LAKE FOREST, Ill. – The situation facing Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy is clear -- either put the team on the right path at quarterback, or go home.
There is no middle ground.
After the Bears backed into the playoffs at 8-8 and lost in the first round to New Orleans, the Bears blew up whatever patience fans had left when chairman George McCaskey doubled-down on the triumvirate of president and CEO Ted Phillips (in his current role since 1999), Pace and Nagy to lead the team in 2021.
Instead of implementing the kind of wide-scale organizational changes the fan base expected, they did the exact opposite.
Pace and Nagy, specifically, were charged with solving a problem that has vexed the Bears since Hall of Famer Sid Luckman retired in 1950: Quarterback.
Either Pace and Nagy succeed where so many have failed, or the 2021 season already is in jeopardy. There's no way the Bears should keep Pace and Nagy if they fail to deliver a convincing plan at quarterback over the next 11 months.
As it stands, the Bears have one quarterback under contract in 2021: Nick Foles, who costs $4 million in base salary and $6.6 million against the salary cap. Using a roster spot on Foles as the second or third quarterback is reasonable when one factors in his price and experience.
After that, the Bears must start from scratch, and that includes reimagining the quarterback position.
The Bears need to rethink the depth chart and keep three legitimate quarterbacks on the 53-man roster. The old model of having two quarterbacks on the active roster and stashing a veteran like Tyler Bray on the practice squad proved useless. So was the Bears’ misguided philosophy of drafting four quarterbacks (Dan LeFevour, Nate Enderle, David Fales, Trubisky) since the club last appeared in the Super Bowl in 2006.
The Bears auditioned what felt like millions of kickers after the Cody Parkey double-doink disaster, yet the old and current front offices hardly bothered to provide any true competition for Jay Cutler or Trubisky.
That sort of negligence, coupled with poor player evaluations, pushed the Bears deeper into the quarterback quagmire.
Matthew Stafford’s trade to the Los Angeles Rams eliminated one option. The notion the Detroit Lions would trade Stafford within the division felt like an extreme longshot, but the Bears had to explore every avenue.
Chicago would love to right the wrong of 2017 and trade for Deshaun Watson, but the Bears’ draft capital is suspect. They do have plenty of defensive talent that can be shipped to Houston, but the Bears have only the 20th overall pick; whereas other suitors for Watson can offer better picks that can reap larger bounties via the draft.
Moving past Watson, whom the Texans insist they will not trade, Garoppolo and Wentz have to be considered. Neither is cheap (Garoppolo and Wentz each will earn approximately $25.5 million in 2021), but both are upgrades who should give the Bears a good starting point.
The same holds true with the Raiders’ Derek Carr, who has two years left on his current deal and a base salary of $19.525 million in 2021. Carr is fresh off a tremendous season (4,103 passing yards, 27 touchdowns, nine interceptions), but the Raiders have sent nothing but mixed signals about their franchise quarterback since coach Jon Gruden took over.
Still, chasing veterans (expect Watson, of course) can often be a fool’s errand. More than anything, the Bears need to establish a pipeline of young quarterback talent over the next five years.
The 2021 NFL draft class will be the most difficult to evaluate in league history because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Pre-draft player workouts and the NFL combine and private workouts at team facilities are banned. The only settings in which teams can time, test or conduct in-person interviews with draft prospects will be at collegiate all-star games and college pro days. Last year’s abbreviated college schedule also provided less game tape of certain prospects.
With the 20th overall pick, the Bears are currently outside the range of ESPN NFL Draft Analyst Mel Kiper Jr.’s top five quarterbacks: Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, BYU’s Zach Wilson, Ohio State’s Justin Fields, North Dakota State’s Trey Lance and Alabama’s Mac Jones.
Translation: The Bears will more than likely have to move up to get a quarterback in the first round.
“I don’t see any of those five quarterbacks being there when the Bears pick at No. 20,” Kiper said. “Especially after Senior Bowl week with Mac Jones. When my mock draft first came out I had guys in the league telling me that I had Jones too high at No. 15 to New England. Some of them said Jones is a second-rounder and he doesn’t have the arm and he’s just a product of Alabama.
“Well, that mock came out before Senior Bowl week. Jones goes down there to the Senior Bowl and looks great and plays great. He did tweak his ankle and didn’t play in the game, but he had a great week. I thought Jones to New England at No. 15 because the Bill Belichick-Nick Saban connection made sense but now some people think he might even go higher than that. So I don’t think any of these quarterbacks fall to No. 20.”
The only caveat, according to Kiper, could be Lance, who made 17 career starts at North Dakota State (16 in 2019, one in 2020) but is 20 years old.
“The only quarterback I see who has the best possibility of being there at No. 20 happens to be the player I think is the most difficult player to evaluate at any position this year, and that is Lance,” Kiper said. “Lance had a huge year two years when he didn’t throw an interception, but he only had one game where he threw the ball 31 times. He was running the ball for North Dakota State, and that’s what was beating teams. He has great ability to run, he’s an athletic kid, fast, and the arm is good. He played one game this past year and he went 15-of-30 against Central Arkansas. Again, he brought North Dakota State back because of how he was running with the ball, not how he was throwing it.
“Lance is the classic case of a guy that has to sit, watch and learn. You need a quarterback in place if you are going to draft Trey Lance. You can’t draft Trey Lance and have no other option.”
The next quarterback outside of Kiper’s top five is Florida’s Kyle Trask, who Kiper gave a second-round grade.
“After Trask, the drop off is huge,” Kiper said.
“Trask is interesting because he has the size you want and an NFL arm. He has talent, there is no question about it, and he’s a pocket guy. But he had a lot of wide receiver and tight end talent at Florida. That’s the reason he was able to do what he did. I think he’s a second-round pick, but I could see someone force him in the late first round like maybe Pittsburgh or New Orleans, or someone could trade back in to get him.”
Kiper’s evaluations underscores the precarious position the Bears are in. There is no simple answer. Yet the Bears have to find an answer. The future of the franchise hinges on it.
“You look at Green Bay, there is no way Aaron Rodgers is going anywhere,” Kiper said. “Minnesota has Kirk Cousins for now. They’re OK at quarterback with him. And now the Lions have Jared Goff. Now you look at Chicago. Everyone else in the division has a serviceable or better guy. But the Bears are that one team in the NFC North that just hasn’t been able to figure it out at quarterback.”
And time is of the essence.