Bears

Hoge’s Offseason Notebook No. 7: Bears Have Options Against Cap

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Earl Bennett. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

Earl Bennett. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

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By Adam Hoge-

(CBS) — The Bears were busy in the first week of NFL free agency, adding nine contracts to the books if you include the re-signing of tight end Dante Rosario for the second time this offseason.

So where do the Bears stand in terms of salary cap space?

Based on the numbers I’ve been able to gather (and the sad math skills I possess), I currently have the Bears with $5.056 million in cap space. Generally speaking, with seven draft picks in May, the Bears need to have about $5 million in space available for the NFL Draft.

So does that mean the Bears are capped out right now? No, it doesn’t. While they’ll want to allot $5 million for the draft, remember that only the top 51 contracts count towards the salary cap during the offseason. The Bears currently have 63 players signed, which means 12 contracts are already not counting towards the cap. The top 51 rule is what allows teams to expand their rosters to 90 by the start of training camp.

That being said, if you’re drafting well, all seven of your draft picks and even a couple undrafted free agents will make your 53-man roster and/or practice squad, both of which count towards the cap once the regular season starts. This is why you need to plan to use $5 million on rookies.

However, if all of those rookies make your regular season roster, that means they likely beat out some veterans who got cut, saving you some money.

Remember, wide receivers Earl Bennett and Eric Weems are still possible cap casualties, which could save the Bears up to $3.55 million down the road. This is why a few more minor additions through free agency remain likely. The Bears could make those additions and still have Bennett and Weems compete for their jobs during the offseason.

However, it also means more expensive additions aren’t likely and that includes re-signing guys like defensive tackle Henry Melton and defensive end Corey Wootton. Both of their market values are unclear because they haven’t been medically cleared following recent surgeries, but they probably aren’t veteran minimum-type players either.

When the Bears gave cornerback Charles Tillman a reported $3.5 million for one year last Friday, that seemingly closed the Halas Hall door on Melton and maybe Wootton too.

NFL Network’s Albert Breer reported Monday that former Bears defensive end Israel Idonije, 34, will visit Halas Hall Tuesday. That’s the kind of signing the Bears likely have room for — possibly a one-year veteran minimum salary benefit deal that would only count $570,000 against the cap.

Tweetbag

I’m pretty sure this ship has sailed, as there’s not much room for Jared Allen. Once Willie Young was added, it was pretty clear they envision Young to be the starter opposite of Lamarr Houston.

It’s important for the Bears to address both positions in the NFL Draft, but they don’t necessarily have to do it in the first round. A case can be made for the Bears using the No. 14 overall pick on any defensive position except probably outside linebacker. Don’t rule out cornerback, as the Bears will probably play more press-man going forward and need to develop a future shutdown corner behind Charles Tillman.

I’ve been making the case for an impact safety all offseason, but every indication from Phil Emery’s two-plus years in Chicago is that he values the front-seven more. The Bears’ free agent moves maybe open the door a little more to the secondary being addressed in the first round, but if there’s a defensive tackle Emery thinks can contribute immediately, that player would be hard to pass up. I’ve made the case before that I can think Aaron Donald can be that guy.

The Bears brought Kelvin Hayden back to compete with Isaiah Frey at the nickel corner spot, which is an indication they believe Frey could have been better last year. My evaluation agrees with that thinking. Frey has provided decent value as a sixth-round draft pick, but he has the size to be more than just a nickel corner and I’m sure the Bears would love to see him take another step forward. Maybe the competition will bring that out.

Two other players I know the Bears would love to take a step forward are wide receiver Marquess Wilson and tight end Fendi Onobun. Both players went down to Florida for the Bears’ unofficial offseason training camp and have the potential to be contributors next season. In a perfect world, Wilson would win the No. 3 wide receiver job and the Bears could cut Earl Bennett to save $2.45 million against the cap.

As for Onobun, fans will laugh at the idea that he still has potential, but the Bears wouldn’t have kept him around on the practice squad all year if they didn’t think he had a chance. Onobun has been with six different teams in four years, but remember that he only played one year of college football and possesses all the tools to be a capable NFL tight end. While he dropped passes in the preseason last year, he also flashed potential in training camp and blocked well. With his buddy Martellus Bennett next to him the whole way, Onobun received a full year of practice in Marc Trestman’s system and it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see him contribute in 2014. How the Bears address the tight end position in the draft will tell you a lot about what they really think about Onobun.

Also, don’t forget about defensive end David Bass as a possible sleeper.

College Prospect Of The Week

TE Jace Amaro — Texas Tech

One way you’ll be able to tell whether or not the Bears have faith in Onobun is if they use a high draft pick on a tight end. I’d be shocked if they used the No. 14 overall pick on a tight end, but you can’t rule out them using their second round pick on one.

I don’t expect Jace Amaro to fall to the 19th pick of the second round, but if he did, the Bears would seriously have to consider taking him. At 6-5, 265 pounds, Amaro is matchup nightmare and the kind of guy who could take the Bears’ offense to even higher level. Remember, Emery said at the NFL Combine that he wasn’t satisfied with having the league’s No. 2 scoring offense.

“We’d like to be first,” he said. “We’d like to be first in the league in offense. So to get to that goal, we’re going to have to improve in all areas.”

But one specific area to improve is at the No. 2 tight end spot, where the Bears frequently deployed offensive lineman Eben Britton last year. What if that body on the field turned into another 6-5 tight end who can split the field and go up and get the football? It’s already hard to cover every one of Jay Cutler’s receiving options on any given play. Another dynamic tight end would make it virtually impossible.

Extra Point

It’s hard not like what the Bears have done in free agency. A couple of weeks ago, they had eight starting positions (2 DEs, 1 DT, 2 Ss, 1 CB, 1 MLB, 1 C) that were essentially empty on the depth chart and they’ve managed to fill six of those with only one major contract (Lamarr Houston’s).

Both starting safety spots remain a question mark, but Emery has brought in competition there with Ryan Mundy and M.D. Jennings and can still add to the position through the draft.

The Bears managed to fulfill their goal of getting younger, despite re-signing veterans Charles Tillman, D.J. Williams, Jeremiah Ratliff and Roberto Garza. All four of those players played at a high enough level last year to come back while the team develops a younger option behind them. All four of those veterans came back on one-year deals except for Ratliff, who re-upped for two years.

What’s important now is finding the younger players who will develop at those positions. Every draft is important, but there’s no question the Bears need to hit on at least two impact defensive players who can contribute right away next season.

Adam Hoge covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamHoge.

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