Sign a guy coming off a career-high six sacks in 2013 in Lamarr Houston, only to cut a player in Julius Peppers coming off a down year in which he contributed 7.5 sacks after back-to-back seasons of 11-plus sacks.
On the surface, it doesn’t make a ton of sense.
But this move wasn’t about production as much as it was about the money. Carrying Peppers into the 2014 season would have cost the Chicago Bears a base salary of $13.9 million, and a salary-cap hit of $18.183 million. The decision to terminate Peppers’ contract clears $9.8 million in cap space for 2014.
What that means is the Bears plan to spend some more in a free-agent market that could pay off big in terms of bargains for teams that exercise some patience.
As it stands now, the Bears would like to bring back defensive tackle Henry Melton, cornerback Charles Tillman and backup quarterback Josh McCown. The Bears spent $5.775 million during free agency for 2013 last offseason in bringing in Jermon Bushrod, Matt Slauson and Martellus Bennett. So the cap space cleared by parting ways with Peppers should be more than sufficient to bring back Tillman, McCown and Melton if the club so chooses.
If that trio opts to play elsewhere in 2014, the Bears now have enough cap space to fill those holes with legitimate players capable of contributing just as quickly as the club’s free-agent haul from a year ago did.
Chicago parting ways with Peppers certainly didn’t come as a surprise given his age (34), salary and the perception that his production is declining (that typically happens when you’re surrounded by below-average players because of injuries to starters), and he’s falling off athletically. Throughout the offseason, Bears coach Marc Trestman and general manager Phil Emery didn’t even try to hint at possibly bringing back Peppers.
Asked at the NFL combine in February whether Peppers had played his last game for the Bears, Trestman said, “Julius Peppers is under contract. He’s been very important to our football team, and I don’t think anything more needs to be said in that regard at this point in time.”
Translation: You’re outta here.
That same day at the combine, knowing the question ultimately referred to Peppers, Emery used a Trestman remark to explain the process of trying to free a player from his contractual obligations with enough time for him to find work with another team.
“To quote Marc,” Emery said, “decisions are made when they have to be made.”
In four years playing for the Bears, Peppers started in every game (64), racked up 37.5 sacks and made the Pro Bowl in every season with the team except for 2013. In all, Peppers has posted 119 sacks, which ranks as the 17th-most in NFL history since 1982, when the league first started recording sacks as an official statistic.
Since coming into the league in 2002, Peppers ranks only second to Jared Allen (128.5 sacks), who coincidentally is currently without a team, too.
So Peppers shouldn’t have trouble finding work in 2014.
But the Bears better find a way to replace his production on defense, or they could be in for a season similar to what they experienced in 2013. Based on what Chicago has acquired through free agency thus far, there is still plenty of work to do on that front.