We’ve focused all our attention the last few months on the narrow outcome of the Bears’ quarterback competition. We’re finally nearing the finish line, with Matt Nagy saying he’ll name either Mitch Trubisky or Nick Foles his starting quarterback next week.
But let’s zoom out for a moment as we near what’ll be the most talked-about decision involving the Bears this year. What’s the plan after 2020?
Do we know? Do the Bears know? Do they have one?
These are distressing questions to have to ask for a franchise that, for many years of its existence, hasn’t had a solid long-term plan at quarterback. When it seemingly has – like after the Jay Cutler trade – it hasn’t always played out as the organization hoped it would.
Since 2000, 24 players started at least one game at quarterback for the Bears. Foles would make it 25 if he starts this year; Trubisky’s 41 starts are the second-most in that span behind Cutler. Even the Lions, a truly awful team for most of the millennium, only started 15 quarterbacks in the last 20 seasons; the Vikings are at 19; the Packers, of course, just five.
So where do the Bears go from here? One of these paths will emerge after the 2020 season, and not all of them lead to stability:
1. Keep Mitch Trubisky
This is the Bears’ best-case scenario. Trubisky not only wins and keeps the Bears’ starting job, but excels doing so. The Bears use the franchise tag and try work out a long-term deal. He finally makes good on the promise Ryan Pace saw him in three and a half years ago, and stays in Chicago – while playing well – for the better part of the next decade.
The Bears’ best shot at long-term stability at quarterback still resides in Trubisky. Take that for what you will.
2. Nick Foles plays well and stays in Chicago.
Foles’ contract allows him to opt out after the 2020 and 2021 seasons, which means a strong year from the 31-year-old would force the Bears to pay him more money than the remaining $12 million on his deal. This, by the way, wouldn’t prevent the Bears from drafting a quarterback with a first-round pick, and could allow Matt Nagy to actually follow a similar blueprint to the Alex Smith-Patrick Mahomes one he oversaw in Kansas City.
Also: There’s not much middle ground with Trubisky. Either he plays his way into a tag/extension in 2021 or is not on the Bears next year. It’s difficult to see him struggling in 2020 and returning in 2021 in any capacity.
3. Nick Foles plays well and leaves Chicago.
This feels unlikely, but it’s an avenue open to Foles in his contract. The Bears, like a lot of teams in the NFL, will be cap-strapped in 2021, when the league’s salary cap could drop upward of $20 million amid losses stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. Could a team in good shape cap-wise – like the Colts or the Broncos – make a play for Foles if he opts out (and if they miss out on, potentially, Dak Prescott)?
It’s a thought the Bears do need to consider. If it were to happen and Foles left, it’d likely be for financial reasons, meaning the Bears wouldn’t be in on Prescott. Most likely, it’d result in the Bears signing a different veteran with starting experience – like Jacoby Brissett or Jameis Winston or Tyrod Taylor – and, ideally, drafting a quarterback with a high pick.
The “problem” here is if Foles plays well, the Bears’ first-round pick will probably be in the late teens or 20s (or 30s!). That wouldn’t be high enough to land Trevor Lawrence or Justin Fields or Trey Lance, most likely. But Pace could pair a veteran free agent with a Day 2 or Day 3 pick and see if he can find a gem that way.
Or perhaps Pace trades away 2022 first-round pick to move up and snag one of 2021’s holy trinity of quarterbacks, which he could also do if Foles is still on the roster next year.
4. Nobody plays well in 2020, but it’s not a complete disaster, either.
This, coupled with a good defense, gets to the Bears to, say, 7-9 or 8-8 – not bad enough to tank, but not good enough for the playoffs. I’d argue this is the worst-case for the Bears’ long-term outlook.
In it, Trubisky leaves but Foles stays. And with an expected reduction in the salary cap, the Bears don’t have the financial wiggle room to target Prescott. They also don’t have a high enough draft pick to get a top quarterback prospect without sacrificing future draft capital (Pace, though, has shown a willingness to do so in the past – and it hasn’t been a particularly effective strategy, but that’s another column for another time).
And so, the Bears are stuck with mediocrity at quarterback for another season while an incredible collection of defensive talent gets a year older. Maybe they still land their quarterback of the future in the draft, but it’ll be a lot harder to do so.
5. A complete disaster.
Neither Foles nor Trubisky plays well, the offense doesn’t improve and the Bears earn a top pick in the 2021 draft, opening the door for Lawrence/Fields/Lance to come to Chicago.
Does Pace make the decision on who to pick? Is Nagy still the coach? I think the answer to both questions is still yes.
I also don’t see this scenario as being particularly likely. If the Bears went 8-8 with a terrible offense and merely good defense last year, it’s tough to see them being much worse in 2020. But it would result in some stability, so long as the Bears don’t whiff on another top-five quarterback.
What’s most likely?
Based on what we’ve seen in training camp, and what we know about Foles and Trubisky, Option 4 – in which neither quarterback plays well but it’s not a disaster – feels the most likely.
After that, in order from most likely to least likely: Option 2 (Foles plays well and stays), Option 3 (Foles plays well and leaves), Option 4 (Trubisky plays well and stays) and Option 5 (a complete disaster and high draft pick).