Of all the difficult decisions facing Bears GM Ryan Pace this offseason, the salary cap-cutting measures they need to take could be the most difficult.
Considering past failures at finding a quarterback, maybe the cost-cutting measures are second-most difficult because QB is something the Bears just haven't been able to do.
It could very well turn out they must choose between retaining the crux of their current defensive personnel group, or Allen Robinson in order to have enough cash to operate this year.
The crux of their defensive personnel would be Akiem Hicks or Eddie Goldman, the guys front and center. In this case it would mean deciding on having only Goldman in the lineup next season, with Hicks dispatched somewhere else in the league.
The tight Bears cap situation might require trading or cutting Hicks. They're $10.57 million over the cap at the moment, according to Spotrac.com.
The ideal way to lose Hicks—if there is such a thing—would be to make a trade and get something in return while also directing him into the AFC, maybe Los Angeles so he could anchor Brandon Staley's defensive line.
It's not that Hicks' playing ability has declined drastically, although it certainly isn't at the level of 2018. He failed to make a sack over the final 12 weeks of the season while still maintaining a high amount of pressure.
But Hicks' cap figure is $12 million for 2021. He is due $10.4 million in unguaranteed salary, as it's the last year of his contract. So if they trade him or release him, only the $1.5 million prorated bonus would count against this year's Bears cap.
Life without Hicks would be much less enjoyable from many aspects at Halas Hall. He's one of the best personalities and leaders the team has had in decades. He emains a run stuffer and a player who caves in pockets. He's basically a throwback to players of another era, the Dan Hampton and Steve McMichael types.
However, Hicks turns 32 next season and the Bears learned in 2019 they could play without him to some extent, and learned this more in 2020 even while they were playing with him on the field.
Without Goldman in the lineup and Hicks playing, they finished a disappointing 15th against the run in 2020. Part of this included one game without Hicks, as well, and Green Bay trampled them for 182 rushing yards without either one playing.
But we're not talking about losing both Hicks and Goldman, just Hicks.
In 2019, they played without Hicks for about 12 full games of the season. Counting all the plays when Hicks wasn't available, and with Goldman playing, the Bears allowed 110.5 yards rushing per game. This year in the 15 games when Hicks played and Goldman wasn't available, they allowed 108.8 yards rushing per game.
So it was almost no different.
Of course the ideal situation was 2018 when both played and they finished No. 1 against the run at 80 yards a game, but they're both three years older next season and in Hicks' case this is huge when he turns 32 during the 2021 season.
They also no longer have defensive line coach Jay Rodgers, now moving on to the Los Angeles Chargers, which can make a difference.
The Bears have a potential replacement for Hicks at left defensive end if they had to cut or trade him. Bilal Nichols has been trained well on the defensive line by Rodgers and by Hicks himself.
"We asked him to be a nose tackle, we asked him to go out and play right end," Hicks said. "That's my guy, man, and watching him grow over the years has been a beautiful experience, and I look forward to his success in the future.
"I look forward to him taking even more steps because the sky’s the limit for that guy."
With Goldman and Nichols, they would likely need to add another defensive lineman in the draft, and no longer have the defensive line guru to train him. Barring an unexpected opportunity to draft Alabama's Christian Barmore, there's no defensive lineman like Hicks in the 2021 NFL Draft's first round.
They may not even be running a 3-4 base package next year for all anyone knows at this point, since there currently is no defensive coordinator. So whether they even need to draft a defensive lineman is uncertain, but it does appear the case considering all their backups are unrestricted free agents.
Time moves on and as it does linebacker Roquan Smith has assumed the major role in the middle of the field at linebacker over Danny Trevathan.
With Nichols as a budding player and Smith as a dominant inside linebacker, the Bears could find a way to get by without Hicks. It's not ideal and it could save a lot of the money they would need toward affording Robinson's contract, should they decide he's the indispensible player.
There is another alternative they could study and that's extending Hicks' contract, while turning some of his base salary this year into guaranteed money capable of being prorated over years ahead.
It couldn't save them as much cap space as simply cutting or trading him, but would allow them to retain the dynamic of Hicks and Goldman.
Another defensive possibility for cap savings is cutting Kyle Fuller. This would probably make even less sense than cutting Hicks because their savings would be less, the replacements are not as functional for Fuller, and good cornerbacks in their 20s are more valuable in today's game than a run-stuffing, pocket-caving defensive lineman in his 30s.
Besides, they may need to do something with both the contracts of Hicks and Fuller simply to get required cap space considering how desperate they are.
If worse comes to worst, seeing Robinson leave might actually even be preferable to losing Hicks, at least for 2021.
It's more difficult to find an interior defensive lineman with the ability to blow up a game like Hicks than it is to come up with a threat at wide receiver.
This isn't to say Hicks is more valuable than Robinson to the team, but it's not too difficult to find another cheaper wide receiver whose skill set would be different than Robinson's and might even better suit their offense.
They could find one cheaper in free agency who has great speed, like Sammy Watkins. They could pursue Kenny Golladay, although he might not be much cheaper. They could go to the draft and hope to come up with their own version of Justin Jefferson.
The Bears haven't been able to use wide receivers correctly for years because of their lack of a quarterback, anyway.
Why lose a dominant defensive force in order to save a receiving threat they're really unable to use to his full abilities?
Perhaps they're able to restructure enough current contracts to find enough cash for everyone to stay, but it's difficult to see how this is possible unless the cap for next season rises higher than anyone anticipates.
Contract man Joey Laine would become the early odds-on Bears MVP if they pulled this off.