Future of Bears DE Julius Peppers is uncertain in Chicago
Julius Peppers, the former NFC Defensive Player of the Year in 2004, was far from his dominant self in 2013. The fourth-year Bear's statistics declined during the season of defensive regression for the unit as a whole under first-year defensive coordinator Mel Tucker.
For the first time since 2010, the defensive end had fewer than 11 sacks (7.5 in 2013).
"He had an 8-8 season," general manager Phil Emery said about his defensive catalyst. "Obviously, Julius had a lot of good games like a lot of our players, and he had games that he would want back, and I think Julius would say that too."
With a defensive unit in obvious reconstruction, a familiar question hovers in press conferences: Should Peppers be released to save money?
Peppers, who will turn 34 on Jan. 18, restructured his six-year, $84 million deal twice since arriving in Chicago. In September, the Bears converted $3 million of his base salary of $12.9 million for 2013 into a signing bonus which reduced his base salary to $9.9 million. However, it was only temporary relief.
Another reconstruction was in February of 2011. The move saved the organization around $8 million in cap space due to the Bears reducing his cap number from $12 million to $4.3 million by converting the roster bonus into a signing bonus that could prorate over the life of the deal.
If Chicago were to release Peppers, the team would save almost $10 million with more than $8 million becoming dead money. The extra cash could help lockup some of the Bears' current free agents or help the organization pursue a big-name target in free agency.
However, cutting an elite pass rusher like Peppers would create a difficult void to fill. The Bears' 2012 first-overall pick Shea McClellin was drafted to help Peppers on the other side of the defensive line but has been a bust since arriving.
Worth pondering are the other defensive end names in the market, including: Jared Allen (11.5 sacks), Justin Tuck (11 sacks), Greg Hardy (15 sacks) and Lamarr Houston (6 sacks), although most of these players will require intense bidding and/or heavy contracts.
Rumors point to the Bears moving to a 3-4 defense, abandoning former head coach Lovie Smith's prized 4-3 Tampa-2 scheme. If this was true, Peppers' contribution on D would be diminished greatly.
You won't get any answers from Chicago; the team is quiet on the issue. We'll probably have a better idea of the situation when the NFL free agency period begins March 11.