For the first time as Bears general manager, Ryan Pace will enter an offseason with his team coming off a winning record. The Bears don’t have the kind of massive, glaring needs they did in years past. These next few months will be about improving an NFC North-winning roster, either shrewdly or boldly.
But from this week, when preparations for the NFL Draft begin in earnest at the Senior Bowl, to a day before the regular season starts in September, Pace will still have an important to-do list to accomplish. The Bears’ resources will be limited — about $25 million in cap space after Dion Sims is released, and no first- or second-round picks.
Today, we’ll look at the biggest items on a list aimed at making sure the Bears not only retain their division title, but get over the hump and become a legitimate Super Bowl contender a year from now:
1. Find a new kicker.
Cody Parkey missed 10 kicks in the regular season before his infamous double-doink put an end to the Bears’ first playoff appearance in eight years. His appearance on “TODAY” just five days after the Bears’ season ended made his release a matter of “when” and not “if.”
Robbie Gould, whose critical missed field goals in 2015 sparked three years of sub-optimal placekicking in Chicago, will be a free agent. He and his family still live in the area, and he’s only missed three of his 85 field goal attempts since the Bears released him prior to the 2016 season.
A reunion seems like a natural fit for both sides, even if the cost of signing Gould may not be ideal given Cody Parkey’s 2019 cap hit of a little over $4 million. But there would be no criticizing or second-guessing Pace if he brought back the 36-year-old Gould to replace Parkey.
The San Francisco 49ers, though, could opt to place the franchise tag on Gould and keep him around for somewhere between $4 million to $5 million. If that happens, or Pace isn’t interested in spending that much on a kicker, or Gould doesn’t want to come back to Chicago, then the Bears’ best option would be to sign a free agent and bring in competition via a draft pick or undrafted free agent.
The Jets’ Jason Myers (91.7 percent field goal success rate) and the Jaguars’ Josh Lambo (90.5 percent) may be the two best unrestricted free agent options, while the Buccaneers’ Cairo Santos (77.8 percent) and the Vikings’ Dan Bailey (75 percent) will also be available. We’ll say the Bears won’t be in the market for the Patriots’ Stephen Gostkowski, the Colts’ Adam Vinatieri or the Seahawks’ Sebastian Janikowski — if they’re going to spend, most likely it would be for Gould.
WalterFootball.com ranks this year’s two best draft-eligible kickers as LSU’s Cole Tracy (87.9 percent in 2018) and Oklahoma’s Austin Seibert (89.5 percent in 2018), both of whom could require a mid-round pick to acquire, though (the Bears met with Tracy at the Senior Bowl, per Pro Football Weekly's Eric Edholm). Someone like Notre Dame’s Justin Yoon (80.8 percent in four years) could be an option as an undrafted free agent.
2. Improve the personnel at running back.
ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported over the weekend that former Kansas City Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt, who was filmed shoving and kicking a woman and also is under investigation by the NFL for two other separate alleged violent incidents, could sign with a team sooner rather than later, with multiple teams interested in him. Neither Pace nor Matt Nagy, who was Hunt’s offensive coordinator in 2017, were willing to close the door on signing Hunt earlier this month.
Hunt is on the commissioner’s exempt list and is expected to be suspended for six games or more when the NFL’s investigation concludes. If the NFL does not count Hunt’s missed time in 2018 — he didn’t play in the final five games of the season after the Chiefs cut him for not being truthful about the violent incident with a woman outside his Cleveland apartment captured on video and published by TMZ — he wouldn’t be eligible for the majority, perhaps all, of the first half of the 2019 season.
So even if Pace were to sign Hunt — and the McCaskey family were to okay the move — he wouldn’t be guaranteed to be an immediate solution to the Bears’ problem.
We know Tarik Cohen will be back as one of Nagy’s favorite, versatile, explosive weapons (Nagy bristled, twice, at the notion he didn’t try to get Cohen the ball enough in the Bears’ wild card loss to the Philadelphia Eagles). Jordan Howard’s future is less clear — he averaged about 16 carries and 58 yards per game (3.7 yards/carry) in 2018 while catching 20 passes for 145 yards. Credit Howard with greatly improving his hands in an attempt to better fit Nagy’s offense, but the Bears need a more dynamic pass-catching running back who can also be more consistently effective on the ground.
That doesn’t mean the Bears will necessarily cut ties with Howard, who still has one year left on his cheap rookie contract. The Bears could try to trade him, but otherwise he’ll still be around for training camp, when he could be competing against a draft pick.
It’s too simple to say it’s “easy” to find a running back in the mid-to-late rounds of the NFL Draft, though. Three of the top five rushing rookie running backs in 2018 were drafted in the first or second round (Saquon Barkley, Sony Michel, Kerryon Johnson) while the seven running backs taken in rounds 3-5 averaged 52 carries, 274 yards, 22 receptions and 129 yards in their respective rookie seasons.
If the Bears are able to find the next Hunt or Alvin Kamara in the third round, they’ll take him. But the Bears aren’t going to be the only team looking for a versatile, explosive running back in the middle rounds of the draft. As Pace, Nagy and Bears scouts dive into potential targets at the Senior Bowl this week and then into the NFL Combine next month, they’ll certainly be looking to find that ideal scheme fit. And identifying, and then drafting, that player could be critical in helping unlock Mitch Trubisky’s complete potential in Nagy’s offense.
But again, it’s not a given that player exists, and that the Bears will be able to draft him.
3. See if a big-ticket player is available, and would be a fit.
With a limited amount of cap space and no first-round picks to offer, the Bears’ options will be limited in looking to add impact players the way the Los Angeles Rams did a year ago — when they signed defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh (on a one-year, $14 million deal) and traded for wide receiver Brandin Cooks (for a first-round pick), cornerback Aqib Talib (for a fifth-round pick) and cornerback Marcus Peters (for second, fourth- and sixth-round picks).
Granted, the Rams had plenty of roster turnover after surprisingly winning the NFC West in 2017, losing wide receiver Sammy Watkins and cornerback Trumaine Johnson to free agency. The Bears made their big splash move when they traded two first-round picks to the Oakland Raiders for Khalil Mack, then signed him to the largest contract ever given to a defensive player. It’s, obviously, more than okay that the Bears cashed in their chips for Mack.
It’s unlikely the Bears have the ability to make the best offer to the Pittsburgh Steelers for wide receiver Antonio Brown, who could be headed for a trade. Brown’s $22.165 million cap hit would be difficult to fit into a team that already has over $23 million tied up in wide receivers in 2019. Plus, Brown wouldn’t seem to fit a culture in which the head coach values “we” over “me.”
But different players become available for different reasons, and Pace has consistently shown to be aggressive when he identifies a player in whom he has conviction. As we learned with Mack, never discount Pace’s willingness and ability to strike when an opportunity presents itself.
4. Figure out what to do with four key free agents (Bryce Callahan, Bobby Massie, Adrian Amos, Pat O’Donnell).
“You're either getting better or you're getting worse,” Pace said earlier this month. “We need to make sure we're getting better.”
Still, there’s something to be said for continuity if the situation calls for it.
Callahan would seem the most likely top target to be retained. As a slot corner, Callahan played 64 percent of the Bears’ snaps in 2018 — and that was with missing the final three and a half games of the season. With most teams’ “base” defense becoming a nickel package, having a player of Callahan’s caliber is critical. The 27-year-old had two interceptions, five pass break-ups, two sacks and 13 total pressures, showing the kind of playmaking knack that fits in any coordinator’s scheme.
But Callahan has been banged up in the four years since he broke through as an undrafted free agent with the Bears, missing those three games in 2018 and another four in 2017. The Bears will have a keen understanding of where he is in his recovery from his season-ending foot injury, and those health issues could drive his price down and allow Pace to confidently bring him back for a reasonable deal.
Massie and Amos are trickier propositions. Massie played every non-garbage-time snap for the Bears in 2018 and was a critical part of a unit that ranked second by Pro Football Focus in pass blocking. No offensive line allowed fewer pressures than the Bears’ 117, and only the Baltimore Ravens’ offensive line was credited with fewer sacks than the Bears’ 11. Massie, though, was also part of an offensive line that wasn’t consistent enough in blocking for a lagging run game.
But the Bears know what they have in Rashaad Coward, the converted defensive linemen who stuck on the active roster last season while learning how to play right tackle under the tutelage of Harry Hiestand. If the Bears feel like Coward is ready to compete for a starting job (after a year of going against Mack in practice), they could move on from Massie and draft a tackle, opening up a competition to see if they can get similar or better production while saving, perhaps, around $5 million in the process.
We covered the Bears’ decision on Amos last week, but a loaded safety free agent market could knock his price tag down and allow the Bears to keep him on a deal that fits with their limited cap space budget. Alternatively, this year’s deep safety class could allow the Bears to target a veteran on a short-term deal while drafting someone to compete for playing time, and perhaps eventually take over that safety spot long-term.
As for O’Donnell, he had a decent year punting — one with which special teams coordinator Chris Tabor seemed pleased — but his shanked punt that set up the Philadelphia Eagles’ go-ahead scoring drive may leave a bad taste in the Bears’ mouth. One bad punt won’t lose O’Donnell his job, but the Bears didn’t commit to him a year ago beyond a one-year, $1.5 million deal. Pace may look to go the undrafted free agent route to save cap space for more pressing needs.
5. Improve depth across the board.
Outside linebacker Aaron Lynch will become a free agent, and provided solid, important depth when he was healthy. But he was a Vic Fangio guy dating back to their days in San Francisco, and coupled with Sam Acho’s early season-ending pectoral injury the Bears were left to rely on Isaiah Irving and Kylie Fitts behind Mack and Leonard Floyd at times (including the Wild Card playoff game against the Eagles). There’s no such thing as too much edge rushing depth, and while the Bears could bring Acho back (perhaps on a restructured deal), they’ll need to address the depth chart behind Mack and Floyd via free agency and the draft.
The same goes for cornerback. Undrafted free agent Kevin Toliver II has projectable length and athleticism, while Sherrick McManis played well while filling in for Callahan late in the season. Perhaps this depth can be addressed through Toliver, McManis and someone who was on the practice squad in 2018 (like local product Michael Joseph). But the Bears haven’t drafted a cornerback since taking Deiondre’ Hall in 2016, and even then, he was moved to safety. Bringing in some competition for Toliver via the draft would be a good play by Pace, as would adding a free agent or two to this group to add a veteran presence to what’ll shape up to be a training camp competition.
The Bears look to have good depth at wide receiver, defensive line and inside linebacker, but Pace has shown a willingness to draft players based on conviction more than need.
6. Hammer out an extension for Cody Whitehair.
Whitehair was a late addition to the NFC Pro Bowl roster this week, and his durability, solid play and close relationship with Trubisky make him worthy of a contract extension. Whitehair was the only Bears player to play all 1,075 offensive snaps in 2018, and previously he played 99.8 and 97.6 percent of the Bears’ snaps in 2016 and 2017.
According to Pro Football Focus, Whitehair was not responsible for allowing a sack or a quarterback hit in 2018, though his grade of 70.4 ranked 10th among centers, for what it’s worth. Perhaps a three or four-year deal with an average annual value of around $10 million would be fair for Whitehair, which would be a little more than what Justin Britt received from the Seattle Seahawks as his rookie contract was coming up two years ago.
Whatever the Bears do with Whitehair will likely be the last thing Pace does before the season starts. The Bears announced Eddie Goldman’s contract extension two days before the 2018 season began, and signed Akiem Hicks and Charles Leno to extensions in the weeks leading up to the 2017 season.Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Bears and stream the ‘Football Aftershow’ easily on your device.