The Chicago Bears were bad last season. They're drafting first overall for a reason.
But bottoming out has set up a really intriguing offseason.
The Bears are the team to watch over the the next few months, beginning March 15 with the official start of free agency. It's not often one team will have roughly 50% more cap space than the second team on that list and also own the No. 1 overall pick. That pick has extra value this season because: 1) There are quality quarterbacks at the top of the draft, 2) multiple teams are desperate at quarterback, 3) the Bears have an exciting, young QB in Justin Fields. They hold all the cards.
Usually when fans sit around and dream up scenarios in the offseason, they want their team to sign every recognizable name that hits the market and also make ridiculous, unrealistic moves in the draft. With the 2023 Bears offseason, it's all possible.
There's a feasible scenario in which the Bears could trade down twice from the No. 1 overall pick and still get one of the two top defensive players in the draft (Alabama pass-rusher Will Anderson Jr. or Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter). Staying put at No. 1 seems to be the least likely — and most shortsighted — scenario.
Those draft trades will be hashed out over the next month and a half. Before that, the Bears have oodles of cap space to spend.
Chicago has $95 million in cap space as of Thursday, according to Spotrac. The team with the second-most space is the Atlanta Falcons at $57.8 million. The Bears could sign two or three of the top free agents on the board (albeit in a weak class) and still have the most cap space in the NFL. Jakobi Meyers to improve the receivers? Orlando Brown Jr. to stock up the line? Javon Hargrave to bolster the defensive line and add a much-needed pass-rusher? It's all on the table.
But will the Bears be aggressive with all that cap space? General manager Ryan Poles said his overall philosophy is to be rather picky in free agency, and he seems to be sticking to that.
"Just like the draft, we have players that are going to be in certain buckets for values, and this year we have the ability to approach and go after a few of those guys," Poles told reporters at the NFL scouting combine via the Bears' site. "I think we're going to stay selective. We're going to have parameters that kind of match our values and our research."
It might not be a spending spree. But it's also hard to believe the Bears won't splash around at least a bit in the rich end of the free-agent pool. You can't hold on to that cap space forever, and the Bears need massive improvements on both sides of the ball. Fields' development might hinge on the team's ability to figure out receiver despite a really bad free-agent class and help an offensive line that wasn't as bad as feared last season but still needs more talent.
Whatever happens, the Bears are by far the most intriguing team to watch over the next couple of months. The moves they make will determine if they can take steps toward ending their Super Bowl title drought that dates to the 1985 season or if it's back to being stuck in a holding pattern and wondering how to get out of a very long rut. No pressure.
Here is a ranking of each NFL team in terms of how interesting they will be to track during free agency and the draft. The salary-cap space listed with each team is updated through Thursday (on Spotrac) but also fluid as signings and cuts happen:
32. Denver Broncos (salary-cap space: $544,252)
The Broncos are going to need to be just about perfect in their roster-building the next few years to make up for all the draft picks sent off to get Russell Wilson and Sean Payton. It's not like they have the cap flexibility to do much in free agency. The Broncos need to hope Payton fixes Wilson, and we won't get that answer for many more months.
31. New Orleans Saints (salary-cap space: minus-$29.8 million)
The Saints got out the credit card again and paid Derek Carr $150 million to fix their QB conundrum. It's stunning how the Saints, year after year, figure out ways to manipulate the cap and push all their problems to the future. But they do, so I can't rule out more moves, even though it would seem like spending big on Carr would be the end of their splurge.
30. New York Giants (salary-cap space: $14.4 million)
The Giants spent a lot of money on Daniel Jones, a middle-of-the-road quarterback, and Saquon Barkley, when second running back contracts don't often work out well. But that was a priority for them after a growth season, and that'll be a bulk of their offseason.
29. Jacksonville Jaguars (salary-cap space: minus-$23.2 million)
The Jaguars spent a lot last offseason, and that won't happen for a second straight offseason. Getting Calvin Ridley back from his yearlong suspension, after the Jaguars traded for him last season, is their big move.
28. Carolina Panthers (salary-cap space: minus-$8 million)
How are the Panthers in such a bad salary-cap situation? It's not like this team is full of veteran stars. The Panthers seem close to a step forward, but the quarterback problem hangs over the franchise for yet another offseason. The rest of the roster actually isn't that bad, which is good considering they have little money to spend.
27. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (salary-cap space: minus-$48.7 million)
The post-Tom Brady era begins. The Buccaneers can't have any regrets, but they also had to know a day of reckoning was coming once Brady retired. The Bucs were bad last season, and it's going to get worse. Their biggest priority is getting their cap in order, and some free agents, such as cornerback Jamel Dean, could leave. We'll see how the Buccaneers approach what looks like a huge rebuild.
26. Pittsburgh Steelers (salary-cap space: minus-$4.8 million)
The Steelers had a surprising season, but a lot of work needs to be done. They weren't dominant on either side of the ball. The offense could use some better play at offensive tackle, and the defense is running short on cornerbacks. There's not a lot of cap space to fix those issues, so the draft — with that extra No. 32 pick due to a great trade sending Chase Claypool to the Bears — will be of utmost importance.
25. Cleveland Browns (salary-cap space: minus-$19.5 million)
The Browns were the offseason's most interesting team for a few years in a row, with seemingly endless cap space and extra draft picks as they bottomed out. Now all that cap space is gone, the Browns sent a lot of draft picks to Houston for Deshaun Watson, and the whole process (to date) resulted in no division titles, one playoff appearance and one playoff win. Now they're just praying that Watson becomes a superstar after all they paid for him.
24. Los Angeles Chargers (salary-cap space: minus-$8.7 million)
The Chargers loaded up last offseason to take advantage of Justin Herbert's cheap rookie deal and ... ended up having one of the biggest playoff collapses ever. But hey, at least they made the playoffs. The Chargers desperately need some deep speed at receiver, but they might have to fish in the draft for that.
23. Minnesota Vikings (salary-cap space: minus-$17.2 million)
Kirk Cousins is still taking up plenty of cap space, Justin Jefferson's contract extension will cost a fortune, and the Vikings won't have a lot of wiggle room in free agency. The good news is the roster is fairly solid.
22. Miami Dolphins (salary-cap space: minus-$595,554)
The Dolphins are the rare team that probably should invest in a good running back, and there are plenty of options in free agency. That would help the offense and maybe take some pressure off Tua Tagovailoa. Cornerback is another problem area, but Miami doesn't have a ton of money to pursue a top CB.
21. Buffalo Bills (salary-cap space: minus-$20 million)
The Bills made a huge signing last offseason, getting Von Miller. That probably won't happen again. The Bills would probably be happy to not lose all of their free agents, including safety Jordan Poyer and linebacker Tremaine Edmunds.
20. Indianapolis Colts (salary-cap space: $3.4 million)
The Colts had a miserable season, but the roster isn't as terrible as their record would indicate. Quarterback is the obvious issue, but that should be settled in the draft. The Colts probably won't be big players in free agency, though they could look to get younger in the secondary.
19. Dallas Cowboys (salary-cap space: minus-$24 million)
The Cowboys spent on Tony Pollard's franchise tag, which makes sense when you consider Mike McCarthy just wants to run the damn ball. Whatever. The Cowboys aren't going to have a splashy offseason, but the foundation of the roster is strong.
18. San Francisco 49ers (salary-cap space: $7.8 million)
The 49ers have said they'll look into veteran quarterbacks due to Brock Purdy's elbow surgery, but how much do they want to invest in what might be a third quarterback? The good news for the 49ers is there aren't many questions across the roster, though the offensive line might need some attention.
17. Philadelphia Eagles (salary-cap space: minus-$5.4 million)
The Eagles will need to get younger at cornerback and offensive line. Running back depth will be an issue if Miles Sanders leaves, though the draft can help with that. But overall, this roster is very good, and the Eagles have extra draft picks to fill some holes.
16. Arizona Cardinals (salary-cap space: $28.6 million)
The Cardinals are in a rebuild. Defensively, they need to work on the line (especially if Zach Allen leaves in free agency) and cornerback. Offensively, there are plenty of questions on the interior of the offensive line. Of course, Kyler Murray's late-season ACL injury looms over everything. New coach Jonathan Gannon has a big challenge ahead.
15. New England Patriots (salary-cap space: $26.8 million)
Every once in a while, the Patriots pop up in free agency and make a big splash, using the cap space they hoard from not overpaying some of their own free agents (receiver Jakobi Meyers and cornerback Jonathan Jones could be the next ones). The Patriots desperately need help at receiver. Will they get aggressive in that pursuit?
14. Los Angeles Rams (salary-cap space: minus-$14.5 million)
The Rams apparently would be fine trading cornerback Jalen Ramsey and receiver Allen Robinson II (good luck with the latter) but still have foundational pieces of their Super Bowl team, including Matthew Stafford, Aaron Donald and Cooper Kupp. They seem to be halfway between wanting to compete and wanting to start over. The Rams are never dull, so how they navigate this retool will be interesting.
13. Tennessee Titans (salary-cap space: $23.6 million)
The Titans are in a weird place. Their roster isn't great, but they stay competitive mostly due to head coach Mike Vrabel. It still seems unlikely the team trades star running back Derrick Henry, but maybe Tennessee realizes it needs an overhaul. There's enough cap space to make some moves, and the quarterback situation isn't getting better with Ryan Tannehill. It will be interesting to see how they approach the offseason.
12. Washington Commanders (salary-cap space: $8.8 million)
The Commanders' biggest move (unless they get in the Lamar Jackson sweepstakes) was already made, when they franchise-tagged defensive tackle Daron Payne. That move made a lot of sense. There is talent on the Commanders — the defense was pretty good even without Chase Young back from injury, and there are playmakers at running back and receiver — but there's something missing. It's unlikely they solve that problem in free agency.
11. Kansas City Chiefs (salary-cap space: $17.8 million)
Kansas City has drafted well, which helps its depth. Still, the Chiefs need to make sure that left tackle and edge rusher are addressed with Orlando Brown Jr. set to hit free agency and Frank Clark about to be cut. Some receiver help would be fun, but Patrick Mahomes showed last season that he doesn't need it.
10. Houston Texans (salary-cap space: $40.1 million)
The Texans need everything. There isn't one spot on DeMeco Ryans' first roster that couldn't use some infusion of talent or depth. Let's assume the quarterback question gets answered in the draft. The Texans have plenty of cap space right now and in future years because they have so few star players on big contracts. Other than signing a big-name running back, anything seems to be possible for Houston in free agency. The Texans can probably start by adding to the interior offensive line.
9. Las Vegas Raiders (salary-cap space: $39.7 million)
The Raiders cut Derek Carr, getting nothing in return for a quarterback who signed a $150 million deal with the Saints, and their 2023 starter will likely be a downgrade. Pair that quarterback uncertainty with a defense that was among the worst in the NFL and there's a lot of work to be done. Jimmy Garoppolo seems like a reasonable bet to be the Raiders' quarterback, given that former Patriots assistants such as Josh McDaniels can't quit their obsession with former New England players, but we'll see how the Raiders manage the offseason.
8. Seattle Seahawks (salary-cap space: $24 million)
With Geno Smith having a three-year, $105 million deal, the Seahawks can look ahead to building up after a surprising 2022 playoff season. A lot of the improvement could come from the draft, which features extra first- and second-round picks due to the Russell Wilson trade. There's also enough cap space to add to a defense that wasn't great last season but could be much improved if the Seahawks sign the right pass-rush help and use the premium picks on that side of the ball.
7. Cincinnati Bengals (salary-cap space: $33.3 million)
Joe Burrow's contract extension lingers, and Ja'Marr Chase's second deal isn't far off. But there still should be enough cap room to address some spots like the secondary. The Bengals could emerge as Super Bowl favorites with a good offseason.
6. Detroit Lions (salary-cap space: $22.4 million)
Few teams were hotter at the end of last season than the Lions. And they have the flexibility to make a couple of big moves. Cornerback is a clear need, though the defense as a whole needs more talent. If the Lions have a big offseason fixing the defense, the buzz will get even louder. Yep, this is the Lions we're talking about.
5. Baltimore Ravens (salary-cap space: minus $9.8 million)
We could waste some time talking about what the Ravens will do at receiver or offensive line, but it doesn't matter. The whole offseason revolves around whether Lamar Jackson gets an offer sheet and whether the Ravens match it — and what Baltimore does at quarterback if Jackson does move on.
4. Green Bay Packers (salary-cap space: $14.3 million)
As the Packers possibly transition to a post-Aaron Rodgers world, it will be interesting to see how they build around Jordan Love. There are a lot of pieces in place already, but the entire approach of the Packers changes if the four-time MVP is moving on.
3. New York Jets (salary-cap space: $1.6 million)
Aaron Rodgers. That's the entire offseason for the Jets. Whether that trade happens will have ramifications we'll discuss for many, many years.
2. Atlanta Falcons (salary-cap space: $57.8 million)
The Falcons are well behind the Bears for most salary-cap space available, but they are No. 2 on that list. Enough to sign Lamar Jackson to practically whatever he wants, despite a Falcons source telling Yahoo Sports' Jori Epstein that they won't pursue him. The price of two first-round picks to the Ravens, if Baltimore doesn't match, would be pretty small for a 26-year-old former MVP quarterback. Yes, the Falcons are saying they won't pursue Jackson. And if the Falcons don't explore the Jackson option, it would be fishy.
1. Chicago Bears (salary-cap space: $95 million)
The one downfall of the Bears' going into this offseason with an unbelievable amount of cap space is that it is one of the worst free-agent classes at receiver in many years. If they're unwilling to overpay for a non-elite player such as Jakobi Meyers or an injury risk such as Odell Beckham Jr., they're unlikely to find their solutions at receiver in free agency. And the current group of Bears receivers won't help Justin Fields grow.