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.