Matt Nagy and Ryan Pace have plenty of work ahead of them despite coming off of a playoff appearance
The Chicago Bears' 2020 season can be defined as a mixed bag. The team got off to a 5-1 start, lost six straight afterward, and limped into the postseason with an 8-8 record. Injuries hit this team hard, the quarterback carousel made the rounds once more, the defense was almost a shell of its former self, and questionable coaching decisions were once again at the forefront. It's no surprise that the Saints easily dispatched the Bears in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs.
To the dismay of many Bears fans, ownership has decided to keep general manager Ryan Pace and head coach Matt Nagy despite the team's shortcomings over the last two seasons. They may have been given another chance, but will it be their last? Decisions and moves made this offseason will go a long way in deciding that. There seems to be more questions than answers with this franchise right now, but here are five burning questions that need to be answered more than any other.
1. Can the Bears finally get the quarterback position right?
This has been the Achilles heel for the franchise since the breakup of the 1985 Super Bowl team. But under Pace and Nagy, the quarterback position seems like it's taken a significant step backward. Mitchell Trubisky can be labeled as the definition of that regression. There's no doubt that his numbers through four seasons — 29-21 record, 64.0 percent completion rate, 10,609 passing yards, 64 touchdowns, 6.7 ypa, 87.2 passer rating, 1,057 rushing yards — are respectable. But as I've written previously, those numbers are deceiving.
For as much production as Trubisky has recorded, it's those "deer in the headlights" moments that continue to overshadow his overall body of work. It's those moments that have contributed to his 37 interceptions, the 111 sacks he's taken, and his 0-2 record in the postseason. It's also those situations in which he struggles to read the defense, makes poor decisions, displays indecisiveness, and battles with bouts of inconsistency. Pace will never live down trading up one spot to get Trubisky over Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes. Bears fans have had enough.
Making matters worse, the other signal-callers that have been employed under Nagy haven't exactly done enough to fully take the job from Trubisky. Chase Daniel was competent in a Bears uniform (70.0 percent completion rate, 950 yds., 6 TDs, 6.8 ypa), but he's nothing more than a career backup. Injuries and inconsistency have overshadowed all of the good that Nick Foles has done during his time in the NFL. The Bears traded for him in the hopes of having a reliable veteran behind Trubisky, but that didn't go as planned whatsoever. Now while Foles did complete 64.7 percent of his passes for 1,852 yards and 10 touchdowns (5.9 ypa) this season, the bad outweighed the good.
The Bears went just 2-5 with Foles under center, and they were held below the 20-point mark in four of his seven starts. He threw eight interceptions, took 18 sacks, and never saw the field again after sustaining a hip injury in Week 10. Then you have Tyler Bray, who's been the Bears' third-string quarterback when active (six career pass attempts) but has spent most of his time on the practice squad. So, how do the Bears finally remedy this position?
Trubisky is certainly hoping for another chance. Despite his continuous patterns, he did his best to convince management by finishing strong when he started the final six games of the regular season. He completed 70.1 percent of his pass attempts in those games for 1,495 yards and 10 touchdowns. The Bears went 3-3, which helped them grab the final wild-card berth in the NFC. But even if the Bears bring him back, he's no guarantee to be a long-term solution.
Foles is under contract for two more seasons. He has a combined cap hit of $17.3 million in that span and is set to cash in on a $4 million roster bonus in 2022 (per Spotrac). That's a lot of money to give someone who could be relegated to backup duty again, but he's also guaranteed $10.3 million. Perhaps the Bears may try to restructure his deal so they can invest in other needs, or they could trade him. Bray's future is always uncertain, but Foles will be the biggest wild card among these three.
And what about the draft? The Bears own the 20th overall pick in this year's draft, and while that's too low to take Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, or Zach Wilson, there are other options. Prospects like Trey Lance and Mac Jones are projected to go fairly early while Kyle Trask or Jamie Newman could be available later in the draft. There's always risk (see Trubisky), but some new blood at the quarterback position could also be promising.
Then of course you potentially have some veteran options. Deshaun Watson has officially asked the Houston Texans to trade him. This would be the ultimate dream for Bears fans, and it could perhaps save Pace's and Nagy's jobs. But the Bears just don't have the trade pieces to compete with other teams, such as the Jets and Dolphins, who have multiple first-round picks, including one in the top three. Watson, of course, would also have to waive his no-trade clause and approve any deal, and Chicago may not be his ideal choice. Finances could be an issue as well with the Bears currently projected to be $13 million over the cap and Watson already signed to a massive contract that goes through the 2025 season. So fitting Watson would require some impressive salary-cap maneuvering, especially given the team's needs elsewhere on the roster.
While the likelihood of NFC North rivals trading with each other was already remote, the Bears did miss out on the Matthew Stafford sweepstakes with the Lions agreeing to send their long-time starter to the Rams. But the fact that Chicago was one of the teams who reportedly reached out to Detroit about Stafford when he became available perhaps, at least, signals that the team is willing to absorb a financial hit if it means fixing the quarterback position. Stafford has $43 million remaining on his contract but it's structured in a way that allows the Rams a way out after 2021 or 2022 without taking on any dead money. Stafford and the team will probably work to restructure it as soon the trade becomes official to simply reduce his cap number (currently $20 million) for next season. Also, it seems that Stafford had his sights on Los Angeles all along, so it doesn't really matter what the Bears were willing to include to try and get him.
Carson Wentz is another possible option, as he also has expressed a desire to be traded after a disappointing 2020 campaign ended with him benched and replaced by Jalen Hurts. But Wentz's contract (four-year, $128 million contract extension with nearly $70 million guaranteed set to start when 2021 league year begins) is even more onerous than Watson's given Wentz' recent regression. There also figure to be several free agents, including Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, and Jameis Winston, to name a few. Not to mention that Colin Kaepernick is still looking to play again. With Philip Rivers retiring and the Lions and Rams agreeing to swap quarterbacks, the dominoes at the position have only begun to fall. There figures to be plenty of change this offseason and there's no telling how the landscape will look when the dust settles. Chances are, it will be a new name under center for the Bears in 2021 and whoever it is, Pace and Nagy know they need to make the right choice.
2. Can they bring Allen Robinson II back?
Robinson wanted an extension before the 2020 season even started. He was upset when that didn't happen, and rightfully so. Since donning a Bears uniform, Robinson has caught 255 passes (from four different quarterbacks) for 3,151 yards and 17 touchdowns. The fact that the Bears didn't lock him up long-term right away is one of many reasons why Bears fans are upset that Pace still has his job.
So now the Bears will have to compete with the rest of the league for Robinson's services, especially since he's an unrestricted free agent. If the Bears lose him to another team they'll only have themselves to blame. The Bears could always franchise tag Robinson, but that would cost $16 million, and he would still need a long-term deal. If Robinson does leave that will open up another hole on the roster as the current depth at the position is full of potential but extremely light on proven production.
3. Will Sean Desai be successful as the new defensive coordinator?
The Bears decided to stay in house for their next defensive coordinator to replace the now-retired Chuck Pagano. This comes after the team reportedly interviewed Bears legend Mike Singletary for the job. Familiarity is the name of the game with Desai as he's been with the team since 2013. He served as a defensive quality control coach from 2013-18 for former head coaches Marc Trestman, John Fox, and Nagy before spending the last two seasons overseeing the safeties.
During that time he's been a part of Eddie Jackson's emergence as one of the NFL's best safeties, as well as the development of DeAndre Houston-Carson, and the acclimation of Tashaun Gipson Sr. But he now he'll have to put together a playbook for the entire unit, a defense that's dealt with injuries and inconsistency over the last couple of seasons. Desai will have to turn around a group that finished last season 11th in total defense (344.9 ypg), 12th against the pass (231.6 ypg), 13th against the run, and 11th in scoring (23.1 ppg). Not bad numbers but they still represented a step back from 2019.
He'll also be tasked with improving a pass rush that finished 13th in sacks (35), and getting more turnovers (18 takeaways, 12th). Desai will have plenty of talent to work with, but can he be more successful in putting all of the pieces together?
4. Will they make a splash in the draft?
The draft is another reason why the fan base has had enough of Pace. He's either traded too much draft capital just to get one player (Trubisky, Khalil Mack, Foles), or his draft picks haven't exactly panned out (Kevin White, Leonard Floyd, Adam Shaheen, Kylie Fitts, Jonathan Bullard, Deiondre' Hall, Kerrith Whyte to name a few). The Bears can get a solid player with that No. 20 pick, provided they don't trade it. It'll be the first time they've had a first-round choice since selecting Roquan Smith eighth overall in 2018.
It must be noted, however, that Pace hasn't completely struck out in the draft. Bilal Nichols, Eddie Goldman, Tarik Cohen, Anthony Miller, and David Montgomery, along with the aforementioned Smith and Jackson, are among the players who fall into that category.
The Bears need new blood at some positions and depth at others. The core of any good team is built through the draft. Pace has to get this draft right, no questions asked. The jury is still out on his 2020 draft class. Tight end Cole Kmet (28 rec., 243 yds., 2 TDs), cornerback Jaylon Johnson (44 tackles, 15 passes defended), and wide receiver Darnell Mooney (61 rec., 631 yds., 4 TDs) each had promising debuts.
But the rest of the team's picks last year didn't have much of an impact. Outside linebacker Trevis Gipson appeared in seven games but only registered five tackles and three QB hits. He spent the rest of the season on the inactive list. Cornerback Kindle Vildor appeared in all 16 games and posted 17 tackles, but needs to improve his coverage skills. Offensive lineman Arlington Hambright was inactive for the first seven weeks but eventually appeared in two games (one start) and was on the field for 82 offensive snaps while also logging time on special teams. Lachavious Simmons, a fellow lineman and seventh-round pick, didn't see the field at all. This year's draft could go a long way toward determining the future of Pace and/or Nagy.
5. What will they do in free agency?
This is another area where Pace has had more misses than hits. While the additions of Akiem Hicks, Danny Trevathan, Robinson, and Jimmy Graham have made the team better, there have been plenty of mistakes. That list includes quarterback Mike Glennon (signed a three-year, $45 million deal in 2017 but only played in four games), tight ends Dion Sims (only caught 17 passes over two seasons with the Bears) and Ben Braunecker (13 catches in four seasons), linebackers Aaron Lynch (only recorded five sacks in two seasons), Jerrell Freeman (failed three drug tests, only played in 13 games), and Pernell McPhee (couldn't stay healthy), and even kicker Connor Barth (made 74 percent of his field goal attempts over two seasons for the Bears). And of course, no one has forgotten about tight end Trey Burton, who came to Chicago with much fanfare and departed with a whimper after slogging his way through two injury-plagued seasons.
Plus, Bears fans still frown upon trading running back Jordan Howard, and not bringing back kicker Robbie Gould when they had the chance, as well as parting ways with Taylor Gabriel, Nick Kwiatkoski, Alshon Jeffery, and Prince Amukamara. Salary cap space is tight at the moment. So if the team does target the free-agent market again (outside of re-signing Robinson), it needs to count. There's a lot riding on this offseason.
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He can also be heard on WGN Radio. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.
(Top photo courtesy of @ChicagoBears)