If the Chicago Bears were going to cut Kyle Fuller to begin to clean up their stifling salary cap issues, which they did in order to save approximately $11 million against this year’s cap, then they also had absolutely no choice but to cut Charles Leno Jr. Monday, which they did.
Coming out of the draft Sunday, the Bears were still somewhere between $850,000, according to Spotrac.com, and $3.4 million, according to OvertheCap.com, over the salary cap depending on which you trust more.
With the need to clear somewhere in the neighborhood of $5 million to sign their rookies and hopefully at least still be in the market for additional upgrades with free agents still on the street, somebody had to go.
The only player on the roster that might offer more cap relief than Leno and the roughly $9 million his release creates – when designated as a post-Jule 1 cut – is Akiem Hicks ($10.5 million). And Jimmy Graham ($7 million) is the only other player in the ballpark.
Cutting Hicks is a non-starter if there is any hope of recapturing the defense’s 2018 mojo. Graham, in addition to the leadership he brings, is the only U or move tight end option on the roster, and J.P. Holtz is the only other NFL tight end besides Cole Kmet they have right now.
The next best options strictly in terms of “how much can they save?” are James Daniels and Bilal Nichols, who’d provide $2.2 million in savings each but obviously neither of them is going anywhere.
For the most part the Bears were out of options, and the team had just used its second- and fifth-round picks (and effectively its third in the trade up) on replacements for Leno and Bobby Massie, who was cut a couple of months ago, The handwriting for Leno’s departure wasn’t just on the wall, it was plastered all over Halas Hall.
What’s really scary is there still has to be more work done to lower the cap. And if it’s done with cuts, only small chunks are available from the likes of Anthony Miller and Javon Wims.
The only other options are getting a long-term deal done with Allen Robinson, which could save as much as $8 to 12 million, or extensions for guys like Hicks or Graham.
The Bears can also rework the deals of big hitters like Khalil Mack, Robert Quinn or Eddie Jackson, but that’s just pushing the problem down the road.
In fairness to Ryan Pace, Joey Laine, the team’s capologist, and others whose purview is the cap, this is mostly not their fault.
Were it not for a worldwide health crisis, pretty much everybody in the league was assuming with great cause this year’s cap would have been in the $205 to $210 million range when all of these contracts were done – $23 million to $28 million more than it’s proved to be.
Leno will be missed for his character, leadership and presence in the locker room.
He is an outstanding young man and a classic over-achiever after being drafted in the seventh round in 2014.
Unlike Fuller, however, who is still one of the best players in the league at his position, Leno was actually a big part of the problem with the Bears offense. They should have been auditioning replacements at least two or three years ago.
While many are projecting he won’t be out of work for long, I wouldn’t be so sure.
With the likes of Russell Okung, Eric Fisher, Allejandro Villanueva and the 39-year old Jason Peters all available – and are significant upgrades over Leno even though he’s still just 29 – it’s hard to picture a line at his front door. While he will get a job, it certainly won’t be for anything near what the Bears would have had to pay him in this buyer’s market.
The NFL is a brutal, cutthroat business. It’s easy to feel for Leno. I know I do.
But beyond the Bears cap situation, he is a 29-year old man wealthy beyond most of our wildest imaginations, and it is good to see the Bears doing the painful work of finally acknowledging he just wasn’t good enough and taking the painful steps to make their football team better.