News & Analysis

Chicago Bears 2021 free agency and NFL Draft preview

In the lead-up to the start of free agency on March 17 and the opening day of the 2021 NFL Draft on April 29, we'll be taking a position-by-position look at all 32 NFL teams with a focus on the starting spots that have question marks heading into next season.

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The Chicago Bears are in an interesting position. On the one hand, they have the makings of a team that will be aggressive this offseason in the hopes of remaining competitive in a make-or-break year for Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy. On the other hand, there is no clear-cut answer at quarterback on this roster, their best offensive player is a free agent and the Bears don’t have a ton of cap room or draft capital to work with. 

How much of the future do they choose to sacrifice for the present? That will be the question that needs answering this offseason. 

Projected cap space (Over the Cap): $233,600 (21st in NFL)

Picks in 2021 NFL Draft: 20, 52, 84, 148, 180, 196

Projected 2021 offense
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
QB ?
RB David Montgomery 12 / 70 $1.1 million
WR ?
WR Darnell Mooney 69 / 127 $0.9 million
WR ?
TE Cole Kmet 58 / 71 $1.7 million
LT Charles Leno Jr. 17 / 38 $11.3 million
LG Cody Whitehair 3 / 39 $9.6 million
C Sam Mustipher 28 / 37 $0.8 million
RG James Daniels N/A $3.0 million
RT ?

Quarterback is the glaring question mark on this unit, but it isn’t the only one. 

Chicago must also decide what to do with wide receiver Allen Robinson II. He is in line to earn a sizable contract on the open market in free agency if Chicago doesn’t franchise tag him.

There is also the potential for the team to part ways with Anthony Miller. The former Memphis Tiger has underwhelmed in the three seasons since the Bears picked him up in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft, topping out at a 66.0 PFF grade in 2019. 

Along the offensive line, both Leno and Bobby Massie are potential sources of salary cap relief, but it will be difficult for Chicago to part with both players and open two starting tackle vacancies. I opted to leave Leno in at left tackle because of his solid 2020 campaign. 

It remains to be seen how the Bears shuffle pieces on the interior offensive line, as well. Whitehair performed significantly better at guard than he did at center, so the team could choose to start him there next season. And while Mustipher’s grading profile wasn’t all that impressive across seven starts at the position last year, it seems that the former 2019 undrafted free agent out of Notre Dame has earned serious consideration to be the answer at center moving forward.

How aggressive do the Bears get at the quarterback position?

Chicago was a finalist in the race to acquire Carson Wentz before a deal got done between the Philadelphia Eagles and Indianapolis Colts. Their name has also been floated around as a potential destination for Deshaun Watson and Russell Wilson via trade. The likelihood of either of those trades materializing is slim, though.

So, what happens if the Bears can’t land a big name at the position. 

Do they stick with Mitchell Trubisky on an extension after four seasons of PFF grades in the mid-60s? Do they target a quarterback like Mac Jones in the draft or orchestrate a major trade up to get one of the top prospects? Will they be in the market for the mid-tier free agent quarterbacks like Ryan Fitzpatrick or Jameis Winston instead?

There are several different directions that the Bears could go this offseason, and their decision at quarterback will go a long way toward determining what this team’s outlook looks like in 2021.

I think it makes sense for Chicago to shop in the mid-tier of free agent quarterbacks and let Trubisky sign elsewhere. That could allow them to potentially compete next year if things break right without tying them down long-term in terms of risk.  

Do the Bears keep Allen Robinson in Chicago with the franchise tag?

It appears as though things are heading towards a split between Robinson and the Bears. It’s unclear whether he would even play the 2021 season under the franchise tag, so he could potentially take the Le’Veon Bell route to the open market.

In an interview with Tyler Dunne of Go Long, Robinson said of his contract situation and the potential of the franchise tag, “It would be like if I told somebody, ‘You are qualified for this job. And this is what the other people at that job are making. But you can’t make that. Nobody in America would even do that. You see people go from job to job on an everyday basis in America. They go from company to company, at the same time, increasing their salaries.”

That sounds like a guy who doesn’t believe that his current team will pay him what he feels he can earn on the open market. The truth is it will be difficult for Chicago to pay him a deal north of $20 million per year, and that’s what Robinson is worth. He is coming off a year where he posted a borderline elite 88.3 receiving grade despite catching passes from Trubisky and Nick Foles. Robinson’s success in the NFL is nothing short of remarkable because he's had to deal with bottom-tier quarterback play throughout his career.

Do the Bears franchise tag him in the hope that he plays on it and the team can return to the postseason in 2021? Beyond the future of the quarterback position, that is the biggest lingering question in Chicago’s offseason.

What does this offensive line look like to start next season?

The Bears' offensive line has starting pieces on the roster, but there is little clarity on which players will start in which roles in 2021. At tackle, Leno and Massie are both serviceable, but the team could theoretically release one, or both, for salary cap relief.

The split in PFF grade between Whitehair’s starts at left guard and center was stark, making it possible that the Bears keep him at left guard next season. But do the Bears feel comfortable in Mustipher starting at center, and where does Daniels fit into the equation? 

Right guard is a possibility if Whitehair remains at left guard. Daniels struggled in pass protection in his five starts this past season, but he has delivered multiple years of solid play and is still just 23 years old. Daniels earned overall grades of 68.7 and 69.9 across his first two years in the NFL — respectable marks for a player as young as he was. 

The issue in Chicago is that there are serviceable options at all five starting positions, but the unit can still stand to be bolstered. It will make it interesting to see what the plan of attack is for Juan Castillo’s group in the coming months. 

Potential targets at open spots

Quarterback: Jameis Winston, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Sam Darnold  

Winston and Fitzpatrick would bring some excitement to this offense with their risk-taking approaches down the football field. Winston’s market could be depressed after a 2020 season spent riding the bench for the New Orleans Saints, but he has five years of high-variance but ultimately middle-of-the-pack starting play on his resume. Fitzpatrick, meanwhile, has really come on in the last few years with some of the best play of his career. The quintessential journeyman quarterback could have success for a year or two with the right supporting cast in Chicago. 

Neither Winston nor Fitzpatrick would qualify as a long-term risk on the deals they are likely to sign. And Winston could potentially become a lottery ticket to turn into the team’s long-term answer at the position. 

Darnold could also emerge as that lottery ticket via a potential trade with the New York Jets. His 63.1 PFF grade since entering the league in 2018 ranks dead last among 32 qualifying quarterbacks, but it’s hard to ignore the situation he was thrown into from both a coaching and personnel perspective. Darnold had next to no help. It’s tough to get behind parting with premium draft capital to bring him in, but he could be worth a shot at the right price heading into his age-24 season.

Wide receiver: Allen Robinson, Antonio Brown, Amon-Ra St. Brown 

Robinson is the guy Chicago would hold on to in an ideal world, but it’s hard to say at this point whether or not they are willing — or able — to pay him the type of money he would command elsewhere. That’s before you get to whether Robinson really wants to sign a multi-year contract on a team with another shaky quarterback situation. 

Meanwhile, many expect Brown to return on a team-friendly deal in Tampa Bay to play with Tom Brady for another year, but expecting anything with Brown is probably a mistake. If Robinson isn’t with the team, Brown could see the opportunity for a WR1 role and more money in Chicago as appealing. It would be a risk on the part of the Bears, but you’re not going to find more talent at a lower price point than you will with Brown this offseason.

St. Brown is another possibility to add to the group via the draft. His route-running ability and experience with a full route tree would be a nice addition to the wide receiver room in Chicago. While he doesn’t bring elite burst to the table, he does profile as a guy who could contribute early in his NFL career. St. Brown earned a 75.0 PFF grade as a true freshman with USC in 2018.

Tackle: Jackson Carman, Kelvin Beachum 

Even if the Bears head into the 2021 season with Massie and Leno as their starting tackles, it wouldn’t hurt to add some depth behind those two. 

Carman is a guy who projects to go somewhere on Day 2 and could be worth a look for Chicago. He has legitimate athleticism at his size and improved in each of his three seasons at Clemson. Carman earned PFF grades of at least 75.0 as a pass-blocker and run-blocker during the 2020 campaign. 

Beachum is one of the potential discount tackle options. PFF currently projects him to sign a one-year, $4.5 million deal, and you know you’re going to get reliable pass protection from the soon-to-be 32-year-old. Over the last four seasons, Beachum ranks in the 82nd percentile among all tackles in pass-blocking grade on true pass sets. Just don’t expect him to move bodies with consistency in the run game. 

Projected 2021 Defense
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
DI Akiem Hicks 61 / 126 $12.0 million
DI Eddie Goldman N/A $7.8 million
DI Bilal Nichols 36 / 126 $2.3 million
EDGE Khalil Mack 1 / 109 $26.6 million
EDGE Robert Quinn 67 / 109 $14.7 million
LB Roquan Smith 17 / 83 $6.0 million
LB Danny Trevathan 76 / 83 $5.0 million
CB Kyle Fuller 52 / 121 $20.0 million
CB Jaylon Johnson 84 / 121 $1.5 million
CB ?
S ?
S Eddie Jackson 63 / 94 $11.5 million

New Bears defensive coordinator Sean Desai has worked his way up through the organization from defensive quality control assistant to safeties coach to defensive coordinator. Desai has been with the team since 2013, so there are unlikely to be massive changes from a scheme standpoint following Chuck Pagano’s retirement.

Rotational pieces along the defensive line, such as Roy Robertson-Harris, Mario Edwards Jr., John Jenkins and Brent Urban, will all be free agents this offseason, though Chicago could very well bring back one or more of those players on team-friendly deals. The remainder of the Bears' front seven is relatively set. 

Hicks is the one player who could either restructure his contract or be traded this offseason for cap purposes. A release or trade of the 31-year-old could save the team over $10 million against the cap, and Hicks wasn’t quite as dominant against the run in 2020 after returning from injury.   

Fuller is another name to monitor at cornerback, given his big-time $20 million cap hit this upcoming season. He and Johnson project to start at outside cornerback. And following Buster Skrine’s release, Chicago will need to find a replacement in the slot. The bar wasn’t set all that high in recent years, as Skrine failed to top a 60.0 PFF grade in either of his two seasons with the team.

Lastly, 2020 starter Tashaun Gipson will also be a free agent this offseason. The Bears must decide whether or not to bring the veteran back to play alongside Jackson or look elsewhere. Gipson played well in his first year with the team in 2020, earning a 72.0 PFF grade on over 1,100 defensive snaps.   

Do the Bears try to cut costs with players like Akiem Hicks and Kyle Fuller?

Hicks and Fuller are the only two players on the Bears' roster whose release (or trade) could save the team over $10 million. For a team that is nearly over the projected 2021 salary cap right now without a long-term answer at quarterback and still in need of a star wide receiver, it’s a necessity to at least evaluate potential options with those two players. 

 Both guys are coming off “down” 2020 seasons by their standards, ranking toward the middle of the pack in PFF grade at their respective positions. In that respect, it may make sense to part ways with one or both of them. The issue when throwing around salary cap cuts like these is that they do make your team worse. Hicks and Fuller can both still contribute, and they won’t be easy players to replace.

The Bears already have four defensive linemen who were significant parts of the 2020 rotation hitting free agency in Robertson-Harris, Jenkins, Edwards and Urban. Meanwhile, behind Fuller, there isn’t a ton of proven depth at the cornerback position in Chicago. A team that wants to remain competitive typically doesn’t make those kinds of moves without guys who they trust to replace them in the wings.

How can Roquan Smith continue to improve in 2021? 

Smith is coming off a promising 2020 season in which he earned second-team All-Pro honors. He was once again a terrific tackler, and Smith saw his coverage grade not only rebound from a poor 2019 mark but stand out as one of the highest grades of any linebacker in the NFL. Among all qualifiers at the position, Smith’s 84.0 coverage grade ranked fourth behind only Fred Warner, Mykal Walker and Eric Kendricks

That said, there is still room for Smith to continue growing. The reason he came in as just the 17th-highest-graded linebacker this past season was his performance as a run defender. Smith’s 39.8 run-defense grade in 2020 was easily the lowest of his three-year career, and it’s an area where he should bounce back in 2021. The success that Smith enjoyed last season while still having clear areas to improve bodes well for the prospects of one of the cornerstones of Chicago’s defense.    

How will Chicago look to replace Buster Skrine in the slot?

Since landing with the Bears before the 2019 season, Skrine has earned PFF grades of 59.8 and 52.3. Over that same two-year stretch, no defender has allowed more receiving yards into their coverage when lined up in the slot than Skrine (1,071), and he’s been worth -0.16 wins above a replacement-level player, according to PFF WAR. It was no surprise to see the team sever ties. 

Whether it’s in free agency, where price points on nickel cornerbacks will likely be depressed, or in the 2021 NFL Draft, there are quality options out there in the coming months to target.

Potential targets at open spots  

Slot cornerback: Mike Hilton, Jevon Holland

Hilton could be one of the starters the Pittsburgh Steelers lose to free agency this offseason as they look to maneuver a tricky cap situation. Hilton has been on the opposite end of the spectrum to Skrine over the last four years, grading out as one of the best slot cornerbacks in the league. He’s certainly one of the biggest pass-rushing threats off the edge at the cornerback position, as he has generated 42 pressures over the last four seasons. 

Holland could be a candidate to kill two birds with one stone for the Bears this offseason. He started at safety for Oregon as a true freshman in 2018 before switching to the slot in 2019 and earned PFF coverage grades of 85.0 or higher in both positions. Holland has shown a nose for the football, and his physical and mental traits should make him desirable to a team like Chicago. 

Safety: Tashaun Gipson, Paris Ford

Gipson played well enough in 2020 for the Bears to have interest in bringing him back. He’s not necessarily a long-term option at the position heading into his age-31 season, but Gipson is still a capable starter who put forth a well-balanced effort last season as both a run defender and coverage defender. He finished the year with a 72.0 PFF grade, the second-highest single-season mark of his NFL career.

Ford is a potential draft target out of the University of Pittsburgh who likely wouldn’t take long to endear himself to Bears fans with his playstyle and willingness to put his body on the line. He is coming off two years of solid PFF grades (72.6 and 68.1) and profiles as an intriguing fit next to Jackson if taken with a mid-round pick in the upcoming draft.

Know tomorrow, today. Western Southern Financial Group.
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