Although Phil Emery's primary focus in the coming weeks will be to find a new head coach, it's never too early to look at next year's player salary information and try to identify any potential cap casualties.
Of the Bears currently under contract, the highest base salary and projected cap number for 2013 belongs to defensive end Julius Peppers, who is set to earn $12.9 million (before bonuses) and count $16.383 million towards the cap.
Quarterback Jay Cutler eats up the second highest total of individual cap space at $10.370 million, and boasts the third highest base salary behind Peppers and wide receiver Brandon Marshall ($9.1 million). Veteran Charles Tillman will also be expensive next fall as he enters the final year of a contract that calls for a $7.95 million base salary and an $8 million cap number, but the cornerback is coming off two of his best seasons with back-to-back Pro Bowl selections.
While the 33-year-old Peppers has been a key component to the Bears' defense ever since he signed a monster six-year contract with $42 million in total guarantees in March, 2010, his cap number for next year is extremely high. It should be noted that Peppers already renegotiated his contract in February, 2011 to give the Bears cap relief in his second season in Chicago. After the deal got restructured, Peppers only counted $4.383 million against the salary cap in 2011, but that cap number rose to $12.183 million last year. The defensive end is scheduled to carry a cap number of $17.383 million in 2014 and $19.683 million in 2015.
Would Peppers agree to take a pay cut or restructure his deal a second time?
If Peppers is reluctant to the idea of another renegotiating, his camp could argue the eight-time Pro Bowler has lived up to his end of the bargain, while showing little drop off in production. Even though Peppers battled an ankle injury all of last season, he still started all 16 games and lead the team with 11.5 sacks -- Peppers highest sack total since 2008 (14.5). There is also the undeniable fact the Bears defense will be much better in 2013 with Peppers than without him.
Corey Wootton is likely destined to be in the starting lineup at one defensive end spot next fall after he took major strides last season with seven sacks, but Israel Idonije is no longer under contract and former first-round pick Shea McClellin, while showing promise his rookie year, does not appear ready to assume the role of a four-down defensive end.
And regardless of how the Bears look in 2013 under a possible new defensive coordinator, Peppers is the kind of athlete who can excel in any scheme.
But $16.383 million is an awful lot of money for one player to count towards the salary cap.
Emery has some tough decisions to make moving forward, and what to do with Peppers' contract figures to be high up there on the list.