By Chris Emma–
(CBS) Sitting side by side in the post-mortem, their goals appearing aligned, Bears coach John Fox and general manager Ryan Pace came off as humbled by their two years of disappointment.
Though the two leaders of the Bears read straight from script in their opening remarks last Wednesday, their words resonated. After finishing with an abysmal 3-13 record and marking 9-23 in two seasons together, there’s great pressure to produce wins.
“We’re all disappointed,” Pace said. “We have higher standards — me personally, our coaches, our players, the entire building has higher standards. We’re currently analyzing the season and what we must do to improve is already underway.
Improvement is imperative in an offseason that could be transformational. The Bears could either set themselves for years of contention or dig their hole deeper — a problem that would likely be left for a new regime.
For Fox, Pace and the entire Bears front office, the first step is forming a detailed plan to fill this roster’s greatest needs.
Pace referenced that the Bears have top-five cap space available for free agency. They should be aggressive in addressing key voids. A.J Bouye and Malcolm Butler lead the names available at cornerback, while Eric Berry and Tony Jefferson are among options at safety.
The Bears would be wise to address their secondary — which could use an upgrade at both safety positions and certainly at cornerback — in free agency. Their No. 3 pick in the NFL Draft should be used for either defensive end Myles Garrett, defensive end Jonathan Allen or a quarterback.
Garrett is widely considered to be the top player available in the draft, a freakish athlete whose 6-foot-5, 262-pound frame has been clocked at 19-20 miles per hour, according to Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin. Then there’s Allen, a standout who has led Alabama’s vaunted defense.
Should the Bears not consider any of the top tier of quarterbacks enticing, they can choose to go with either Garrett or Allen — if the Browns or 49ers move for a quarterback, as either can be expected. However, the Bears could also complete their defensive front by signing Calais Campbell in free agency. The 30-year-old Campbell had 8.0 sacks this past season as the 5-technique of the Cardinals’ 3-4 defense.
By signing Campbell, the Bears can shore up a key need and position themselves to take a quarterback with the No. 3 pick in the draft. Evaluations at the quarterback position have been ongoing all season long.
The Bears have dispatched scouts each week to evaluate the top quarterbacks available. Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky are the top quarterbacks available, each projected for the first round. Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes and Miami’s Brad Kaaya are considered options for the second or third rounds.
How the Bears view each quarterback should dictate how they approach a player like Campbell in free agency, which takes place in March, well ahead of the draft. While Garrett or Allen could be dominant players in the NFL, it’s unknown how the Browns and 49ers plan to approach the draft, especially with San Francisco working without a head coach and general manager.
The Bears should by now have a firm grasp as to which quarterbacks, if any, are worth taking. Fox and his coaching staff could get a bonus opportunity to evaluate Watson, who may participate in the Senior Bowl, which will be coached by the Bears and Browns. Trading for a player like the Patriots’ Jimmy Garoppolo is also an option.
Many other needs remain for the Bears. They could use an upgrade at left tackle, where Charles Leno was only serviceable last season. Receiver is a great question, one which starts with the decision on Alshon Jeffery this offseason. That will in part be answered by whether they truly believe Kevin White can play at a high level after two surgeries on the same left leg. Cam Meredith may be the surest receiver they have on the roster.
In preparing for this offseason, the Bears have time to complete critical evaluations. Their inventory should be certain after a 3-13 season in which many weaknesses were clear. The Senior Bowl comes at the end of January, then the NFL Combine presents important scouting opportunities at the end of February.
From there, the Bears will likely cut ties with Jay Cutler before the new league year begins. He has been paid in full the $54 million guaranteed from his seven-year, $126.7-million deal signed in January of 2014.
By the time free agency wraps up in March, the Bears must know well how to attack the draft. Their needs should be mostly filled, and a firm place for picking in the draft should be in place. Many key decisions will precede this as Fox, Pace and the front office form their plan to become better.
What’s certain is that the Bears must become significantly better this offseason. There’s certainly a higher standard for this organization. This team needs to be contending again in 2017.
If improvement doesn’t follow, someone else will be answering for Fox and Pace.