An unprecedented run on quarterbacks projected in the 2021 NFL Draft is likely to leave the Bears out of luck in their never-ending — and I mean literally never-ending — search for a franchise quarterback.
Five quarterbacks are expected to go in the top eight or nine picks, including the top four in some mock drafts — Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence (Jaguars), BYU’s Zach Wilson (Jets), Alabama’s Mac Jones (49ers) and North Dakota State’s Trey Lance (Falcons). The Falcons are taking offers for the No. 4 spot, according to ESPN insider Adam Schefter, but that sounds more like they’re trying to see if a team will get caught up in the frenzy and offer crazy money — their entire draft or multiple first-round picks — for the fourth quarterback in the draft.
Though stranger things have happened, at this point it appears the Bears’ best hope would be to trade up to No. 5 (Bengals), No. 6 (Dolphins) or No. 8 (Panthers) for a shot at the fifth quarterback available — that would be Ohio State’s Justin Fields by current mock drafts but could change between now and April 29.
And trading up even for a chance at the fifth quarterback in this draft is a long, long shot for the Bears, who have the 20th pick in the first round. It’s looking more and more like general manager Ryan Pace is going to have to pull a rabbit out of his hat to find a quarterback in this draft — a trick he never has performed successfully in six years on the job.
Right now, Pace looks like he’s dangling above the crowd in a straitjacket with no apparent hope of escape. The Bears were a faux playoff team at 8-8 in 2020 and, with their defense, are less likely to plummet to 2-15 or 3-14 territory in 2021 for their own top-3 shot at the best quarterback prospects available — though it’s not impossible. And even if they do, right now it looks like that might be a year too late.
And Pace wouldn’t even be able to curse his luck. He had his chance in 2017, took a big swing and missed badly when he traded up one spot to take North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky when he could have stayed at No. 3 and taken Clemson’s Deshaun Watson or Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes. In retrospect, it seems silly that many of us were predicting the Bears would take a defensive player at No. 3 — as if signing Mike Glennon in free agency ended the pursuit of a franchise quarterback. A lot of people were off target that year.
Can Pace find a franchise quarterback at 20 or beyond? It’s true that by almost any measurement (passer rating, total victories, playoff victories, Super Bowls) half of the best quarterbacks in the NFL were drafted 20th or beyond — Aaron Rodgers (24th in 2005), Drew Brees (32nd in 2001), Russell Wilson (75th in 2012), Tom Brady (199th in 2000), Kirk Cousins (102nd in 2012) and Derek Carr (36th in 2014) among the top 10 in passer rating last season.
But two of the best examples — Rodgers and Brees — were the second quarterbacks taken in their respective drafts. The Bears are likely to get the sixth-best quarterback in this draft — and that narrows the recent examples to Brady (the seventh quarterback drafted in 2000), Wilson (sixth in 2012) and the still-much-to-prove Dak Prescott (sixth in 2016).
So it’s not impossible. But the Bears are hardly prime candidates to strike that kind of gold. The Bears under Pace have shown no expertise in evaluating quarterbacks — Glennon in free agency, Trubisky in the draft and Nick Foles via trade is painfully incriminating evidence. And Matt Nagy’s undefined offense in his three seasons as coach has been more quarterback-resistant than quarterback-friendly.
Projecting a quarterback in Nagy’s offense is totally different than projecting a quarterback in Kyle Shanahan’s offense with the 49ers or Sean McVay’s offense with the Rams — almost the opposite, actually. Even the Panthers’ acquisition of Sam Darnold from the Jets was applauded by some because of what Darnold can do under coach Matt Rhule and offensive coordinator Joe Brady. Would they say the same if Darnold was headed to the Bears?
So Pace’s best bet is to build an offense that can make Andy Dalton the best quarterback he can be — a tackle in the first round seems like a must — and give Nagy one last chance to get his feet on the ground, learn from his mistakes, work with a quarterback from Day 1 that fits his offense and prove that he’s the Andy Reid disciple the Bears thought they were hiring.
In effect, the Bears have to develop a coach who can develop a quarterback. The Bears can get there, but they’re going to have to do it the hard way.