By Dan Durkin–
(CBS) After dropping the season finale to the Detroit Lions on Sunday, the Bears finished the season 6-10, their second-straight double-digit loss season and last-place finish in the NFC North. The team secured the 11th overall selection in the 2016 draft.
While several cities around the league are pushing reset on their operations, the Bears have just completed year one of their own rebuild. With many players on their current roster set to become free agents, the Bears are facing a drastic, and frankly overdue, personnel overhaul.
Undoubtedly, general manager Ryan Pace structured the roster in this manner purposefully. In a transitional year last offseason, Pace made only three free-agent commitments longer than one year — outside linebacker Pernell McPhee, safety Antrel Rolle and receiver Eddie Royal. Even those deals were structured in a manner in which they don’t carry excessive dead money should the team decide to move on before the contract officially expires.
Looking ahead to the 2016 league year, which officially starts on Tuesday, March 15, the Bears are well positioned for the offseason. At this point, the Bears have $95 million committed to next season’s payroll. That’s the second-lowest figure in the league, as only Oakland has more free space than Chicago.
The 2016 NFL cap limit has been initially reported to be between $147 million and $153 million. If true, in terms of free cap space, this means the Bears would have $55 million on the low-end limit estimate and $61 million on the high end.
That number is almost certain to rise as the team makes decisions about the future of some current veterans. Let’s break those critical decisions down.
Tight end Martellus Bennett
Bennett has been on of the league’s most consistent and complete tight ends since arriving in Chicago in 2013. However, he started to wear out his welcome this year, petitioning for a new contract and reportedly questioning his role in the offense. He ended the season on injured reserve (ribs).
Bennett’s cap math on his deal, which expires after the 2016 season: $5.085 million base salary (non-guaranteed) + $100,000 workout bonus (non-guaranteed) – $1.125 million prorated bonus (guaranteed) = $5.185 million savings, $1.125 million in dead money.
Tackle Jermon Bushrod
Bushrod solidified the left tackle position for two seasons, but his performance never quite matched his pay grade. In 2015, he was hampered by a back injury, making only three starts before losing the job to Charles Leno Jr. and finishing the season as the team’s sixth offensive lineman in jumbo sets.
Bushrod’s cap math on his deal, which expires after the 2017 season: $6.4 million base salary (non-guaranteed) + $100,000 workout bonus (non-guaranteed) – $2.2 million prorated bonus (guaranteed) = $4.3 million savings, $4.4 million in dead money.
Safety Antrel Rolle
Rolle was brought in to stabilize the perennial revolving door at safety but ended up being a part of it himself. After not missing a start in New York over the previous five seasons, Rolle made only seven starts, losing time to ankle and knee injuries, before finishing the season on injured reserve. The Bears found a keeper in Adrian Amos, who played better at free safety, and now need to find another young talent at the position.
Rolle’s cap math on his deal, which expires after the 2017 season: $2.4 million base salary (non-guaranteed) + $500,000 roster bonus (based on being active on game day), $100,000 workout bonus (non-guaranteed) = $3 million savings, no dead money.
Kicker Robbie Gould
Gould was the league’s third-highest paid kicker in 2015 yet finished 19th in field goal percentage at 84.6, the third-lowest mark of his career. Three rookie kickers ended the season with a higher field goal percentage than Gould. He missed a game-winning attempt against the 49ers and followed it up the next week by missing a game-tying attempt against the Redskins. He’s slated to be the league’s highest-paid kicker in 2016.
Gould’s cap math on his deal, which expires after the 2017 season: $3 million base salary (non-guaranteed) + $500,000 roster bonus – $600,000 prorated bonus (guaranteed) = $2.9 million savings, $1.2 million in dead money.
Pace has maintained from the first day he was introduced to Chicago that the core of the team must be comprised of draft picks.
“I understand for the Bears to have sustained success, we must build through the draft,” Pace said last January. “That’s the key to winning Super Bowls — is stringing successful drafts together again and again.”
Obviously, the Bears aren’t unique in stating this as an organizational goal, as that sentiment is shared league-wide. Judging by the productivity of his first draft class in Chicago, Pace is off to a positive start. However, the team must also be active in free agency in order to close the glaring talent gap that exists between them and the rest of the league.
Dan Durkin covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter @djdurkin.