Ryan Pace, Matt Nagy and the Bears’ coaching staff have had about a month and a half to evaluate their team, and will head to Indianapolis for the NFL Scouting Combine knowing the strengths and weaknesses of a group that went 5-11 in 2017.
While the Combine doesn’t bump up to the beginning of free agency, as it did a year ago, the free agent landscape will begin to take shape this week, as will the draft plans of the Bears and the seven teams picking ahead of them in April. So with that in mind, here are five scenarios to watch develop as the Bears begin efforts to shape their 2018 roster:
1. How many quarterbacks go in the top seven?
The Bears drafted their franchise quarterback a year ago, but a deep 2018 class of signal-callers presents some interesting options for Pace with the eighth overall pick. As things stand heading to Indianapolis, four of the six teams picking ahead of the Bears have a “need” at quarterback: The Cleveland Browns (picks Nos. 1 and 4), the New York Giants (No. 2), the Denver Broncos (No. 5) and the New York Jets (No. 6).
Conveniently, there are four quarterbacks who head to the Combine with legitimate shots of being top-10 picks: USC’s Sam Darnold, UCLA’s Josh Rosen, Wyoming’s Josh Allen and Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield. Perhaps Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph or Louisville’s Lamar Jackson interview, test and throw their way into the top 10 as well. The point: This could be an ideal situation for the Bears to be sitting at No. 8.
Pace likes to talk about draft “clouds,” as in groups of five or six players that realistically could be available when his team picks. As the Bears begin looking to create that cloud, could they realistically put someone like N.C. State defensive end Bradley Chubb or Alabama defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick in it?
The short answer: Probably not. The first decider of how many teams draft a quarterback before the Bears will be where Kirk Cousins signs; i.e., if he goes to the Broncos or the Jets, that takes them out of the quarterback market in April. And not all four teams are guaranteed to take a quarterback, even if Cousins signs elsewhere — maybe Denver tries to address its offensive line, or the Jets are able to start rebuilding their offense with Penn State running back Saquon Barkley.
But the Bears are going to Indianapolis not only to begin building their cloud at No. 8, but clouds in case they trade down. The Arizona Cardinals (No. 15), Los Angeles Chargers (No. 17) and Buffalo Bills (Nos. 21 and 22) all could be in the market to draft a quarterback, or maybe the New Orleans Saints (No. 27) see the successor to Drew Brees in this class and want to make a move to get him.
The overarching point here is the Bears will have options to trade down or grab a top-five player at No. 8 come April if there are three or four quarterbacks who teams deem worthy of being “franchise” guys, as the Bears did with Trubisky a year ago.
2. What happens at cornerback?
The Bears could try to re-sign Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara and tender restricted free agent Bryce Callahan and keep the status quo at the top end of that position. Or they could re-sign Fuller and Amukamara and still draft a cornerback at No. 8. Or they could decide to blow the whole thing up and sign two veteran cornerbacks from a deep free agent class. Or they could re-sign Fuller and pair him with a free agent, even a high-priced one like Trumaine Johnson given their healthy cap situation and a lack of top-end free agents at wide receiver and edge rusher. Or they could be blown away by Ohio State’s Denzel Ward, Iowa’s Josh Jackson or another corner in Indianapolis and draft one of them to pair with a free agent. Or they could do something completely different.
There are plenty of options for Pace to sift through in the next few weeks, but the endgame for all of them is to find the best pairing of cornerbacks for a defense that showed signs of progress last season. The worst-case scenario for Pace isn’t all that bad: If he misses out on all of his top targets — let’s say he doesn’t re-sign Fuller, and Johnson/Malcolm Butler/E.J. Gains/Brashaud Breeland all spurn the Bears to sign somewhere else — he could probably get by on a mid-level cornerback signing and then drafting someone in the first two rounds in April.
But given the Bears’ aforementioned cap situation and the lack of big-money receivers and edge rushers expected to hit free agency, 2018 could be an ideal year for Pace to splurge at cornerback. He tried to last year, but was turned down by Stephone Gilmore and A.J. Bouye. If the Bears are a more desirable destination in 2018 than they were in 2017 — with a new head coach, a promising young quarterback and a stable defensive coaching staff — maybe they can finally land that big-ticket cornerback.
3. Is No. 8 too high to draft an interior offensive lineman?
On the surface, the stars look aligned for the Bears to draft Notre Dame’s Quenton Nelson with the eighth overall pick: They recently released 31-year-old Josh Sitton to get younger and cheaper at guard, Nelson is a good bet to be the most consistent offensive player in 2018’s draft class, and one of Matt Nagy’s first hires was Harry Hiestand, Nelson’s college offensive line coach.
But while teams frequently use top-10 picks on offensive linemen, rarely do they use them on guards. In recent memory, Jonathan Cooper (No. 7 to the Arizona Cardinals in 2013) and Chance Warmack (No. 10 to the Tennessee Titans in 2013) never played the way you’d expect a “can’t-miss” guard to play.
Releasing Sitton is a clue in and of itself. Would the Bears be happy to play a left tackle who’s productive but also on the wrong side of 30 $8 million? It seems more likely than paying that money to a guard, for the simple reason that it’s a lot easier to find consistent interior offensive line play than it is to find a good tackle. The Bears can probably accomplish getting younger and cheaper at guard via free agency.
And consider this, too: The Carolina Panthers, reportedly (link), aren’t looking to place the franchise tag on 26-year-old All-Pro guard Andrew Norwell, because it’d carry a salary with it usually reserved for a tackle. Or to put it another way: The Panthers may be reluctant to pay a guard tackle money. Could the Bears be reluctant to draft a guard in a spot usually reserved for a tackle?
If that’s the Bears initial mindset heading into Indianapolis, Nelson, though, is certainly a guy who could change it.
"He's great in the run game, he's very good in the pass game," NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. "He was coached by Harry Hiestand, who I think is one of the best offensive line coaches I've ever been around, who is now with the Chicago Bears. So he's got talent, he's got coaching, and at the end of the day, he loves football. I know this kid. He's got a passion for the game. He's got a passion to be the best he can be. So when you add all those things up, unless he's injured, unless he gets a bad injury, I love the fact that I think he can come in day one and be a high-level NFL player."
One final note here: A former Notre Dame player joked that Nelson and tackle Mike McGlinchey — who’s projected as a later first-round pick — are fighting to see who can get drafted by the Bears so they can be coached by Hiestand again.
4. Who’s the second-best edge rusher in this draft class?
The guess here is Chubb — who racked up 20 sacks his final two years at N.C. State — won’t be on the board when the Bears pick at No. 8. But with edge rusher a need for a Bears team that released Pernell McPhee this week and still has to figure out where it is with Willie Young (contract) and Leonard Floyd (injury), expect one of Pace’s focuses in Indianapolis to be on finding out which edge guys could fit into his cloud at No. 8 or later in the draft.
We’ll throw these two guys out there to start: UT-San Antonio’s Marcus Davenport and Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds. They’re two different players with different skillsets, but both could wind up in play for the Bears at No. 8.
Davenport flashed talent and potential at the Senior Bowl last month, and if he tests well in Indianapolis could start being a top-10 mainstay in mock drafts. He could fit the raw, athletic mold of Pace’s previous first-round picks. We’ll have a better idea if he does in a week.
Edmunds might be the best linebacker in this class, but he’s not necessarily a true edge rusher. He totaled 10 sacks in his final two years at Virginia Tech, but wasn’t necessarily asked to rush the quarterback as much. He’s an elite run stuffer (32 1/2 TFLs in 2016-2017) and could be a better fit as an inside linebacker. But the thought around draft circles is Edmunds is a talented enough player to make an impact no matter if he’s an inside or outside linebacker. He’s someone the Bears could very well have in their No. 8 cloud in April.
5. What about receiver?
Jarvis Landry could still be on the market after the Miami Dolphins placed the franchise tag on him, but would the Bears really want to give up a package of picks for a guy who averaged less than 10 yards a catch last year? The Jacksonville Jaguars seem likely to hang on to Allen Robinson, and while the Los Angeles Rams may let Sammy Watkins hit the open market, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he didn’t go anywhere.
Without an elite wideout for Pace to try to lure to Chicago with a hefty contract and the promise of a young franchise quarterback, the Bears will need to find the right mix of receivers via free agency and the draft. Could that mean signing a few mid-level receivers and then drafting someone with the eighth overall pick?
For the Bears, that question will begin to be answered this week. Maybe they come away from Indianapolis feeling like Alabama’s Calvin Ridley has what it takes to hold up in the NFL despite a small-ish 6-foot-1, 190 pound frame. Or maybe Coutland Sutton runs a better-than-expected 40-yard dash and is in play to be the first receiver off the board.
Ridley and Sutton are the two guys who’ve been thrown around in early mock drafts as potential top-10 picks, but there could always be someone who tests well in Indianapolis and gets his name into that conversation. But the Bears will also begin building their clouds of players for the second round and beyond, and how the second/third/fourth tier of receivers test/interview in Indianapolis will begin to bring those evaluations into focus, too.