Bears

Next couple weeks a critical opportunity for Brian Hoyer, Bears

Next couple weeks a critical opportunity for Brian Hoyer, Bears

One overarching NFL reality is that with extremely rare exception, the quarterback position is always a matter for discussion and planning.

Even in Green Bay when Brett Favre was setting the standard for durability, the Packers were about succession planning, cycling through quality backups (Mark Brunell, Aaron Brooks, Matt Hasselbeck) until one – Aaron Rodgers – was needed.

Even in New England, where Tom Brady wasn’t missing a game for 14 of the last 15 seasons, yet the Patriots were drafting quarterbacks in the second or third rounds of three of the last six drafts.

What the Bears are confronting last weekend and this Sunday is a template for what could be their tactics for the position in the year or years ahead. The Philadelphia Eagles with Carson Wentz and Dallas Cowboys with Dak Prescott are starting (and winning with) rookies who were selected into a depth chart presumably already set with a starter in place. And the Bears have faced a situation in their recent past eerily similar to one just three years ago that, had it been handled differently, might have positioned the Bears somewhere similar to where Dallas and Philadelphia now find themselves.

With Jay Cutler in the final year of his contract calling for guaranteed money, 2016 was clearly a prove-it year for him irrespective of the Bears’ failure to invest a meaningful draft pick in a possible successor. Now Cutler is injured and Brian Hoyer is the presumptive starter, setting up a potential scenario not altogether unlike what they faced in 2013 when Josh McCown stepped in twice when Cutler was hurt.

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McCown played the best football of his career, giving the Bears the option of re-signing him as a placeholder and pursuing a young apprentice, which the Marc Trestman coaching staff favored, or signing Cutler to a massive contract and committing to him as a franchise quarterback, which GM Phil Emery did.

Hoyer may or may not play remotely as well as McCown did. But this is not entirely a position competition between Cutler and Hoyer, any more than Cutler-McCown was. Should Hoyer perform creditably, however, as he did last year to get the Houston Texans into the playoffs, he gives the Bears another “McCown Option” – an affordable, competent-if-unspectacular veteran who starts until such time as the young quarterback is ready. That could be as early as the draft pick’s rookie season – as Wentz was correctly judged to be in Philadelphia, as Russell Wilson once was in Seattle, and Prescott is demonstrating in Dallas.

Wentz was not going to start for Philadelphia before the Eagles were offered a can’t-refuse offer by the Minnesota Vikings for Sam Bradford. Prescott was not drafted to be a starter, but Tony Romo’s preseason back injury and Kellen Moore’s broken ankle changed whatever QB plan the Cowboys had.

If there’s a twist to the situation it lies in the fact that it is far from necessary to believe that winning quarterbacks lie only in the first round. Jared Goff, the No. 1 overall pick, is still riding the Los Angeles Rams bench. Paxton Lynch, grabbed by Denver at the end of round one, wasn’t able to take the Broncos’ starting job away from Trevor Siemian, the 250th pick of the 2015 draft whose only action last season was one kneel-down.

But Jacoby Brissett, New England’s third-round pick this year, and Cody Kessler, Cleveland’s 2016 No. 3 pick, are starting, jokes about Cleveland notwithstanding.

The Bears looked closely at Marcus Mariota going into the 2015 draft. But they were faced with a franchise decision of expending massive draft capital in a trade, something they did once upon a time in 2009 for Cutler and didn’t want to do again with other needs to fill.

Ryan Pace has had 15 draft choices in his two drafts as Bears general manager. None were invested in a quarterback. He will not go a third draft weekend without discussing the quarterback the Bears selected in (insert round here).

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. 

Bears cut ties with linebacker Jerrell Freeman

Bears cut ties with linebacker Jerrell Freeman

The Bears began their slew of offseason moves by releasing inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.

Freeman, 31, signed a three-year, $12 million deal with the Bears in 2016.

In his first year in Chicago he amassed 110 tackles in 12 games but was suspended four games for PED use. He played in just one game lsat season before suffering a pectoral injury that placed him on IR. He then tested positive again for a performance-enhancing drug, resulting in a 10-game suspension that bleeds over into 2018 for two more games, wherever he winds up.