The deadline for NFL teams to sign franchise tagged players to a contract extension passed Thursday with the Bears and Allen Robinson unable to reach an agreement on a long-term deal. Now, Robinson will play the upcoming season under the tag, and he will earn $18 million for the year.
This move does not preclude the Bears from signing Robinson to a long-term deal at the end of the season. They could begin negotiations again next offseason, similar to how the Tampa Bay Buccaneers re-signed Shaquil Barrett one year after failing to come to an agreement during the franchise tag extension window. Regardless, Ryan Pace’s inability to reach an agreement with Robinson now will hurt the team in the long run.
Let’s say the Bears do decide to extend Robinson next offseason. It will probably be coming on the heels of another great season— maybe even his best season in Chicago since he will have Andy Dalton or Justin Fields throwing him the ball— and it will likely cost the Bears more money to sign him then, than it would have if they got a deal done now, or even last year. That obviously gives the Bears less flexibility to spread money around to re-sign players like Roquan Smith, or bring in new free agents.
Now let’s say the Bears let Robinson walk. This is probably the worst-case scenario for the good of the offense, as the team would have an enormous void to fill on the roster. Conventional thinking would say, go and find a wide receiver in the draft to replace him. That's what the Vikings did by selecting Justin Jefferson after trading away Stefon Diggs, and it worked out great. The only problem is the Bears don’t have a first-round pick next year, as they shipped it to New York in the deal to move up for Justin Fields. To be fair, top-tier WR talent can be found in the second round. That’s where D.K. Metcalf and A.J. Brown went in 2019, and where the Saints scooped Michael Thomas in 2017. But there are plenty of second-round duds too (see: Anthony Miller). Further, if the Bears decide to replace Robinson through the draft, they essentially lock themselves into picking a wideout with their top pick, instead of going with the best player available.
If the Bears can't find a replacement in the draft, then we have to look at other free agents. Besides Robinson, Davante Adams tops the class, and he would obviously be an incredible addition to any offense. But if the Packers and Adams can’t come to an agreement on a long-term deal, there’s a solid chance that Green Bay places the franchise tag on Adams, just like the Bears did with Robinson. So that takes the next-best option off the board. Chris Godwin could be ready to take the next step as a No. 1 wideout, but all reports this offseason indicate that the Buccaneers would like to keep Godwin in Tampa Bay, and work out a contract extension over the next offseason, just like they did with Barrett this year.
After that, the list thins out considerably. Will Fuller and JuJu Smith-Schuster are both big names, but each player carries his own question marks about whether he can truly carry the load as a No. 1 wide receiver. T.Y. Hilton and A.J. Green would’ve been great No. 1 options five years ago, but each of those guys is past his prime now. Robby Anderson, D.J. Chark, Jamison Crowder, Mike Williams and Tyrell Williams are all great complementary pieces, but none of those guys can fully replace what Robinson brings to the field.
But the No. 1 reason the Bears should want to keep Robinson in Chicago goes beyond the production he adds to the offense. As the team works to develop Justin Field into a superstar, who would be better to help bring him along than Robinson? The reliability Robinson offers on the outside provides Fields a safety valve on the field. He’s an incredibly precise route runner, who has a knack for coming down with contested catches. Off the field, Robinson is the perfect pro to groom Fields, too. He’s a consummate pro with an incredible work ethic, by all accounts. He’s also shown his willingness to mentor young players, as he’s been spotted working with Darnell Mooney this offseason. In short, Robinson is exactly the type of wide receiver every young quarterback would dream of playing alongside. If the Bears want to get the most out of Fields as he develops, they’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who can do it better than Robinson.
No matter how you slice it, the Bears would’ve been best served to reach an agreement with Robinson sooner rather than later. But now they’ll have to hope they can reach an agreement later, rather than not at all.