By Dan Durkin–

Editor’s note: This column has been updated per the news of Brandon Marshall’s trade to the New York Jets pending a physical. Numbers below reflect the cap situation if the trade is accepted. 

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(CBS) Ryan Pace enters his first offseason as an NFL general manager with a healthy salary cap situation.

The league set the salary cap limit at $143.28 million. Currently, the Bears have 52 players under contract totaling $107.454 million. The Bears have a carryover credit of $1.545 million (unused 2014 cap dollars), plus a league adjustment of $342,500. Thus, they currently have $31.3 million in free cap space.

Per the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement (CBA), team accounting during the offseason is governed by the Rule of 51 – which requires teams to only account for the top 51 salaries on their roster. Consequently, the Bears will start the 2015 league year next Tuesday, March 10, with $32 million in free cap space.

Keep in mind, teams typically keep separate budgets for free agency and their draft classes, which is calculated by the rookie compensation pool. Projecting ahead, the Bears’ draft class will cost approximately $6 million in 2015 cap dollars, so realistically, the team has a $26 million budget for free agency.

Here’s an infographic of the Bears’ current cap situation (click to enlarge).

Bears 2015 Cap infographic Updated

Even with ample cap space to be active in free agency, the cap is a fluid situation.

Next Thursday (March 12) is a crucial date for quarterback Jay Cutler. Per the structure of his contract, Cutler’s 2015 salary of $15.5 million has already been guaranteed. If he’s still on the roster next Thursday, $10 million of his 2016 base salary becomes fully guaranteed.

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However, the team does have a few options with Cutler.

If the Bears were to cut Cutler before Thursday, his remaining $19.5 million in guaranteed money ($15.5 million guaranteed salary for 2015 plus the remaining $4 million of his prorated bonus) becomes dead money on the 2015 cap. However, it would alleviate the team from having to pay the remaining $16 million of guaranteed money in 2016.

In that scenario, Cutler would certainly find work on the open market, and his contract contains offset language – a dollar-for-dollar credit to the previous team for any guaranteed money he receives from a new team. However, the Bears wouldn’t receive the cap relief from his offset language until 2016.

Trading Cutler is the best option for the Bears, as it would save the team $12.5 million in cap space. The team would be relieved of his $16.5 million 2015 cap hit, but the remaining $4 million of his prorated bonus would immediately accelerate.

The difficulty in trading Cutler is finding a team that would be willing to take on his hefty contract. Obviously, the NFL has a quarterback problem, but that’s a tough sell and a negotiation in which the Bears wouldn’t be bargaining from a position of strength.

Restructuring Cutler’s contract again — converting his base salary into a signing bonus, as they did last year before signing Jared Allen — could lower his cap hit and make him more appealing in a trade. However, the Bears wouldn’t get out from under any guaranteed money and in reality would just be creating more dead money.

Pending a physical, Brandon Marshall will be traded the New York Jets. By making this move, the Bears have created $3.95 million in cap space (which is accounted for in the total above) and will save $7.7 million in cash.

Marshall has a clause in his contract that guarantees $7.5 million of his 2015 salary by being on a team’s roster as of Thursday. Assuming he passes the physical, the Jets now assume the terms of that deal.

However, the move would create create $5.625 million in dead money on the Bears’ 2015 salary cap, but in the end, the numbers still work out in the Bears favor.

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Dan Durkin covers the Bears for and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @djdurkin.