When it comes to QB spot, good backup plan is needed
MOBILE, Ala. — Three thoughts on the Bears’ offseason road map after a week of chilly Senior Bowl practices.
1. What are the top needs for the Bears as they consider possible fits in free agency and the draft?
It has to start at quarterback.
The Titans hit a home run last offseason when they added Ryan Tannehill via a trade with the Dolphins, who wound up paying $5 million to the quarterback to pull off the deal.
It’s difficult to say who the Tannehill of the 2020 offseason could be because, well, who figured Tannehill would step in for Marcus Mariota this season and perform so well?
He posted a spectacular 117.5 passer rating, throwing for 2,742 yards with 22 touchdown passes and six interceptions. He benefited greatly from the bruising running game led by Derrick Henry and the emergence of rookie wide receiver A.J. Brown, a second-round pick who had 1,051 yards, averaging 20.2 per reception, and scored eight touchdowns.
Tannehill was looking for a spot where an opportunity could open, and the Titans looked like a good bet because Mariota had an injury history and the Titans had yet to pull the trigger on a second contract for the No. 2 pick of the 2015 draft. It ended up being a perfect storm of scenarios for Tannehill and the Titans, who reached the AFC championship game after qualifying for the playoffs as the No. 6 seed.
Some have wondered whether Mariota, whom the Bears liked when he was coming out of Oregon during general manager Ryan Pace’s first season at Halas Hall, could be an option. I don’t think he’s a fit because Mariota and Mitch Trubisky share the same agency — Rep1 Sports.
Regardless of how the Bears view Mariota, it seems unlikely that the agents would want to place one client in a spot where he’s in position to take the starting job from another client. That would automatically mean one of them is on the bench. The agents want Trubisky to start and flourish (so do the Bears) and Mariota to have a shot to win a starting job and jump-start his career.
It’s possible the best route for Pace is to trade for a quarterback because luring a top free agent will be difficult with the team’s stated goal to have Trubisky be the opening-day starter. The sales pitch that “we really like you, but Mitch is our guy” won’t be super appealing to guys with other options and clearer shots at playing time.
A trade could be figured out (even though trades cannot become official until the start of the new league year) well before March 18.
A number of factors would be in play, including Matt Nagy’s evaluation of the quarterback, the contract the Bears would be taking on and the necessary compensation needed to land a backup option who would give the Bears a legitimate No. 2 in the event Trubisky doesn’t bounce back from a poor season.
Several other positions need to be closely examined on offense.
Tight end Trey Burton has $4 million guaranteed in his $6.7 million base salary, so he will be back. If his recent hip surgery solves lingering health issues, perhaps he can regain the form he showed in 2018, when he caught 54 passes for 569 yards with six touchdowns.
But the Bears can’t count on that, so they’re going to have to either sign a free agent, draft a tight end or both. A passcatching tight end is a must in the offense.
Rashaad Coward received 10 starts at right guard, which might have been enough tape for the Bears to deem him a better backup option right now than a starter.
If so, signing a starter in free agency likely will be a goal unless the team is confident it can identify a Day 1 starter with one of its second-round draft picks. It would be a considerable roll of the dice to think the Bears could land a rookie starter on the line on the third day of the draft.
More on Pace and later-round picks at offensive tackle below.
I don’t believe offensive needs end here. The Bears will closely look at the future of wide receiver Taylor Gabriel. He’s due a base salary of $5.5 million, and none of it is guaranteed.
Gabriel is kind of a one-trick pony. His one trick, speed, is special, but he’s small for an outside receiver, and if the Bears release him, they would create $4.5 million in cap space. Gabriel also battled concussions last season and has had at least four documented concussions since joining the NFL.
It’s a deep draft for wide receivers, so the Bears could get the type of talent in Round 4 or 5 that typically would come off the board late in Round 3.
If the Bears find a young receiver who can get on the field quickly, they could be much more dynamic at the position, provided Anthony Miller returns from yet another shoulder surgery. 2. As far as defensive needs, the Bears must figure out who will start next to Roquan Smith.
The Bears have three inside linebackers coming out of contract, and all of them — Danny Trevathan, Nick Kwiatkowski and Kevin Pierre-Louis — provided value.
I’ve operated with the idea that the team cannot lock up too much cap space at the position with Roquan Smith a building block for the future who could eventually command a very big payday.
Smith’s 2020 cap hit is just above $5 million. There are just too many offensive needs to pay big money to a starter next to Smith, and considering how the defense performed with Kwiatkowski and Pierre-Louis in the lineup, can the Bears justify paying Trevathan close to $7 million per year? Even with the intangibles he brings to the locker room?
Maybe I’m wrong, but I think a lower-budget option is most likely.
The Bears have two needs in the secondary, and you can make a case that getting improved high-caliber depth at cornerback is more important than signing a safety to start alongside the recently extended Eddie Jackson.
Some have suggested the Bears should replace Prince Amukamara, who is due to earn $9 million at age 31 and is entering the final year of his contract. Sure, removing Amukamara from the roster would clear $9 million in cap space, but that’s the easy part. Then who starts?
The going rate for good starting cornerbacks isn’t less than that, especially if the salary cap bumps up with a new collective bargaining agreement. The Bears don’t have depth at the position.
Could they consider approaching Amukamara for a salary reduction, as they did with Kyle Long a year ago? I guess that’s possible, but the team would have to be prepared for Amukamara to say no, which would then mean cutting him. You can’t approach a player about a pay cut without being ready to move on from him.
Finding a Day 1 starter without a first-round draft pick is also challenging, but don’t be surprised if the Bears are looking for a group of cornerbacks to consider with a second-round pick. They need an infusion of young talent at the position.
Applying the logic I used at inside linebacker, the Bears can shop for a box safety who can come in on a smaller contract and put Jackson in a position where he can remain at free safety. It’s easier to find draft picks who can start as a rookie at this position, especially if they identify a bright guy, which the Bears did with Adrian Amos.
Don’t forget depth on the defensive line. That’s always a priority, and with Nick Williams headed to free agency, this is another area that cannot be overlooked. 3. The Bears are taking a close look at offensive linemen this offseason.
The Saints have done as good a job as any team in mining the draft for offensive line talent in the middle and late rounds.
The Saints drafted Jermon Bushrod out of Towson in the fourth round in 2007. He was a very good left tackle and had some fine seasons with the Bears. Terron Armstead, a Cahokia, Ill., native, was a third-round pick from Arkansas-Pine Bluff in 2013. He became a starter in the final month of his rookie season and has developed into one of the better left tackles in the league.
Then there were guards Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks and right tackle Zach Strief (Northwestern).
Pace and director of player personnel Josh Lucas came to Chicago from New Orleans after the Saints made those picks. They’ve had a hand in selecting really good linemen later in the draft.
All but Strief and Nicks (Nebraska) came from small programs. That’s why they lasted in the draft. They had really good traits and measurables, but there was a question about how they would adapt at the professional level.
I imagine the Bears are putting an extra emphasis on evaluating linemen after deeming a coaching change necessary at the position. Whom they find, we’ll have to wait and see.
■ 3a. Houston left tackle Josh Jones is an intriguing prospect here. He’s not from a small program and he’s not going to last until Day 3. He’s quite athletic for being 6-foot-7, 310 pounds. He will need to get stronger, and it remains to be seen if he can play left tackle in the NFL, but Jones might be a possibility in the middle of Round 2, if he’s still available.
■ 3b. After winning the NFC championship game, the 49ers broke out T-shirts in their locker room celebration that read “Mobile to Miami,” a nod to the fact that their staff was coaching in this game last January. That doesn’t mean the Lions or Bengals, the teams coaching in the game this season, can stamp their ticket to the Super Bowl a year from now, but it’s another reminder of how quickly teams’ fortunes can shift in the NFL.
Another reminder? Of the four teams that played on championship weekend, three didn’t make the postseason in 2018.
■ 3c. The best player at the Senior Bowl is South Carolina defensive lineman Javon Kinlaw. He has a chance to be selected in the top half of the first round.
■ 3d. Another defensive lineman who has helped himself this week is North Carolina’s Jason Strowbridge. He has excelled on the inside and outside. His college teammate Charlie Heck, an offensive lineman, is also on the North squad. Heck is the son of former Bears offensive lineman Andy Heck.
The Bears say Mitch Trubisky, left, will be their opening-day quarterback in 2020, but they may seek a backup who could challenge him.
Houston’s Josh Jones, center, is a lineman who could draw interest from the Bears.