The Chicago Bears have 24 players whose contracts will expire when the 2016 season officially begins on March 9.
Of those 24, one player will definitely not be returning: RB Matt Forte. The team also cut veteran OT Jermon Bushrod last week, which creates a 25th vacancy on the roster.
The good news is that, because of those expiring contracts, the Bears will have the third most cap space in the NFL to spend in free agency.
GM Ryan Pace spoke at the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine this morning and addressed his mindset heading into an open-market period in which he'll be flush with cash.
"It’s just a matter of being smart and calculated with how we approach it because free agency’s risky. We’ve got to be careful with this," Pace said. "We have a lot of needs, we have a lot of cap space. I think we just have to be mindful and strategic with what we do. I feel really good of where we’re at right now as far as our preparation."
At the end of last season, Pace said it's unlikely he'll pursue the big-name players on the open market.
"I don't think you're going to see us make one splash free-agent signing," he said in late December. "I think it's going to be kind of spread out your resources a little bit."
Yet Pace has more resources than all but two other teams in the league. Will having that money burning a hole in his pocket change his strategy once the signing period begins?
"We look at it internally. Part of our challenge is identifying good players and then identifying good values, too," said Pace. "Really, the process for us is, we stack our free-agent board, we identify the players we’d like to target, and then we identify salary parameters where we feel they fit in. And we know when the gun goes off, we’re working outside those parameters and if it gets a little uncomfortable, that’s when you have to make a tough decision."
Last year, the Bears were fairly quiet on the first day of free agency, which is typically when the massive contracts are doled out. Pace said that will likely be the case again this year.
"You’ve got to be selective and cautious with it. We have a lot of needs right now," he said. "Our goal - and I think a lot of successful franchises, we’ve talked about this before - if you’re drafting well, you don’t have to tread in this dangerous water as much as you would have to early on."