LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- The Chicago Bears enter 2021 NFL free agency coming off an 8-8 season in 2020 and have 22 unrestricted free agents. Chicago has been consistently active in free agency during Ryan Pace’s run as general manager, but this offseason presents similar challenges as last year for a team with little cap space and needs across the board.
Nothing truly matters until the Bears figure out what they’re doing at quarterback. Being stretched so thin financially, Chicago will need to get creative if it wants to add a veteran quarterback via a trade or free-agent market and keep top pending free-agent wide receiver Allen Robinsonin the mix. Here’s what to expect from the Bears when the NFL offseason hits high gear with the start of free agency on March 17.
Under contract: Nick Foles
UFA: Mitchell Trubisky
Game plan: The futures of Pace and coach Matt Nagy depend on the Bears righting the ship at quarterback after Trubisky didn’t pan out, so don’t be surprised if Chicago takes multiple swings at the position this offseason. Even if they draft a quarterback at No. 20 (or trade up to get one), Foles didn’t show enough last season to make the Bears comfortable rolling with him as the sole veteran. Any rookie brought on in April will be paired with another experienced quarterback. The likes of Alex Smith, Andy Dalton, Ryan Fitzpatrick or anyone not in line for a massive pay-day (like Dak Prescott) could be within Chicago’s price range.
Game plan: The Bears could add an inexpensive pass-catching back for depth, but the running back room is pretty much set. Montgomery has shown he’s capable of being an every-down rusher while Chicago will get back the explosiveness it missed being without Cohen last season due to an ACL tear.
Game plan: Adding more weapons in the passing game is a high priority item for Chicago. Robinson is the Bears' best offensive player and one of the top free agents this cycle, so the likelihood that Chicago uses the franchise tag on its No. 1 receiver is great. Whether Robinson would then want to work out a long-term deal or Chicago tries to tag-and-trade him will be the next hurdle, likely dependent on who the team lands at quarterback. Fortunately, given the depth of this year’s receiver draft class, the Bears can continue adding depth in April on the cheap.
UFA: Demetrius Harris
Game plan: Chicago can create $7 million in cap space by releasing Graham but might also want to keep him around for the final year of his contract after he caught 50 passes for 546 yards and eight touchdowns while helping Kmet progress in his development. Harris will likely walk.
Game plan: The Bears could save upwards of $17 million if they choose to start over at tackle by releasing Leno and Massie (with a post-June 1 designation). If they go that route, re-signing Ifedi to play right tackle and using the cap space created to go after a bigger-name free agent to play left would still allow them to draft and develop their left tackle of the future.
Game plan: Releasing Hicks would save the Bears $10.5 million against the cap, which would help in their search for a quarterback, but an extension for the 32-year-old defensive tackle might also be in play. If he’s not on the roster, then Chicago needs to upgrade. If he is, then the starters are set and finding rotational linemen is the priority, which comes in the less-expensive second wave of free agency. The Bears are also set to get Goldman back from his COVID-19 opt-out.
UFA: Barkevious Mingo
Game plan: The cost to retain Mingo might be too high for the Bears, who are hoping Gipson takes a step forward in his second year to play a bigger role. Chicago needs more production than it got from Quinn last season, so adding a veteran edge rusher could be in play depending on what happens with Mingo. Chicago will pick up Smith’s fifth-year option by May and should be in extension talks in the near future.
UFA: Artie Burns
Game plan: Chicago needs to find an avenue to reduce Fuller’s $20 million cap hit, the second highest charge among all cornerbacks. If both sides can’t work out an agreement on a new deal, Fuller becomes a valuable trade asset. Slot corner can be addressed in free agency if the Bears cut Skrine for cap relief.
Game plan: Gipson is the biggest free agent name here and will determine whether Chicago needs to find a complement for Jackson or will roll with the 30-year-old UFA for another season on an inexpensive deal.
Under contract: None
Game plan: Santos’ excellent play in 2020 could lead him to look for a considerable raise, but it shouldn’t be anything too difficult for the Bears to maneuver. Fellow kicker Eddy Piniero is a restricted free agent the Bears should consider tendering (it never hurts to have extra kickers around) while O’Donnell and Scales have shown consistency worth of retaining with the kicking battery.