Part 1 of a 10-part series previewing the NFL draft.
The days of seeing Jay Cutler as the Bears’ franchise quarterback ended with the team’s regime change. Even Cutler’s biggest fan at Halas Hall, chairman George McCaskey, seems ready for a farewell.
“We said when [general manager] Ryan [Pace] and [coach John [Fox] came on board, all the player personnel decisions are entirely up to you,” McCaskey said last month. “Jay was discussed in the interview process, and we said, ‘That’s your decision.’
“I’ve said it before many times: I like Jay as a person. As a fan, not as a football evaluator, I like him as a football player. He’s got skills, and we need to do everything we can to put the best players on the field and help our quarterback help us win some games.”
Right now, that quarterback is Cutler.
But he still should be viewed differently. At this point in his career, Cutler is a bridge to the next quarterback, one whom Pace and Fox view as “franchise” caliber. How long Cutler is left standing needs to be determined.
All eyes should be on Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota. If he falls to the seventh pick and the Bears select him, Cutler’s reign likely ends after next season.
Still, it’s unlikely that Mariota will last that long. Trading picks to move up to select Mariota might not be worth the sacrifice during a significant rebuild, especially considering Mariota is far from a sure thing.
Pace believes in the philosophy of taking a quarterback every year — “Increase our odds,” he said — but a weak draft class, complicated by the widespread use of gimmicky offenses in college, doesn’t help.
Questions surround Florida State’s Jameis Winston and Mariota. After them, there’s even more.
What does this mean for the Bears and Cutler?
The Bears already are paying Cutler for the 2016 season. He was guaranteed $10 million for that year March 12. On the third day of the 2016 league year, months before the next draft, Cutler will be guaranteed $6 million more.
In other words, if a quarterback isn’t drafted high this year, the Bears might face the same situation they were in this offseason with Cutler. There’s a possibility that Cutler turns into a two-year stopgap.
The Bears might be OK with that. In some ways, they’ve prepared for it. Offensive coordinator Adam Gase and quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains are in Cutler’s corner. Fox also made it a point to say at the NFL annual meetings that he has won with quarterbacks who aren’t Peyton Manning.
Gase’s situation also bears watching. He was a head-coaching candidate this offseason, and a successful campaign with Cutler would strengthen his standing.
All of the above makes waiting until 2016 to draft a quarterback a distinct option. Next year, Pace will have Michigan State’s Connor Cook, Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg and Ohio State’s Cardale Jones to consider.
POSITION SPOTLIGHT: Quarterback
Rating Bears’ need: Medium
General manager Ryan Pace hasn’t shrugged off the importance of getting the quarterback position right. He has welcomed the challenge.
He just has so much work to do on his roster.
The Bears have three quarterbacks (Jay Cutler, Jimmy Clausen and David Fales), so a rookie can sit, watch and learn.
But Pace also has a defense to build around a 3-4 scheme, a receiver to add after trading Brandon Marshall to the New York Jets and an offensive line to consider improving.
Best of the best
Florida State’s Jameis Winston and Oregon’s Marcus Mariota are far and away the best quarterbacks in the draft.
They are widely projected to be the only two quarterbacks taken in the first round, and they might go in the first two picks.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers still are expected to take Winston with the first pick, leaving the Tennessee Titans the option to take Mariota at No. 2.
Even if the Titans pass, it would be a surprise if Mariota, whom the Bears like, falls to them at No. 7.
The next best quarterback behind Winston and Mariota is up for debate. But UCLA’s Brett Hundley, Colorado State’s Garrett Grayson and Baylor’s Bryce Petty are seen as the next in line.
ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said the second round is “a distinct possibility” for Grayson and Petty.
NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock lists Petty at No. 3 in his most recent rankings.