By Ryan Bukowiecki (@ryanbski)
NFL Free Agency has come at a time when both the sports world and the real world are going through some tough times.
The COVID-19 pandemic has halted major league action around the globe except for a handful of sports. The NFL has felt the panic of the virus as well, with no lesser a figure than coach Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints proving that league players, coaches and officials have to watch themselves and who they come in contact with just as anyone else does.
Last Monday such dour thoughts weren’t permeating through the league, and though they still exist on some level, the NFL’s ability to engage in legal tampering and official wheeling and dealing with free agents has been the only thing approaching normalcy for sports fans since the NBA announced the suspension of its season on March 11th and started a cascade of similar announcements.
Here in Chicago, the Bears have been very active in starting off its acquisition of free agents and more moves are likely to come. Most teams use this period to sure up some of their obvious holes and weaknesses just ahead of the all important NFL Draft. Certainly, the Bears have their fair share of issues that need correcting.
Some of the Bears’ most glaring needs are fixing the quarterback situation, getting production from the tight end position and fortifying the defense after losing a couple starters. With the active adding and noticeable subtracting the Bears have done, particularly during this period of inaction elsewhere on the competitive horizon, a certain added level of scrutiny could be expected and even deserved if it helps break the current quarantine-based routine.
Let’s take a look at the Bears activity in the already busy free agency period.
Who will and should throw the football for the Bears is the biggest question mark involving this franchise currently. An incredible array of mistakes and let downs from quarterback Mitchell Trubisky in the past year has made even his most hardened supporters turn on him. By the reading of the Bears’ actions, some of that turning had to have happened in the franchise’s front office.
As soon as the legal tampering period began, the Bears reached out to quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and began discussing a contract at roughly 20 million a year. Based on how supportive general manager Ryan Pace has been of Trubisky, it was surprising to see him go after Bridgewater who would be the assumed starter. Talks eventually tampered down and both sides moved on.
Bridgewater would agree to sign with the Panthers to a contract that was similar to what the Bears offered, but likely came with the assurance he would be the starter in Carolina even with quarterback Cam Newton (who since has been actively put on the trade market) already on the roster.
The Bears moved on and decided a familiar face to the majority of its offensive coaching staff was the guy to get. As deals became official Wednesday, Bears Nation learned that Nick Foles of the Jaguars was acquired for a fourth round compensatory draft pick.
Foles can be seen as one of the more divisive quarterback prospects the team could have used to measure up against Trubisky.
To compare Foles to Bridgewater in 2020 is a losing proposition for the veteran approaching his ninth season of pro play, yet he is one of only eight Super Bowl winning quarterbacks who played in 2019 and seven of whom are currently on a roster (Joe Flacco is unsigned after being released by Denver).
Foles also beat this Bears team and Trubisky in the playoffs two seasons ago. Pace wanted competition for the former future of the franchise and now that’s accomplished with Foles coming in. There is a lot of familiarity with this offense for Foles and he’s reunited with a lot of former coaches that helped him to success.
There’s still a possibility add to their quarterback ranks by drafting another potential usurper to Trubisky as well. Much like with the kickers last season, a heightened level of drama stands to circle the QB position maybe all through camp but its not likely that drama will extend beyond Foles and Trubisky, one of whom will be called on to lead the team this season.
Never lie to yourself — great advice that everyone should take to heart but its something that just about everyone does from time to time. On an organizational level, its a horrible mistake to lie to oneself about a player’s worth.
So far under general manager Ryan Pace’s regime either someone has told him wrong or he keeps telling himself wrong because his first round picks haven’t panned out so well.
Outside linebacker Leonard Floyd from Georgia was Pace’s second 1st round NFL draft pick back in 2016 and he has not developed into the player he needed to be, eventually being shown the door and allowed to sign with the Rams this past week.
When Pace made Floyd the No. 9 overall pick in ’16 — also trading up to do so — he did so thinking he found a core pass rusher that would showcase on the Bears’ defense for years. Instead, established premiere edge rusher Khalil Mack was acquired by 2018, giving Floyd a prime chance to be the second pass rusher and to contribute with much less pressure.
Again, Floyd underwhelmed and although Pace gave praise for his coverage skills, when it came time to pay up the Bears chose to go a different route. Thankfully Pace was able to see keeping Floyd would have been a mistake and signed defensive end Robert Quinn. Some might remember Quinn, who exploded on the scene as a rookie with the Rams, but fell out of favor not long after.
Quinn would do some bouncing across the league, but he had a resurgent season with the Cowboys in 2019 with 11.5 sacks and just as many quarterback pressures as Mack but in 116 less snaps played. Clearly the coverage element Floyd provided was not worth the pass rushing that Quinn could provide.
This move will hopefully have resounding effects on the defense that is still short a starting-level corner and safety. Now when opponents have to split their focus on stopping Mack or all-pro level defensive lineman Akiem Hicks there will be a capable pass rusher in Quinn and company who can also make them pay.
Many fans are still probably wondering about the tight end position because it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense right now. The Bears agreed to sign tight end Jimmy Graham, who was let go by the Packers for his underwhelming play with arguably the most respected passer in the league.
Based on the Bears’ website they had 10 tight ends total on the roster before the addition of Graham. That is a staggering amount of players for that position, which brings back even more memories of all the kickers brought in last season. Next to nothing was the sum amount of production from the Bears tight ends in 2019, they can’t afford that to happen this season. A lot of options are being discussed but it is hard to tell if they have the right guy on the roster in spite of the position’s current “depth.”
It seems as if each of the team’s tight ends currently feature a particular skill and the Bears are going to try to deploy them depending on the situations each game provides.
Graham brings a big body and a catch radius that could be a dangerous red zone threat or target on third down, however Graham didn’t succeed in that role for the Packers with Aaron Rodgers. Hopefully Graham can find a role on this team or at least get the incumbents, particularly Trey Burton, to step up from the competition. One question to keep in mind is can the Bears realistically draft another tight end with all the resources spent on the current 11 guys? A lot of mock drafts have them eyeing Notre Dame’s Cole Kmet in the second round.
Lastly, the Bears have a few more minor moves to make as reliable defensive depth guys like defensive lineman Nick Williams and linebackers Nick Kwiatkoski and Kevin Pierre-Louis have all left for new deals elsewhere, leaving those positions looking more bare than usual for Chicago. The past week saw the Bears attack those potential weaknesses by re-signing locker room leader Danny Trevathan. Also, special teams linebacking specialist Barkevious Mingo agreed to a deal.
In the light of 2019 signee Ha-Ha Clinton Dix heading to Dallas, the Bears went hard on the defensive backfield by re-signing Deon Bush and signing former Steeler Artie Burns and Chiefs rotational contributor Jordan Lucas to 1-year deals.
There are still needs at offensive line and wide receiver as well as running back, and despite the weekend signings, the Bears could make a bigger splash at defensive back.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Bears make a couple more low money moves then turn the team’s focus completely on the draft. After the Foles trade, the Bears are now down to seven picks in the not-to-be-postponed Draft with only two in the first four rounds.
More work is needed in order to compete in 2020 and the Bears have to have a great draft on some level, but at least they have gotten a real quarterback competition and a legitimate second pass rusher — both are pieces you can see on each of the NFL’s best squads. Interesting start to the new league year for the Bears.
Ryan Bukowiecki covers the Chicago Bears and professional football for WARR