Bears ’18 offseason dramatically different from ’17 but with difficult money-management issues looming


Bears ’18 offseason dramatically different from ’17 but with difficult money-management issues looming

About this time a year ago the Bears were setting up for the annual NFL beauty pageant in Indianapolis, sitting with the No. 3 pick in the 2017 draft and with myriad roster decisions to address with both that draft and free agency. Because of the Bears’ lofty draft position, even more scrutiny and attention swirled around the college prospects (Deshaun Watson, Jamal Adams, Solomon Thomas, not enough on Mitch Trubisky as it turned out, a testimonial to GM Ryan Pace’s ability to keep a secret).

But what was developing in free agency was arguably of even greater significance in what was then the short term, at least for John Fox, as it turned out. And the changed landscape this year bodes considerably better for Pace and the Bears. At least in one important respect.

First, a perspective from last year’s pre-Combine period...

Because of the unsettled quarterback situation – the Bears were working toward Mike Glennon and cutting Jay Cutler two weeks later – and concerns about a possible lame-duck situation for Fox, free agents and their agents were willing to look at the Bears but only if the Bears would pony up excessive guaranteed dollars. The worry any time a coach is heading into a tipping-point year is that if things go badly, the coach and staff are gone, and the resulting changes will alter the job situation of that particular veteran player.

So the likes of cornerbacks A.J. Bouye or Stephon Gilmore opted for less total money from Jacksonville and New England, respectively, because the Bears weren’t offering higher guarantees to compensate for the uncertainty.

(One of the reasons then-President/CEO Michael McCaskey stated to this reporter for firing Mike Ditka after the 1992 season was a concern over the negative pall Ditka cast over playing for the Bears as the NFL prepared for the 1993 start of free agency. A quarter-century later, Pace didn’t fire Fox because of free agents’ aversion to Fox, but the overall wasn’t making Pace’s job any easier.)

Would Alshon Jeffery have stayed if...

On a slightly different tack: Would Alshon Jeffery have given the Bears a more receptive look had the quarterback position been addressed sooner in the Fox/Pace tenure? Jeffery took less from the Eagles in a one-year prove-it deal, not because Philadelphia was so much warmer than Chicago, but in large part because of where the offensive arrow was pointing in Chicago with Fox, Dowell Loggains and an unsettled quarterback situation.

Not insignificantly in the Jeffery case: Jeffery had four choices – Bears, Indianapolis, Minnesota, Philadelphia. The Colts weren’t sure about Andrew Luck, coming off shoulder surgery and ultimately missing all of ’17. The Vikings were resting then on brittle Sam Bradford, whose knee broke down early, and Case Keenum wasn’t CASE KEENUM at that point. The Bears with Loggains and Glennon? Jeffery didn’t go with Philadelphia, Doug Pederson and Carson Wentz only for the money, which did come anyway.

The Bears have “fixed” all of those issues in the year that’s played out since Jeffery signed with the Eagles almost concurrent with the Bears moving on from Cutler. None of that matters now in the least with Jeffery, Bouye, Gilmore or any other options that demanded too much guaranteed money or spurned the Bears back then, but it does matter going into the run-up to free agency over the next couple weeks.

Why this in fact matters more than the draft is that, while sound organizations are grounded in quality drafting, the reality is that in virtually every offseason, more starters for that season are acquired via free agency than the draft. Last year’s draft centerpiece was Trubisky, though he wasn’t supposed to start last season. But free agents Glennon, Prince Amukamara, Marcus Cooper, Quintin Demps and Markus Wheaton and Kendall Wright were.

The money pit

Longtime Bears and NFL personnel chief Bill Tobin once remarked back in the beginning of free agency, “Just because you pay a guy $2 million doesn’t make him a $2-million player.” That still applies, adjusted for inflation. And that could make this free agency dicey for the Bears.

Because price isn’t always determined solely on quality; it’s a matter of supply and demand. And while the Bears are among those with the greatest estimated space under the projected cap of $178 million, the others way up on the list include Cleveland, Indianapolis, the Jets, Houston and Tampa Bay – all teams with five or fewer wins in ’17 and expected to be the most aggressive in using free agency to fix gaping holes. The Bears have a lot of money to spend, but so do a whole lot of others.

Meaning: A lot of dollars will be chasing a select few players, which will make some of them overpaid, not unlike Glennon was last offseason (how many apparently better options were there?) or a couple of others, who will be paid like $2 million players even if they aren’t, adjusted for inflation.

The result is another offseason of brinksmanship for Pace, this time in need of better results than his first three free agencies if the outcome for his second head coach is to be better than it was for his first.

After releasing him, Bears reportedly bringing back Marcus Cooper


After releasing him, Bears reportedly bringing back Marcus Cooper

Marcus Cooper's offseason has resembled a will they, won't they relationship.

The corner back signed a three-year deal with the Bears last offseason, but struggled last year and was released by the Bears after one year of that deal. However, Adam Caplan is reporting that Cooper could be back in a Bears uniform this season.

Cooper was officially released by the Bears on March 14 and visited the Arizona Cardinals earlier on Friday. Cooper started for the Cardinals in 2016.

Cooper began the year as a starter for the Bears, but finished with just four starts. He finished 2017 with 18 tackles and three passes deflected in 15 games.

His play with the Bears didn't exactly make him Mr. Popular with fans, as can be observed by looking at the savage replies to Caplan's report.

Cooper's original contract for the Bears with valued at $16 million over three years so the reported $2.5 million number is a significant pay cut and could mean he is being brought back for depth as opposed to last year when he was expected to start.

Plenty of possibilities loom ahead of Bears' draft pick

Plenty of possibilities loom ahead of Bears' draft pick

As the Bears begin to fill out their draft board in earnest, they’ll do so by evaluating the players they like and the players they think will be available when they pick eighth in April. And what players check both those boxes and go into their draft “clouds,” as Ryan Pace calls them, will depend largely on how many quarterbacks are taken ahead of the Bears’ pick. 

With about a month until the draft, it seems clear two teams will take a quarterback with a top-seven pick: the Cleveland Browns and New York Jets. The Browns own the Nos. 1 and 4 picks; the Jets traded up from No. 6 to No. 3, and teams rarely invest that kind of draft capital to not draft a quarterback. 

That leaves a few hinge points in how many quarterbacks are picked by the time the Bears are on the clock:

New York Giants (No. 2 overall)

The Giants still have an aging Eli Manning but could move to use the second pick to draft his long-term replacement. Or, alternatively, they could use this deep class of top-end quarterbacks as an avenue to trade down, add some picks and build out a young core that way. Either of these scenarios would be good news for the Bears, as we’ve seen Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, N.C. State defensive end Bradley Chubb and Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson connected to the Giants at No. 2 as well, if they were to stay there. The Buffalo Bills could be motivated to trade up to No. 2 to make sure they get the guy they want with quarterbacks almost assuredly going off the board at Nos. 1 and 3. 

Cleveland Browns (No. 4 overall)

If the Browns get their quarterback with the first pick — Sam Darnold? — they could be sitting in an ideal spot at No. 4. If the Giants draft a quarterback, Cleveland could play hardball and tell teams they’re fine keeping the fourth pick and drafting Barkley with it. That could create a bidding war between the Buffalo Bills (No. 12) and Denver Broncos (No. 5) to trade up and draft the last of the four clear-cut top quarterbacks in this class. In this scenario, Cleveland adds a bunch of picks to an already-sizable stash and accelerates their growth through the draft. 

If the Giants were to trade out of the No. 2 pick, let’s say to the Bills, it may lessen Cleveland’s desire to trade down from No. 4 unless a team in need of a quarterback like the Arizona Cardinals (No. 15) or Miami Dolphins (No. 11) starts lurking around. But as we saw last year with the Bears trading up one spot to draft Mitch Trubisky, teams don’t want to leave things to chance if they have conviction on the quarterback they want. So that brings us to the…

Denver Broncos (No. 5 overall)

The Broncos signed Case Keenum to a two-year deal and still have 2016 first-round pick Paxton Lynch on their roster, though he hasn’t shown much in only five games as a pro. Does Denver absolutely, positively have to draft a quarterback? No. They’re probably in the same boat as the Giants in that regard. But what if they really like Josh Allen and/or Baker Mayfield, both of whom their coaching staff worked with at the Senior Bowl, and one of them is still on the board when the Browns’ pick comes up at No. 4? Or what if Josh Rosen has been their guy all along? 

In that case, John Elway may make an aggressive move to guarantee he gets the quarterback he wants, and not risk losing that guy if a team were to cut the line by trading with the Browns. 

The other scenario is less positive for the Bears: Maybe the Broncos only have one or two quarterbacks out of this group they want, and they either can’t find a trade partner to move out of No. 5 or don’t want to. If three quarterbacks are drafted in the first seven picks, the Bears may not have the opportunity to draft one of Nelson, Chubb or Alabama defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds, for example, is a super-talented prospect — but we seem to be moving toward a consensus that Nelson, Fitzpatrick, Chubb and Barkley are the four best non-quarterback prospects in this draft. And in all likelihood, the Bears will only be able to draft one of them four quarterbacks are taken before they pick. 

The wild card here is Nelson, given his position (guard) is rarely seen as worthy of being a top-10 pick. But those who saw him up close in college believe he’s a future perennial Pro Bowler, possibly beginning as soon as his rookie year. The Bears’ fit is obvious, with Harry Hiestand coming to coach the offensive line from Notre Dame and the team — as of right now — still having a fairly clear need for another interior offensive lineman. Perhaps Nelson falls to the Bears even if there are only three quarterbacks off the board before they pick, but having four go off the board would make things a little less stressful at Halas Hall in late April. 

Indianapolis Colts (No. 6 overall) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (No. 7 overall)

The Colts already traded down once, and likely did so with the confidence that Chubb would still be on the board at No. 6 to help their limp pass rush. Fitzpatrick seems to be a good fit with Tampa Bay, though a player of his caliber would be a good fit anywhere. Either of these teams still could be persuaded to trade down, especially if the Giants and/or Broncos pass on a quarterback.

Chicago Bears (No. 8 overall)

If four quarterbacks are off the board by the time the Bears pick, that’s ideal for Pace. If three are, he still could get someone from his No. 8 pick “cloud” and be content staying there. If only two are — and this doesn’t appear to be a likely scenario — that means the Bills haven’t found a trade partner and may want to leapfrog the Dolphins at No. 11 to get their guy. More likely, if the Bears are able to trade down from No. 8, it would be because a team like Arizona wants to make sure the quarterback they want isn’t snagged by an opportunistic team ahead of them. 

But Pace's draft history has seen him trade up far more frequently than trade down. If someone who's in his draft cloud is available when the Bears go on the clock, chances are he'll pick that guy and not trade down. 

Plenty can and will change between now and when the draft begins on April 26. But for right now, the landscape ahead of the Bears suggests only positive things setting up for their first-round pick.