It’s often said in sports that it’s better to either be bad enough to improve your draft position, or good enough to compete and contend for a championship. The middle ground, the no man’s land, is the worst place to sit in because it’s frequently the most difficult place to improve from. Your team isn’t awful enough to add a potential blue chip player in the draft and isn’t good enough to be playing late into a postseason. It’s not an ideal place to sit in as it can feel like time is merely passing on by without any meaning. The quintessential existential crisis.
In the NFL, there’s another zone that only the most fortunate teams have the luxury of enjoying: contention with only minor tweaks needed. To have your ideal roster and coaching staff be largely set in stone before the acquisition period of the off-season has begun can be strangely anxiety-inducing due to the nature of a theoretical lack of productivity.
That’s the place the Bears sit in: A launching pad of progress they’re more than allowed to revel in. Progress that says a lot more about their successful rebuild than it does about anyone chasing their efforts. In comparison to the previous four off-seasons, then, 2019 should pale in comparison to the heavy roster overhaul the Bears have previously undergone.
The Bears don’t need a facelift with a luxurious spa day. Think about it, thanks to Khalil Mack, the 12-4 Bears were just seven wins away from an undefeated 19-0 season. They were so close to a remarkable achievement. They don’t need a wrench thrown into their plans of what isn’t broken. They need an opportunity to continue to mesh together and see where it takes them. Don’t mistake activity for achievement if the activity isn’t efficient or necessary.
For the first time in what feels like decades, the Bears can slow play the spring and see where it takes them. They can throw out their archaic map, go against awkwardly asking a stranger once they get lost, and rely on GPS to get them to their (Super Bowl) destination.
February 19th to March 5th: Window to franchise or transition tag club players
The NFL has an efficient
player exploitative system in place that goes back almost three decades. A system designed to perpetuate a myth of true free agency allow players and teams a chance at compromise on the open market. A design that almost always starts and ends with franchise and transition tags.
This year, barring a surprise with Bryce Callahan or Adrian Amos, I wouldn’t anticipate the Bears applying any tag to their pending free agents. Neither Callahan or Amos paints a picture of wanting to pay a player a top five salary for their position with the franchise tag, or go for a poison pill bidding war with the transition. The Bears either re-sign their rare players on expiring contracts, or let them test the waters.
What will be something to watch for in Chicago is the status of 49ers kicker Robbie Gould. Early reports indicate the veteran kicker and Bears all-time leading scorer will receive the franchise tag from Santa Clara, sorry ... San Francisco. But nothing is official until the March 5th deadline. The Bears and Gould — who has his family reside in Chicago through the year — would likely like to reunite as kicker is one of the former’s only main needs to address this off-season.
Neither party can do anything if the 49ers preemptively take the decision out of their hands. That screeching sound you hear is the cry of a million Chicago sports fans re-signing to further life without Gould. As if millions of voices screamed out in terror at once, and then were silenced.
February 26th to March 4th: The annual Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana
As much as I personally loathe the NFL turning it’s off-season into a second major industry of it’s own built on the premise and promise of mostly false hope, I’m impressed by the tenacious business imperative. To pray on the diehard sensibilities and emotional investments of sports fans in such a fashion takes a cold, ruthless calculation that only a morally impeccable league like the NFL could ever dream of. It’s such a turn of character for a normally clean entity.
We’ve never seen the NFL go heel. Not once.
One of the most fascinating portions of the off-season is the glorified underwear Olympics in the form of the Scouting Combine. By association, every Pro Day that will happen from this point also fits the same archetype. It’s in these scenarios where otherwise great college players who have pieced it all together on their tape are meticulously scrutinized based off of how fast they can run in shorts, er ... tights. It’s here where an otherwise blue chip prospect will quite literally lose millions of dollars because they didn’t reach a specific athletic threshold to the tiniest of margins. It’s this type of overthinking that leads most NFL teams to perpetual mediocrity, and should be appreciated for it’s idiocy.
If you wanted a peak into the scouting process that lead the Bears to once draft a guy because he jumped out of a pool, the Combine and Pro Days to follow are a nice place to start.
I suppose if you enjoy the 20 different reporters and outlets that will tweet out the same exact Combine measurements through next week, its your prerogative. The proverbial big board is about to see some shake-ups. To each their own, I won’t begrudge you.
This year, the Bears are again in an odd position because they’re going to be forced to scout out positions like running back, defensive back, and kicker where they don’t have the most stringent of baseline athletic thresholds. Their best secondary player, Eddie Jackson, didn’t test at the 2017 Scouting Combine because of a broken leg and they drafted him anyway! It’s funny how that works out.
Break out your sleeper prospect manuals you maniacs. You’re going to need them.
March 11th to March 12th: Window to begin preliminary negotiations with prospective pending unrestricted free agents,
March 13th: New league year begins at 4:00 p.m. Eastern time.
The two-day period right before the new NFL league year starts is my favorite. I relish it more than the actual day that free agency opens up. It’s when everyone fills themselves with a false sense of bravado and as a general manager in Madden. It’s when the irresponsibility of social media rumors fly around as dogs and cats start living together, and mass hysteria sets in. It’s when every name recognition player has a chance — a chance is all you need! — at joining your favorite team. One of the truly great
needless phenomenons we have in sports.
To expect the Bears to be major players this free agency and make a splash akin to adding Allen Robinson, Danny Trevathan, or Mike Glennon would be foolhardy. They neither have the resources —approximately $13 million in cap space at the moment — nor the need to pursue oh, I don’t know, Le’Veon Bell, Earl Thomas, and Antonio Brown. I could see them adding someone like the Falcons’ Tevin Coleman or steady kicker Matt Bryant, but that depends on a reasonable price tag.
Don’t think I don’t know what you’re thinking. Of Robinson, Trevathan, and Glennon, one of them is not like the other in terms of impact and play style. I’m not going to gloss over that sentiment.
Trevathan plays defense while Robinson and Glennon play on offense. It’s tough to wrap your head around.
March 24th to March 27th: Annual league meeting in Phoenix, Arizona
Want a peek into the process of a bunch of uncreative older wealthy men that can’t think of any of their own original ideas as to building a successful contender, so they merely copy whoever was most recently winning? See where the next Sean McVay fad will be built at the NFL’s annual spring league meeting in Arizona!
While the seeds of a “copy cat league” are undoubtedly planted here, the most notable work that goes into this congregation every year are the changes and suggestions made by the NFL’s competition committee. This is where the brain trust of pro football does the major tinkering as to what the zebras on the field will be looking out for every Sunday. Trust me, it’s admittedly far more boring than it already sounds with congested meetings all day but it does matter.
Last March, the controversial rule preventing players from lowering their head to initiate contact was passed. It was as dumb and nonsensical in its application then, as it even is now, regardless of how little it was called over the course of the season.
The NFL: A place where we already don’t know what a catch is, now how about a tackle?
Speaking of, the catch rule was also simplified, as leadership wanted to eliminate plays like Calvin Johnson and Dez Bryant’s infamous unfortunate gaffes. It boggles the mind why the NFL won’t move toward more common sense in regards to catches — anyone with two eyes knows what one looks like — but at least it was a positive step in the right direction. Someone thankfully had the initiative to step in to make sure social media would never blow up with, “Dez caught it!” ever again.
This year, the expected agenda in Phoenix will focus on the possibility of making plays like pass interference reviewable after the Saints were wholeheartedly screwed in the 2019 NFC Championship Game. If the city of New Orleans is still yammering away as assuredly the first and only victims of an unfortunate playoff call, how do you think Saints head coach Sean Payton, a member of the NFL’s competition committee feels? Someone bitter is about to attempt to make the most subjective of plays add on roughly 15 minutes of reviews to games and he needs to be stopped before hell breaks loose.
Another point of discussion will be yet again adjusting playoff overtime rules after the Chiefs fell victim to the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game despite never having the opportunity to touch the ball in sudden death. I’m of the belief that both offenses should be guaranteed a possession no matter what, and if both teams are tied after the fact, you then move forward with a golden goal. After all, football is a game about points and who scores the most, not a game based on artificially limited opportunities. But hey, traditionalists screaming out the merits of good defensive play winning out might not agree.
I’ll be shocked if the format isn’t adjusted toward the former sentiment as I’d imagine most around the league would like to see the Patrick Mahomes of the world get a chance to win in a playoff overtime. If you disagree, you might feel differently and only empathize when Mitchell Trubisky has this happen to him in the future. If you still don’t feel differently in that scenario, well ... I don’t know what to tell you. Deal with it. The game is supposed to evolve.
April 15th: Teams with returning head coaches can begin off-season workout programs
This year, everyone but the Bengals, Broncos, Browns, Buccaneers, Cardinals, Dolphins, Jets, and Packers don’t get to return to official team organized action until mid-April. A year after having the jump on the competition with extra preparation time and another week of training camp thanks to the Hall of Fame Game, the Bears are meshed in with everybody else on the same playing field. That’s the cookie way crumbles for the reigning Coach of the Year Matt Nagy.
A common theme that’s repeatedly going to be espoused about the Bears this off-season is internal improvement, particularly on offense. The NFL’s 20th ranked offense in DVOA is, at the moment, bringing back all 11 starters. They’re not going to enjoy the luxury of a big-time addition like Robinson to help them improve and morph into an elite attack. Any jump they make to consistency will only come at the hands of increased chemistry and comfort together in Nagy’s complex scheme. An already tight-knit group will only have the capacity to become special by taking advantage of every spring and summer opportunity.
It starts with the simplest of team workouts in April. It’s when the Bears begin their offensive installs from the ground up and eventually work their way toward the more nuanced intricacies of their playbook. It’s cliche, but if the Bears are going to have an offense more complementary of their great defense, it’ll start with the hard work and #grit of the off-season.
The key will be differentiating between the positive and routine hopeful vibes as the Bears tell everyone everything is awesome in Lake Forest in two months, and actual meaningful progress. By this point I think most would understand it’s best to avoid the Pollyanna football principle. “What’s-His-Face is in the best shape of his life!”
They always are. I’m looking at you, Kevin White.
April 25th to April 27th: The 2019 NFL Draft in Nashville, Tennessee
One of the most hyped events of the year is set to happen at the end of this April. A bunch of freakish heroes will set about achieving a dream and reaching a culmination of years of work. People around the country will revel in their accomplishment, and some may get emotional in the process.
On April 26th, 2019, the Avengers take on Thanos for the last time in Avengers: Endgame.
I, for one, am ready to bawl my eyes out. Dread it. Run from it. My raw and embarrassing emotions over pop culture still arrive.
Oh right, there’s also the NFL’s annual player draft happening that weekend. Ho, hum. Call me when Thanos gets drafted. He has an incredible first step, a versatile pass rush repertoire, and is definitely a Day 1 starter. The purple goon is what is colloquially known as a “football guy.”
If I sound a little indifferent and unenthusiastic as to the draft process, it should be understandable: The Bears don’t have a first or second-round pick. For most of the NFL’s flagship event of the off-season, the Bears will be sitting back waiting their turn to select another impact player. A selection that won’t come until No. 88 overall in the third round. It’s a far cry from needing a pass rusher and versatile linebacker such as Leonard Floyd in 2016, a franchise quarterback like Trubisky in 2017, and the future face of your defense in Roquan Smith last year.
Not only do the Bears not have an early draft pick this year, it could be considered downright irresponsible for them to trade up in the order unless there’s a player they absolutely love. You’d be hard pressed to tell me it’s worth it to trade up from the late third round to the early second as an example. When you’re as limited on resources as they already are, a patented Pace trade back makes far more sense if any trade is made.
What you should keep an eye out for is what position the Bears look to attack with their third-round pick. I’m of the keen belief they should go after a multi-faceted running back in the mold of Oklahoma State’s Justice Hill or Florida Atlantic’s prolific touchdown machine Devin Singletary, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see a versatile defensive back. That’s depending on the future of Callahan and Amos, though.
Whatever the case, Pace has proven to be a bit of a draft wizard of whom isn’t afraid to throw around his capital willy nilly on one of the most important dates of the NFL calendar. Just when we think the Bears will be quiet, he’ll throw everyone for a loop. It’s that poker face that serves him better than most general managers.
In the mean time, barring something unprecedented, I’ll be enjoying the end of corny Steve Rogers as a character. Whoops, I mean enjoying him saving the day. Yeah, that’s it.
Robert is the Editor-in-chief of The Blitz Network (subscribe here!), the managing editor of Windy City Gridiron, and writes for many fine publications. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.