Chicago Bears' Updated To-Do List Ahead of Free Agency
In a word, the to-do list Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Pace must tackle this offseason is...extensive.
The Bears aren't stuck in a full-blown rebuild like a handful of other teams, with last year's injury-riddled affair helping to exaggerate the state of the roster while handing Pace the keys to the third pick in the 2017 NFL draft.
This is the third offseason in a row featuring major turnover in Chicago, though this time Pace's foundation looks better after spending some money in free agency and quality drafting.
Good news, but it doesn't mean the to-do list is any less important. In fact, with Pace and the Bears looking down the barrel of a major quarterback decision, jobs are on the line based on how all involved tackle the list and how the selected route later develops on the field.
With the combine in Indianapolis gearing down, let's take a broad look at the current tasks Pace and the front office face in the coming months.
Make the Hard Cut Choices...
Roster turnover has been a staple of this rebuild for years and the mostly smoothed-over positions are why the Bears look like a team on the upswing, provided the front office plays this critical offseason well.
If the Bears can't find a trade suitor for Cutler, it's time for the front office to say goodbye. Cutler is a $16 million cap hit in 2017, per Spotrac, so freeing up the space could mean a major splash elsewhere when combined with the more than $50 million free the team already has heading into free agency.
But the potential cap gains while cutting loose some older talent doesn't stop there. The team could let go of Lamarr Houston ($6.9 million cap hit next year), Eddie Royal ($5 million) and Tracy Porter ($4 million), if not others.
These aren't easy decisions, but swapping out an older base of talent for the future of the franchise saves money while getting younger guys much-needed reps. The Bears know they have work to do in this area, so don't be shocked when some, if not all, of the names mentioned here come up.
...And Spend Some of That Cap
Pace and the Bears could easily end up with the most cap space of any team after the aforementioned hypothetical cuts.
Writing big checks to improve problem areas isn't something the Bears are unfamiliar with as of late.
Smart signings have defined the slow turnaround in Chicago. Think Jerrell Freeman, Danny Trevathan, Pernell McPhee and others.
This offseason? The Bears can target the top corners, safeties and more to help the turnaround.
A true No. 1 corner like Gilmore isn't going to come cheap, but with an excess of cash to spend, locking down one corner spot while young prospects learn and fill out the depth chart behind him isn't a bad idea.
The options don't end with Gilmore, but readers get the idea. Pop open a free-agent list and truly no player is out of Chicago's reach, should the Bears want to pay him.
Now isn't the time to be frugal, provided the Bears front load the contracts and make smart investments.
Upgrade Offensive Tackle
This might be the most controversial item on the list—and the one most unlikely to happen which is fine.
With so many needs across the roster, it's easy to forget the Bears aren't exactly set at offensive tackle. Charles Leno Jr. hasn't worked out on the left side and Bobby Massie was a mediocre signing at right tackle.
In his first year with the team, Massie ranked as the 49th tackle in the league at Pro Football Focus. He graded negatively in run blocking for the first time in his career. His pass-blocking grade came in at a negative as it has every season of his career as well, so his struggles weren't exactly a surprise.
Leno came in at No. 53, hitting a third consecutive negative pass-blocking grade. To be fair, poor quarterback play in which a passer holds on to the ball too long doesn't help. Leno is also only 25 years old and still developing.
That said, let's take a look at the ever-growing list of names possibly headed to free agency:
Rick Wagner, Riley Reiff, Andrew Whitworth, Russell Okung, Ryan Clady, Matt Kalil and Sebastian Vollmer, among others.
With so much cap to spend, it doesn't make sense for the Bears to sit on their hands and resist trying to find an upgrade on the edges, especially if they try to break in a rookie quarterback right away.
Revamp the Secondary
Pursuing a total facelift of the defensive secondary starts with the mentioned pursuit of Gilmore, but it hardly ends there.
The Bears have intriguing young guys at corner like Kyle Fuller, Johnthan Banks, Cre'Von LeBlanc and Bryce Callahan at corner. Adding a veteran like Gilmore to act as the No. 1 makes sense.
But the Bears could go even further at corner. If the Bears don't pay up for a Gilmore or A.J. Bouye, quality targets like Logan Ryan, Morris Claiborne and Captain Munnerlyn would still be welcome additions to the back end of the secondary.
Unlike corner, there doesn't seem like much to salvage at safety. The Bears shouldn't throw in the towel on Adrian Amos yet, but two new starters seem like a requirement for this offseason to be a success.
The Eric Berry dream is dead, but quality free agents like Tony Jefferson, Barry Church and Duron Harmon, to name a few, could come in and start right away.
Don't forget the draft when it comes to any spot in the defensive secondary. Pace and the front office could choose to grab a Malik Hooker or Jamal Adams in the first round, or maybe a Jabrill Peppers, Sidney Jones or Budda Baker in the second, not to mention additional depth options in the later rounds given the deep nature of the class.
The beautiful thing about a complete revamp of a unit here is the wealth of options and resources at Pace's disposal. He chose both free agency (Freeman, Trevathan, McPhee) and the draft (Floyd) to do the same at linebacker.
This offseason the crosshairs rest on the secondary with Pace at the controls.
Re-Sign Alshon Jeffery
Tired of hearing about this yet? Blame Pace.
Actually, thank him—from the looks of it, Alshon Jeffery and his reps might have had a less-than-expected response on the open market, at least so far.
NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported the two sides spoke at the combine: "The #Bears and FA WR Alshon Jeffery's agent had a positive meeting today, I'm told. Both sides are more than open to a reunion...."
This is a big first step for the Bears and Jeffery, even if we've known all along that Chicago wouldn't slap him with another tag and the talks would really heat up in Indianapolis.
Unless another team comes out of nowhere to pay for a wideout who has missed 11 games over the past two seasons and served a suspension last year, Pace should get Jeffery back at the price he wants.
Of course, the above sounds terrible. Jeffery has had his issues over the past couple of seasons, but he's still one of the best wideouts in the game and only 27 years old. If he dips into the market and doesn't get what he wants, the Bears have him back at a price they like to either help along a rookie or do so in the future.
It's a win-win situation for the Bears obviously, but also for Jeffery, who has made it clear he'd like to return and even kept training in Chicago this offseason.
Chicago keeping arguably their best player shouldn't be so dramatic, but fans rightfully get anxious and a little impatient. He still tops the to-do list ahead of free agency, and no matter how it plays out, fans can at least find assurances in the fact Pace is handling it the right way.
Solve the Quarterback Puzzle
Over the weekend, the Bears took the first step in fixing the most important position of all by re-signing Connor Shaw.
Not the big splash Bears fans might have had in mind, but Shaw is a younger, oft-injured quarterback who can compete well for a backup job, if not act as a stopgap while Chicago grooms a rookie or waits to draft one in 2018.
Of course, rookie, trade or stopgap is the question for the Bears.
If the price is right and the New England Patriots actually offer him in a trade, the Bears could make a move for Jimmy Garoppolo and be done with it, later inking him to a long-term extension and hoping he's the answer.
But the Bears could also look to grab a potential franchise quarterback in the draft. At No. 3, Mitchell Trubisky, DeShone Kizer and Deshaun Watson could all be in play. A guy like Patrick Mahomes II could have the Bears trading back up into the late first round. None of them need to start as a rookie, nor do developmental options taken in the later rounds.
Who acts as the stopgap starter or high-profile backup remains to be seen. It could be Shaw, or the Bears could also bring back one of Matt Barkley or Brian Hoyer. The team has also been linked to free agent Mike Glennon, according to Rapoport.
Like many of the issues the Bears must resolve this offseason while jobs possibly swing in the balance, various options exist here. If they choose a stopgap quarterback and put the position in a holding pattern, how the front office builds the rest of the roster will come under an intense microscope.
If they choose to draft a high-profile rookie or land Garoppolo, those in charge of the decision tie their ropes to the new quarterback of the future no matter what happens with the rest of the roster.
It's not a fun position to be in for anyone involved, but in a way, it is. Nothing is more important and will have a bigger impact on the franchise for years to come than what course of action Pace and the Bears take with the item topping their to-do list.