A quarterback’s situation matters. Just ask Jay Cutler, whose tumultuous run with the Bears is approaching its end.
Or ask general manager Ryan Pace.
“If you are talking about adding a quarterback, you want to make sure your roster is equipped to handle that quarterback,” Pace said in January.
With draft prospects to watch, free agents to discuss and trades to explore this week at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, here’s a look at the situation the Bears’ next quarterback will enter:
1. Grooming the QB
Coach John Fox doesn’t have a history of developing quarterbacks, but the organization is willing to start anew.
How that quarterback arrives remains to be seen, but Pace believes that offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains and quarterbacks coach Dave Ragone can develop one.
That belief is rooted in Connor Shaw’s surprising play in the preseason, veteran Brian Hoyer’s career-best 98.0 passer rating and Matt Barkley’s ability to revive his career.
Loggains, in particular, generated positive reviews in various league circles last season as injuries forced him to go from Cutler to Hoyer back to Cutler and finally to Barkley as his starter.
Combine chatter: The best quarterbacks are Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer and North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky.
Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes, Pittsburgh’s Nate Peterman and California’s Davis Webb are options later in the draft.
In general, expectations are low for the class. It’s important for the Bears not to overdraft the position, despite their desperate need.
Free-agent focus: Hoyer and Barkley are options to return, but the most intriguing options are on the trade market.
It starts with the Patriots’ Jimmy Garoppolo, but there also is considerable buzz that Kirk Cousins might be available if negotiations sour with the Redskins.
On Tuesday, the Redskins placed an exclusive franchise tag on Cousins. The exclusive tag prevents him from negotiating with other teams.
2. Howard helps
Cutler cherished playing with Matt Forte for seven seasons. Forte was revered for his versatility, and he trails only Walter Payton in team history in rushing yards.
“You can’t replace him,” Cutler said during training camp last year. “You can’t replace him in a year anyway.”
But the Bears did. The emergence of Jordan Howard, a fifth-round pick, wasn’t just a feel-good story for last season, but a reason for optimism beyond.
Howard’s bruising style and special vision fit the inside and outside zone schemes the Bears want to run. In general, he’s better than Forte between the tackles, especially at this point of their careers. Howard averaged 5.2 yards per carry last season; Forte’s career-best was 4.9 in 2011.
Combine chatter: This year’s running-back class is considered one of the best in years, highlighted by LSU’s Leonard Fournette, Florida State’s Dalvin Cook, Tennessee’s Alvin Kamara and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey. All four could be off the board within the first 50 picks.
Free-agent focus: The Bears appear set at running back, though a depth signing with an emphasis on special teams shouldn’t be ruled out.
Pace said in January that he still has high expectations for Jeremy Langford, who started in 2016 before a high ankle sprain limited his production. Ka’Deem Carey has one year left on his rookie contract.
If anything, the Bears could explore upgrades at fullback. Paul Lasike was active for 10 games last season. The Ravens’ Kyle Juszczyk, a Pro Bowl player last season, is likely the best fullback available.
3. Lining up right
Unlike last year, every starter on the offensive line is set to return in the same spot: left tackle Charles Leno Jr., left guard Josh Sitton, center Cody Whitehair, right guard Kyle Long and right tackle Bobby Massie.
The Bears value Whitehair and Long’s flexibility, but new offensive-line coach Jeremiah Washburn knows that having Sitton, Whitehair and Long in the middle isn’t a bad place to start.
“Absolutely, yes, yes, 100 percent,” Washburn said at the Senior Bowl. “It will be a privilege to work with those guys.”
The Bears allowed 28 sacks last season, tied for the seventh-fewest in the league. Cutler (17 sacks on 137 pass attempts) was taken down at a significantly higher rate than Hoyer (four on 200) and Barkley (six on 216).
Pace believes Hroniss Grasu can push Whitehair. Grasu was the starting center last year until he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.
Combine chatter: It’s a good year not to need an offensive tackle. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. described the class as “mediocre.” NFL Network’s Mike Mayock called it “really bad.”
Wisconsin’s Ryan Ramczyk, Utah’s Garett Bolles and Alabama’s Cam Robinson are considered the most capable.
Free-agent focus: The Bears re-signed guard/center Eric Kush for two years. Adding competition for Leno, who is in a contract year, would be beneficial. The Bears also don’t have a swing tackle under contract.
But the free-agent class for tackles also isn’t strong. That’s why the Jaguars already arranged a trade for Dolphins veteran Brandon Albert.
4. Questions at WR, TE
Whoever is at quarterback, it’s unclear who his top targets will be. Receiver Alshon Jeffery will test free agency, receiver Eddie Royal is a candidate for an early release and tight end Zach Miller and receiver Kevin White are returning from serious injuries.
Combine chatter: It’s a good year to need a tight end. The group is deep and significantly better than last year, led by Alabama’s O.J. Howard and Miami’s David Njoku.
Ole Miss’ Evan Engram, Michigan’s Jake Butt, South Alabama’s Gerald Everett, Ashland’s Adam Shaheen and Virginia Tech’s Bucky Hodges are next in line.
Free-agent focus: The Bears emphasize familiarity in their free-agent pursuits, making speedy receiver Kenny Stills, a fifth-round pick of Pace and the Saints in 2013, a player to watch. The Bears explored trading for Stills in 2015, but the Saints made a deal with the Dolphins, instead.
At tight end, the Colts’ Jack Doyle fits the Pace profile. He’s a 26-year-old emerging player who had 59 catches for 584 yards and five touchdowns in 2016 after joining the Colts as a waiver-wire pickup in 2013 after going undrafted. He also has a Bears link, having played for new receivers coach Zach Azzanni at Western Kentucky in 2011.
5. Getting defensive
A historically bad defense didn’t do Cutler, Josh McCown or the offense any favors during the Marc Trestman era.
Under coordinator Vic Fangio, the defense has regained respectability, despite numerous personnel changes.
But it still has struggled to force turnovers. Last season, the Bears generated a franchise-worst 11 takeaways. Upgrading the secondary is a must.
Combine chatter: There are difference-makers on defense to consider with the third overall pick.
Texas A&M outside linebacker Myles Garrett, safeties Malik Hooker of Ohio State and Jamal Adams of LSU and defensive linemen Jonathan Allen of Alabama and Solomon Thomas of Stanford deserve extra attention.
The draft is widely considered deep at safety and cornerback.
Free-agent focus: Pace described cornerback as “a position that is going to be a major need going forward.” Free agency can help that.
Cornerbacks A.J. Bouye of the Texans and Logan Ryan of the Patriots fit Pace’s profile as young, emerging players.