Bears NFL Draft preview: What lies beyond Jay Cutler at quarterback?

Bears NFL Draft preview: What lies beyond Jay Cutler at quarterback? Bears Insider John "Moon" Mullin goes position by position as the Bears approach the 2016 Draft, taking a look at what the Bears have, what they might need and what draft days and days after could have in store.

Bears pre-draft situation

Jay Cutler answered critics and doubters in the general population and, more importantly, inside Halas Hall with what could be considered something of a breakout year in his 10th season in the NFL. He took to the coaching of then-coordinator Adam Gase and position coach Dowell Loggains.

“We’re a production-based business,” head coach John Fox said at the outset of his Chicago tenure in a statement of philosophy that transcended position or player. “Like every position, how you practice usually leads to how you play and perform, and we’ll evaluate that at every position as we move forward.”

David Fales remains a prospect/project and no closer to being viewed as an emergency fill-in than he was going into last offseason with the Bears moving to re-sign Jimmy Clausen. (The latter did not work out and wound up in Baltimore with Marc Trestman where he was bad enough in two starts to be benched in favor of Ryan Mallett.)

At some point on draft weekend, the Bears need to make a move for a quarterback. Or two.

Bears draft priority: Moderate

The Bears were puzzled by some random buzz this offseason that they were looking to get rid of Cutler. Fox was clearly positive in comments this offseason, which he wasn’t last year, and Cutler at age 33 has prime years remaining in his arm and legs, particularly in view of his steps forward last season in ball security and overall intangibles. Additionally, the Bears have the heavy years in Cutler’s seven-year contract behind them; his next four years at $16 million, $17 million, $20 million and $21 million — including $2.5M annual roster bonuses based on weeks active — are cap-smart, even a little low vis-a-vis rises in the salary cap and Cutler’s performance.

Meaning: The Bears’ need at starting quarterback is not dire such as it is for teams like Denver, Cleveland and Los Angeles.

But Ryan Pace said last year at the NFL owners meetings that he ideally would be in position to take a QB prospect every draft: “You can take a swing every year at it and increase your odds." Pace did not select a young arm in the 2015 draft but had previously re-signed Clausen and proceeded to add Shane Carden as an undrafted free agent, followed by pickups of Patrick Devlin and Zac Dysert.

None of those developed into serviceable depth, let alone an eventual Cutler successor. The lesson to Pace is that he will indeed need to use his draft board to locate a higher-grade developmental quarterback and choose him rather than waiting for post-draft leftovers, possibly packaging picks to move up for a surprise prospect that slips within reach.

Look for the Bears to move on a quarterback as early as Round 2 but more probably somewhere in Rounds 3 through 5.

Keep an eye on ...

Brandon Allen, Arkansas: Not a premium talent but a developmental QB ideal for a late-round pick or as an undrafted free agent signing.

Jacoby Brisset, North Carolina State: Mid-round prospect had a 43-to-11 touchdown-to-interception ratio the last two seasons. A good mobile quarterback who completed 60 percent of his passes.

Connor Cook, Michigan State: Wild card. Will he go in Round 1? Or will he fall to Day 2, where the Bears pick 10th? The Bears held a private workout with Cook.

Kevin Hogan, Stanford: Forty six starts in a pro-style offense in college with a 66-percent completion rate. Might require using second-round pick to grab him.

Dak Prescott, Mississippi State: Good intangibles. Very accurate with a 56-to-16 touchdown-to-interception ratio while starting all 26 games for Mississippi State in 2014 and 2015.

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Low

Decisions to be made on: Christian Jones (free agent), John Timu (free agent), Jonathan Anderson (free agent); Jerrell Freeman has reportedly been cut

Possible free agent targets: Demario Davis, Preston Brown, Anthony Hitchens, Avery Williamson, Navorro Bowman, Derrick Johnson

How the Bears rate Nick Kwiatkoski will be the key to figuring out what this unit will look like in 2018. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio thought Kwiatkoski finished last season strong, but strong enough to rely on him in 2018 as the starter next to Danny Trevathan?

The thing with the Bears’ inside linebackers, though: Trevathan makes whoever is playing next to him better. The problem is Trevathan hasn’t been able to stay on the field — he missed time in 2017 with a calf injury and a one-game suspension, and missed half of 2016 after rupturing his Achilles’. Trevathan hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2013, so durability is an issue for the soon-to-be 28-year-old.

So that leads to this question: Do the Bears need to find someone in free agency, regardless of how they value Kwiatkoski, who’s also missed time due to injuries in his first two years in the league?

Free agency could provide a few options. Demario Davis had a career high 97 tackles for the New York Jets last year and has never missed a game as a pro. Preston Brown had some decent production in Buffalo and also hasn’t missed a game since being drafted in 2014. Avery Williamson may not be a world-beater but has only missed one game in his four years in the NFL.

The Bears could also opt for someone who fits more of a rotational mold, like Dallas’ Anthony Hitchens, or try to lure a veteran linebacker like Navorro Bowman (who played for Vic Fangio in San Francisco) or Derrick Johnson (who Matt Nagy knows from his Kansas City days) to play next to Trevathan and/or Kwiatkoski.

The Bears could opt to keep the status quo and re-sign Christian Jones and John Timu for depth, and enter 2018 with Kwiatkoski and Trevathan as the team’s starters (Jerrell Freeman, who suffered a season-ending injury and then was hit with his second PED suspension in as many years, was cut on Tuesday). Signing a starting-caliber free agent isn’t out of the question, either, but there is a third option for the Bears if they appear to stand pat in free agency: Draft an inside linebacker in April. If that’s the route they go, Georgia’s Roquan Smith could be the guy. But again, those more pressing needs at other positions could mean the Bears don’t burn a first-round pick on an inside linebacker.

With Josh Sitton on his way out, what’s next for the Bears’ offensive line?

With Josh Sitton on his way out, what’s next for the Bears’ offensive line?

The first major move of Ryan Pace’s 2018 offseason hit on Tuesday, as NFL Network reported the Bears will not exercise Josh Sitton’s $8 million option for 2018. 

The move accomplishes two things for the Bears: 1) It frees up about $8 million in cap space and 2) Removes a veteran from the offensive line and creates a hole to fill, presumably by a younger free agent or draft pick. 

The 31-year-old Sitton signed a three-year deal with the Bears after Green Bay cut him just before the 2016 season, and was a Pro Bowler his first year in Chicago. Sitton played 26 of 32 games in two years with the Bears, but him being on the wrong side of 30 was likely the biggest factor here. If the Bears saw his skills eroding, releasing him now and netting the cap savings while going younger at the position does make sense. 

“Going younger” doesn’t guarantee the Bears will draft Notre Dame brawler Quenton Nelson, though that did become a greater possibility with Tuesday’s move. Nelson might be one of the two or three best offensive players in this year’s draft, and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand knows him well from the four years they spent together at Notre Dame. 

There’s a natural fit there, of course, but a few reasons to slow the Nelson-to-Chicago hype train: Would he even make it to No. 8? Or if he’s there, is taking a guard that high worth it when the Bears have needs at wide receiver, outside linebacker and cornerback? Still, the thought of Nelson — who absolutely dominated at Notre Dame — pairing with Hiestand again is tantalizing, and Nelson very well could step into any team’s starting lineup and be an immediate Pro Bowler as a rookie. 

If the Bears go younger in free agency, Matt Nagy knows 26-year-old guard Zach Fulton (No. 25 in Bleacher Report’s guard rankings) well from their time in Kansas City. Fulton — a Homewood-Flossmoor alum — has the flexibility to play both guard positions and center, which could open the door for Cody Whitehair to be moved to left guard, the position he was initially drafted to play (though the Bears do value him highly as a center, and keeping him at one position would benefit him as opposed to moving him around the line again). There are some other guys out there — like Tennessee’s Josh Kline or New York’s Justin Pugh — that could wind up costing more than Fulton in free agency. 

Or the Bears could look draft an offensive lineman after the first round, perhaps like Ohio State’s Billy Price, Georgia’s Isaiah Wynn or UTEP’s Will Hernandez. How the Bears evaluate guards at the NFL Combine next week will play an important role in how they go about replacing Sitton. 

The trickle-down effect of releasing Sitton will impact more than the offensive line, too. Freeing up his $8 million in cap space -- which wasn't a guarantee, unlike cutting Jerrell Freeman and, at some point, Mike Glennon -- could go toward paying Kyle Fuller, or another top cornerback, or a top wide receiver, or some combination of players at those positions (as well as outside linebacker). The Bears were already in a healthy place cap-wise; that just got healthier on Tuesday.