As expected, the Chicago Bears parted ways with both general manager Ryan Pace and head coach Matt Nagy at the end of the 2021 regular season. The results didn't always present themselves on the field, and their personnel decisions were head-scratching at times.
So now the team is moving forward in a different direction. Ryan Poles, who was previously the Kansas City Chiefs' executive director of player personnel, was hired as the new general manager on Jan. 25. Shortly after that, Poles hired former Indianapolis Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus to be the team's new head coach.
The Bears have 24 pending unrestricted free agents on their roster (per Spotrac.com) and also have some decisions to make about veteran players that are under contract. It'll be the job of the new front office and coaching staff to decide which players will be a part of the rebuilding effort. Of course, the centerpiece moving forward is quarterback Justin Fields. But what about the rest of the quarterback room? Remember, Fields missed four games because of injuries.
Here is how the Bears quarterback position looks at the moment.
The original plan was for the 11th overall pick of the 2021 NFL Draft to sit behind free-agent signee Andy Dalton, with the exception of the gadget plays that were drawn up just for him. That was until Dalton hyperextended his knee against Cincinnati in Week 2. Fields took over from there and was named the permanent starter prior to Week 5. He ended up making 10 starts (12 appearances total). He finished the season with 1,870 passing yards and eight touchdowns while completing 58.9 percent of his attempts. He added 420 rushing yards (5.8 ypc) with two additional scores.
Turnovers were a problem, however, as he threw 10 interceptions, lost five fumbles, and was sacked 36 times. He never seemed completely comfortable in the offense, but a horrendous offensive line and questionable play-calling certainly didn't help him get acclimated. Fields also missed five games after being named the permanent starter prior to Week 5. He suffered multiple cracked ribs in Week 11 against Baltimore, causing him to miss the next two games. He later injured his ankle in a Week 15 home loss to Minnesota on "Monday Night Football," and didn't play in the next two games. He was set to start in the season finale against the Vikings but was placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list earlier that week, which ended his rookie campaign.
Despite these setbacks, Fields flashed his immense talent and gave Bears' fans plenty of reasons to be excited about the athletic signal-caller. In Week 9 on the road against Pittsburgh, Fields nearly led his team to an upset of the Steelers on "Monday Night Football." Down 26-20 with less than three minutes to play, Fields orchestrated a seven-play, 75-yard drive that culminated with a 16-yard touchdown pass to Darnell Mooney to give Chicago the lead. Unfortunately, the defense couldn't hold as Pittsburgh's Chris Boswell connected on a 40-yard field goal with 26 seconds left to secure a 29-27 victory.
A couple of weeks later, Fields was balling out in prime time again, this time on Sunday night at Lambeau Field against the archrival Packers. The Bears staked themselves to a 27-21 halftime lead on the strength of two long touchdown passes from Fields and an electric, 97-yard punt return for a touchdown by Jakeem Grant. The team imploded in the second half, as Green Bay outscored the visitors 24-3 over the final two quarters to win convincingly, but Fields once again showed glimpses of his potential.
The following week, at home against Minnesota on MNF, Fields posted his best numbers of the season (285 passing yards, 96.6 passer rating) despite injuring his ankle in the second quarter of that game. Whether it was the bright lights or more a sign that he was starting to figure things out, these three prime-time performances showcased the athleticism and big-play capability that Bears fans had been hungry to see.
Eberflus has wasted little time in putting together his staff, hiring former Packers quarterbacks coach/passing game coordinator Luke Getsy as offensive coordinator. Getsy's main priority will be to tailor the offense around Fields' strengths in hopes that he can take a significant step forward in Year 2. Better offensive play and adding a few more weapons also will be critical if the Bears want to give Fields a fair shot at maximizing his potential.
The "Red Rifle" was given $10 million to be the one-year bridge starter until Fields was ready to take the reigns. Then came the knee injury in the second game of the season. A few weeks later Fields was named the starter the rest of the way, relegating Dalton to the backup job. Dalton got a few more chances to start because of Fields' injuries, but he also missed his share of games due to various ailments and another because he was on the Reserve/COVID-19 list one week.
For the season, Dalton went 3-3 as the starter with eight total appearances. He threw for 1,615 yards and eight touchdowns with nine interceptions, completing 63.1 percent of his passes. He was sacked 18 times and lost a fumble. While Chicago quickly moved n from its original plan and handed the reigns to Fields about a month into the season, Dalton showed that he can still get the job done when called upon.
At 34, Dalton is an elder statesman among his peers. And while his skills have diminished slightly, the pending free agent should be able to find a team that's willing to sign him as a veteran backup. That could be the Bears, but he will need to be willing to take significantly less money than he signed for last offseason, and it's entirely possible that both parties will choose to go in a different direction.
The Super Bowl LII MVP began 2021 as the Bears' third-string quarterback, all at the price tag of $4 million. And he's owed another $8 million for 2022. Foles was elevated to the No. 2 spot on the depth chart on several occasions this year, as Fields and Dalton dealt with their injuries and COVID issues. Foles finally saw the field in Week 16 against Seattle, and he promptly led the Bears to a come-from-behind road upset of the Seahawks.
While he was mostly holding a clipboard for 2021, that one game showed why Foles has always been able to find a roster spot in the league. He was the subject of trade rumors all year, especially during the preseason after the Indianapolis Colts played the exhibition slate without an injured Carson Wentz.
Foles recently turned 33 and he no doubt wants a chance at a starting job. That won't happen in Chicago. A trade is always possible but Foles' contract may not be palatable to any interested teams. The Bears can save $3 million in cap space if they release him, but that also comes with a hefty ($7.7 million) dead cap hit. It will be interesting to see what the team decides to do with the 10-year veteran who has already played for five teams during his fascinating career.
The Bears added Willis to the practice squad midseason, and he was promoted to the active roster when Fields and Dalton were unavailable in the final weeks. Willis was the backup to Foles in Week 16 against Seattle and the third-stringer behind Dalton and Foles against both the Giants and Vikings at season's end. He's never thrown a pass in the NFL. He also spent some time in The Spring League, a developmental league and scouting showcase for aspiring professional football players.
Chicago signed Willis to a reserve/future contract on Jan. 12, so he'll get another chance to prove himself during the offseason program. How long he stays with the Bears remains to be seen.
Fields is the clear-cut starter, which all but guarantees that Dalton will sign elsewhere in free agency. Foles' situation is more complicated because of his contract, but a new front office/coaching staff also could signal an entirely new direction for the quarterback room. Chicago will look into signing a veteran in free agency, but it will all depend on cost and fit. But a quality backup needs to be part of the plan, especially considering the time Fields missed with injuries this past season. And it seems unlikely that the Bears will look to this draft for their No. 2.
— Written by Gabe Salgado, who 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.