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Bears’ 2021 off-season roundtable: The market’s invisible hand

Chicago has been one of football’s biggest free agency spenders of late. According to our staff, that’s a prerogative of which needs a few creative tweaks this spring.

Houston Texans v Chicago Bears Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

When you’ve been as consistently inferior for as long as the Bears have, any number of reasons for such incompetence arise over the years. One of the most popular rationales for the Bears’ gradual descent into mediocrity has always been that ownership is collectively cheap. Rather than focusing on putting a playing a quality on-field product, the narrative has centered on the Bears’ brass being more concerned with protecting its bottom line than risking losing any profit.

Years ago this rationalization may have been true. But that was almost certainly when the Bears had more self-respect for their place as an organization amongst the greater NFL. They had a stronger reputation overall, even just 15 years ago. Under George McCaskey, where the desperation and grasping-at-straws grows more conspicuous by the season, that is no longer the case. In the last decade or so, where the Bears have routinely been one of the league’s highest profile high rollers, the idea that this is a frugal organization searching for every last penny while only finding lint in the couch cushions has been out to pasture.

You can’t have pro football’s most expensive defense by almost $5 million and still be labelled cheap. You can’t be guaranteeing a minimum of $20 million to eight separate players and still be construed as the football team equivalent of a thrifty blue collar worker living from paycheck to paycheck. If George Halas once threw around nickels like manhole covers, his grandson regularly wraps hundreds of millions of them in special care packages, with illustrious bows on top and heartfelt cards attached, to gift to anyone that might help the Bears win.

The issue, as it been for some time, is not that the Bears are cheap and don’t spend money to win. It’s that they don’t spend such money in a smart or efficient manner that actually results in many victories. And having such a mix is arguably just as catastrophic of a development as any organization that is pinching pennies by eating Ramen for dinner on a nightly basis because of the constraints it can eventually place on your capacity to improve.

That is unfortunately where the Bears have arrived over the next several years: Salary cap hell.

For the time being, their cavalier recent spending trend can’t continue. Barring a few major cuts and financial adjustments, the Bears are right up against the salary cap moving forward. If a decrease is enacted as projected due largely to COVID-19 circumstances, a lot of difficult personnel decisions will befall Chicago in the coming weeks. General manager Ryan Pace, his cap magician Cliff Stein, and their staff have their work cut out for them with the new league year right around the corner.

In today’s 2021 off-season primer roundtable, the WCG staff diagrams what plan the Bears should have for this year’s free agency. That is, if they can even spend anything as desired.

In case you missed it:

Part 1 on coaching, schemes, and game-plans

Part 2 on organizational and ownership philosophy

What free agents do you think the Bears should pursue?

Erik Duerrwaechter: This is tough to answer as we do not know who’s getting tagged or re-signed. The priority needs to be bringing Allen Robinson back, no matter the cost. That being said, I think the Bears should then make a run at Taylor Moton to plug in at right tackle. Everybody else will likely say Dak Prescott. That’s a dream, and his injury scares me into any long-term commitments with him. Prescott’s situation is nowhere close to Drew Brees’s, where he had a Pro Bowl season right before hitting free agency in 2006. I would also look into the idea of signing Alex Smith as a mentor and backup for the young quarterback the Bears are eventually going to draft.

Ken Mitchell: Ryan Pace has proven much better at getting “one year-prove it” cheap players than the big splash guys. I say no big splashes, only cheap guys like we have seen a lot of success with. I think they should keep Allen Robinson. But I doubt they will with as good of a draft class as there is this year at receiver and money being tight.

Josh Sunderbruch: They should pick up a free agent quarterback with a passer rating in the mid-to-high 80s for around $5-7 million per year over two years. If this is Trubisky, that’s fine. I think Ryan Fitzpatrick would keep things fun during a rebuild. The team could and has done worse than Tyrod Taylor. Everybody else should walk to pursue a compensatory pick strategy and to mitigate the camp situation. The team should not chase a window that closed two years ago.

Lester Wiltfong Jr.: With the salary cap likely going down, there will be a lot of veterans taking pay cuts. Matt Nagy and Ryan Pace will need to sell them on the opportunity to play well and cash in in 2022 if the cap goes back up. As far as specifics, the Bears need quality depth at inside linebacker, offensive line, safety, and has anyone mentioned quarterback? I would also like to see Allen Robinson come back in 2021, but if the quarterback isn’t solidified there’s no point.

Will Robinson: Seeing as quarterback is the team’s biggest need (and has been for the better part of 60 years), Dak Prescott has got to be on the top of that list. Will he be expensive? Yes. Is 2021 a low cap year? Yes. Are the Bears in a bad cap situation as it is? Yes. They can still make it work. It’ll take losing some talent on the defense (and or letting Allen Robinson walk, which I’d prefer to avoid if finally bringing in a good passer). But if you can back load a ~$30 million a year contract, it’s doable, and you don’t have to give up draft capital to make it work. (This is unlike swinging a trade for Deshaun Watson, who while a better player, will cost a king’s ransom in draft capital as well as a hefty contract).

Another guy I wouldn’t mind seeing the Bears pursue would be Lavonte David. Sure, he’s in his 30s, but he’s still playing well, and they could use another athletic linebacker to pair with Roquan Smith. Danny Trevathan did get better as 2020 went on, and was still effective in stopping the run, but his coverage skills are not where the Bears need them to be to work in this defense. David’s are. With Trevathan’s contract, he’s not likely going anywhere. Using a situational rotation of he and David would keep both fresh, however, and would allow you to use them both to the best of their abilities. Cost is the big issue, but if the Bears address quarterback and tackle in the draft rather than free agency, they can afford to spend to shore up a position of need on the defense.

Speaking of addressing quarterback in the draft, if the Bears do go that direction, while I’m far from excited about it, I wouldn’t hate seeing someone like Ryan Fitzpatrick or Tyrod Taylor brought in as a veteran bridge. Yes, Nick Foles isn’t going anywhere, unless some crazy trade happens. I’d feel better with Fitzpatrick or Taylor starting out the year before bringing in a Mac Jones or Trey Lance, or whoever. Pace is on the hot seat. He’s probably going to want to eek out as many wins as possible. I doubt he trusts Foles to get those for him until the rookie is deemed ready to start. As long as it’s a similar deal to what Fitzpatrick and Taylor got this year ($5.5 million), I’m fine with it. I guess.

Robert Schmitz: First off, they should ensure Allen Robinson never leaves Chicago by any means necessary. Your No. 1 receiver is key to breaking down defensive coverages. Unless the Bears plan on having Darnell Mooney (who they certainly talked up in their end-of-season presser) take over duties as the primary option, or want to take another spin at drafting a No. 1 while letting your former leave the team (shades of Kevin White and Brandon Marshall), Robinson needs to be tagged at a minimum, and extended if possible. Yes, he’ll be expensive, but he’s well worth the contract he’ll command. He’s the kind of player you create cap room for.

Outside of Robinson, the Bears won’t have much room to maneuver. I could see a cheaper add at offensive line coming (David Andrews, Austin Reiter, Matt Feler, Kelvin Beachum) but that’s about it. Ryan Pace has made the cap’s bed over the last few years, and the 2021 season is his time to sleep in it. Thankfully ~$90 million gets freed up in this season alone. The 2022 off-season should be better.

Bill Zimmerman: Well, isn’t this cute. Free agents? Ha! The Bears have no money.

Yes, Ryan Pace will kick some money down the road (again) and create future cap problems (again), but the Bears simply will not be players in the free agent market this year. Of course they’ll bring in some low-key free agents, but there should be no aspirations that this team will be spending big in the free agent market.

They should tag Allen Robinson and hopefully find the quarterback that will elevate Robinson to the next level. Imagine how good he could be if he didn’t have Blake Bortles, Mitch Trubisky, and Nick Foles throwing to him his entire career.

The only way the Bears should be trying to play the free agent market is if somehow a top tier quarterback becomes a free agent. Otherwise, the prudent move is to move as little money around as possible and open themselves up to be free agent players in the 2022 off-season. But because George McCaskey has basically given Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy an ultimatum to win now, Pace will be manipulating money any way he can to squeeze in an additional player or two onto the roster.

Jack Salo: The Bears are tight against the cap for 2021. I hope they aren’t big players in free agency because the contracts would have to be structured in such a way that they become tight against the cap in 2022 as well. If Dak Prescott is there, then cut everybody and their brother and bring him in. Yes the team will be bad in 2021 in that scenario, but it at least solves the quarterback problem. That’s something the Bears haven’t been able to do in the Super Bowl era. If that’s off the table, running back Carlos Hyde could come cheap. Deon Bush can be brought back along with Karl Joseph to compete for the other safety spot. Tight end Mo Allie-Cox could be your jump-ball guy in the end zone and allow you to cut Jimmy Graham. Josh Woods should be brought back for linebacker depth. Meanwhile kicker Cairo Santos should be given a long-term contract. If Jason Spriggs is willing to come cheap, then give him another deal. Transition tag Robinson and let the market decide how much you’re paying him.

Windy City Gridiron Podcast Channel which includes Bear With Me from Robert Schmitz, Bears Over Beers featuring Jeff Berckes & EJ Snyder, Bears Banter hosted by Bill Zimmerman, and T Formation Conversation from Lester A. Wiltfong Jr.; EJ also co-hosts The Bootleg Football Podcast with Brett Kollmann; R. Schmitz has a film breakdown show on YouTube titled Run Pass Opinion; and Steven’s Streaming Twitch Channel from Steven Schweickert.

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