 3:01 before trading for Brandon Marshall, followed by the signings of Michael Bush and Jason Campbell. Last year, Emery also went big on opening day, signing two-time Pro Bowler Jermon Bushrod and Martellus Bennett.
There's no reason to believe Emery, who has serious needs to fill on the defensive side of the ball, won't again make a big splash tomorrow once the opening bell rings.
Salary Cap Update
The numbers aren't yet in for yesterday's signings: QB Jordan Palmer and DT Nate Collins. Both were likely signed at or near their veteran minimum. By our count, that would give the Bears roughly $7 million of space under the $133 million salary cap. Only six teams in the league have less money to spend (Panthers, Rams, Chargers, Steelers, Saints and Cowboys).
The Bears have a number of ways to clear up more cap space, which is going to be necessary if Emery wants to be a player in free agency. The obvious option is to cut Julius Peppers, whose production and age (34) do not match the more than $18 million he's due next season.
If Peppers is released, the team will be on the line for $8 million in dead money, due next year, which would be a significant dent in his savings. Most likely, the club will designate him a June 1 cut, which will spread his remaining money out over the next two seasons at $4 million apiece. Using that strategy, the Bears could clear roughly $14 million more in cap space, giving Emery around $21 million to work with in free agency.
Bennett brothers reunion?
The Bears are actively pursuing free agent defensive end Michael Bennett, who earned a Super Bowl ring with the Seattle Seahawks last year. The Seahawks made Bennett an offer last week but he left it on the table, instead choosing to test the open market.
This morning, both Bennett and his brother, Chicago tight end Martellus Bennett, appeared together on the NFL Network. The first two minutes of the segment were nothing more than Martellus pitching his brother to sign with the Bears.
Martellus: "We could do Double Mint commercials. Look at Duck Dynasty. I'm talking about the Black Duck Dynasty. It's me and you bro. Chicago has the best fans. It's a unique city with great opportunities business-wise. I know there's a lot of things you want to do off the field after football. None of those things are tech or coffee. Seattle, that's all they're offering you. So come on down to Chicago man."
Michael: "It's a great argument. You've got great points. I've got to leave you in suspense for the next couple of hours and go home and make the right decision. It's really hard making the decision of where you're going to play at. I love my brother, he's one of the best tight ends in the league, so it's going to be hard."
Martellus: "The biggest thing, usually when you go from another to another team, you may have a friend there or you may just be jumping into the water. Here, your brother is the bridge. Chicago, they love the Bennetts bro."
Michael: "You can never get enough of seeing your family."
Martellus recently Tweeted a photo of Michael wearing a Bulls jersey when he was 12.
Martellus: "I have a lot of other photos but I just wanted him to know that somewhere down the timeline of Michael Bennett Jr. that Chicago was on his mind. It's in you. It's not something that's new. It's been there. It's been there for a long time. The Bulls jersey, you buy Jordan's all the time."
Martellus may be as good a salesman is he is a football player. If his pitch was successful, we'll very likely be welcoming Michael to the Bears family at a press conference later this week.
The Other Michael
The Bears are also interested in former Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson (6-7, 270). In 2012, Johnson 11.5 sacks but that number fell to 3.5 last year. Yet he was one of the league leaders in QB pressures, according to Pro Football Focus, and he's only 27 years old. His low sack total last season means he'll likely cost less than Bennett.
Not a Coincidence
The Bears last night re-signed defensive tackle Nate Collins and quarterback Jordan Palmer. The timing of these signings, less than two days before the start of free agency, is worth noting.
Emery and head coach Marc Trestman said at the NFL Scouting Combine the team wants QB Josh McCown and DT Henry Melton to return next season, yet both players intend to test free agency. As a result, Emery yesterday inked veterans that could potentially replace both Melton and McCown.
Palmer started the preseason finale last season and was impressive. His performance earned him a roster spot in the second half of the campaign. With Palmer, Trestman has another veteran quarterback who never tapped his full potential, just like McCown. If McCown wants big money to stay in Chicago, Emery can point to Palmer as this year's McCown, giving the team leverage in those negotiations.
The same goes for Melton, who played just two-plus games last year at $8.45 million guaranteed. If he wants the Bears to pony up again for a player coming off an ACL tear, Emery can point to Collins and recently signed Jeremiah Ratliff as potential starters. Neither player possesses the raw talent of Melton but the team at least has a viable Plan B if Melton, or McCown, wants to play hardball.
League Interest in McCown
McCown is scheduled for 14 appearances on ESPN radio and television today – which gives us a good idea of where his head is at.
His first spot came this morning on "Mike and Mike". McCown said four teams have contacted him this offseason, although he wouldn't divulge his suitors. It is believed those teams are the Bears, Texans, Jets and Buccaneers. McCown also said he won't leave Chicago to be a backup elsewhere.
McCown now has to weigh the value of a big payday and a starting gig elsewhere, in offenses that won't possess the Bears' talent level and won't be coached by Trestman, or staying in Chicago in an offense where he's surrounded by Pro Bowlers and led by the guy who resurrected his career.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is entering his fourth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.