Bears team president Ted Phillips perfectly summarized the state of his team in January. “Have we gotten the quarterback situation completely right? No,” he said in a press conference. “Have we won enough games? No. Everything else is there.”
It’s a sentiment that applies to the franchise in perpetuity. The Bears invented the modern quarterback position in 1940. They haven’t been able to find the right player there ever since. Chicago is the only franchise in NFL history to never have a 4,000-yard passer, according to ESPN Stats & Info. The Bears are once again looking to make a quarterback change this offseason, and they know what’s at stake. “Everything is on the table,” general manager Ryan Pace told reporters Tuesday. “That includes players on our roster, players in free agency, trade, the draft, or a combination of all of those. We have a plan in place, and now it’s about executing that plan.”
Not much has recently gone to plan for the Bears, who last won a playoff game in 2011 and who infamously picked Mitchell Trubisky over Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson in the 2017 draft. But this offseason is one of the franchise’s best opportunities to escape quarterback purgatory. An unusually high number of top options are available, via both trades and the draft. With the Bears in a precarious financial position, however, short-term needs may take precedence over long-term thinking. Pace and head coach Matt Nagy could also get fired if the team fails to make a deep playoff run this season, which has a way of impacting a front office’s approach. So which options are realistic? And how would they fit into the context of “everything else?”
The sexiest option is trading for one of the league’s premier quarterbacks. Watson wants out of Houston. Russell Wilson made the most passive-aggressive trade demand you’ll ever see, and listed Chicago as one of four places he would want to go. The idea of Watson or Wilson in a Bears uniform is enough to give Chicagoans fever dreams. And the team has made a blockbuster move like this before: In 2009, it sent two first-round picks, a third-round pick, and Kyle Orton to Denver in exchange for Jay Cutler. Wilson and Watson are both a lot better than Cutler ever was.
But the Bears would have to give up a whole mess of first-round picks to acquire either player. Chicago hasn’t made a first-round pick since 2018 as a result of the Khalil Mack trade, and a deal for Watson or Wilson would likely cost the Bears their next three first-round picks. Even that might not be enough to form the best trade package. The Jets and Dolphins each have multiple first-rounders this year. The Dolphins have picks no. 3 and 18; the Jets have picks no. 2 and 23. Meanwhile, the Bears have pick no. 20. Not only can Miami and New York offer better picks, but they can also offer more of them. And since NFL teams currently aren’t allowed to trade away draft picks beyond 2023, the Bears can’t offer Houston or Seattle more than three future firsts.
The Bears already missed out on the first two big quarterback trades of the offseason. The first was for Matthew Stafford, though the Lions were never going to send their franchise quarterback to a division rival. The second was for Carson Wentz. The Bears reportedly inquired about Wentz, but never made a formal offer. Yet while the Bears didn’t land Stafford or Wentz and are unlikely to complete a deal for Wilson or Watson, there are still several enticing trade targets out there.
The most sensible trade option for Chicago may be Sam Darnold. If the Jets like a quarterback at no. 2—and New York is reportedly intrigued by BYU’s Zach Wilson—Darnold would become expendable. Chicago might even be able to snag him in exchange for just its 2021 second-round pick (no. 52). Darnold isn’t quite as mobile as Trubisky, but has a higher ceiling in virtually every other way. Darnold has a stronger arm, better pocket presence, and superior field vision. He also can throw to his left. Darnold would cost the Bears just $5 million or so in 2021 and then about $20 million in 2022. If he developed into a dependable starter, that price tag would be well worth it.
Other quarterbacks like Derek Carr and Jimmy Garoppolo also have been mentioned in trade speculation. But the Raiders and 49ers would likely only be willing to dump their starters if they could land a top quarterback or top draft pick in return. The Niners would surely be interested in upgrading from Jimmy G to Watson. Nick Foles would not be an upgrade.
The Bears could also address their quarterback need in the draft, but the possibilities there aren’t as plentiful as they seem. The top four quarterback prospects in this class—Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, Ohio State’s Justin Fields, BYU’s Wilson, and North Dakota State’s Trey Lance—are widely projected to go in the top 10. The Bears pick at no. 20. If they want to take a quarterback in the first round, their best hope is for Alabama’s Mac Jones to fall to them. But Jones doesn’t have the raw tools those other quarterbacks have. He’s not mobile. He doesn’t have an elite arm. And he might never have an NFL receiving corps as deep as the one he had at Alabama. His upside is a lot closer to Kirk Cousins than to Watson.
Still, the Bears have to do something. The only quarterback on their roster now is Foles, who was awful last year. He ranked 32nd in ESPN’s total quarterback rating (43.2 out of 100), just behind San Francisco backup Nick Mullens. (Maybe the Niners would trade Mullens for Foles?) He was even worse than Trubisky, which is saying something. (Nagy’s play-calling certainly didn’t help either.) But cutting Foles wouldn’t save the Bears any cap space. He is worth keeping on the roster—just not as the starter.
The only option worse than starting Foles would be bringing back Trubisky in free agency. Trubisky’s contract expired at the end of last season, but at his press conference this week Pace did not rule out re-signing him. This is the NFL version of breaking up with a toxic ex, but leaving a shirt at their place just in case you want to see them again. It’s not a good idea. Pace should block Trubisky’s number in his phone to remove all temptation.
The rest of the quarterbacks available in free agency are veterans: Cam Newton, Alex Smith, Andy Dalton, and Ryan Fitzpatrick. None of these represent long-term options, and it wouldn’t make sense for Chicago to bring in one of these four to play alongside Foles. The Bears would be better off pairing Foles with a young quarterback like Darnold or Jones. Just like the Dolphins had Fitzpatrick and Tua Tagovailoa last season, the Bears would be wise to have a young starter backed up by a veteran who can step in if needed. (Though hopefully the Bears wouldn’t need Foles as much as Miami needed Fitzpatrick last year.)
The Bears’ choice is complicated by another factor, too: The days of the team needing mere quarterback competence are over. Now Chicago may need its quarterback to cover up its other flaws.
For the past few years, incompetent quarterback play has kept the Bears from making a playoff run. Since Pace took over as GM in 2015, the team has posted just one winning season despite having a talented defense; that unit has ranked among the top 10 in Football Outsiders’ DVOA in each of the past three years. But even if Chicago manages to fix its quarterback situation this offseason, it may no longer have “everything else.”
The NFL’s salary cap is decreasing for just the second time since it was introduced in 1994. Teams will have to make hard choices and cut more quality players than usual. The Saints are the poster child for this situation, but the Bears are also a good example. They will have to choose between retaining their best skill-position player, keeping their defense intact, and fixing their offensive line—all while trying to improve the quarterback position.
The most important non-quarterback decision Chicago has to make surrounds receiver Allen Robinson II. He is set to become a free agent. The only players who have more receiving yards over the past two seasons are Stefon Diggs, Travis Kelce, and DeAndre Hopkins. Robinson is exactly the kind of player that teams should prioritize keeping. But the Bears haven’t broached a contract extension with him since talks broke off in September, so the idea of both sides agreeing to a long-term deal seems unlikely.
Chicago could use the franchise tag on Robinson for roughly $18 million, and then either keep or trade him. Both options have downsides. Keeping Robinson would mean other players need to go. Right now, the Bears are $3.4 million over the cap, and they need to create enough to both sign new players and account for their draft picks. The Bears have a few obvious candidates to cut. Releasing tight end Jimmy Graham and right tackle Bobby Massie would save the team more than $13 million. But that alone might not be enough. Chicago may also have to make more drastic moves, like cutting defensive tackle Akiem Hicks or cornerback Kyle Fuller—who may be this defense’s most important piece other than Mack. And the more the Bears weaken their defense, the more that they would have to rely on an offense that tied for 22nd in points scored last season. If the offense was that bad when Robinson was in the fold, how much worse would it be if the Bears get rid of him, regardless of who’s playing quarterback?
If the team chooses to tag and trade Robinson, it’d have to address a receiving group that would be one of the weakest in the NFL. Receiver Darnell Mooney looked promising last year, but neither he nor Anthony Miller appears ready to take over as the no. 1 option. Second-year tight end Cole Kmet would be asked to fill in if Graham is cut, but tight ends are notoriously fickle contributors until around age 25. The strongest part of Chicago’s offense is the interior running game, which looks solid behind David Montgomery and a good interior offensive line. But the Bears have massive question marks at both tackle spots. Left tackle Charles Leno was fine last season, while right tackle Massie may need to be replaced. That would require spending in free agency or using coveted draft capital.
No matter what the Bears decide with Robinson, they’re in a Catch-22. Keeping him would hamper a defense that has propped up the team over the past few years. Letting him walk would neuter the passing attack and stunt the development of a young quarterback, or possibly dissuade a veteran from signing with Chicago.
The Bears went 8-8 last season, which feels right: Spiritually, they are also an 8-8 team. They are neither prepared to contend nor in a prime position to rebuild. The Bears have a lot of holes to fill, and they’ve entrusted the people who made this mess to find solutions. Pace’s legacy will likely be defined by trading up to pick Trubisky over Watson or Mahomes. Although Pace has managed to put together talented enough rosters to make the playoffs, Chicago’s insistence on sticking with Trubisky over the past few years has been this team’s Achilles’ heel. Nagy has made the playoffs twice, but lost in the wild-card round both times. And while Nagy is an offensive-minded head coach, the Bears rank just 24th in first downs, 25th in third-down conversion rate, and 22nd in touchdowns since he took over in 2018.
Chicago’s biggest question this offseason is the same one that’s faced the franchise for much of its existence. But this time there’s no margin for error.