Deciphering the franchise cap totals for NFL team at this point of the year can be difficult. The 2013 season officially starts in less than two weeks, March 12, and teams will soon be dropping money off the books, as well as re-signing players, free agents and, shortly thereafter, draft picks. Amidst all that action, it can be tough to figure out where a team sits under the cap on a day-by-day, or even hour-by-hour, basis.
Before yesterday evening, the Chicago Bears were around $12 million under the 2013 cap, designated this week at $123 million. They used a big chunk of that placing the franchise tag on defensive tackle Henry Melton, who will be paid $8.45 million next year. That leaves the team roughly $3.5 million under the cap.
That is not a good way to head into an offseason in which the team has a number of holes to fill. Right now, the Bears have 32.4 percent of the cap ($39.92 million) invested in four defensive players: Julius Peppers, Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman and Melton. That's nearly a third of the cap for three players – Peppers, Briggs and Tillman – all on the wrong side of the 30.
If the club's plan is to get younger and prepare for the future under a new regime, work must be done clear up cap space.
The first step is to knock some dead money off the books. Cutting nose tackle Matt Toeaina, who was active for just four games last year and ended the season on injured reserve, and Kellen Davis, who had more drops than any tight end in the league in 2013, would immediately save the club more than $5.5 million.
Devin Hester has also questioned his love for the game and could be on his way out of town. His departure would clear up another $2.9 million.
Yet even if Emery makes all these moves and frees up more than $8 million, that still leaves just roughly $12 million to work with, which is about half as much as the Bears need to be major players in free agency, while still having enough left over for draft picks.
Cliff Stein, vice president of football administration, handles contract negotiations for the team and is primarily responsible for keeping the club under the cap. It will be his job to work alongside Emery to find some creative solutions to this problem.
To that end, they have to consider the cap hit of Julius Peppers next year ($16.1 million). He has led the club in sacks each of his three seasons in Chicago, which includes his 10.5 in 2013, but he's 33 and deals with a chronic foot injury. Chicago will likely ask him to restructure his deal, something he did a few years ago, transferring a large portion into a signing bonus and pushing some of his base salary back in the conract. If he's willing to again shift some of his salary around, or take a slight pay cut, that would go a long way toward alleviating the cap problems.
Another option is to extend Charles Tillman, who will make $8 million in 2013, the final year of his contract. He's 32 but has played some of the best football of his career the past two seasons, being named an All Pro and Pro Bowl starter last season. He clearly still has plenty left in the tank. If Stein can spread some of that money out over the next three years, that creates more cash for this offseason.
Yet the best move, both for the short- and long-term, is to get Melton inked to a multi-year contract. Like the Bears did with Matt Forte last year, placing the tag on Melton gives them until July to work out a deal. Right now, the two sides are far apart. Melton wants to be paid like the best defensive tackle in the league. Chicago, who just five years ago made Tommie Harris the then-highest paid DT in the NFL, isn't willing to go that high again.
The tag now gives the two sides more than four months to get something worked out. If that happens, they'll clear up cap space and keep the club's best defensive player in Chicago for years to come.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. 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.