Executives claim not to negotiate in the media, but nearly five months ago that seemed to be exactly what Chicago Bears general manager Jerry Angelo did at the NFL Combine in discussing the possible return of free-agent center Olin Kreutz.
The intimation came before Angelo truly understood the landscape of free agency, which seems to be clearing up with the league and its former union coming closer in recent weeks to reaching agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement to end the lockout. The proposals being tossed about --- most notably, the owners’ willingness to make the salary-cap floor more than 90 percent of the cap -- likely increases the chances for a Kreutz return to the Bears in 2011.
Bottom line: Chicago -- based on the fact it has committed less than $80 million to player salaries for 2011 -- will be required to spend plenty of money (approximately $40 million) if the cap floor in the new CBA falls in line with what’s been proposed. Will they spend some of it on Kreutz, who is sure to have plenty of suitors once free agency kicks off from teams in need of offensive line help in cap situations similar to the Bears? Or will the Bears spend the money to upgrade the roster with big-name free agents or to re-sign other key veterans?
Bears coach Lovie Smith has been adamant about the team’s need to bring back Kreutz, regardless of potential needs at other positions. So have his teammates.
“He’s kind of been the cornerstone of that offensive line forever,” Bears safety Chris Harris said. “So I think having his leadership on the team would be great.”
Back in March, the league’s owners made a last-ditch proposal to set the salary cap floor at 90 percent of the salary cap in cash. Since then, it appears the owners have sweetened the deal, and according to ESPN’s John Clayton, are willing to make the floor close to 100 percent of the cap.
Estimates on the new cap range between $120 and $130 million (sources say closer to $130 million), which means the Bears will be in ideal position in terms of the flexibility to re-sign their own veterans or go after a big-name free agent once the lockout comes to an end.
With other teams in similar situations with the cap, the Bears will likely face competition for Kreutz’s services. In the past, Kreutz turned down more lucrative offers to remain with the Bears, but has stated a desire to return in 2011. At 34, Kreutz is coming to the end of his career, and is looking for a respectable multi-year offer that would allow him to retire a Bear, according to a league source.
“I’m confident in him,” said running back Matt Forte, who with the help of Kreutz’s blocking, is one of just five Bears to gain at least 1,000 yards from scrimmage in three seasons or more. “He’s the anchor of that offensive line, not only physically, but his mental aspect of the game and his approach is second to none.”
Other teams in need of offensive line help might view Kreutz similarly. Multiple clubs have starting centers set to enter free agency. But with limited options on the market at the position, most teams will look to retain their own players, while other clubs may look to upgrade.
Of all the available center options in free agency, no player has been to more Pro Bowls than Kreutz (six). His age likely won’t be a strong consideration, either, since Kreutz finished 2010 injury free, and is still playing at a relatively high level.
Kreutz’s experience and leadership ability will also play a key role in how the Bears proceed, considering the club plans to revamp an offensive line that gave up a league-high 56 sacks last season, and enters 2011 playing in the second year of a new offensive system with two inexperienced players (J’Marcus Webb and Gabe Carimi) projected to start at tackle.
“I hope he decides to stay with us,” Forte said. “He teaches the younger guys everything he sees, and calling out blitzes and just knowing everything the defense is going to do throughout the game.”