What if we told you there’s an NFL team coming off a three-win season, and they’re going into 2017 with a mess of a quarterback situation? And the general manager and head coach don’t seem to be on the same page? And their splashy move on draft day made them a laughingstock?
Up until this year, we might have been describing the Cleveland Browns. But now we’re talking about the Chicago Bears.
After parting ways with Jay Cutler, the Bears signed Mike Glennon to a three-year, $45 million contract with $18.5 million guaranteed. Then they shocked everyone, even Mitchell Trubisky, when they traded up from No. 3 to take the quarterback with the second overall pick.
It was a decision experts hated.
"Either the Bears know something no one else in the league knows, or that draft just got a lot of people fired only they don't know it yet,” an unnamed NFL team executive told CBS Sports’ Jason LaCanfora.
While the Bears were reaching for Trubisky, the Browns were drafting wisely. They selected Myles Garrett first overall and traded back from No. 12 to rack up more draft capital. After years of being the NFL’s easiest punchline, the Browns appear to be on the upswing, avoiding the mistakes that have led to years of futility and investing in players who can help the team get better. But the trajectory the Bears are on makes it seem like they’re on their way to becoming the new Browns.
The Bears made a bold draft move, but did they get better?
The decision to trade up for Trubisky was the team’s most criticized move in the 2017 draft, and for good reason.
The 49ers weren’t considering Trubisky at No. 2, so it was a trade the Bears didn’t even need to make. Trubisky would have been there at No. 3, and the Bears could have kept the third- and fourth-round picks they gave up in this draft, and a third-rounder in 2018, to move up one spot.
The 49ers received a few calls about trading the No. 2 pick, but it was the Bears that made an offer San Francisco couldn’t refuse. The Niners would just have to move back one spot, which guaranteed they could get either Solomon Thomas or Reuben Foster, their top remaining targets with Garrett off the board.
San Francisco’s general manager, John Lynch, thought Chicago might be jumping in front of them to take Thomas. Instead, the Bears were targeting Trubisky. Lynch was as surprised as the rest of us.
“Then why’d they go get Glennon?” Lynch said, via The MMQB’s Peter King.
The Bears have repeatedly expressed confidence in Glennon as this year’s starter and went so far as to invite Glennon to the team’s official draft party. Then they traded up to draft his replacement.
Glennon reportedly felt “cheated on” after the Trubisky pick, and while he’s probably still going to be the starter this year, it’s pretty clear to everyone Glennon is just a stopgap.
Chicago needs a franchise quarterback, and the hope is that Trubisky, who only started one year in college, will develop into one. If he pans out, the decision to trade up might look smart in hindsight.
But right now, everything the Bears gave up to get him leave some big questions in play. They had plenty of other needs, particularly on defense, that went unfilled during free agency and the draft.
The Bears took risks with the rest of the 2017 draft class
In the second round, Chicago landed Ashland’s tight end Adam Shaheen, who has upside but his adjustment to the NFL may be more challenging as a small-school player. Safety was a need for the Bears, and they filled it with Alabama’s Eddie Jackson, whose injury history is a cause for concern.
Running back Tarik Cohen is a freak athlete, and he’ll serve as a change-of-pace back and complement Jordan Howard. But running back was not the Bears’ most pressing need. Jordan Morgan out of Kutztown was the team’s final pick. He played tackle in college but could convert to guard at the next level, and he may not be ready to contribute in 2017.
The 2017 draft was a particularly deep one for cornerbacks and pass rushers. The Bears could have benefited from a dominant rusher to come off the edge opposite Akiem Hicks, but failed to grab anyone in this draft who can help disrupt opposing passers.
Chicago has plenty of corners on the roster, but in a draft class that was stacked with talent, the team could have added a playmaker at the position. The Trubisky pick, and the way the Bears went about it, raised plenty of eyebrows. But only taking one defensive player despite the team’s needs and a wealth of players available helped Chicago earn the worst marks in this draft.
This year’s free agency haul leaves more questions than answers
Glennon was the team’s most notable acquisition, and he hasn’t started a game since 2014. With just a 5-13 record as a starter, he has thrown 30 touchdowns and 15 interceptions over his career. Chicago also brought in Mark Sanchez, who has been relegated to a backup role pretty much ever since the infamous “buttfumble.”
The Bears also let Alshon Jeffery walk, and the receivers they brought in this offseason aren’t on his level. Jeffery’s productivity fell off over the past two seasons due to injuries and a four-game suspension for PEDs, but when he’s on the field, his productivity is on par with the best receivers in the league. The same cannot be said of the newest members of the Bears’ receiving corps: Markus Wheaton, Kendall Wright, and tight end Dion Sims.
Wheaton and Wright are No. 2-caliber receivers at best. Wheaton had 51 receiving yards and one touchdown last season for the Steelers, and he’s on a two-year, $11 million deal with $5 million guaranteed. The $18 million over three seasons the Bears plan to pay Sims, including $10 million in guaranteed money, is a lot for a player who showed promise but only had 256 receiving yards over 14 games last season.
The Bears are holding out hope for Kevin White, the team’s seventh overall pick in 2015. But so far, White’s career has been derailed by injuries. He had 197 receiving yards last year after missing the entirety of his rookie season. They’re also counting on Cameron Meredith, who was an undrafted free agent coming out of college, to replicate last year’s success. He led the team with 888 receiving yards and four touchdowns in 2016.
Safety Quintin Demps and cornerbacks Prince Amukamara and Marcus Cooper could be upgrades in the secondary. But they’re not sure things, due to age and injury concerns. Demps is 31, and Amukamara missed 26 games in five years with the Giants due to injury, and the Bears have invested $12 million in guaranteed money into them.
Cooper had four interceptions with the Cardinals — which would have accounted for half of the Bears’ total last year — and may be the playmaker the Bears have been lacking in the secondary. But he also shared a defensive backfield with Patrick Peterson, Tyrann Mathieu and Tony Jefferson last season.
The Bears signed the most free agents of any team in the league with 12. Though many of the signings were underwhelming, they invested a lot of money into these players.
However, one thing general manager Ryan Pace did well with the free agent signings is front-load the contracts so that if any of these guys don’t work out, the team won’t be hindered by dead money long term. Glennon is the highest-paid player on the team this season, but the way his contract is structured makes it easy for the Bears to move on to Trubisky next season.
But in an offseason where the Bears really didn’t get any game-changing playmakers, it’s hard to imagine they did enough to drastically improve on their 3-13 finish last year.
Dysfunction rules in Halas Hall
Under Chicago’s previous head coach, Marc Trestman, there were constant reports about discord and infighting within the organization. That dysfunction is a primary reason why John Fox got a shot as the head coach of the Bears.
But bringing in Fox didn’t correct the internal issues. It hasn’t helped on the field, either. The Bears have won just nine games over his two seasons, putting Fox firmly on the hot seat.
There were conflicting reports about whether Fox was aware of the decision to trade up for Trubisky leading up to the draft. But even if Fox was on board with the decision to draft Trubisky, other Pace decisions suggest a conflict between the philosophies of the general manager and head coach.
Fox takes an old-school approach to the game, relying on veterans and making conservative in-game decisions. Pace is stacking the roster with younger talent and targeting players he sees as the best available in the draft as opposed to a needs-based method.
“I think there's more to the rift than the team will let on,” said Kev from Windy City Gridiron, SB Nation’s Bears blog. “I think Pace will continue to push Fox to play younger guys, and I think Fox will resist.”
Pace hasn’t given Fox the kinds of players he has traditionally been comfortable with building around. Yet Fox is still responsible for the wins and losses, even if he hasn’t had much say in the players he has to work with this season.
If Pace and Fox aren’t on the same page when it comes to building the roster, it makes it that much harder for Fox to turn things around on the field. And that could lead to the end of both of their tenures with the Bears.
Don’t expect the Bears to turn it around this year
Steve Rosenbloom of the Chicago Tribune is already calling this season the “John Fox Farewell Tour.” If he is a lame duck, Fox doesn’t have the luxury of time to coax these players into making Chicago competitive.
Pace has consistently gotten praise for his approach from the Bears’ chairman, George McCaskey, most recently at the owners meetings in March.
“We like him,” McCaskey said. “We haven’t had the results that we wanted, obviously. Everyone is disappointed in that. Ryan’s disappointed. John’s disappointed. But I’ve been very impressed with him as a leader, as an evaluator of talent.”
But if things continue to trend in this direction, the Bears may have no choice but to part ways with both Fox and Pace and move forward with a new duo, like the Browns did a year ago with Hue Jackson and Sashi Brown. There were too many holes on the Bears’ roster to fill this offseason, and Pace didn’t give Fox the talent he needs to dramatically improve right away.
Chicago took some risks in this draft class. There’s talent there, but aside from Eddie Jackson if he’s healthy, none of the players the Bears drafted are surefire contributors this season. The free agents they added aren’t likely to be game-changers, either.
The Browns were stuck in a pattern of ineptitude for years that kept the team from being competitive. It looks like they may finally be poised to start digging their way out of it. If they really are, some other team will have to take their place as the butt of everyone’s jokes. Right now, it’s looking like the Bears.