The Bears’ odds of drafting well increase with a great free agency period. And their chances of recovering from an abysmal season improve if they do both right.
“What I like doing is balancing: what are the strengths of the draft vs. what are the strengths of free agency,” new general manager Ryan Pace said last month. “We’ll look in free agency and I’ll know the positions that are strong, areas that we can attack. And, hey, we’ll do that. we’ll be calculated.
“In a perfect world, you address a lot of your needs in free agency to open up the draft for best player available.”
With players able to officially sign starting Tuesday, here’s a look at what the Bears should do:
Would you keep Jay Cutler?
Adam L. Jahns: I would. It’s time to envision Cutler as a bridge quarterback – albeit a highly paid one – to the next one. Fox’s coaching staff isn’t bound to him even if he remains on the roster and $10 million of his 2016 salary kicks in on Thursday. He’s better than any other quarterback available, and he won’t be catered to by this Bears regime.
Patrick Finley: What other choice do they have? He’s better than whatever’s behind Door No. 2. Brandon Marshall can be replaced via a robust free agent and draft market for receivers. That doesn’t exist with quarterbacks. If Marcus Mariota falls to No. 6, the Bears should trade the pick. With so many defensive problems, they could use the extra help.
Mark Potash: Yes. If the Bears rebuild their defense and special teams to respectability and emphasize a running game, Cutler can be re-invented as the above-average quarterback he is rather than the franchise/savior quarterback he is not. Cutler is more mature than when he arrived and will adjust to — perhaps even embrace — a different role. If you don’t give him the option to throw a risky downfield pass on third-and-one, he won’t.
The Bears’ greatest area of need is:
Jahns: Safety, which has been a never-ending issue. The depth chart currently featuring safeties Ryan Mundy, Brock Vereen and Anthony Walters needs major help. This year’s draft class isn’t deep, either. Safety has become a more valuable position in this era of receiver-like tight ends, and Fox and Pace come from teams that have spent money on them.
Finley: The Bears need a talent infusion at almost every defensive position, most obviously at safety. But how’s this for a sneaky need: defensive end. If Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young are either outside linebackers or nickel defensive ends, then the team has exactly zero proven players at the every-down five technique in the 3-4 scheme.
Potash: Linebacker. The Bears will need a lot of good ones in Vic Fangio’s 3-4 defense and right now all they have are question marks — Jon Bostic, Christian Jones and Shea McClellin have potential in a 3-4, but who knows if they can play in it, let alone excel in it. The Bears need game-changing edge rushers that offensive coordinators and quarterbacks have to account for on every play.
An overrated area of concern is:
Jahns: Edge rushers for their 3-4 defense. It’s not that they don’t need them; they do. It’s that the Bears already have a base of players to work with – Jared Allen, Willie Young, Lamarr Houston, Shea McClellin and Christian Jones – and that edge rushers/3-4 outside linebackers are a strength early in this year’s draft. A really good one — say Florida’s Dante Fowler — could be there when the Bears’ No. 7 selection comes up.
Finley: Another alpha male wide receiver. In the wake of Marshall’s departure, less might be more for the Bears — both stylistically and in the locker room. Truth is, the Bears need a speedster to complement Alshon Jeffery, not another big-bodied power forward. A second-tier free agent or a Day 2 draftee would be just fine here.
Potash: Defensive tackle. Fangio and John Fox are accomplished defensive coaches, but they have not needed superstar inside players to make their defenses work. A prototypical nose tackle like Washington’s Danny Shelton would be nice — but the Bears can make it work with Jeremiah Ratliff, Ego Ferguson or a Terrance Knighton type of tackle.
Are the Bears rebuilding?
Jahns: Absolutely, but so was former general manager Phil Emery during his three-year run. Emery wanted to get younger, but also to win now. As a result, he spent plenty in free agency, signing Allen, Houston, Young, tackle Jermon Bushrod, tight Martellus Bennett and others. The sense I have is that Pace may take a more guarded approach to spending money in free agency.
Finley: Of course they are; the question is, to what extent? The fifth-oldest team in the NFL last year, the Bears would have tried to get younger even without the offseason housecleaning. The question now is whether the team will need another year to bottom out — and maybe, only then, draft a quarterback?
Potash: They’re rebuilding on the fly, which means they’re reconstructing their defense from the ground up, but still could contend if they stay healthy. Their offense was second in the NFL in points in 2013. They’re missing Brandon Marshall from that equation. But if he’s truly addition by subtraction, the Bears at least have the chance to contend in an NFL where almost every team’s expectations are fluid.
The Bears will succeed in free agency if:
Jahns: They are able to sign a quality safety and some help on the defensive line without immensely overpaying. It may involve waiting past the craziness of the beginning of free agency, when the biggest deals are completed. Similar to the Packers’ approach, it could suit Pace best to find value in the latter stages of free agency.
Finley: They balance quantity with quality on defense. The Bears need so much help, at so many spots, that landing thee or four above-average players would be better than signing a big-name free agent or two. On offense, the Bears should search for value buys at offensive line.
Potash: If they hit a home run by signing a high-impact safety who ends up solidifying their secondary —former Bronco Rahim Moore. The draft doesn’t give them many options for that type of safety.
The Bears will fail in free agency if:
Jahns: A quality receiver isn’t signed. Brandon Marshall’s production may be overblown, but the Bears still need help at the position. Pace wants to address needs in free agency to allow for taking the best player available in the draft. So it’s best to find a receiver, too, while still addressing the defense.
Finley: They don’t do exactly what Pace said — use free agency to prepare themselves for the draft. Long-term, the Bears’ success will be tied to their ability to draft well, keeping costs low and allowing players to grow into stars. And they can’t draft the best available players without first nailing free agency.
Potash: They sign players who end up not fitting in their offense or defense. The Bears literally don’t even know what they’ve got right now. They don’t know how a player as prominent as Jared Allen will fit into their defense until they get him on the field, so they don’t know just how much of a need they have at linebacker or end or wherever Allen will play.
I would sign:
Jahns: Defensive tackle Terrance Knighton and safety Rahim Moore if the money isn’t astounding. The two former Broncos would help Fox’s transition and address arguably the two weakest areas for the Bears’ defense. But again, the money can’t be crazy.
Finley: Moore. He’s not the player Devin McCourty is — but he’s reportedly staying in New England. Moore is more than just a consolation prize. He’s 2 ½ years younger, has started 48 of 57 games in his NFL career and played a whopping 1,074 snaps for the Broncos last year. He’ll bring a welcome dose of steadiness to the position, crucial when the draft is thin at safety. Just don’t pay him like a Pro Bowler.
Potash: Defensive players who have been groomed by coaches and have played in systems that promote a relentless and aggressive style — like 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver. Those guys play an intense, aggressive brand of defensive football that is contagious and can help transform an entire unit.