Bears

Bears' Matt Barkley 'showing the world' he can be a starting QB in the NFL

Bears' Matt Barkley 'showing the world' he can be a starting QB in the NFL

Nobody is penciling Matt Barkley in as the Bears starting quarterback in 2017, but the fourth-year pro is making the most of his opportunity.

Barkley braved the winter elements and first snowfall in Chicago this season to lead the Bears to a 26-6 throttling of the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday afternoon at Soldier Field.

No, they weren't the eye-popping numbers he posted in last week's loss to the Tennessee Titans when he had 300-plus passing yards and three touchdowns, but his performance against the 49ers was arguably more impressive if you factor in the weather conditions.

Barkley was able to rebound from a first half in which it took nearly 29 minutes to complete a pass, and finished with 192 passing yards, a 97.5 quarterback rating and zero turnovers. Barkley's numbers were a far cry from his counterpart Colin Kaepernick. The 49ers quarterback completed just a single pass for 4 yards and was benched in favor of Blaine Gabbert.

"I thought he improved. He eliminated any interceptions," Bears head coach John Fox said. "Both teams were pretty cautious early in that game as far as pass attempts. I know they called it snow, but it felt more like rain out there so the ball was hard to hang on to. You saw some true evidence of that early. I thought the way he handled the two minute drive right before the half, we had to open it up some and throw the ball.

"I thought he executed outstanding. I thought that was one of the better drives that he had to manage."

The victory was a major boost of confidence for a quarterback who looked to be out of chances prior to the 2016 season.

After two sub-par seasons as a backup with the Philadelphia Eagles, where he was ironically drafted by the head coach (Chip Kelly) that he defeated for his first career NFL win on Sunday, Barkley was traded to the Arizona Cardinals and was released last August. 

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Barkley was signed to the Bears practice squad behind veterans Jay Cutler and Brian Hoyer going into the season. Season-ending injuries to the aforementioned quarterbacks catapulted Barkley into the No. 1 job and forced the Bears coaching staff into seeing if the California native could regain the form that once made him the No. 1 recruit in the nation coming out of high school, and a candidate for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft before he decided to return for his senior year at USC.

Nobody is labeling him the next Tom Brady, but through three games with the Bears, that confidence has returned for Barkley.

"It's at an all-time high in this league," Barkley said. "Just knowing that I can play, that we can make plays as an offense. I'm not holding back, and they aren't holding back on what we are installing from week to week."

He's also starting to make believers out of the other 52 guys in the locker room.

"He's showing the world that he can be a starter in this league," Bears wide receiver Josh Bellamy said. "He can play. He can play football and we all knew that. He's just got to show the world that and that's what he's been doing."

While it's a small sample size, and the No. 1 goal of the Bears front office going into the offseason should be finding a long-term solution at quarterback, the Bears have to be impressed with what they've seen out of Barkley, who is set to become a restricted free agent in 2017.

With four games remaining, Barkley will be given every opportunity to play his way into a future roster spot.

"I know what we are capable of and what I am capable of," Barkley said. "Hopefully we can keep pushing this, and keep the same mentality that we did last week when we were coming off a loss of wanting to get better and striving to perfection."

Bears Free Agent Focus: Eric Ebron

Bears Free Agent Focus: Eric Ebron

Stop me if you've heard this one before: The Bears need a tight end.

It's a narrative that started bubbling since the middle of the 2019 regular season when it became apparent that neither Trey Burton nor Adam Shaheen was the answer at the position for the Bears. Coach Matt Nagy was forced to turn to undrafted rookie Jesper Horsted and little-known veteran J.P. Holtz to find production for his offense. It was a big problem for Nagy, whose system calls for a playmaking tight end like Travis Kelce to hit its maximum potential.

To be fair, there's only a few at that level (Kelce, George Kittle and Zach Ertz) in the league right now. But the Bears have to do their due diligence this offseason to try and find a 'lite' version of that guy. One player in free agency who has a resume of recent production as a pass-catcher to maybe be 'that guy' is Eric Ebron, who's coming off of a down year with the Colts.

Ebron appeared in just 11 games last season and finished with 31 catches for 375 yards and three touchdowns. It was a stark contrast from 2018 when he scored 13 touchdowns and was one of the NFL's best playmakers at the position.

RELATED: Bears Free Agent Focus: Case Keenum

The problem with Ebron as a viable target for Chicago is that his tenure in the league produced more seasons like 2019 than 2018, but his pedigree as a former top-10 pick with high-end athletic traits warrants at least a look for a possible one-year prove-it deal.

At 26 years old, Ebron still has a lot of good football left in his legs. His market value should come in lower than Burton's $8 million per season; according to Spotrac, Ebron's expected contract this offseason will pay him around $7.5 million per year. Compared to the likely cost for players like Austin Hooper (Falcons) and Hunter Henry (Chargers), Ebron will be a bargain.

Ryan Pace will be bargain shopping in March, and Ebron may end up on the discount rack after the first wave of free agency concludes. Teams will be hesitant to offer him the kind of multi-year deal he's going to seek, which will give the Bears a chance to swoop in and lure him with the prove-it theory. He's young enough to earn a lucrative contract in 2021 if he posts big-time numbers in 2020, which Nagy's offense will give him the chance to do if he stays healthy.

Even the worst version of Ebron is better than the best of what Chicago has on its roster right now. He should rank highly on their offseason wish list, assuming his market remains where it logically should.

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Bears Free Agent Focus: Case Keenum

Bears Free Agent Focus: Case Keenum

The Bears have been connected to all of the big-name free agent quarterbacks this offseason. General manager Ryan Pace is expected to add competition for the starting job in free agency or the 2020 NFL draft after incumbent and former second overall pick, Mitch Trubisky, regressed mightily in his third season last year.

But rather than focus on players like Tom Brady, Philip Rivers and even Marcus Mariota, it makes more sense to pay close attention to the next tier of free agent passers who could offer a potential upgrade from Trubisky while not necessarily creating shockwaves through Halas Hall upon signing.

One quarterback who fits that description perfectly is Case Keenum, the journeyman starter who's entering his 10th season in the league. 

Keenum is coming off of back-to-back forgettable seasons with the Broncos and Redskins, but it wasn't long ago when he was one of the better storylines in the NFL after leading the Vikings to 11 wins in 14 starts in 2017. He threw for 3,547 yards, 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions that year and earned himself a respectable two-year, $36 million contract with Denver in 2018. His tenure as a Bronco lasted just one season (he finished 2018 with a 6-10 record) and his time as the Redskins starter was short-lived in 2019. He started just eight games for Washington.

For his career, Keenum's completed 62.4% of his passes and has thrown 75 touchdowns compared to 47 interceptions.

Keenum's resume isn't overly impressive, which is why he's a great fit for what Pace should try to accomplish over the next two months. He has to find a competent starter who can take advantage of everything else the Bears have going for them (namely, a championship-caliber defense) and who can be aggressive enough on offense to score enough points to win the close games. Keenum proved in 2017 that he can do that, especially when he has a good supporting case around him.

Keenum also qualifies as a solid bridge quarterback in the event Trubisky crashes and burns in 2020. At 32 years old, he's young enough to keep the starting job for a couple of seasons while Chicago attempts to find a younger long-term answer under center. 

Last but not least, he's going to be cheap. He didn't have a good year in 2019, and he was making just $3.5 million with the Redskins. There will be a limited market for his services this March, which means the Bears should be able to land him at a backup's salary despite his starter's upside. And that matters, especially for a team that's trying to free up salary cap space for other positions of need along the offensive line and secondary.

Keenum won't move the needle much for Bears fans in March, but landing a player of his caliber could ultimately be the difference between the Bears missing the playoffs for the second consecutive season and making a deep playoff run.