Ever since the Texans cut J.J. Watt, Bears fans have hoped that Ryan Pace could somehow, someway swing a deal for star pass rusher J.J. Watt. Maybe Watt would sign a team-friendly deal to come to Chicago, where his wife, Kealia, plays for the Red Stars? Maybe Pace could make a few moves to make room for him? Fans dreamed up endless options to make it happen. However, those fans might have a reality check coming soon. According to Mary Kay Cabot of cleveland.com, Watt is seriously considering joining the Browns.
Cabot cites several reasons why Watt has been drawn to Cleveland: legitimate Super Bowl aspirations, a strong supporting cast, a positive environment, and of course the money to make a deal happen. While you could argue the Bears check three of the four boxes listed above (Defense still wins championships, right?), the last one— cap space— is the most prohibitive for a potential deal to bring Watt to Chicago.
According to Spotrac.com, the Bears currently rank 21st in the league in cap space for 2021. While we still don’t know what the final number will be for next year’s salary cap, the fact remains that the Bears have considerably less wiggle room than the Browns. Sure, that can be finagled by cutting players like Bobby Massie, Charles Leno or Jimmy Graham. But each of those moves creates a corresponding roster hole that needs to be filled.
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More breathing room can be created through contract negotiations. The idea is to restructure deals by converting base salary into signing bonuses to free up space in the short term. Ryan Pace has actually done this a lot in recent years, reportedly restructuring deals for Kyle Fuller, Nick Foles, Cody Whitehair, Khalil Mack and Eddie Goldman since 2019.
So the Bears are set to sign Watt now, right? Well, maybe, if that’s what Pace wants to do. But realistically the Bears have bigger holes to address before adding to their already stacked defensive front. We’ve already talked about the tackles, but the Bears will have to add some interior lineman too. The team finally seemed to land on a serviceable lineup with Sam Mustipher and Alex Bars in the mix, and getting James Daniels back from injury will certainly help too. But everyone in Chicago learned first hand how important O-Line depth can be after the position group was decimated with injuries in 2020. With Germain Ifedi, Rashaad Coward and Jason Spriggs all set to hit the free agent market, Pace will have to decide who to try to retain, and who he’ll need to replace.
Then, of course, we have the No. 1 free agent question in Halas Hall: what to do with Allen Robinson? The team could franchise tag Robinson, which would cost $16.43 million, as projected by OverTheCap.com. Or the team could sign him to a new contract. Or the team could decide to move on from Robinson. Either way, it seems unlikely that Pace and Matt Nagy would want to move forward with Darnell Mooney as their No. 1 guy, with Riley Ridley or some rookies behind him. Anthony Miller and Javon Wims are under team control, but their futures are still cloudy after each man punched C.J. Gardner-Johnson in the Bears’ two games against the Saints. So whether it’s Robinson, or someone else in the bountiful wide receiver free agent market this offseason, expect the Bears to invest some cap space in the wideout room.
Does any of this absolutely rule out the Bears from signing Watt? No. Fielding a pass rushing force that features Mack, Watt, and Akiem Hicks would make any front office drool— especially in a division where you have to play Aaron Rodgers twice. But with so many needs on offense, it seems unlikely the Bears would add another big contract to the defense. Then again we said that last year, and Pace brought in Robert Quinn. So who knows? Dream on, Bears fans.