Is Julius Peppers going to get sacked by the salary cap?

NFL player personnel decisions are made in a ruthlessly dispassionate manner. With the prevalence of non-guaranteed contracts and a hard salary cap in the NFL, salary cap considerations seemingly always take precedence over sentimentality.   Julius Peppers is undoubtedly the Chicago Bears’ finest defensive lineman since Hall of Famer Richard Dent was making life miserable for opposing quarterbacks in the 1980’s and 1990’s.
In fact, Peppers’ 30.5 sacks are the most in a three-year stretch by a Bear since The Sack Man registered 31.0 between 1991 and 1993.  However, a confluence of factors makes it highly likely that, unless he agrees to renegotiate the last two years of the deal he signed prior to the 2010 season, Peppers will be sacked by the salary cap at season’s end.
1) First let’s examine Julius Peppers’ cap figure for next season. 
Under NFL salary cap rules, a team can prorate a player’s signing bonus over the life of his contract.  However, when a player is released before he fulfills his contract, the portion of the signing bonus that has been prorated for seasons that the player does not complete and any other guaranteed money accelerate against the salary cap for that season or over two seasons’ caps depending on whether the player is released before or after June 1.
This results in what is called “dead money” or allocations to the salary cap for a player whose contarct has been terminated.  While all teams have dead money, it is optimal to try to minimize it.  However, there are instances when a player’s cap figure is so much greater than the dead money that would result from releasing him, it is more palatable to endure the dead money than to keep the player, regardless if he is a high performer, under the current terms of his deal.
That is the scenario the Bears will face with Peppers next season unless he agrees to restructure his base salary.  Peppers is scheduled to earn $13.9 million.  The prorated portion of his signing bonus is $4,183,000.  He is also scheduled to earn a workout bonus of $100,000.  All three added together lead to a cap figure of $18,183,000.
If Peppers were released prior to the 2014 season, the dead money left on the cap–the non-prorated portion of his signing bonus and any other guaranteed money that would accelerate against the salary cap—would equal $6,366,000.  Thus, the potential savings for the Bears, the difference  between Peppers’ 2014 cap figure and the dead money created by his being released, would be $11,817,000.

(Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

2) What is the benefit of releasing Peppers at season’s end assuming that he refuses to negotiate a reduced base salary?
There are 24 members on the Bears 53-man roster from Sunday’s victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers who are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents at season’s end; and the nearly $12 million of savings would likely be needed to keep critical pieces on the roster.  We highlight some of the most integral players.  
–Starting QB Jay Cutler. His record as a Bears’ starter is 37-22 and through three games this season, he has completed 68 of 101 passes for 693 yards with six touchdowns and three interceptions.
–Starting LG Matt Slauson and Center Roberto Garza.  They have helped give Cutler more time to locate receivers and limit the number of sacks he’s endured.  Garza has started 115 consecutive games for the Bears at center and guard.
–Starting DT Henry Melton, out for the season after suffering a torn knee ligament on Sunday, and LDE Cory Wootoon.  Melton was second among defensive tackles the last two seasons with thirteen sacks in addition to compiling 67 tackles and assists and two forced fumbles.  Wootoon, who had a breakout season last year with seven sacks, two forced fumbles and 27 tackles and assists, has started strongly this year with a sack and five tackles and assists.
–Starting DT Nate Collins.  Collins will replace Melton in the starting lineup.  Playing as a reserve thus far, Collins has registered six tackles and assists.
–Starting FB Tony Fiammetta
–Starting SLB James Anderson and MLB D.J. Williams.  Anderson is third on the team in tackles and assists with nineteen and has contributed three pass defenses and one fumble recovery.  Williams leads the Bears with two sacks and has added ten tackles and assists and a forced fumble.
–CB’s Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings and FS Major Wright.  Tillman is arguably the greatest DB in Bears’ history, ranking third in interceptions with 35, first in touchdown interception returns with eight and first in forced fumbles with 37.  This season he has already claimed two interceptions, defended two passes and registered fourteen tackles and assists.
Jennings has played 49 games and made 45 starts for the Bears since 2010.
Last year, he led the league in interceptions with nine.  Jennings might be the early-season defensive team MVP.  He intercepted one pass that he returned for a touchdown, has defended three others, forced two fumbles, recovered one fumble and contributed fourteen tackles and assists.  Wright is coming off the best season of his five-year career.  He tallied four interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown, defended eight passes, forced one fumble, recovered two fumbles and contributed 71 tackles and assists.  This season, he has returned an interception 38 yards for a touchdown, defended two passes, forced two fumbles and is tied with WLB Lance Briggs with 24 tackles and assists.
Twelve offensive and defensive starters are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents in 2014.
In addition, the following special teams players are also facing free agency at season’s end:
–KR Devin Hester.  No longer burdened with wide receiver duties, Hester leads the league in kickoff return yardage and is averaging 38.3 yards per return.
–Kicker Robbie Gould:  Gould is the fifth most accurate field goal kicker in league history and probably kicks in the most challenging home venue in the league.
–Snapper Patrick Mannelly:  The longest-tenured Bear in franchise history, Mannelly has been as reliable a snapper in league history.
As if the 2014 offseason will not pose enough challenges for the Bears’ front office, starters WR Brandon Marshall, WLB Lance Briggs, DT Stephen Paea and SS Chris Conte are scheduled to become free agents during the 2015 offseason.  Marshall in particular could be in line for a sizeable raise.  The nearly $12 million the Bears would save by releasing Peppers at season’s end and the nearly $21 million cap figure they would save in 2015 would help the Bears re-sign a high volume of these players.  Of course, Peppers can obviate the showdown altogether by agreeing to a reasonable restructuring of his contract.
3) Through three games this season, Peppers has appeared sluggish.  He has yet to register a sack, has one tackle and assist apiece and has a fumble recovery that he returned for a touchdown.  Considering that he averaged over ten sacks and 43 tackles and assists in his first three seasons with the Bears, Peppers will have to accelerate his production precipitously to replicate his previous Bears’ numbers.
Unless he dominates the rest of the season in such a draw-dropping fashion that releasing him would do irreparable damage to the team regardless of his cap figure, 2013 could be Julius Peppers’ swan song with the Bears.  If it is, let’s hope it ends with him hugging the Lombardi Trophy.
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