Bears in bargain-shopping phase?

After allocating money toward this year’s draft class, the Chicago Bears have less than $10 million in salary cap space, yet that doesn't necessarily mean the team is now handcuffed in free agency.

According to NFLPA figures, the Chicago Bears have a little more than $15.45 million in salary cap space.

Each team allocates roughly $6 million for the incoming draft class, leaving the Bears with $9.45 million in spending money. In addition, teams need in-season cash to replace injured or under-performing players. In reality, the Bears have between $7 million-$9 million to spend in free agency.

The team currently has 57 players under contract and must add 33 more players before training camp. Roughly $8 million isn’t enough to land one of the top remaining free agents and fill out the rest of the roster.

As a result, the Bears need to go bargain shopping. Four of the five players we outlined as bargain free agents a month ago are still available.

GM Ryan Pace has to identify the low-cost talent and find a way to bring those players to Chicago under cap-friendly contracts. The first week of free agency garners the headlines yet crafty GMs are able to load the back-end of the roster with impact players for 20 cents on the dollar.

Teams spend so much at the opening bell of free agency, the window for large contracts closes after just a few days. Anyone still left on the open market knows he can’t command top dollar, as very few teams can afford it.

Yet here again is where a smart GM can work the system and create more cap space through cuts, restructures and back-loads.

Lamarr Houston is only 27 years old and carries a $6.9 million cap hit next season. Why not extend his contract another season, convert some of that money into a prorated signing bonus, and clear up $3 million?

Roberto Garza is 36 and the Bears have been very active searching for centers in free agency. In the past week the club has showed an interest in centers Stefen Wisniewski, Samson Satele and Dan Connolly. Garza’s $1.5 million salary in 2015 carries no guarantees, so cutting him would clear the full amount.

And if the Bears really want to create cap space, they could save $8.2 million by cutting Matt Forte, who turns 30 this year. The Bears have been actively scouting running backs during the pro-day circuit. Forte is a great all-around ball carrier but if the Bears feel he’s on the verge of declining, as most running backs do at his age, and are satisfied they can find his replacement in a draft loaded with RB talent, they could give him his walking papers.

Finally, the Bears can still make a run at some of the best-available players if those free agents are willing to backload their contracts. Ndamukong Suh’s contract averages more than $20 million annually, yet he’ll count just $6 million toward the Dolphins’ 2015 cap.

Bears lead counsel Cliff Stein is one of the best in the business at creating team-friendly contracts. He can create room if the club needs it.

So if Pace and head coach John Fox want to make a run at Wisniewski, who will probably land a deal worth $6 million-$7 million per season, they can make it happen.

The NFL works under a hard salary cap, yet there are numerous ways to soften the ceiling. If Pace is worth his salt, he’ll find ways to add even more cost-effective talent.

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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fifth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter.

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