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Durkin: Burning Questions For New Bears GM -- Cap Issues

By Dan Durkin-

(CBS) When hanging the "Help Wanted" sign on the front of Halas Hall, Bears president Ted Phillips used the terms "prestigious" and "prime destination" to describe the general manager and head coaching vacancies the team is looking to fill. Certainly, the Bears' brand is prestigious, and being the third-largest media market, Chicago is a prime destination.

But when you consider the monumental task at hand, those shiny descriptions quickly lose their luster.

In reality, the new GM will be inheriting a far-from-ideal situation. The Bears have a top-heavy, aging, talent-poor roster that lacks blue-chip talent. The pay grades and production levels aren't in sync, so decisions will quickly have to be made about players slated to consume the majority of next season's player budget.

As it stands, the Bears have 48 players under contract for the 2015 season totaling $115 million. More than half of that amount is tied up in six players, five are 29 or older -- quarterback Jay Cutler ($16.5 million), defensive end Jared Allen ($12.5 million), wide receiver Brandon Marshall ($9.575 million), running back Matt Forte ($8.8 million), left tackle Jermon Bushrod ($8.05 million) and defensive end Lamarr Houston ($6.99 million).

For the 2014 season, the salary cap was set at $133 million per team, a $10 million jump from the previous year.

During the NFL owners' meeting in Dallas last month, media reports indicated that owners anticipated the 2015 salary cap being between $138.6 and $141.8 million. Yet, the NFL Players Association anticipated a "substantial increase" will be added to the cap, per a memo that was released and reported by ESPN NFL insider Adam Schefter.

On the surface it appears the Bears have a comfortable amount to work with heading into the offseason, which starts March 10. However, given the sheer number of starters -- not just players -- the Bears need to add to their roster, the Bears' needs outweigh their available financial resources.

Decisions need to be made at the very top, starting with Cutler, Allen and Marshall, who currently consume one-third of the team's 2015 cap amount. Let's take a look at some of the considerations the Bears have with those three deals.

Quarterback Jay Cutler

Base salary: $15.5 million fully guaranteed

Prorated bonus: $1 million

2015 cap figure: $16.5 million

The structure of the extension that former general manager Phil Emery signed Cutler to last January has put the Bears in a bind. Cutler signed a seven-year deal worth up to $126.7 million with $54 million in guarantees triggered by roster bonuses in the 2014, 2015  and 2016 seasons.

On the third day of the 2014 league year, $38 million of Cutler's contract became fully guaranteed -- his 2014 base salary of $22.5 million and his 2015 base salary of $15.5 million. On the third day of the 2015 league year (March 12), $10 million of Cutler's $16 million 2016 base salary will be fully guaranteed, and the remaining $6 million is guaranteed if he's on the roster as of the third day of the 2016 league year.

Essentially, Emery gave the Bears one football season and 15 calendar months to make a three-year, $54 million decision on Cutler.

Last March, Cutler agreed to convert $5 million of his 2014 base salary into a signing bonus, lowering his 2014 base salary to $17.5 million and adding a $1 million prorated cap charge that runs through the 2018 season.

If the Bears were to release Cutler before March 12 of this year, they would rid themselves of the remaining $16 million in guarantees, but would add $19.5 million in dead money to their 2015 cap amount. Furthermore, with no viable quarterback alternative currently on the roster, such a move would signal a complete rebuild, which may not be a bad plan given the state of the Bears' roster compared to the rest of their division.

If the Bears were to trade Cutler, they would create $12.5 million in cap room -- his $16.5 million 2015 cap charge minus the remaining $4 million prorated bonus. But what team would be willing to take on that salary for a bridge quarterback?

With the draft and free agency offering no reasonable alternatives, the likely scenario is the Bears will play the upcoming season with Cutler and find a way to reinvent the offense to limit his ability to check out of running plays at the line of scrimmage and feature a run-oriented attack. The bottom line is that decisions about the team's future no longer should center around Cutler.

Defensive end Jared Allen

Base salary: $1 million fully guaranteed

Roster bonus: $11.5 million fully guaranteed

2015 cap figure: $12.5 million

Allen's deal is yet another black eye for Emery. Allen signed a four-year, $32-million deal, but in terms of structure, it was essentially a two-year deal with $15.5 million guaranteed.

Allen's guaranteed money is comprised of his base salaries of $3 million in 2014 and $1 million in 2015 along with an $11.5 million roster bonus that is fully guaranteed on March 19. Once again, the team gave itself one season and 15 months to make a $15.5 million decision on an aging pass rusher.

Thus, Chicago has until March 18th to either renegotiate the terms of Allen's deal or make him the league's fifth-highest paid defensive end in 2015.

Currently, Allen is scheduled to make the same amount as St. Louis Rams defensive end Chris Long and more than players like Miami's Cameron Wake and Denver's DeMarcus Ware.

Allen struggled throughout the 2014 season, battling illness and a loss of first-step explosion, finishing with 5.5 sacks.

Last season, the Bears spent the majority of their free agent dollars on defensive ends, signing Allen, Houston and Willie Young. Outside of Young, they didn't get the boost in pass rush they'd hoped for. Complicating matters, both Houston and Young suffered season-ending injuries with long recovery schedules, so right defensive end is a huge question mark for the Bears.

This upcoming draft is filled with edge rushers, so the Bears may be interested in taking one with their first selection (seventh overall) and keeping Allen around for a year as part of a rotation in hopes of getting something out of their remaining investment.

Wide receiver Brandon Marshall

Base salary: $7.5 million

Prorated bonus: $1.875 million

Workout bonus: $200,000

2015 cap figure: $9.575 million

Last May, Marshall chose to sign his three-year, $30-million contract extension on live television during an episode of "The View." That was the first sign of exactly where Marshall's focus was heading into the season -- all about Brandon. Marshall's desire to be in the limelight didn't end there, as he joined the weekly panel on Showtime's "Inside the NFL."

Marshall's contract included $14.8 million in guarantees -- a fully guaranteed base salary of $7.3 million and a $7.5 million signing bonus.

Marshall's season was forgettable both on and off the field. From his postgame locker room outburst after a loss against the Dolphins to challenging fans, opponents and radio hosts to fights, his act wore thin. On the field, he suffered an ankle injury in the first game of the season, which hampered him throughout. To his credit, he did battle through it, but his explosion wasn't there.

In Week 14 against the Cowboys, Marshall fractured ribs and injured his lungs, which landed him on injured reserve. In the end, Marshall's productivity was his lowest since his rookie season, and he snapped his streak of seven straight seasons with 1,000 or more receiving yards.

If the team is willing to part ways with Marshall, it would actually save money in doing so. Marshall's 2015 base salary is fully guaranteed on March 12, thus if they were to cut him prior to that, the team would save $3.95 million (Marshall's $9.575 cap charge minus his remaining $5.625 in guaranteed money) on the cap.

Undoubtedly, Marshall is a warrior on the field, but upper management may make a decision that takes into consideration everything that comes along with employing him.

Dan Durkin covers the Bears for and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @djdurkin.

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