Money to Burn

While two teams in the NFC North have more space under the salary cap, the Bears have fewer questions to answer with 21 of 22 starters already locked up for next season.

In the coming weeks and months, there is going to be considerable talk about the NFL salary cap. With the current collective bargaining agreement still in flux, the potential of the cap going away in 2007 is a very real possibility. As a result, the 2006 free agent signing period has taken on even greater significance.

Perhaps no division has more of a potential to change between March 1 and May 1 than the Bears currently rule. Of the 32 teams in the NFL, the NFC North has the most available money to spend.

The bad news for the rest of the division is that the Bears, who only have one starter - SLB Hunter Hillenmeyer – headed for restricted free agency. Chicago is in the ninth best position -- almost $17 million under the salary cap. GM Jerry Angelo has said the Bears won't set the market on any free agents this off-season. He made a similar statement a year ago, but went out and signed WR Muhsin Muhammad to a six-year $30 million deal before the official start of free agency.

The Bears could look for help at receiver in the open market. Even though Antwaan Randle El is a name that has been linked to the Bears for quite sometime, his asking price went up after his performance in the playoffs. The team could turn to Eddie Drummond for a boost in the return game and depth at wideout.

The Vikings currently sit at approximately $24 million under the salary cap -- third most in the NFL. Not far behind are the Packers, who, even if Brett Favre opts to return, have about $22 million in cap room to provide him with an improved supporting cast.

Even the Lions find themselves in the middle of the pack -- at No. 16 with about $9 million under the cap. But, the numbers don't tell the entire story and where the Bears advantage comes into play.

The Vikings have several free agents of their own that they will likely try to lock up before free agency begins, while the Packers have to make up their minds not only at the quarterback position but at running back as well -- where Samkon Gado is the only RB currently under contract. The Lions will likely have to spend most if not all of their available money to either re-sign their own numerous free agents or use it to fill the void created by losing several key starters.

While a lot can and likely will change between now and when free agency officially opens in a little more than three weeks, the one certainty that can we already know is that the NFC North is going to be a division to watch. With a combined $70 million of salary cap space between the four teams, a lot of personnel may be both coming and going as the annual NFL shopfest begins.

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