Bears face challenge to free up cap space

The Bears have until July 15 to shed the franchise tag and work out a long-term deal with Henry Melton. AP Photo/Wade Payne

The $8.45 million salary cap charge associated with the franchise designation placed Friday on Chicago Bears defensive tackle Henry Melton definitely limits what the team can do in upcoming free agency, but the move should be viewed at this point as merely a temporary placeholder for cap space.

The situation remains fluid.

By tagging Melton, the Bears essentially widened the window to negotiate a long-term deal by the NFL's July 15 deadline, which is exactly what the club did in franchising running back Matt Forte last March, before signing him to a new four-year deal last summer. So before the Bears strike a more cap-friendly deal with Melton, it's expected the team will make other roster maneuvers through restructures and cuts to free up money to sign its own free agents while clearing the way to make additions once free agency rolls around March 12, the start of the new league year.

With the new salary cap for the 2013 season now officially set at $123 million, the Bears operated approximately $12 million under the cap before franchising Melton on Friday. The latest move leaves the Bears approximately $3.5 million under the salary cap, which is in the neighborhood of what it would take to sign the 2013 rookie class.

But what about their own free agents such as linebacker Brian Urlacher or guard Lance Louis? What about filling needs in free agency?

The Bears want to bring back Louis, defensive end Israel Idonije, defensive tackle Nate Collins (a restricted free agent), reserve cornerback Kelvin Hayden, offensive tackle Jonathan Scott and linebacker Nick Roach. The Bears have also indicated a desire to bring back Urlacher, provided the price is right.

The current cap situation created by franchising Melton makes none of that possible, let alone potentially bringing in outside free agents, which is why the team's latest move with the defensive tackle should be viewed merely as a placeholder for cap space.

It's unknown whether the Bears plan to bring back free agents such as linebacker Geno Hayes, defensive tackle Amobi Okoye, cornerbacks Zack Bowman and Sherrick McManis (tied for lead in special-teams tackles in 2012), safety Anthony Walters or backup quarterbacks Jason Campbell and Josh McCown.

But to make any of that possible, the Bears need to create cap space through restructuring contracts, cutting players, or a combination of both.

Obviously, the most viable candidates for restructures are players with the highest cap numbers headed into the 2013 season. Including Melton ($8.45 million), and Forte ($7.175 million), the Bears have 13 players who carry cap figures into next season of $2.35 million or more, and 10 of them eat up at least $3.55 million of cap space.

It's unlikely but not impossible the Bears would ask players such as Forte and linebacker Lance Briggs ($7.416 million) to redo their deals, considering Forte just signed his contract in July, and Briggs did his in April.

Still, the team could definitely free up space in other ways before the NFL's March 12 deadline for teams to get under the cap.

Peppers, 33, carries the team's highest cap number ($16.383 million) in 2013, and is the most viable for a restructured deal to reduce his cap figure. The team re-worked Peppers' deal in 2011 by converting a $10.5 million roster bonus into a signing bonus. But given Peppers' 2014 cap figure of $17.383 million (which swells to $19.683 million in 2015), if the club uses a large portion of his 2013 base salary of $12.9 million to free up cap space, there's a good chance this upcoming season could be his last in Chicago.

The club could also tack what sports agents call "dummy years" onto Peppers' present deal and convert large portions of his base salaries in 2013 and 2014 into a $20 million signing bonus. That would reduce his $12.9 million base salary in 2013 to $2.9 million and his $13.9 million base salary to $3.9 million.

By doing that, the Bears would also reduce Peppers' 2013 cap number from $16.383 million to $10.383 million, and his 2014 figure from $17.183 million to $11.183 million. That would free up $6 million in cap space in each of the next two years. But in 2015, Peppers' cap figure of $19.683 million would grow to $23.683 million.

Quarterback Jay Cutler owns the second-highest number ($10.37 million) as he enters the final year of his contract. The Bears can reduce that figure by signing the quarterback to an extension, but that's an unlikely scenario with a new coach in Marc Trestman, who isn't sure whether Cutler is the club's signal caller of the future. With Cutler, it's likely the Bears handle him the way the Baltimore Ravens dealt with Joe Flacco entering the final year of his deal. They'll likely make him play out the contract.

Sure, if Cutler produces a similar result as Flacco, who is coming off a Super Bowl victory, Cutler's value would increase significantly. The Ravens rewarded Flacco with a contract worth $52 million guaranteed, which may seem stratospheric. But the fact is teams pay premium prices for premium quarterbacks, and the Bears certainly wouldn't balk at paying Cutler provided he proves he's worth it.

Receiver Brandon Marshall carries the third-highest cap figure ($9.3 million), and his contract expires in 2014. Given his productivity in 2012 (a sixth consecutive 1,000-yard season), and age (he'll turn 29 later this month) it would make sense to sign him to an extension that would lower his cap number.

Cornerbacks Charles Tillman ($8 million) and Tim Jennings ($4.1 million), both entering the final year of their contracts, would also seem prime candidates for new deals that would lower their cap figures.

The reality with Melton, however, is that even with an expected long-term deal by July 15, the new contract probably wouldn't represent a significant reduction of the $8.45 million cap figure that comes with the franchise designation. Melton's new salary ranks as the second-highest base salary for 2013 among defensive tackles. Behind Melton and Miami's Randy Starks, who were both tagged, the base salaries of the other highest-paid players at the position range from Tampa Bay Buccaneer Gerald McCoy's $8.021 million to Miami Dolphin Paul Solai's $5.7 million.

So the Bears know they'll ultimately wind up paying Melton somewhere near the $5 million-per-year range.

The truth is a long-term deal for Melton can now be placed on the backburner while the Bears handle more pressing issues with free agency rapidly approaching.