Bears president Ted Phillips and general manager Jerry Angelo were clear about one thing at the start of the offseason--any tightening of the belt at Halas Hall in the wake of the economic downturn was not going to have an effect on the football budget and how they do business.
Phillips made the point in February when discussing the organization's decision to freeze ticket prices at Soldier Field. Angelo echoed those sentiments later that month at the scouting combine in Indianapolis. Fast forward to mid-May and the Bears have $20.8 million remaining under the salary cap according to figures obtained by the Sun-Times on Monday. That makes them one of six teams in the league with more than $20 million available. It was announced last week that a final adjustment to the salary camp for 2009 raised it to $127.997 million. The Bears' adjusted cap for this season is $135.9 million, the result of a number of factors, including the Marcus Hamilton likely-to-be-earned incentive that gave the club a credit from last season.
Here are the top six in terms of available space:
Tampa Bay $37 million
Kansas City $31.8 million
Green Bay $29.4 million
San Francisco $26.4 million
Philadelphia $23.1 million
Bears $20.8 million
So, the question is what do to with the money? Angelo recently joked that it's not like he has a $20 bill burning a hole through his pocket. He was asked directly about the possibility of some extensions on Sunday at the team's fan expo.
"I think we were unprecedented in terms of all the people we did extensions with,'' Angelo said of last year. ``So in part that made fewer players come up, but those that do well, we'll definitely do what we've always done in the past. I've always said this, 'They take care of their business and business takes care of itself.'''
The Bears were so pro-active in signing players who were coming out of contract last year that there really are not that many to choose from. We detailed the list of free-agents-to-be in discussing the ramifications of an uncapped year here.
Unrestricted free agents at end of season
TE Michael Gaines
DE Israel Idonije
DE Adewale Ogunleye
RB Adrian Peterson
Unrestricted free agents at end of season provided there is a new CBA*
DE Mark Anderson
G Dan Buenning
FS Josh Bullocks
FB Jason Davis
NT Dusty Dvoracek
DB Glenn Earl
DB Danieal Manning
LB Jamar Williams
* Without a new CBA these players are all restricted free agents
Restricted free agents at end of season
CB Marcus Hamilton
WR Brandon Rideau
LB Nick Roach
DT Matt Toeaina
Angelo was asked about Ogunleye and Idonije. Both will be UFA's and Anderson hangs in the balance as a UFA or RFA depending on the CBA. That means three defensive ends are coming out of contract at the same time. It's not ideal, but Angelo indicated he's not in a rush to pay anyone. Ogunleye turns 32 in August meaning he'd be 33 at the start of a season under a new contract. Idonije will turn 30 during the 2010 season and has been a role player, all be it a valuable one. The hope is new line coach Rod Marinelli helps Anderson return to the 12-sack form he had as a situational pass rusher during his 2006 rookie season.
No one else on the list looks to be in line for a major pay day. Running back Matt Forte is entering his second season and typically the Bears wait until after three seasons before approaching any draft picks about a new deal. The exception to that is wide receiver/punt returner Devin Hester, who got a new deal last summer after only two seasons. Forte is entering his second season after rushing for a franchise rookie record 1,238 yards. He's not in line for a contract at this point.
All of this leads us to the obvious--Jay Cutler.
Angelo didn't trade away two first-round picks, a third-round pick and Kyle Orton to have Cutler for the three years that he remains under contract. Angelo is signed through 2013 and he sees Cutler in place far beyond that. The Bears view him as a 10-year solution. If you think the Bears invested a lot in Cutler in trading for him, wait until they back it up with a new contract. Chances are good that deal comes some time this year, and the room the club has under the salary cap will make it easier. Cutler is due a $12 million roster bonus in 2011. In an extension, the Bears could hand him a roster bonus of $10 million or $12 million this season and take advantage of the space available. That's, of course, if the organization believes there will be a salary cap moving forward.
Second contracts for elite quarterbacks take time to put together. These are complex deals for big bucks--picture between $20 million and $30 million guaranteed as a good base point. Angelo said Cutler's contract never came into discussion when the trade was being put together. Cutler was adamant his demand to get out of Denver had nothing to do with money and everything to do with Josh McDaniels. There is no hurry to get a new contract for Cutler, but with the amount of room the Bears have remaining, it only makes sense that the bulk of it is earmarked for the quarterback.