By Greg Gabriel–
(CBS) On Sunday, we witnessed another loss by the Bears that could’ve been a win, as they fell 30-27 to the Packers at Soldier Field. It seems like there have been a number of such games this season, and as a fan, I know how frustrating it can be.
While this season is lost, does this team have the pieces in place to win in the near future? My feeling is yes, but it may be 2018 before we know for sure. Given the injuries the Bears have had this year and when looking at the competition in the NFC North, I feel that with some luck, we could see a team with a winning record next year but not necessarily a playoff team.
That being said, some tough decisions have to be made in the near future.
Is Jay Cutler going to be back?
My feeling is the Cutler era in Chicago has run its course. He isn’t going to change. Cutler has been here for eight seasons and in most of those eight years, the Bears haven’t been a playoff-caliber team. Is it all Cutler’s fault? No, but regardless of the circumstances, it’s time to move on and draft a quarterback who can be the future of the franchise.
While the rookie is developing, the Bears need a quarterback to hold the fort so to speak. That player could well be Brian Hoyer or Matt Barkley. Neither is the answer, but both have shown enough to warrant the opportunity. Personally, I would rather have Hoyer, but we’ll see what management wants.
Is Alshon Jeffery going to be back?
I would say that the chances of Jeffery being a Bear in 2017 are a lot better than Cutler’s, but I’d still put them at less than 50-50 of him coming back. Why? He has been an unreliable player in the two years of the Ryan Pace-John Fox regime.
We all know how good Jeffery can be. When he’s healthy, he’s probably one of the six or seven best receivers in the league. But the fact remains: Pace and Fox haven’t seen that player.
There have been rumblings that Jeffery may not want to be here, but that has never been verified. If that’s the case, then by all means, don’t bring him back. With the kind of money it would cost to retain Jeffery, he has to be all in or the Bears are wasting their money. He would be hard to replace, but just look at what has happened in Detroit since Calvin Johnson left. The Lions have become a better football team.
For the Bears to re-sign Jeffery, it has to be with a deal that’s fair to both sides and, again, Jeffery has to totally buy in.
If the Bears were to let Jeffery and Cutler go, it would give them nearly $30 million more in cap space in which to either retain other players or go out and get new players. The key is finding the right players to bring in. They need to be productive on the field, durable and also be leaders who are strong in the locker room.
Are there good young players in place?
It’s my opinion that the two drafts in the Pace era have been very good. Receiver Kevin White, the 2015 first-round pick, has been a disappointment, but that’s because of injuries, not because he hasn’t played well. Injuries are part of the game, and players often overcome these injuries. It remains to be seen if White will become a core player in the future.
Looking at some of the other draft selections, nose tackle Eddie Goldman has the talent to be a premier defensive lineman in the NFL. Leonard Floyd and Cody Whitehair look like future Pro Bowl-caliber players. The same can be said for running back Jordan Howard.
Hroniss Grasu was beginning to come on before he was injured in training camp. While he may not become a solid starter, he can be a good swing offensive lineman at guard and center. Jeremy Langford is a capable backup to Howard.
Adrian Amos has been a two-year starter at safety, and while he may never go to the Pro Bowl, he will become a solid starter who the Bears can win with. Nick Kwiatkoski is an instinctive playmaker and with Jerrell Freeman and Danny Trevathan, the Bears have as good an inside linebacker group as there is in football.
The jury is out on defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard (inconsistent play), defensive back Deon Bush (injuries), defensive back Deiondre’ Hall (injuries), but all have shown that they have the skill set to become productive NFL players. Remember, they’re rookies and need time to learn and grow. Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy told me years ago: “If you get something from a rookie, it’s a bonus. It’s year two when they should begin to flourish.”
In the past two years, there have been some hits and misses with free agency. The first big-ticket free agent, linebacker Pernell McPhee has been slowed by injuries but when healthy has been a quality player and strong leader. The same can be said about Trevathan. Freeman played outstanding football before his performance-enhancing drug suspension. Now the question that has to be answered is whether the PEDs are the reason for his strong play. We will find out soon enough. Akiem Hicks has been an excellent addition to the defensive line, and the same can be said for Josh Sitton on the offensive line.
Receiver Eddie Royal has been on the sideline more than he has been on the field and has to be labeled a disappointment. I feel the jury is out in regards to offensive tackle Bobby Massie. He looked awful with Jay Cutler at quarterback but much better when Hoyer and Barkley have been playing. While he may not be the answer, he’s serviceable for another year.
Cornerback Tracy Porter and defensive lineman Mitch Unrein have been solid signings. They’re players who can help you win, but you wish you had more of a game-changer at those spots. With the money the Bears will have this spring, the hope is it’s spent on players like Hicks and Sitton. These are the type of veteran players who are needed to get the Bears back in the playoffs.
While the 3-11 record doesn’t show it, the Bears are an improved football team. Injuries have hurt this team dramatically in 2016. Just getting these players back will improve the team tremendously.
The Bears have to draft a quarterback, and they can’t miss on the player they select. That’s imperative, as a miss will set back the franchise years. They also have to find at least one more offensive linemen, a couple receivers (assuming Jeffery is gone), a defensive lineman, a cornerback and a safety. Add this those to the group of existing players, and this team will be well on its way to competing for a playoff berth.
Greg Gabriel is a former NFL talent evaluator who is an on-air contributor for 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter @greggabe.