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Bears in great salary-cap shape — but don’t expect a splurge

Re-signing OlKreutz likely will be one Bears’ priorities. Kreutz’s agent Mark Bartelstesaid his client is open new deal.  |

Re-signing Olin Kreutz likely will be one of the Bears’ priorities. Kreutz’s agent, Mark Bartelstein, said his client is open to a new deal. | Joel Lerner~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: October 27, 2011 12:32AM

They deviated from their norm last year, outbidding other teams and handing a free agent one of the league’s richest contracts.

But after splurging on defensive end Julius Peppers, the Bears are returning to their usual approach, even though they’re in prime position to make another splash.

According to three sources, the Bears will have more salary-cap space than any other team in the NFC North, empowering them to upgrade a veteran roster that won the division title and reached the NFC title game last season.

But instead of swinging for the fences (i.e., Peppers), the Bears might opt for a more Starlin Castro-like approach. That’s not to say they won’t pursue big-name players, only that they’ll do so if the price is right. In other words, Bears fans shouldn’t throw away their wish list of free agents, but they shouldn’t expect the team to set the market at any position, like they did with Peppers.

Could the Bears land Sidney Rice?

Sure, if the Minnesota Vikings receiver doesn’t command the annual salary of the elite receivers — over $10.5 million per year — and, somehow, doesn’t cost any draft picks.

Could the Bears land Doug Free or Logan Mankins?

Sure, if the former Northern Illinois offensive tackle and New England Patriots guard become unrestricted under the new rules and opt not to return to their respective teams.

And there are a number of others who could help the Bears. Without a glaring hole in the starting lineups on offense or defense, however, the Bears can afford to be somewhat picky and take a bargain-shopper’s mentality.

Cap space unclear

The salary cap for 2011 is projected to be anywhere from $117  million to $123 million. reports about seven teams are over, including the Vikings and the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers. Neither is grossly over, but they will have to restructure some contracts or trim a couple of players (receiver Bernard Berrian and linebacker Nick Barnett are often mentioned) to squeeze under the cap. The Detroit Lions, meanwhile, don’t have much wiggle room.

The approximate amount the Bears are under is difficult to pinpoint because the league hasn’t formally announced the new rules and what figures count toward the cap. But the Bears are at least $10  million under, according to multiple sources.

That’s a significant amount for a team that is squared away at some of the game’s highest-priced positions, most notably quarterback.

The Bears are poised to be a player in a buyer’s market. They have the space to make a play for this year’s top prize, cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, but they won’t because he doesn’t fit their scheme, and he’ll cost way too much. But there are a lot of quality players already available, and a glut of others will add to an already-flooded market when teams release another wave of players to free up cap space.

So unlike last year, when the Bears signed Peppers on the first day of free agency, they might be more inclined to watch uber-aggressive teams overpay for certain players immediately, then make a move in the second wave. The hope would be to land a player who would command $7-plus million in a different year for perhaps $4 million.

And for any skeptics who think Bears ownership could be hoarding money, the new rules are expected to establish a salary-cap floor. So if the Bears were $30 million under, they’d still need to spend at least $10  million to comply with NFL rules.

Clear priorities

There has been a lot of speculation about which players the Bears might be interested in.

But there’s no question they would like to re-sign many of their own players, including center Olin Kreutz and defensive tackle Anthony Adams.

Once a deal is done, teams likely will have a three-day window to sign undrafted free agents and rookies and re-sign restricted and unrestricted free agents.

With most of the offseason lost, players and teams might be more inclined to maintain a partnership, given the challenges on both sides. Teams would have to teach a new player an entirely new system in a very short time. Players, on the other hand, not only would have to adjust to a new team but also figure out a place to live and, for many, a school for their children.

On Tuesday, Kreutz’s agent, Mark Bartelstein, said his client would be open to signing a new deal during that short window.

‘‘If they want to aggressively come and get a deal and give him a fair deal for who he is, then . . . he’s going to want to get it done,” Bartelstein said. ‘‘But he wants to feel good about it. If not, then those three days will go by fast, and he’ll be on the market.’’

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