Hub Arkush: Bears GM Ryan Pace's main focus just might be on salary cap
As a rule, NFL general managers and personnel directors are about as tight-lipped as mimes, never wanting their 31 opponents to know what they're plotting or what talent they covet.
Bears general manager Ryan Pace was as secretive and vague as ever this week, but he dropped one thought that may say a lot about what he's thinking.
Asked if he's planning any "big swings" like he took at Khalil Mack and Mitch Trubisky, Pace said, "It depends on the opportunity. It's not like we go into it and say we're going to take a big swing just to make headlines.
"It depends on the different targets that are there, the options that are there, and this offseason more than any because of the number of players available.
"We're going to see a lot of guys hit the market in the coming weeks. As a staff, we've got to be able to pivot and adjust along the way to some things we might not expect."
While he was speaking in general terms about the draft and free agency, the operative phrase was, "We're going to see a lot of guys hit the market in the coming weeks."
Due to the pandemic, the salary cap will be reduced over last season for the first time since 2011 and only the second time since its inception in 1994.
The last seven seasons the cap has increased at least $10 million yearly. This year it might decrease $18 million.
If so, 12 teams, including the Bears, are over the cap, and 11 teams have $20 million or more of cap room to use.
Teams must be under the cap by 3 p.m. March 17 when the new league year begins. The salaries of each teams' 51 highest-paid players cannot exceed the projected $180 million cap.
Here are players who could be cap casualties ... and this list may grow:
Offense: QB Jimmy Garoppolo, WR Robby Anderson, QB Marcus Mariota, WR Golden Tate, RB Melvin Gordon, TE Eric Ebron, RB Mark Ingram, TE Zach Ertz, RB Raheem Mostert, TE Cameron Brate, RB Sony Michel, OT Nate Solder, RB Damien Williams, OT Eric Fisher, WR Jarvis Landry, OT Donovan Smith, WR Brandin Cooks, OG Gabe Jackson, WR Tyler Lockett, OG Trai Turner, WR Jamison Crowder, OG Kevin Zeitler.
Defense: DE Dee Ford, EDGE Von Miller, DE Carlos Dunlap, OLB Preston Smith, DT Allen Bailey, OLB Anthony Barr, DT Grady Jarrett, LB Kwon Alexander, DT Michael Brockers, CB Stephon Gilmore, DT Sheldon Richardson, CB Marcus Peters, DT Geno Atkins, S Tyrann Mathieu.
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There are additional stars such as Odell Beckham Jr. who will be too expensive to cut because of the dead money on their deals but could be available in trade for next to nothing for the savings the Cleveland Browns could realize on his salary.
The other reality of this unusual cap situation is most free agents -- whether out of contract or released as cap casualties -- are going to be looking at much smaller deals because the cap space just isn't there to pay them.
This market could be looking at bargains galore.
It feels impossible that the Bears could be better without Allen Robinson, Akiem Hicks or Kyle Fuller -- a few of Pace's own potential cap casualties -- but if they were replaced by say OBJ, Jarrett and Gilmore at half the price and that left room to add say Solder and Mathieu ...
As for Pace's quarterback dilemma: No, a Garoppolo or Mariota isn't a Wilson or a Watson, but the differences in their cap hits will almost certainly exceed $20 million each.
Pace should not close any doors nor open any so wide he can't close them -- at least until we know all that will be on the menu this offseason, one very different from any we've seen before.
• Twitter: @Hub_Arkush