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Bears Mailbag: Trade down scenarios, Roquan’s new deal, Off-season priorities and much more

With the 2022 NFL regular season behind us, the excitement of the off-season can begin. Just how good of a spot are the Bears in and what they truly accomplish in the coming months? We’ll dive into all of that and more.

NFL: Chicago Bears at New York Jets Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

The 2022 NFL regular season has come and gone, and with that comes a moment a lot of fans have been waiting for since last year. Despite the Chicago Bears finishing the season at (3-14), there’s little argument that they’ll control the bulk of the upcoming off-season. Not only does the team hold a record amount of cap space (well over $100 million in true cap space), but with Week 18’s results, they secured the No. 1 overall pick in late April’s draft.

With plenty of action expected starting in March, we have a chance to catch our collective breath and look ahead to what should be an exciting off-season. With that in mind, let’s dive into a jam-packed post-regular season edition of our Bears mailbag.

In some ways, it feels like March is right around the corner, but in reality, we’re all away from how long these next two months will actually take. One reason is anticipation, and the other is because of how volatile the upcoming free agent market will become. A few weeks back, we saw two top offensive line targets fly off the board with deserved extensions. Because of what free agency has turned into, we can be assured that other top players will follow suit over the coming weeks with their own extensions. That makes it tough to truly project what the Bears will be able to do in the free-agent market in March. With that in mind, I’m going to stay away from locking down specific names for the time being.

Right now, the Bears’ needs are clear. They have needs all over the roster, but as general manager Ryan Poles pointed out in his press conference on Tuesday, they’ll prioritize valued positions. Here’s how I would prioritize needs.

1. Offensive line

If the market stays how it is right now (which it won’t), there are some quality names at both tackle and on the interior that would make a lot of sense in Chicago. Offensive tackle should be the priority, but either a left guard or center should remain high on that list as well. Between free agency and the draft, I believe the Bears need to come away with three new starters along the offensive line.

2. Defensive Line

You could argue that the offensive and defensive lines are a 1a. and 1b. type of situation. While I believe the Bears need three new starters offensively, you can make an argument that this defensive line needs all four starting spots replaced. I don’t know how realistic that is, but I would guess Poles and company will make the defensive line a priority. As it stands right now, it’s going to be much easier to fix the interior defensive line in free agency. If that continues to be the case, I wouldn’t be shocked if they try to address edge rusher early in April’s draft. Either way, this group must vastly improve if there’s any real shot of defensive improvement.

3. Wide Receiver

This is yet another big need without a real clear-cut plan. Assuming they feel comfortable with Darnell Mooney and Chase Claypool as their WR2 and WR3, they’ll need to target someone with a higher ceiling. Or a proven No. 1 target. The issue? Who is that going to be?

Free agency is lean at this spot, and that’s putting it nicely. The top end of this draft class also doesn’t appear to have a player worth selecting in the Top 5-7 picks, either. While I’m not overly keen on trading away more picks for a proven veteran receiver, it almost feels like that might be their only true shot at landing someone who can take this group to the next level.

There are many other spots worth mentioning, and as we dive deeper into the off-season, I’ll get more into that. For the time being, this would be my Top 3 list of needs heading into March.

This is something I’ve spent the last month trying to figure out, and I’m still not sure I have a strong grasp on what we can expect with a trade down of No. 1 overall. Here’s what I will say. There are many great mock draft tools available, but I think many of them have set some unrealistic expectations of what the Bears could get back in a trade come April.

I’ll give you two past trades and how those could fit some of the Bears’ current trade-down scenarios. Keep in mind that over the past 15 (or so) years, most trades involving a Top 2 pick and the selection of a quarterback have come close to a (150%) return in value when comparing it to either the Jimmy Johnson or Rich Hill trade value charts.

Scenario 1: The 2016 trade that sent pick No. 8 for No. 2 when the Philadelphia Eagles selected Carson Wentz.

Philadelphia gave up No. 8, No. 77, and No. 100 in 2016. A 1st round pick in 2017 and a 2nd round pick in 2018 for No. 2 overall in 2016 and a 2017 4th round pick.

This trade had a value of 1,200 points via the Jimmy Johnson trade chart, which would be the same as the Bears trading to No. 4 with the Indianapolis Colts. Applying a similar value in 2023, you could expect the Bears to land No. 4, No. 35, a 2024 1st-round pick, and either a 2025 3rd-round pick or a 4th-round pick. For me, this might be the Bears’ ideal situation considering they could add extra capital and stay in range to select an elite defender.

Scenario 2: The 2016 trade that sent pick No. 15 to Tennessee for No. 1 when the St. Louis Rams selected Jared Goff

The Rams gave up No. 15, No. 43, No. 45, and No. 76 in 2016. They also sent 2017 picks in the 1st round and 4th rounds. The Rams did receive a 4th and 6th-round pick back in 2017, as well.

This scenario is a bit tougher because the 14-spot gap in picks is much bigger than I believe Poles will be comfortable going. I also don’t think Tennessee received “great” value in this trade, so I’ll apply it to a trade that could make sense at No. 9 overall with the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers make sense for a few reasons.

  1. They have some young, intriguing players that could help add value to a trade.
  2. They have multiple high-round picks due to off-loading some veterans during the season. It should be noted that, as of now, they are not projected to have a pick after the fifth round, which is why they’d have to pay a heavier price in future years for this projection.

In this scenario, I could see the Bears picking up No. 9, Carolina’s 2nd round pick (No. 39), and San Francisco’s 4th round pick in this year’s draft. Then Carolina’s 1st round picks in 2024 and 2025. Now, I won’t say I’m overly confident with this projection, but when factoring in a 150% value between pick No. 1 and No. 9, these values line up relatively close in both popular trade models.

Again, this is far from a perfect science, but this should give you a pair of scenarios (both short-range and long-range) of what the Bears could accomplish in a trade-down scenario.

This is yet another discussion Poles, and the front office must weigh when they are sifting through offers for the No. 1 overall pick. Back in the late 90s and early 2000s, many trading teams preferred to give up present-year draft capital while holding onto future-year picks. That approach started to change around the Robert Griffin III trade in 2012 and has remained that way since. The other common trend that has disappeared over the years has been the inclusion of key players in these types of deals.

Poles could look to rewrite the parameters of these deals and focus more on this year’s draft, but my guess is that he’d take one extra high-round pick in 2023 to guarantee himself at least a future 1st-round pick (if not more). That’s the route I expect the Bears to take, barring any special circumstances (adding in players, etc.). Keep in mind that Chicago will hold many resources for the upcoming off-season, but they’d like to continue that trend into future seasons. Especially regarding the draft.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Baltimore Ravens Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

That’s a great question and one that I’ve seen pop up on my Twitter timeline more than once over the past 36 hours. The Roquan Smith situation was a bit of a rollercoaster. After originally being a “hold-in” during Training Camp, he finally postponed contract talks and started practice. Most fans put their concerns about the situation to the backburner once the regular season begins. That was until Smith was abruptly traded on Halloween to the Baltimore Ravens. On Tuesday, The 25-year-old signed a five-year, $100 million extension with $60 million in guarantees.

There’s no denying that this defense took a sizable dip after he left, but I do wonder if that was inevitable, regardless of Smith’s trade. We’ll never know the true answer to that, but it became clear that this new regime had minimal interest in paying Smith at the top of the market. Whether that was because of their evaluation of him as a player or that they simply did not see that type of value in the position that he plays is up for debate.

In a vacuum, sure, the Bears probably should have rewarded one of their own. $20 million per year doesn’t look like a huge chunk of money when your team is rolling into the off-season with over $100 million in cap space. What needs to be kept in mind is that while their current cap situation is advantageous, that can dry up in a hurry. I also believe it’s harder to justify paying the top-market value for anyone who doesn’t play a premium position. Especially when considering how much talent this entire roster lacks.

It may seem counterproductive at the moment, but receiving a pair of draft picks and more wiggle room in the cap department could end up bringing the team more value than paying him big money in a broken defense. I also can’t help but wonder if he was a good fit as the Will in a 4-3 front. I truly believe (as of now) this trade is a win-win for both teams. The Ravens add another stud to an already good defense, and the Bears add more resources to a team that they are just starting to build back up.

I’ve run a few mock off-season scenarios so far, and the one thing I continue to get hung up on is how the Bears are going to land a No. 1 receiver. Listening to Poles talk on Tuesday, he made it clear that this offense needs someone to emerge as the top target. At this point, we all know that the Bears cannot and will not be content heading into next season with just Mooney and Claypool as the top two options. Now, they must find the best route to securing that player, but I’m not sure what it is.

A young option like D.J. Moore would make a lot of sense, but it’s hard to imagine a scenario where the Panthers would add a young quarterback AND trade away their top receiving option. They’ve been adamant that they will not trade away young core pieces like Moore or Brian Burns. It’s hard to blame them because that roster could be a quarterback away from taking the division in 2023-beyond. Jerry Jeudy was available at the deadline, but the Bears opted to pursue Claypool instead. At this point, I’m not sure Jeudy will ever emerge as a true No. 1 threat.

The more likely scenario could be trading for a proven veteran receiver. Both DeAndre Hopkins and Brandin Cooks are expected to be traded this off-season. Cooks has said he does not want to be a part of a rebuilding team, but that’s a very subjective viewpoint. The Texans clearly have a long way to go, but that does not mean he’d view Chicago in the same light. Hopkins could also make a lot of sense. The rumors are that Arizona will seek a high-round pick for him, but an Amari Cooper price tag could end up being their reality.

At this point, there aren’t a lot of clear paths to a true No. 1 receiver. So acquiring a veteran might make the most sense, especially if the price is right. That’s my current guess for how they solve their current dilemma.

It became clear early in the process that Riley Reiff was brought in more for his veteran presence to a young offensive line rather than his former abilities. While many (including myself) believed that he would immediately slide into a starting role, the Bears had other ideas.

Poles singled out Reiff as a valuable member of the 2022 team, noting that his contributions in the locker room had far more value than his limited snaps on the field. While that may be true, the Bears know they must drastically improve their offensive line heading into 2023. That’s why I don’t believe the veteran will be back next season. Much like Jason Peters in 2021, I think Poles’ positive words on Reiff were more a “thank you for your service” rather than a future endorsement.

NFL: Houston Texans at Chicago Bears Jamie Sabau-USA TODAY Sports

In my opinion, Cody Whitehair’s tenure over the past few years has been disappointing. His play has been inconsistent at best because health has become a factor. Before his first injury this year, I thought he was playing pretty well. After coming back, his play dropped off a cliff. Considering the injuries that have piled up and his inconsistencies, I’m not sure moving him back to center would be a smart idea or something the Bears have in mind.

If they chose to cut Whitehair, he would save the team $5.8 million in a pre-June 1st decision. He would also account for $8.3 million in dead cap space. They could opt to use a June 1st designation, which would bring the savings up to $9.9 million and spread his dead cap hit evenly across 2023 and 2024. Something that is worth keeping in mind, though. According to Brad Spielberger of Pro Football Focus, the Bears currently need to spend about $150 million in cash for the 2023 season. That can come in a variety of different ways (free agent signings, draft class, extensions, signing bonuses, etc.). If they were to cut someone like Whitehair, they would, in turn, need to spend more to meet the cash floor.

My guess is that the Bears would rather hold onto a younger player like Lucas Patrick for another year. Patrick could either start at center or become their top interior backup. Patrick’s cap hit is less, as would be his savings in a scenario where he’s cut. Long story short, I think Whitehair is much more likely to be a cut candidate than have a chance at playing center again in Chicago.

What the Bears do on the offensive line this off-season will be one of the more interesting developments to keep an eye on. Part of the equation could be what ends up being available to them in free agency. Right now, the only true left tackle set to hit the market is Orlando Brown. Mike McGlinchy, Kaleb McGary, and Jawaan Taylor are all options on the right side.

Most of the top tackle prospects can play the left side, so that could also factor into the equation but considering where the Bears are likely to pick in the first round, Brown feels like the only real option when talking about moving Jones to the right side.

Much like any offensive lineman playing one side of the line, the muscle memory part is always the most overlooked part of any move. That’s where someone like Elgton Jenkins would have made so much sense. He’s played all over the line. Without that versatility, things get a little more tricky. In terms of overall skill set, I believe that Jones would transition well. He’s a much better run blocker and was that same way in college.

Listening to Poles speak about the fifth-round rookie, I’d be surprised if he doesn’t head into camp next season as the favorite for one of the two tackle spots. I tend to believe they’ll keep him on the left side and hope he can take the necessary steps this off-season to improve on some of his weaknesses. I do think he can make the transition over to the right side if needed.