The shoulder injury to Jay Cutler in the New York Giants game did more than end the quarterback’s season. It landed yet another injury blow to the 2016 season, another in a succession of blows with implications for the Bears stretching beyond the point when the calendar mercifully turns over a new year.
The ripple effect of those blows might be spun into some sort of positive around the development of young players. That would be making the best of a bad situation, but it is anything but positive in the more important long term.
The Bears began this season needing to see what they have in foundation/starter pieces, NOT backups. The Bears did not need to find out what they have in Matt Barkley as much as they needed to fully find out what they had in Jay Cutler. That was a prime directive coming into this season. The thumb injury that cost him five games was a huge setback in the process; the shoulder issue finished it, and not the way coaches and personnel staff wanted it to resolve.
And Cutler was not alone.
Cutler. Alshon Jeffery. Kevin White. Kyle Fuller. Hroniss Grasu. Those were A-list see-what-they-have questions. The closest thing the Bears have to clear answers on just that handful of one-time projected starters is Cutler, whose poor play and injury history conspire to make one aspect of the Bears’ decision for them. The Bears will end this season short of clear answers on them and others as they go into the 2017 draft and free agency.
A clichéd mantra throughout the injury travails of the Bears’ injury riddled season is that all those injuries have created opportunities for the Bears to really see what they have in some alternative players, ranging from wide receiver Cam Meredith to a seemingly weekly carousel of young cornerbacks to Barkley most recently. Evaluations obviously are more meaningful when they’re based on actual game experience, with the Barkleys, Merediths and others are certainly getting.
But it is also exactly the kind of see-what-they-have opportunities that the Bears do NOT need and in fact are at risk of making critically important offseason decisions more difficult, if not bordering on the impossible.
Including Fuller, coach John Fox and staff came out of the Tennessee game with fully 11 actual or anticipated opening-day starters out due to injury or suspension.
What the Bears are getting from what at times feels like an extended preseason is a better look at their depth chart. Eric Kush has emerged as a solid guard. Meredith has looked like an NFL receiver, last Sunday’s drops notwithstanding. Barkley will be worth a meaningful look in a training camp.
But those are not the evaluations that a franchise looking at the next step in its plan desperately, unequivocally needed. As in:
If Barkley emerges from his opportunity as a serviceable NFL quarterback, that’s good. But this year was about Cutler, a prove-it year for a quarterback with a favorable contract going forward. But while thumb and shoulder injuries gave looks to Barkley and Brian Hoyer, those weren’t what the franchise needed. Cutler’s truncated body of work (is the “real” Cutler the Minnesota Jay or the Tampa Bay Jay?) didn’t “prove” anything the Bears needed proven at their most critical position.
It would be speculation to muse on whether Cutler might have played his way into the plan with five good games to finish the season. Even if not, Cutler may have played his way into possibly some trade value. A 33-year-old QB finishing a two-injury season on IR has little, if any. The Bears do not need to make a final roster decision until the first game Sunday in September, at which point Cutler’s $12.5 million base salary would become guaranteed, although Cutler still being a Bear at that point is the longest of shots.
Kevin White has caught 19 passes and played in just four games in the two seasons since the Bears made him the No. 7 pick overall in 2015. Meredith or Marquess Wilson may be nuggets, but White’s broken leg left the Bears and the young man in limbo.
The Bears don’t know what they have in White. They know a little about what they have in Jeffery, but his four-game suspension hits in a season with him on pace for his lowest totals since his rookie season. The Jeffery issue has not been resolved, and progress by Meredith or Wilson, while positives, do not project into a tipping point in this position group.
How sold the new coaching has been on Fuller as a starting corner is unclear. He hadn’t missed a game in his two seasons and played 99 percent of opponents’ snaps last year. But defensive coordinator Vic Fangio called Fuller out early in the 2015 season and Fuller was benched for some of the Arizona game. Fuller rebounded to a level of respectability and finished fifth in tackles (56) and led the Bears with two interceptions.
Fuller has been out since mid-August when he needed knee surgery. His absence has given extended looks and some starts to Jacoby Glenn, Bryce Callahan and Cre’Von LeBlanc.
But the Bears needed to achieve clarity with Fuller. They will face an extensive decision on whether to pick up the fifth-year option on his rookie contract. The Falcons paid $8 million on the option for 2013 first-round cornerback Desmond Trufant, the 22nd pick of that draft. If Fuller manages to practice his way onto the active roster this Sunday, it will still give the Bears just five games to make a decision on Fuller, the 14th pick of the 2014 draft.