With Khalil Mack, Bears Trade Short-Term Pain For Long-Term Gain

Ryan Poles knew he had to make the most difficult decision of his brief tenure thus far as general manager of the Chicago Bears.

Four years removed from a 2018 season that held so much promise for a team that hasn’t been to a Super Bowl since 2006, Poles knew the franchise had reached a critical crossroads. Just six weeks since he was hired as Bears general manager, Poles saw there was only one way to change the team’s downward trajectory.

In the moment, it was going to hurt, and hurt badly. On the surface, fans would likely be angry and confused.

But Poles knew it was time. The band-aid needed to come off, with a quick, stinging rip.

And that’s why linebacker Khalil Mack now plays for the Los Angeles Chargers.

Mack was not the problem, but trading him could be the answer

In 2018, Khalil Mack was worth every penny in his contract and every asset the Bears spent to get him.

It appeared every controversial move general manager Ryan Pace had made was paying off handsomely in 2018. Pace acquired Mack from the Oakland Raiders for first-round picks in 2019 and ’20 and other later-round picks. And Mack responded with a huge 2018 season, collecting 12.5 sacks, the second-highest single-season total of his career.

Pace’s other big gamble, 2017 first-round pick Mitchell Trubisky, led the Bears to a 12-4 record. But they lost in the playoffs and never regained their magic. They cut ties with Trubisky last year and drafted Justin Fields.

Meanwhile, Pace had re-structured Mack’s six-year contract twice in the past three years, backloading enormous annual salaries that were only now coming due.

So, Poles was faced with a brutal decision. Keep Mack, who is now 31, who did not record double-digit sacks in any of the past three seasons, and who has begun piling up injuries, and take salary cap hits of $30, $28.5 and $26.2 million over the next three seasons? Or trade him and his salary, get a valuable draft pick in immediate return and salary cap flexibility for 2023 and beyond?

Then the Chargers called, and Poles saw his exit lane.

First Mack, then Cohen, the pillars of 2018 are pulled as the rebuild continues

In trading Mack to the Chargers for a second-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft and a sixth-rounder in ’23. But the real value of the trade for the Bears was shedding the entirety of Mack’s contract. While the Bears will still absorb a $24 million hit in dead cap money for 2022, they actually pick up $6 million, which increased their room under the cap to $29 million with free agency beginning with the legal tampering period on Monday.

That number went up by $2.5 million on Friday when the Bears cut another of their 2018 heroes, running back Tarik Cohen.

But the true salary cap magic comes in 2023. With Mack’s $28.5 million salary cap hit now wiped off the board entirely, the Bears are currently expected to have in excess of $121 million available under the cap entering the 2023 offseason.

If the Bears can weather the storm in 2022, brighter days await in ‘23

With over $121 million available to them in 2023, the free-agent possibilities could be franchise-altering. Obviously, some of these names will either be extended or franchised by their current teams before free agency begins in March 2023, but here are just the wide receivers who could potentially be unrestricted free agents next year: Davante Adams, Chris Godwin (two years removed from his ACL injury), Tyreek Hill, A.J. Brown, DK Metcalf, D.J. Moore, Deebo Samuel, Terry McLaurin.

If the Bears landed just one of them, Fields could be an All-Pro in 2023. If they land two, the balance of power in the NFC shifts dramatically.

That’s just wide receiver. Pittsburgh Steelers defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick, for instance, will be a free agent next year. As much as Poles wants to re-build the franchise through the draft, the potential to re-make the franchise via free agency next season is almost too good to be true.

So Bears fans will have to endure another rebuilding season while Mack has a chance to team with Joey Bosa and win a Super Bowl with the Chargers.

Fans in Chicago know the drill: Wait ‘til next year.

Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference

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