By Robert Zeglinski
A new head coach in Matt Nagy doesn’t mean expectations for the Bears won’t be high. If anything, following the malaise of the John Fox era, a quick turnaround will be the standard: fair or not. Over the course of the 2018 off-season, it’ll be on general manager Ryan Pace to plug these current Bears’ roster holes to facilitate that success for Chicago.
Let’s set the table for this upcoming Bears’ roster upheaval at Halas Hall from the salary cap, to free agency, to top draft prospects. No opportunities wasted.
Over the past four seasons, the NFL’s salary cap has increased by at least $10 million. New television broadcasting deals kicked in during 2014, which is what pre-empted this growth. With FOX Sports acquiring “Thursday Night Football” in a mega contract recently, expect 2018’s cap figures that’ll be set in March to potentially more than eclipse previous cap rises.
What that means for the Bears is that while the overall number will be expected to settle in at around a fresh $178 million, they may have more comfortable space than normal. It also could preclude them from signing top free agents with teams having more space to retain their homegrown players. An aspect of finances to understand should Pace and Chicago lose out on a top targeted player.
With around a minimum of six to seven expected cuts ranging from Jerrell Freeman to Mike Glennon, that’ll create almost $60 million more in cap space for the Bears. The team is projected to have anywhere between approximately $39 million to $43 million in cap space before any of these coming roster cuts are made. Meaning, their cap figures will be healthy enough to seek more than adequate additions in March, as well as look to extend their own talent such as Eddie Goldman.
Keep in mind, while the Bears must set aside a set minimum amount close to $10 million for their rookie draft class (as always), they are well-equipped to compete with other NFL teams that also possess healthy cap situations.
Drafting Mitchell Trubisky last April means the Bears ideally don’t have to worry about the most crucial position in football for some time. They’d stand well to upgrade significant pieces of his supporting cast and defense for complimentary football, however.
Edge Rusher: Outside of Leonard Floyd — who has plenty of talent as an athletic freak and is still on a trajectory of being the franchise defensive player the Bears hope for — Chicago has nothing it can count on at outside linebacker.
Willie Young looks like he’s on his last legs. Lamarr Houston is effective yet often injured. And Pernell McPhee hasn’t been reliably healthy enough since the first half of the 2015 season. Even Floyd has missed 10 games in the last two years (one by accidental occurrence). An upgrade in depth and starting quality here is necessitated.
Wide Receiver: Quick. Name the top receivers on the 2017 Bears.
Difficult, wasn’t it?
That’s because Kendall Wright, Dontrelle Inman, Markus Wheaton, and Joshua Bellamy collectively weren’t an inspiring group. In fact, Chicago may have logistically had the worst receivers corps in pro football. If Trubisky is to make any sort of leap in performance as a true star quarterback, the Bears are going to need to remedy this situation greatly.
Offensive Line: What was seen as a strength at the start of the 2017 season, has now ironically become a question mark for the Bears.
Age and a pending cap hit for guard Josh Sitton has his future in Chicago up in the air. Franchise guard Kyle Long is recovering from multiple surgeries to his neck and shoulder. Meanwhile, the merely passable right tackle Bobby Massie could finally take the time to be upgraded. New offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has his work cut out.
Cornerback: The Bears’ defensive back situation will be fully predicated on the statuses of last year’s starting cornerback duo in Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara. Fuller may well to return to Chicago but is far from a sure thing to sign long-term. From Amukamara’s perspective, a rare season with a clean bill of health might have him looking to cash out in a way the Bears won’t be open to.
If both Fuller and Amukamara don’t return, or just one of them does, Pace will have Chicago be a primary player for corners.
Tight End: The best offenses in football have a multitude of weapons that are more or less interchangeable. That goes double for tight ends, as you can split them outside, line them up in-line, or have them block in the backfield.
2017 Bears’ second-round pick Adam Shaheen is an imposing foundation as Chicago’s entrenched starter. The team has nothing behind him of any tangible use, though. Acquiring a “H-back” tight end for another threat is what could have the Bears’ offense evolve to the next level.
Top Free Agents and Draft Prospects
North Carolina State DE, Bradley Chubb: Chubb is a franchise pass rusher that the Bears will assuredly almost have no chance of selecting, barring an unforeseen trade up from their No. 8 overall slot in the draft. Should Chicago somehow acquire the polished 22-year-old, they’d set themselves up quite well defensively for years.
Los Angeles Rams OLB, Connor Barwin: Great pass rushers almost never hit free agency. If they do, that’s more on a team electing not to retain their expensive place. The Bears will have to focus on filling their depth on the edge in March instead of finding the full-time compliment to Floyd. A solid soldier such as Barwin is someone that is the ideal swing pass rusher and depth defender.
Alabama WR, Calvin Ridley: Ridley, justifiably, is seeing many top-15 projections in early mock drafts: some of which have him ending up with the Bears. The minimal value for a guy at his position picked so high and him being 24-years-old by December would preclude the Bears from taking this leap. The talent and experience is undeniable with that taken into account.
Jacksonville Jaguars WR, Allen Robinson
In his three years as the lead Bears’ personnel man, Pace has occasionally shown the gall to be bold in moves he believes in. The trade up for Trubisky in the draft is an example of that. Robinson fits this thought because while he is a talented player, he’s coming off a torn ACL. If the Bears were to bet on him, that’d be an investment into two receivers coming off the same injury with Cameron Meredith also working his way back. The venture could still be worth the bang for Pace’s buck.
Iowa CB, Joshua Jackson: One of the better explosive athletes in the entire 2018 draft class, Jackson is a premium young corner at a premium position in the pass-happy NFL. Eight interceptions for the ballhawk in his final college season along with expected off-the-charts testing will see him as the first or second corner off the board come late April.
Los Angeles Rams CB, Trumaine Johnson: The “big fish” in this year’s free agency, Johnson is the apple of many teams’ eyes looking for a star cornerback. The Bears undoubtedly will pursue the 28-year-old should he hit the open market and should they not be able to retain the services of Fuller. Johnson isn’t an awful fall back plan.
Notre Dame OG, Quenton Nelson: If there was one player you’d snuff out as a “sure thing” in this year’s draft, it’d be Nelson. Nelson is a generational interior offensive line talent and for good reason. The three-year college starter with the Fighting Irish is technically sound, freakishly athletic for his spot, and mean: a trait every offensive lineman needs. The Bears have the Hiestand connection with Nelson too (who coached at Notre Dame for the past six years).
Panthers OG, Andrew Norwell: A 2017 First-Team All-Pro member, the 26-year-old Norwell is looking to cash in this March. The Panthers likely won’t be able to retain his services due to these developments. For a team such as the Bears, acquiring an in-his-prime interior lineman right as he enters the peak of his career would be exemplary. Norwell’s acquisition will depend on the high-class signing competition such as the Giants.
Central Michigan TE, Tyler Conklin: Since this is the one position where the Bears almost certainly won’t make a selection until the mid fourth-fifth rounds, Conklin will be one of the best available then. A productive “move” tight end for two seasons in college, that is also both a natural receiver and useful Swiss Army Knife, Conklin would be a functional piece behind Shaheen. Underrated in every sense of the word.
Philadelphia Eagles TE, Trey Burton: Versatility is the buzzword that keeps coming to light with tight ends, and Burton fits that description to a tee. Unless you have a short memory, recall his touchdown pass out of the backfield in the Eagles’ win in Super Bowl LII as an example. Burton is someone you can line up for that application, split out outside and in the slot to throw passes to and count on to make blocks in any situation. One of the most under-appreciated players in the NFL.
Robert is your guy for all things Bears. Follow him on Twitter: @RobertZeglinski.