A .500 record and an unsurprising Wild-Card exit in the playoffs. For the second straight year, the Chicago Bears were utterly disappointing. Entering the 2020–21 season, the team hoped to be past the atrocious quarterback woes of the previous few years. The offseason signing of quarterback and former Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles generated a lot of excitement around the organization, as most fans assumed that either he or quarterback Mitchell Trubisky could put the pieces together. This premature optimism existed despite Foles’s miserable play with Jacksonville in 2019 and Trubisky’s subpar start to his NFL career. But as late Cardinals coach Dennis Green once said, “they were who we thought they were.” While both quarterbacks had their moments, their inability to exhibit consistency and generate offensive success game after game was once again the Bears’ fatal flaw. So where do the Bears go from here? The organization faces an agonizing offseason with many issues left to be resolved especially their quarterback situation. Here are the three major areas that the Bears have to address: (1) the quarterback position; (2) Allen Robinson’s impending free agency; (3) defensive secondary woes.
Let’s start with the most obvious and important question. Historically, the Chicago Bears have always been searching for a franchise quarterback. You have to go back 80 years to Sid Luckman’s playing years to remember what it felt like for the Bears to have a great signal-caller.
The last few years with Mitchell Trubisky at the helm, have definitely augmented the Bears’ concerns about the quarterback (QB) position. So once again, the Bears’ search for an upgrade at the QB position continues this offseason. There are several important details to consider. Mitchell Trubisky is currently an unrestricted free agency and at this moment, it appears that neither side wants to construct a deal to extend Trubisky’s tenure with the Bears. Meanwhile Nick Foles, who started several games in 2020, is still under contract with the Bears for the next two years. Yet moving forward, the entire organization understands that his role is well-defined as a backup quarterback. So where do the Bears find their next starting QB? There are three potential avenues: trades, free agency, or the NFL Draft.
In the past few weeks, the Bears’ general manager Ryan Pace was in several different talks trying to negotiate trades for quarterbacks like Matthew Stafford and Carson Wentz. But as most fans know, these two guys were taken off the board as Stafford was traded to the Los Angeles Rams and Wentz was sent packing to Indianapolis. In terms of trading for a quarterback, there aren’t many viable options left. Despite Deshaun Watson’s numerous trade requests, it appears that the Houston Texans organization is unwilling to negotiate. There were several rumors about the Bears having interest in Las Vegas Raiders’ quarterback Derek Carr, but like the Philadelphia Eagles’ situation, the Raiders asking price was presumably too steep for Ryan Pace’s taste. As far as trade targets go, only a few other players have been connected to recent speculation: Sam Darnold of the New York Jets, Dak Prescott of the Dallas Cowboys, and Gardner Minshew of the Jacksonville Jaguars. If the Bears do target one of these quarterbacks, Sam Darnold may be the best value. The asking price would be much lower for Darnold and many analysts believe that he could thrive under a different system. Yet more likely than not, the Bears next quarterback will be signed in free agency or drafted.
While for now the Bears have completely written off a reunion with Mitch Trubisky, things could look a lot different a month from now when free agency officially starts. If the front office finds themselves in a desperate situation, Trubisky could be back. The Bears could also consider the likes of several other free agent quarterbacks. Veterans like Andy Dalton, Cam Newton, Tyrod Taylor, or even Ryan Fitzpatrick, fondly known as “Fitzmagic,” could be in play for the Bears. But none of these guys are Super Bowl–caliber or even playoff-caliber players today. They could only serve as a temporary solution and so the Bears would be right back where they started in search of a franchise quarterback. Turning to the draft, Chicago has a couple options. Chicago has six picks in rounds 1–3 and 5–7, although the exact positions of the latter three rounds is currently undetermined. Having the 20th pick in the draft, they’ll miss out on guys like Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Justin Fields, and even Trey Lance. If they do select a QB early on, Mac Jones and Kyle Trask are the best options. However, these two guys are not worth the early picks especially if the team, like the Bears, has other needs to meet. If the Bears do not trade for a quarterback, my best guess is that they will pass on free agency and draft a quarterback, like Sam Ehlinger or KJ Costello, in one of the final rounds.
For the last few years, Allen Robinson has been the only silver lining of the Bears dumpster fire offense. Since Robinson signed with the team in 2018, he has been Mitch Trubisky’s number one target and one of the team’s only reliable pass-catchers. But Allen Robinson will become an unrestricted free agent this offseason and it is quite obvious that he does not want to be in Chicago next year. During the last two years, he has frequently voiced frustrations with the Bears’ lackluster offense. However, despite his opposition, the Bears could try to retain Robinson by placing a franchise tag on him. The franchise tag is a recently introduced designation where a team can keep a free agent player by paying him the greater of two options: 120 percent of his previous year’s salary or an average of the top five players’ salaries at a given position. In other words, it is an exorbitant amount of money that the Bears should not waste to keep Allen Robinson as he is not a franchise player. There is recent speculation that the Bears could franchise tag him and then use him as a trade asset (tag-and-trade). It’s a very unique and risky scenario as Pace and the front office would have to be confident that the trade value exceeds or is equal to the franchise tag price.
The Bears should not take this gamble as there are several wide receivers in free agency that could be a replacement for Robinson. Chris Godwin and Juju Smith-Schuster are perhaps the most appealing options. In their young careers, both players have made the Pro Bowl and demonstrated the ability to run routes at an elite level. The only catch is that currently, Godwin and Smith-Schuster have explicitly stated their desire to stay on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Pittsburgh Steelers, respectively. But situations in the NFL can change in a heartbeat, so the Bears should stay prepared to pursue one of the two. A couple veterans that the Bears could evaluate are Antonio Brown, TY Hilton, or AJ Green, but these players are only short-term options. The Bears could instead take a flyer on young and somewhat unproven guys like Corey Davis, Will Fuller, Curtis Samuel, and a few others. The organization may also take a survey of the wide receivers in this year’s draft. However, there is a clear drop-off from the consensus top three, Ja’Marr Chase, DeVonta Smith, and Jaylen Waddle, and the rest of the field. At pick number 20, there is little chance that the Bears could snag one of these game-changers. The Bears should realistically stick to free agency to find their next number one wide receiver.
In 2018, when they went 12–4, the Bears had the best defense in the league, and they were utterly dominant. Since then, while the defense has been the best aspect of the team, it is no longer dominant. This can be attributed to a lot of different factors: defensive coordinator Vic “Fannypack” Fangio’s departure, defensive injuries, and just basic regression to the mean. Yet, the team’s biggest problem this past year was a lack of depth in their secondary that led to mediocre performances, especially when rookie stalwart Jaylon Johnson got injured. Cornerbacks Buster Skrine, Duke Shelley, and Kindle Vildor all struggled to keep up with average wide receivers in one-on-one situations, which is ironic considering that’s what they get paid to do. Even former Pro Bowlers Kyle Fuller and Eddie Jackson experienced regression in their production and were unable to spark the same turnovers that had made the 2018 Bears defense so formidable. The Bears could look towards free agency, but most of the top cornerbacks in this year’s free agency, like Patrick Peterson, Richard Sherman, and Xavier Rhodes, are entering the latter stages of their careers. The Bears are best off not spending money here and instead drafting and signing one or two secondary players to rookie contracts. Players they could draft include Shaun Wade, Paulson Adebo, or even hometown kid and Northwestern cornerback Greg Newsome II. The Bears should look to develop one of these youngsters into a player who can start competing for starting spots as next year’s season approaches.
When Ryan Pace traded for Khalil Mack for several first round picks in 2018, the organization’s mindset was win-now, and the team was expected to contend for Super Bowls. As the defense slowly ages and contracts start expiring, the Bears’ title window is gradually coming to an end. If the Bears can make some drastic moves this offseason to bolster their offense and resolve minor issues in the secondary, the team can once again be a contender. But as of now, that seems like a longshot. Instead, this is the question that Bears’ fans will be left with: what could have happened if they had drafted Patrick Mahomes or Deshaun Watson and complemented their stellar defense, of the last few years, with a quality quarterback?