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Bears enjoy the luxury of salary-cap space

Green Bay Packers v Chicago Bears

Green Bay Packers v Chicago Bears

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Updated: January 29, 2013 6:38AM

What transpires Sunday in the regular season finale at Ford Field in Detroit would appear to have deep ramifications on the future of the Bears.

But only Phil Emery has any inkling of the potential outcome for key coaches and players, most notably Lovie Smith, and the Bears general manager hasn’t tipped his hand to anyone.

Has Smith, with a winning season, already secured his return for 2013? Does Smith need a playoff berth to keep his job or earn an extension? Or will Smith have to make postseason run to remain the team’s coach?

Yet as the 2012 season winds toward its conclusion, two league executives made one thing clear about the 2013 Bears: the salary cap won’t prohibit Emery in any way.

“They can do whatever they want,” one executive said.

In recent years, the Bears — with expensive extensions and free-agent signings — have been hampered by some deals (think Tommie Harris and Nathan Vasher). But they’ve largely broken free of such contracts, empowering Emery to head in whichever direction he chooses with the roster: build on it or blow up it.

There will be an incremental increase in the salary cap to $121 million, and the Bears’ combined cap number of their top 41 players is about $14.5 million under that. That includes a carryover of space from this season.

According to a league source, the Bears are among the top 10 teams in terms of cap space.

But the contract status of core players under Smith is palatable and, more importantly, flexible. The Bears could, if they choose to, create more cap space by offering contract extensions to a couple of players.

Here’s a look at some of the decisions and options the Bears will weigh:

Julius Peppers

In 2010, the Bears surprised the rest of the league and deviated from their usual course by signing defensive end Peppers to the richest free-agent contract in team history. Halfway through the six-year, $84 million contract, Peppers has secured his third Pro Bowl berth and his second consecutive double-digit sack season. He has started every game during his tenure with the team.

Peppers turns 33 next month, and his cap number next season is $17.6 million, or 14.5 percent of the team’s 2013 allotment. Also, his base salary jumps from $8.9 million in 2012 to $12.9 million in 2013.

But Peppers, who is signed through 2015, would still put a dent in the Bears’ cap even if he is not on the roster, meaning he’s released or traded. The cap savings would be $8.1 million.

So the question is: $17.6 million with Peppers or $9.5 million without him?

Jay Cutler

Cutler is signed through 2013, but clubs usually try to avoid entering free agency with franchise quarterbacks. Next season, Cutler has a cap number of $10.4 million, with base salaries and bonuses pushing his pay close to $9 million.

If the Bears oust Smith, then Cutler might relive a similar situation to the one he faced in Denver: the new coach might not want him. To get rid of him — via trade or release — the Bears would only eat $1.4 million in salary-cap space.

That’s unlikely given the Bears’ struggles at the position.

But the greater challenge is figuring out Cutler’s market value.

He made clear that he was kidding about giving the Bears a “hometown discount,” as he discussed on his weekly radio show.

But what is he worth?

The quarterback market could become clearer since Tony Romo and Joe Flacco will be free agents this offseason and the Green Bay Packers and Atlanta Falcons are likely to work hard to sign Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan, respectively, to long-term deals.

One deal to keep an eye on is the one the Houston Texans gave Matt Schaub last September, a five-year contract that included $29 million in guarantees.

If the Bears work anything out with Cutler, expect his cap number to be over the current $10 million.

Free-agent crop

What isn’t daunting are the players whose contracts are up. They are: Zack Bowman, Jason Campbell, Kelvin Hayden, Geno Hayes, Israel Idonije, Johnny Knox, Lance Louis, Josh McCown, Henry Melton, D.J. Moore, Amobi Okoye, Nick Roach, Chris Spencer and Brian Urlacher.

The most notable of those players probably is Melton, who was just named to his first Pro Bowl. He turned 26 in October, and he could be a cog for years to come. He’ll likely command a deal that averages at least $6 million a year, if not more.

While they miss Louis on the field now, the Bears might catch a break later since his marketability will probably be hurt because he’ll be in the early stages of his return from a torn ACL when free agency starts.

As for Urlacher, his chances of returning would seem more likely if Smith is retained. The linebacker made $8 million in 2012 but will most likely take a pay cut if he decides to play next season and beyond.

Could create
more room

The 2013 free agent class is a solid one, headlined by offensive tackles Ryan Clady and Jake Long and receivers Dwayne Bowe and Greg Jennings.

If the Bears wanted to go shopping again, then they could make even more room by extending the contract of players such as Charles Tillman (due to make $8 million) and Brandon Marshall (due to make $9.3 million), both of whom had strong 2012 seasons. But such a move by the Bears would lower their cap numbers but increase the amount of money they would guarantee them.

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