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Chicago Bears Mailbag: Back to camp but in a very different way.

In this week’s mailbag, we address Ryan Pace’s future, opt-outs and much more!

NFL: Chicago Bears at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The 2020 NFL season is upon, but in a very different way. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, most are aware of COVID-19 and just how much it has impacted our daily lives. For sports, it has been no different. Despite the MLB, NBA, NHL & even MLS starting their seasons here in America, football still faces a tall task and an uphill battle.

The Chicago Bears will be one of 32 teams tasked with balancing the delicate situation of the virus with their player’s safety. General manager Ryan Pace, head coach Matt Nagy and head athletic trainer Andre Tucker address those concerns in last week’s press conference, but only time will tell how successful they and the rest of the NFL will be in keeping their players safe and ultimately finishing the NFL season.

Normally, fans are excited about making the trip to Bourbonnais, but regardless of where this pandemic situation was at in late July, the Bears had already moved their training camp to Halas Hall full-time. Even so, fans will not be permitted to attend an overall shortened training camp this year, which means all the roster battles will have to play themselves out behind closed doors.

With that, let’s just into this week’s mailbag.

This has been an interesting and quite confusing topic over the course of opt-outs. Late Monday night, the NFL and NFLPA agreed and passed a modified CBA agreement for the 2020, which brought some clarity.

Unlike the MLB where not only does the team save the money but they lose a year of control with any player that opts out, the NFL has essentially pushed back any sort of contract tole or service time.

This means with someone like Eddie Goldman opting out that not only will the Bears save $7.7 million in 2020 because not only do they get back the base salary and everything else owed to him in cash, but any prorated bonuses charges are pushed back as well. It’s worth noting that the $3.1 million bonus that was already paid to him will count against the cap, but it will lessen his cap hit in 2021 to $7.7 million. This goes for any player in the NFL that had a bonus paid out to them prior to their opt-out.

While I’m sure the Bears would rather have Goldman and his cap hit for 2020, this will provide many teams with some needed relief and more to roll over into what looks like a sizably lower salary cap for 2021 and maybe 2022.

A few weeks back, Sports Illustrated’s Peter King put out a report that Pace was on the hot seat and likely to lose his job with a bad 2020 campaign. As most know by now, King is one of the more connected journalists in the league and he’s a very respected name. With that being said, I think Pace has a longer leash with ownership than most will give him credit for.

It’s worth noting that the McCaskey family absolutely loves and trust Pace. Hence how big of a hand he had in the renovations of Halas Hall and allowing him as much freedom on the personnel side as he has had. Ownership had to sign off on multiple moves in the 2018 off-season, leading to their big turnaround.

Now, that’s not to say that if the Bears go (3-13) or (4-12) that they could burn the whole thing down and rebuild it again with a new general manager and coaching staff, but I think even the most pessimistic of fans are expecting at least six or so wins. Barring some unplanned collapse, I see both Pace and Nagy back for another season and who knows, Pace may get another swing at the quarterback position. Whether or not the latter is a good or bad thing, I’ll leave up to you guys to decide.

I think it’s also worth keeping in mind that with the COVID-19 crisis, this season is already going to have an asterisks by it and for good reason. Close to 50 players have opted out so far and we are still a few days away from the official deadline. Will there be firings? I would count on it, much like I would count on the sun rising every day, but even so, if teams are on the fence, I’m not sure they are going to allow this type of season to push them over the edge and make a more rash decision.

I don’t think Pace is currently on the hot seat and I don’t think the organization is on the fence with him because they expect better results in 2020. Wilder things have happened in the past but I fully expect to see Pace and Nagy back in 2021.

Make no mistake, the Bears’ defense took a sizable hit when Goldman opted out last week, but everyone in the organization understands and supports his decisions. Even so, this defense has a big hole up the middle to fill.

The obvious replacement choice is John Jenkins, who the team brought back for a second stint a few months back. Is Jenkins anything special? Not really, but he’s more than capable of being a big body up front that plays 30-40% of their total snaps and keeping their vaunted run defense together.

They could also opt to use more fronts featuring Akiem Hicks and even Bilal Nichols as the nose tackle, but keep in mind, Goldman was on the field for less than 50% of the team’s total snaps last year, and I’m sure they could knock that number down even more in terms of having to rely on a true nose tackle.

Their other option would be going out and signing a free agent. On paper, this makes a lot of sense. The problem is, most of the league’s opt-outs are coming from heavier players. Goldman has been one of many big linemen (both offensive and defensive) to opt-out and more could be on the way before Thursday’s deadline. Someone like Damon “Snacks” Harrison is on the market, but it has been reported that he’s mulling opting out too. Harrison has made quite a bit of money in his career and likely won’t see more than veteran’s minimum at this juncture in the off-season. Will that be enough to coax him out of his home to play this season? Marcell Dareus, Darius Kilgo and Earl Mitchell are among a few other starting caliber defensive tackles on the market as well.

Only time will tell, but my guess is their immediate starter is currently on the roster and they could add a depth piece down the line.

One move is a tough one. I think the obvious answer (at least for me) would have been trying to find a proven long-term solution at the quarterback position. While I’m not exactly sure (off the top off my head) who that would be, it would have been nice to see Pace make a move at the position thinking more long-term and knowing he had some time to properly integrate that quarterback into the offense, as well.

If I went for more of an approach standpoint in this scenario, I would hope that moves for older players would have been minimized. While their average Week 1 age won’t jump drastically, this is also a team that is starting to trend on the older side of the league again. Mainly because Pace has been adding more talent through free agency than he has the draft, with a lack of picks the past two years.

Overall, this was an off-season where Pace is either going to get this team back on track or one we look back on & wonder “What was Pace thinking?”.

I think that ideally every team in the NFL would love for this approach to be so black and white, but there’s a lot more that goes into one unit simply beating another.

For example- The Bears using their weapons to beat opposing defenses happened at times last year, but that was usually when the quarterback position wasn’t a consistent issue and when their offensive line was allowing the team to run the ball and protect the quarterback.

I think there are multiple layers to having a successful offense:

  • A competent quarterback
  • Dangerous skill position players
  • The right coaching
  • Good offensive line play

Objectively speaking, how many of those do the Bears have going into the 2020 season? Quarterback is the biggest question mark. Does Tarik Cohen have a bounce back season? Does David Montgomery become a good running back? Do the Bears have more than one play maker at the receiver position? How about tight end?

Even looking at the offensive line, they had just one true addition to the starting five. Will that be enough to make a big improvement with a new offensive line coach?

To me, the Bears have more questions than answers on the offensive side of the ball, which makes me question if they can consistently beat defenses on a week-to-week basis.

Until they can have more answers than questions, I don’t think we’ll see them consistently beat defenses and form a top-end offense.

This is a good question, but one that I think is a little more complex than a “one size fits all” approach.

Teams like the Philadelphia Eagles and other East Coast teams have shot down any idea of fans attending games in 2020, vaccine or not. While most other teams have cut down on tickets and said that if fans are allowed in the stands, it’s likely to be at a capacity less than 50%.

For as much as I would like to say we see 100% capacity at games in 2020, I just don’t see how that’s going to be possible even with a vaccine. The reality is, we are still a few months (at best) away from one. Even then, the high-risk population will be the first to get the vaccine. Rightfully so, obviously. I would also guess that professional athletes will somehow be in that first round or two as well.

In terms of the general population, I think we are still looking at after the first of the year before vaccines really start making their rounds, which makes it highly unlikely that this will even play a part in allowing fans to go back to their every day normal lives, pre-COVID.

At this point, if there are fans in the stands for any NFL game this year, I would consider that a win not only for sports fans, but for the country as a whole because that would signal a vast improvement over our current status.

I’d just be happy for a full season where players stay healthy. Granted each sport’s atmosphere is different, but I think networks have done a good enough job to not take too much away from the viewing experience without fans. I think after a game or two in the NFL season, it would feel much more normal than it feels right now.