Just five weeks into free agency, the Chicago Bears, like most teams, are all but finished with their big spending in free agency.
The Bears made a sizable splash in the free agent market, including retaining receiver Alshon Jeffery under the franchise tag, signing linebackers Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman, offensive tackle Bobby Massie, and mammoth defensive lineman Akiem Hicks.
Even after all that spending, GM Ryan Pace still has a healthy amount of cap space heading into the draft, with a touch over $22 million.
Most see the $22-million figure and assume it's all spendable space but hidden expenses tell a different story.
As of this week the Bears have nine draft picks, including five picks in the first four rounds. This, coupled with a top-third draft slot, will cost them more than the majority of teams.
According the Spotrac, the team’s draft class will likely cost $6.675 million on the surface. It's "on the surface" because due to the rule of 51, only the top 51 players count against the cap space until the 53-man roster is settled.
As a safe but not exact science, it’s always key to subtract at least league minimum salary ($450,000) per player when adding any signee or draftee. In this situation, that $6.675 million cap hit will actually end up closer to a $3 million hit.
Cap Hit: $3 million
Season Expenses and Year-End Payouts
As Bears fans know, injuries and in-season roster moves can be quite frequent. Not only will teams be paying injured players, they will also be paying for their replacements.
For example: Last year, the Bears saw quite the rash of injuries and ended up spending close to $3.5 million in cap space on in-season adds and other roster moves.
Cap Hit: $3.5 million
Round Out the 53-Man Roster and Practice Squad
When taking off-season cap space into consideration most only account for the top 51 players, which is fine, but those final two players need to be accounted for in the overall cap space at some point.
With league minimum at $450,000 per year, rounding up to an even $1 million figure to account for the final two spots is a safe bet.
On top of that $1 million, each team must also account for their practice squad, which ultimately ends up at another $1 million for a 10-man practice squad through 17 weeks.
Cap Hit: $2 million
With the $22.1 million in remaining space knocked down by $8.5 million, the Bears' real “spending space” is around $13.6 million. That is still a healthy amount of space but not as much as most would think after seeing the first figure.
Can the Bears Create More Cap Space?
In the NFL, cap space is almost always fluid. With the Bears, even after releasing Jermon Bushrod and trading Martellus Bennett, the team still has sizable flexibility options if they choose to exercise them.
In the easiest of scenarios, they have four players they could cut and save substantial sums.
OLB Lamarr Houston- $4.02 million savings ($2.97 million dead)
Houston has the team’s third highest cap hit in 2016 and although he is not a likely or logical cap-relief option, his fairly large savings make him a possibility.
K Robbie Gould- $2.9 million savings ($1.2 million dead)
Gould had a rough go of it last year after missing two crucial field goals that could have given the team two extra wins but as most NFL fans have seen, it’s not easy to find a good kicker, even if he has one of the largest contracts at his position. He would provide some wiggle room, even in a re-structure/pay-cut situation.
S Antrel Rolle- $2.719 million savings (No dead cap)
Rolle was brought in last year as a veteran stop-gap and ended the year on injured reserve. He'll be 34 this year, so don't be surprised if the front office cuts bait if they can find their starting solution in the draft or with a late free agent.
OLB Willie Young- $2.5 million savings ($666,668 dead)
Young was very vocal last season about being a defensive end and not an outside linebacker but after a very nice second half of the year, it’s unlikely good value like Young be released. That said, he’s the only other player that carries sizable cap relief in a pinch.
What Can They Do with the Remaining Space?
Each team is able to extend players, front-load contracts or even carry over cap space year to year.
If the Bears find themselves in a situation where all of their in-season expenses and year-end bonuses are paid for and they are still well under the cap, they will likely roll any remaining cap space over into the 2017 season.
Another scenario would be somehow adding a big-money player this late in the game. One of those players might be Muhammad Wilkerson, who is currently on the trade block with the New York Jets as they struggle to find enough cap space to re-sign Ryan Fitzpatrick and pay for their draft class.
Multiple factors would go into a trade like this but bottom line, if the Bears were to acquire Mo, he'd be expecting a pay day similar to his $15.7 million franchise tag.
With his production, on top of what Malik Jackson and Olivier Vernon received on the open market, it’s unlikely the Bears can sign Wilkerson to a contract with a lower-than-average annual value than his current cap figure dictates.
Since the Bears have closer to $13.6 million in actual spending space after all the hidden costs, they would need to clear at least $2.1 million in cap relief if they want to take on Wilkerson, even at his franchise tag value. In this scenario, either a restructure or cut would have to take place for them to ultimately fit him under the 2016 cap.
Overall, a Wilkerson trade is unlikely and if the team ends up standing pat, or somewhat close to where they are right now, they will be in good shape and have a chance to slide a nice chunk of space into next year’s pool, which they'll need if they want to re-sign Kyle Long long-term.