When it comes to QB spot, good backup plan is needed

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - BEARS - Brad Biggs

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.

JOHN J. KIM/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE

The Bears say Mitch Tru­bisky, left, will be their open­ing-day quar­ter­back in 2020, but they may seek a backup who could chal­lenge him.

BUTCH DILL/AP

Hous­ton’s Josh Jones, cen­ter, is a line­man who could draw in­ter­est from the Bears.

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