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Bears have several ways they can create salary cap room

FILE - In this Oct. 10 2010 file phoChicago Bears defensive end Julius Peppers (90) quiets crowd after intercepting pass

FILE - In this Oct. 10, 2010, file photo, Chicago Bears defensive end Julius Peppers (90) quiets the crowd after intercepting a pass against the Carolina Panthers in an NFL football game in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond, File)

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Five Bears who could provide immediate salary-cap relief:

1. Julius Peppers — The perennial Pro Bowl defensive end has a team-high $16.38 million cap charge, but he could cut that figure in half by restructuring and adding “dummy years” to the back end of his deal.

2. Charles Tillman — The most obvious candidate for an extension because he enters the final year of a contract with a salary-cap number of $8 million.

3. Kellen Davis — The underachieving tight end was guaranteed $2.7 million last year for minor production, and the new regime might not like the thought of paying him more than triple the league minimum to roll the dice in 2013.

4. Devin Hester — It’s unlikely that he’d take a pay cut, but releasing him would save the Bears $2.4 million.

5. Robbie Gould — The reliable kicker enters the last year of his deal with a cap number of $2.92 million. Working out an extension could secure the 31-year-old beyond 2013 and save the Bears some cap space.

Can Bears afford a free-agent offensive tackle?

Updated: March 1, 2013 10:35AM

Like a faulty faucet, the NFL slowly but steadily drops a veteran into the vast free-agent pool.

The first significant move came two weeks ago, when the Green Bay Packers terminated safety Charles Woodson’s contract. Since then, the NFL’s unemployment line has gotten longer and longer by the day, foreshadowing a reality many players don’t seem ready for: another buyer’s market.

The Bears are in solid position — about $12 million under the projected salary cap — to capitalize, but they’ll need to create some more room if they’re going to do more than window-shop in free agency.

Only a handful of players — most notably quarterback Joe Flacco and left tackle Ryan Clady — will land lucrative deals. Most of the others might have to settle for below-market long-term or even modest short-term contracts.

“There’s no middle class in the NFL,” one prominent agent said. “You’re either elite or a rookie.”

One general manager said teams are, in essence, “renting players” nowadays, building around superstars and filling in the holes with youngsters.

For the Bears, defensive tackle Henry Melton would appear to be a cornerstone player, especially with new coach Marc Trestman committed to keeping the 4-3 scheme.

But whether they franchise him by Monday’s deadline or work out a long-term deal, the Bears will sink a sizable chunk of cap space on Melton. If it’s the franchise tag, that will cost them $8.3 million, not to mention the $2 million to $3 million they’ll need for their top two picks in the draft.

That would put them right around the cap.

This, of course, doesn’t include a new deal for middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, a free-agent offensive tackle or even a decent backup player.

But teams can create space in a hurry.

The Dallas Cowboys seem to be restructuring the contract of a veteran on an hourly basis to create more space. The only problem is, like a credit card, they’re pushing the inevitable payment to future years, an approach the Bears are reluctant to assume.

But one way the Bears could create about $8 million in cap savings would be by converting most of defensive end Julius Peppers’ $12.9 million base salary for 2013 into a roster bonus, then adding two “dummy years” to his deal, which is set to expire in 2015. By doing so, the Bears could almost cut his $16.38 million cap number in half, depending on structure, then spread some of the hit into 2016 or 2017, when the salary cap could increase.

That’s a last resort but a viable one, two NFL executives said.

The Bears also could create significant cap space by signing a couple of players to extensions. The most obvious candidates are cornerbacks Charles Tillman ($8 million cap number) and Tim Jennings ($5.1 million) and kicker Robbie Gould ($2.92 million), two sources said.

Extensions for those three players could save another $8 million.

Another option many teams are employing is asking veterans to take pay cuts or threatening them with their release. Bears with relatively high salaries include tight end Kellen Davis ($2.5 million in cap savings), receiver Devin Hester ($2.4 million), receiver Earl Bennett ($2.35 million) and tight end Matt Spaeth ($1.6 million).

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