The Chicago Bears are at a critical point for the franchise. The team has only a few top 20 players at their position, a below average quarterback, and a poor cap situation. Even though the Bears have managed to go 8-8 in the last two years, it seems likely the team will have losing records in the future. The Bears are at the same point that the Broncos were in 2016. At that point the Broncos had come off of a 9-7 season, but had no quarterback or real offensive talent. The Broncos proceeded to go 5-11, 6-10, 7-9, 5-11 over the next 4 years on the back of a good defense. This is a look at the future of the Bears. The 2021 Bears are almost a perfect match with the 2017 Broncos. Both teams had no real quarterback talent on the roster. Both teams had most of their talent on the defensive side of the football. Both teams are coming off moderately successful years. The problem for the Bears is that their defense is worse than the 2017 Broncos. Thus, it is even more likely that they will follow their path of posting losing records for 4+ years. Currently the Broncos have no quarterback talent, a weekend defense from attrition, moderate cap space, and no real draft success. This is the fate the Bears must absolutely avoid. Half a decade of losing with no real prospects for success and seemingly no plan for the future is not a path any franchise wants to be on, but the Bears are headed that direction. Unfortunately, the prospects are even worse because if the Broncos were by some miracle able to get a top 10 quarterback in the next year or two the roster has such little talent that it would likely take 3-4 more years just to build the roster up to the point of being a real Superbowl contender. That is a decade of losing as the future of the Bears if they don’t take a different approach to team building than the Broncos did. The question then is how to avoid the pitfalls of the Broncos and build a competitive team in the shortest time possible. First a review of the Bears roster will provide a baseline for what assets the team has. Next, consideration will be given to roster moves that should help the team in the long term. A look at the 2022 free agency class and discussion of future salary cap changes will provide insight into what improvements may happen in free agency. Finally, consideration will be given to the Bears draft capital and how the team can maximize it.
The table below shows the current Bears starters along with some notable back up contributors. This table shows the players grades for 2020 from Profootballfocus.com along with the players cap information from overthecap.com. From this information it is apparent that the Bears roster has a moderate amount of talent in the top 10 and top 20 by position. However, for players that are not in those categories they tend to be very poor instead of only moderately bad. Also, when you consider analysis from Profootballfocus.com about what player positions contribute the most to winning, the Bears lack much quality at the most important positions. According to PFF there are 4 tiers: Tier 1 = QB, Tier 2 = WR/S/CB, Tier 3 = Edge/OL/TE/LB, and Tier 4 = RB, IDL. When looking at the Bears roster they have only 1 player in the top 20 in the first 2 tiers. The remaining talent is concentrated in Tier 3. The other players that the Bears do have that are in Tier 1 and 2 are poor to bad instead of just mediocre. What this boils down to is that the Bears have bad to very bad players at the most important positions for winning and only have a moderate amount of talent in other areas. This is not the roster of a team that is close to contention. However, the team does have some talent
on the roster, they are not the Jets. Also, the Bears have little to no cap space this year, the team currently has only 0.9 million of cap space as of 4/2/2021 per overthecap.com. Thus, the team has a below average amount of talent and no real cap space to work with for 2021. The cap situation is a bigger problem than that given that the team will need about 8 million in cap space to sign their rookies after the draft. Hence, the team actually needs to come up with 8 million in cap space in the next couple of months. Given this situation how should the team proceed. The traditional route which would emulate the Broncos process would be to generate cap space where you can and use that to sign middle of the road free agents. Try and find a quarterback in the draft with middle to lower first round draft picks. This has proven to be a disaster not just for the Broncos, but for just about every team that has tried this approach. It just isn’t feasible to build a real contender in the NFL with moderate talent and mediocre draft strategy. A better approach will be for the Bears to aggressively rebuild over a short time frame of 2 years by using what assets they have to build draft capital and cap space. This approach will require them to optimize their draft strategy and selectively target players in free agency. A team like the Bears should be especially careful with how they approach free agency in the near future as the salary cap is likely to experience large increases in 2023 and 2024 per overthecap.com based on new TV rites deals. Smart teams will try and lock players into longer term contracts so that as player salaries adjust in 2024 and beyond those players will become significant bargains in later years as the salary cap will only continue to increase at about 17ish million per year per overthecap.com. Teams are now faced not only with a salary cap jumping in 2 years but with a salary cap increasing faster after those jumps than is previously was. In the last 5 years the salary cap increased by about 10 million per year, but per overthecap.com after the increases in 2023 and 2024 over 20 to 30 million the cap is projected to increase at 17 million per year instead of 10. This is going to create significant upward pressure on player salaries. Teams should be willing to lock players into 6+ year contracts in 2022 and 2023 so as to buffer them from these dynamics. This is going to create a situation where it may be prudent to "overpay" for top end talent in 2022 and 2023 with the knowledge that those players are going to probably look cheap by the time 2025+ rolls around. The only way this is going to be of value to teams is for these players to be under contract for a couple of years after the salary cap jumps and starts increasing faster. Hence, contracts in 2022 and 2023 should run through at least 2027 with the last 3 or so years basically being team options with no guaranteed salary. You don’t want to be paying free agents in 2022 and 2023 only to have their contracts expire in 2024 or 2025. That isn’t going to provide much of a buffer from the cap changes and resulting player salary increases. Plus, a 2 year aggressive rebuild timeline for the Bears would have them becoming competitive and looking to potentially invest more in free agency in about 2023 which is when the cap changes are going to start to have a significant effect. The Bears want to avoid the problem of fielding a competitive team in 2023 that then convinces management that they should go all in for free agents in 2024 and 2025 just when players are going to start to become much more expensive. It would be fare better to plan ahead and invest much more aggressively in free agency in 2022 and 2023 even though the team may be less competitive so that you are not faced with needing/wanting to invest at the exact moment players become much more expensive. This will be considered when 2022 free agency is evaluated along with future cap considerations. Next, current roster moves will be considered with a focus on accruing draft capital and cap space to help in an aggressive rebuild.
Based on the Bears current roster construction and future prospects they should consider trading the talented players they currently have for draft capital and future cap space. This will enable the team to move players now for significant value instead of losing them later on after their play has declined. Essentially the Bears want to avoid what the Broncos did by holding onto their good players until they are no longer good all the while doing this with a bad team. This is best exemplified with the current situation of Khalil Mack and Von Miller. The Broncos held on to Von Miller paying him large amounts of money to play for a bad team until now when he is coming off of injury, poor play, and has little to no value. This would be the exact same outcome the Bears will get by holding onto Khalil Mack. While Mack is still an exceptional player he is over 30 and unlikely to remain the great player he is when the Bears are likely to be competitive again. Thus, it is best to trade these players now, get great value for them, and use that value to build a better more competitive team in the future. The table below shows players on the Bears roster that could net significant draft capital in return.
Most of these players are in their late 20s early 30s making them unlikely to continue to be top talent when the Bears will be competitive again. The only exception is Roquan Smith who is only 24 years old. It would not be unreasonable for the Bears to consider giving him an extension that is 7 to 8 years long locking him up through his prime years and preventing the team from needing to sign him during the cap boom years. Trading versus extending him is probably a wash, so it would come down to whether or not the Bears could come to terms with him on a contract or not. The assumption will be that his agent will fight pretty hard to get his player back into free agency in 2025 or around there so assume he gets traded instead. Do to issues with the salary cap Kahlil Mack and Cody Whitehair would need to be traded after June 1st so that their cap hits can be spread out across the 2021 and 2022 seasons. This prevents the Bears from having a big cap hit in 2021 for these players. Given that this would allow teams to digest the draft and the value of these players it is unlikely to be a significant hindrance to trading them. The effect of these trades on the salary cap with a few other roster moves is shown in the table below. Trading these players will not produce a significant amount of cap space for the Bears, so in order to sign their 2021 draft class the team will need to get cap space some other way. There are three players currently on the team whose production far outpaces their cap hit in Akiem Hicks, Jimmy Graham, and Anthony Miller. The team should approach Hicks and Graham to see if they would be willing to alter their contracts to reduce their cap charges to close to the dead cap charge. If they are unwilling to reduce their salaries then both should be cut. This would produce more than enough cap space to sign the teams draft class while opening up spots for rookies or undrafted free agents to be evaluated. There is little benefit to continuing to pay average to poor players above average salaries on a bad team. If these moves are made it will open up a significant amount of cap space for the Bears in 2021 of 36 million. It would be best if the team held on to this cap space and rolled it over into 2022 when the team would have even more space at 78 million. Looking back at the original
table showing the Bears current roster at the beginning there are a couple of poor players that should be cut in 2022 to free up even more cap space. By cutting Eddie Goldman, Nick Foles, Tarik Cohen, and Robert Quinn in 2022 the Bears would be able to create another 22 million in cap space. If we add this to the 36 million being rolled over and the already projected cap space of 78 million that would give the Bears about 130 million in cap space in 2022. This will be very important as it will allow the Bears to aggressively sign top end talent in 2022 free agency hopefully locking them into longer term contracts to buffer the team from the coming cap boom and player salary increases. Next, the 2022 free agent class is evaluated to see what potential players the Bears may want to invest in.
Following this plan will allow the Bears to target any players they wish in 2022 free agency. The Bears should have some quality players from the 2021 draft that will hopefully be showing some improvement. The Bears should have needs at just about every position. Considering the previous Tiers from PFF that predict player contributions to winning the Bears should target players in the upper 2 Tiers first and then move down. Unfortunately, there are no quality quarterbacks that would be available currently. How the Bears should consider addressing the quarterback situation will be a focus at the end of the section evaluating the draft. The table below lists some free agents in 2022 that are in the top 20 at their position and are 28 or younger in 2022. From this table it is clear that LT and WR are going to be poor positions to fill in 2022 free agency. There just are not many good players available. However, S/TE/LB/RT look much more promising, with several high end players potentially hitting free agency. Several of these players will likely never see free agency due to being franchise tagged, but having multiple payers available makes it likely one of them can be targeted. The plan for the Bears should be to sign as many players from this list as possible in 2022 free agency to 6+ year contracts. The Bears should target high end younger players. This will allow the team to lock up good players that are young enough to still be on the team when it improves enough to become a playoff team and hopefully a super bowl contender. The expectation will be that it will take the Bears at least 2 years of maximizing the draft and selectively targeting players
to begin to build a team capable of making the playoffs. This would mean that the team will only begin to get better around 2023. Hence it makes no sense to sign older players near or over 30. By the time the team becomes good enough to start winning those players will be to old to likely be contributing at a high level. The Bears need to target good young players that will likely still be capable of playing at a high level by 2023 when the team should start to dramatically improve. The key for the Bears in 2022 free agency is to target young players in the top 20 at their position and sign them to longer term 6+ year contracts so that they can avoid needing to target players during the cap boom years of 2023 and 2024. Even if the Bears have to "overpay" in 2022 a little bit it will be well worth it later on when the cap jumps and begins to increase faster than before. The idea is that maybe the contract is expensive for 1 year in 2022 and then becomes cheap in 2024+. Normally a team like the Bears probably would sit out most of 2022 free agency and continue to build through the draft for 1 more year, but 2022 free agency presents an opportunity for more future looking teams to get good talent before the salary cap jumps and increases players salaries. This should be an exception instead of a rule for how the team will approach free agency in the future. Based on the available free agents the Bears likely would be able to fill 5-6 roster spots targeting players from the above table. This is a good start to put the team on a path to winning but isn’t nearly enough talent to make them a playoff team or super bowl contender. To fill out the rest of the roster with talented players the Bears are going to need to use the draft in ways no team has before.
The Bears should approach the draft by aggressively trading down and accumulating as much draft capital as they can. This analysis will rely on the draft charts of Rich Hill which show how NFL teams actually value draft picks and the charts of overthecap.com/Chase Stewart that show how NFL teams should value draft picks. Furthermore, analysis done by profootballlogic.com comparing the difference between how teams value picks and how they should value picks identified 3rd picks as those with the largest gap between how they are valued and how they should be valued. Every analytics derived chart that shows how draft picks should be valued shows a large gap between how teams value picks and how they should be valued starting in the 2nd round. The chart below from profootballfocus.com shows this using PFF war, OTC chart, and approximate value. Exactly where the peak of this effect occurs and which picks have the largest gap will very depending on what method is used. However, it is
universal that there is a peak to the gap between the charts. Whether that gap occurs in the 2nd round or 3rd round or elsewhere isn’t that important. It is more important that a team understands this gap exists and tries to maximize their value by targeting it. For this analysis it will be taken that the 3rd round is where this peak occurs. This is pretty consistent with the OCT and AV draft value charts. PFF war would indicate that this gap probably occurs in the 2nd round instead. Either way teams should be trading down, whether they should target the 2nd round or the 3rd round is less crucial than moving down in the first place. Thus, use the profootballlogic.com analysis if teams want to maximize the value of their draft capital they should aggressively trade down and accumulate 3rd round picks. Most analytics charts also show that 1st round picks are overvalued especially at the top end. Hence, trading out of the 1st round and into the 3rd round is the best approach to getting the maximum value from the draft. The image below shows multiple paths that the Bears could take to achieve this accomplishment. The arrows in red depict the specific path I have chosen to analyze. However, this shows that the Bears have multiple ways to maximize their draft capital.
The idea is to try and minimize the Rich Hill value of any trades as this is how teams value picks and any trade that isn’t close on this metric would imply that one team will believe they are not getting fair value. The fact that the Rich Hill value for trading the 20th pick has such a large value steams from trading out of the bottom of the first round which normally requires a premium for any team to trade back into the first round, so this isn’t unprecedented in how teams value picks. However, there are other paths the have a smaller Rich Hill value in the chart if that was to be a problem. The table below shows the specific trades indicated in red and how they would change the Bears draft capital. Previous work has shown that teams can expect to get
a productive player from a draft pick about 30% of the time. For the Bears initial draft picks they would expect to get 2-3 productive players out of the draft. By trading down and accumulating 3rd round picks the Bears should be able to get close to 4-5 productive players while also reducing their cost significantly. By targeting the 3rd round the Bears could gain as much as 15 million plus in extra cap space. This is how the Bears can rebuild their roster over the next several drafts. If the Bears also make the previous trades that were discussed they could trade down from those draft picks and accumulate even more draft capital. Trading Allen Robinson II should give the Bears another 1st round pick that they could trade down from. This would be expected to return another 1-2 productive players. Combining this with the previous table would give the Bears 5-7 productive players from the draft. Also, if the Bears trade Khalil Mack that would give them extra 1st round picks in the 2022 and 2023 drafts as well. If they are able to execute the same strategy in those drafts that would be another 10-14 players from those drafts. Thus, over the next 3 drafts the Bears would expect on average to get 15-21 productive players. This doesn’t mean they will all be All Stars, but quality starters and back ups are an important part of team building in the NFL. It isn’t enough to just have a few great players, the Bears will also need a roster filled with above average to good players. This should allow the Bears to go from a very poor team to a playoff team in 2-3 years. The NFL draft appears to be one of the biggest inefficiencies in the league currently and there doesn’t appear to be any teams that are really trying to exploit it. The closest team is the Patriots, and they haven’t come anywhere close to being as aggressive as the Bears would be in trading down, or in targeting the sweet spot in the draft in the 3rd round. So, through this process the Bears will have built up a quality team by selectively targeting top end free agents that are younger and by aggressively maximizing their draft capital. This should result in a team that has quality throughout the roster, perhaps with not as many top 5 players as they otherwise might have gotten, but with many more top 10 and top 20 players. However, there is still the issue of what to do about the quarterback spot.
How should the Bears go about addressing the quarterback situation ? One choice would be to do what the 49ers did and give up a massive amount of draft pics to trade up to draft a quarterback. This would be a huge mistake. It would rob the Bears of their ability to accumulate cheap young quality players to fill out the roster. This would result in the Bears becoming something like the Bengals. Yes, they would have a quarterback but nothing much else resulting in a losing team just like the Bengals. Granted they could use this approach after going 2-3 drafts aggressively trading down and filling out the roster, seemingly avoiding this mishap. That is certainly a much better approach than what the 49ers have done. However, there is probably an even better approach which would be to combine evaluating lower tier quarterback while building through the draft, then only if the team hasn’t been able to find a reasonable option at quarterback at that point should they go all in on trading up to get a quarterback. The idea would be to build up the team to a point similar to where the Colts are now, and then go all in on the draft. However, if the Bears are able to execute in free agency and the draft their team should be even better than the Colts as a whole with cheaper talent. This would require the Bears to not do basically what they have just done with Andy Dalton. They should avoid known quantities and sign undrafted quarterbacks or pick quarterbacks in the lower rounds. This way the team isn’t using much draft capital if any on a quarterback with the hope of getting at least an average to above average quarterback. The idea is not to expect to get the next Dak Prescott, but to be hoping to develop a more game manager type of quarterback like Alex Smith, but on a very very cheap contract compared to the higher end quarterbacks. A game manager quarterback making less than 5 million a year is quite valuable compared to paying 40 million a year for higher end talent. The idea would be to try and emulate teams that have made it to the super bowl with average quarterbacks, but large amounts of quality everywhere else on the roster. It is not to say that the Bears should only consider this approach, but that they should combine it with the more traditional approach of getting a quarterback at the top of the draft. This would give the Bears more options at quarterback while allowing the team to still develop a deep quality roster. The Bears should consider taking an approach of developing cheap rookie quarterbacks into average to slightly above average and then when these quarterbacks hit free agency allowing them to move on and repeating the process again. Signing below average quarterbacks like Dalton provides no real upside for the Bears. There is very little possibility of improvement and they are not cheap given the production. It would make much more sense to sign several quarterbacks from late in the draft or undrafted free agency and cycle through them trying to develop one into an average or better quarterback. At worst it will produce the same results as signing a player like Dalton, continued losing. However, it also provides the opportunity to develop a player into a competent quarterback on the cheap. The downside is the same, but the upside is enormous. There is ample evidence that NFL teams are really bad at evaluating quarterbacks. It would seem to reason that there are players being passed on that will end up being at least league average if not better. No team has really tried this type of approach so how well it might work is truly an unknown. It is possible that the first team to try it will find a huge advantage over other teams at the very least for a decade or so. Again, at worst the results are the same as signing a below average quarterback in free agency with little upside. While cycling through 4 or more quarterbacks a year doesn’t sound all that great, it would take just one to make it all worth it. Hence, the Bears would be much better off taking the money they would waste on below average quarterbacks in free agency and spend it on the best coaches to develop players. Focusing on player development and allocating resources there will serve the Bears much better than spending money on free agent quarterbacks.
In Summary, the Bears face a similar situation as the Broncos did back in 2016. The team has no high quality quarterback on the roster and an above average aging defense. The key for the Bears to avoid a similar fate as the Bronocs is to undertake an aggressive rebuild that involves the following elements:
· Trade current high quality players to build up draft capital and cap space
o Khalil Mack
o Allen Robinson II
o David Montgomery
o Roquan Smith
o Cody Whitehair
· Aggressively trade down in the 2021 and 2022 drafts to accumulate as many draft picks as possible targeting the 3rd round when able
· Be willing to aggressively sign top free agents in 2022 even if this means "overpaying" initially if they are able to get 6+ year contracts to avoid cap surges in 2023 and 2024.
· Consider a novel approach to developing quarterbacks by targeting UFA and players in the lower rounds hoping to develop a "game manager" quarterback to pair with deep talent across the roster
Certainly the quarterback development part of the plan is the most controversial and least proven element. However, the team is going to be bad anyway, and wasting money and snaps on a player like Andy Dalton that isn’t going to be with the team in 2-3 years anyway provides the team with no real value. It would be much better to try and determine if it is possible to find quarterback talent in places no one else is looking. There is plenty of analysis showing that teams are bad at evaluating college players and the quarterback position is no different. If the Bears employ this method and come up empty then they are no worse off than had they attempted to employ middling talent from free agency. Either way the team will have a deep talented roster in 2-4 years that they can then use draft capital that they have accumulated from trades to target a quarterback in the top of the draft. The idea is to try another approach to getting quarterback talent which should increase the probability of success. No team has really intentionally carried 4+ quarterbacks on the roster with the intention of cycling through them in the hopes of finding competent play, the Bears should be the first.