As the Bears enter Year 4 of the Mitch Trubisky era, they do so with a team constructed to maximize the inexpensive nature of their quarterback. 2020 is the Bears’ final shot at having a roster maxed out thanks to possessing the NFL's most valuable resource.
And yet a month before free agency, here we are, wondering which quarterback — or quarterbacks — the Bears could add to at least compete with, if not start over, Trubisky.
This was not the plan. Ryan Pace — rightly — didn’t give the Bears much salary cap wiggle room after a 2018 spending spree, banking on Trubisky becoming the kind of guy who could compete for Super Bowls in Years 2 through 4, then earning a rich extension because of his ability to cover for the roster imperfections that contract would create. A lack of salary cap space during a quarterback’s rookie contract shouldn’t be a problem, seeing as there should be few holes and a signal-caller who can make up for them.
The Bears currently have about $14.6 million in cap space, per the NFLPA’s public report, far less than the amount needed to acquire a starting-caliber quarterback. That number is fluid, of course, as the Bears have plenty of avenues to create more cap space (cuts, extensions, restructured contracts).
And 2020’s offseason could see a dramatic reshuffling of the league’s quarterbacks. New jerseys will likely be worn by eight or nine members of this group: Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Dak Prescott, Cam Newton, Teddy Bridgewater, Ryan Tannehill, Nick Foles, Derek Carr, Andy Dalton, Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill.
It’d be a shock if the Bears landed one of the bigger names on that list, like Brady or Rivers or Newton. Dalton could be a possibility if the Cincinnati Bengals accept a late-round draft pick in exchange for him. Otherwise, the money doesn’t make much sense for those on that list (and still might not for Dalton — more on that in a bit).
But if the Bears are going to spend upward of $17 million on a new quarterback — which they’d have to do for all 11 of those previously listed quarterbacks — it would limit Pace’s ability to address other holes on the roster. And seeing as Pace and Matt Nagy have been adamant the team’s issues in 2019 weren’t solely on Trubisky, why would they go all-out to acquire a quarterback when that would also mean limply addressing other holes on the roster?
The Bears, though, can free up a decent amount of cap space by making five moves: 1) Restructuring Khalil Mack’s contract, 2) signing Allen Robinson to an extension, 3) cutting Prince Amukamara, 4) cutting Taylor Gabriel, and 5) cutting Adam Shaheen. Those moves could add at least $30 million to the Bears’ available salary cap, bringing the total to about $43 million.
But now the Bears need to find a new starting cornerback in addition to a right guard, inside linebacker and safety, while also addressing critical depth needs at tight end, outside linebacker and (still) inside linebacker. If the Bears were to, say, trade for Dalton — who carries a cap hit of $17.7 million — they’d have about $26 million in cap space and two second-round picks to fill those holes, while potentially subtracting their next highest pick (a potential fourth round comp pick or a fifth rounder).
Could the Bears find the versatile in-line tight end and brawling right guard they lack while not draining their defense of talent? Without some good fortune, probably not.
This is one reason why the Bears are much more likely to target cheaper options in Marcus Mariota or Case Keenum in free agency than make a big splash at quarterback (Dalton, to be fair, could join this list if the Joe Burrow-infatuated Bengals can’t find a trade partner and cut him). Also is the team’s persistent belief in Trubisky. The Bears, in all likelihood, have neither the money nor desire to acquire a quarterback who’d supplant Trubisky as their starting quarterback from the day he walked into Halas Hall.
And, in reality, nor should they. The Bears’ roster is not as close to contending for a Super Bowl as it appeared a year ago. Shelling out $17 million, or $22 million, or $30 million for one of the starting quarterbacks on the market carries a high risk of backfiring. For instance, since Trubisky entered the league, Dalton has a worse passer rating (84.2) than the 2017 No. 2 overall pick (85.8). In that same span, Newton’s is 85.9.
So the Bears’ best option is to spend $5 to $8 million to sign Mariota or Keenum as competition for Trubisky, and hope either of those guys becomes the 2020 version of Tannehill while plugging other holes on the roster. It’s not exactly an exciting bet.
But it’s the only bet the Bears should, and can, make.