By Chris Emma–
(CBS) And so it begins — the end of the Jay Cutler era and the emergence of something new.
The Bears are preparing to part ways with Cutler, their quarterback of eight years who’s now on the trade block. Next comes the defining moment of Ryan Pace’s tenure as general manager: finding a franchise quarterback. He must get this move right.
Consider it a forgone conclusion that Cutler’s time in Chicago is over. The Bears can’t turn back from making him available, nor do they intend to. Trading Cutler could be complicated, and a release appears more likely. Cutler could even retire at the age of 33.
Pace has his sights set on contending in 2017. His Bears have to be winning in order to keep his seat from burning up. Victories start at the quarterback position. Pace knows it, too.
“Trust me, I understand the magnitude of that decision going forward,” Pace said in early January. “That’s a critical, critical decision for me and this whole building.
“Everything’s on the table right now. Really, that’s what it is. It’s free agency. It’s trades. It’s the draft. It’s current players on our team. Everything’s on the table.”
Indeed, everything is on the table for the Bears. They would love to find their quarterback of the future, but winning in 2017 is first priority. Can they have it both ways? And do they maneuver in the trade market or wait until the NFL Draft for a quarterback?
Plenty of intriguing options are on the table. Here are the Bears’ best options at quarterback:
Note: Quarterbacks listed are projected to be available at the time of writing. Rankings and evaluations are subject to change.
1.) Jimmy Garoppolo, 25, New England Patriots — By trading for the Patriots’ backup, the Bears would have a quarterback to lead them for 2017 and beyond. Garoppolo has spent three years in New England being developed by Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels while working behind with the greatest of all time, Tom Brady. He’s more than ready for this opportunity.
The Bears wouldn’t be basing their evaluation on Garoppolo’s limited NFL reps. Rather, they have three days of tape from their practices with the Patriots last August, among countless other resources. Perhaps he’s the next Aaron Rodgers, but maybe he’s just a serviceable NFL starter.
Of course, trading for Garoppolo means negotiating with Belichick. It’s a daunting task, but if the Bears believe Garoppolo is a franchise quarterback, they should pay the price.
2.) DeShone Kizer, 21, Notre Dame — While many Notre Dame quarterbacks have proved to be overrated entering the NFL Draft — perhaps a byproduct of their collegiate surroundings and successes — Kizer is a case of the opposite. He’s being vastly underrated because of the failures his Fighting Irish faced in 2016.
Kizer wasn’t to blame for Notre Dame’s dismal 4-8 season. Those were the failures of his head coach and a poor surrounding cast, which in turn forced Kizer to press. Kizer was forced into a poor situation, and his NFL stock took a hit.
But don’t be mistaken: Kizer would be an excellent fit for the Bears or any other team. He has NFL size and boasts a strong arm and quick feet. He has all the tools needed to be successful as a starter at the next level.
3.) Deshaun Watson, 21, Clemson — In the national championship game, Watson showed everything he has — the good and the bad. He led the Tigers admirably against the vaunted Crimson Tide defense, earning the victory over Alabama. But the game could’ve gone the other way if one of the many balls he floated into coverage was picked off.
Watson’s 17 interceptions in 15 games is alarming, but perhaps his tendency to turnovers can be coached out at the next level. Of course, he also threw 41 touchdowns last season, too.
I asked a high-level NFL source whose team is set at quarterback about the best quarterback in the draft. He picked Watson, citing his ability to lead. Bears coach John Fox would agree, listing leadership as one of his top traits at the quarterback position.
4.) Kirk Cousins, 28, Washington Redskins — This would be the safest route for the Bears, as signing Cousins would offer assurances at the quarterback position. Cousins has proved himself as a good quarterback with some upside in his play.
Cousins would certainly be an upgrade from Cutler, and he’s just 28. There could be better play in store for Cousins, who has thrown for 54 touchdowns and 23 interceptions in his last 32 games as the Redskins’ starter.
From the Bears’ perspective, Cousins offers both the opportunity to contend in 2017 with the right core in place, plus he’s also an investment for the future. Of course, Cousins will only be available if the Redskins allow him to hit the free-agent market. They have six days to make a decision on tendering the franchise tag for a second straight offseason, a move which wouldn’t please Cousins.
5.) Patrick Mahomes, 21, Texas Tech — Meet the sleeper of this quarterback class: Mahomes’ name is about to rise up draft boards. He has been a well-kept secret in part because NFL types are concerned about his system tendencies from the Texas Tech “Air Raid” offense. But he isn’t a system quarterback.
Mahomes has the physical tools that can translate to an NFL offense. He boasts a strong arm and has athleticism to extend a play in a pro-style system. The NFL’s College Advisory Committee offered a second-round grade for Mahomes, but that could soon change.
In Indianapolis next week, Mahomes could see his stock rise, as the quarterback pecking order is still far from decided. Mahomes has the opportunity to prove his tools worthy at the NFL Combine. Watch as he could fly into first-round projections soon.
Others in play:
Brian Hoyer, 31, Chicago Bears — The Bears seem likely to retain Hoyer for the 2017 season, though likely in the role of a bridge quarterback. His upside as a starter was realized last season, and it was just good enough for the Bears to lose respectably.
Tony Romo, 36, Dallas Cowboys — While Romo would give the Bears a chance to contend in 2017, he turns 37 in August and is coming off a serious injury. His durability is a question, but it’s also uncertain how effective he can be. This one doesn’t make much sense for Chicago.
Connor Shaw, 25, Chicago Bears — The potential of Shaw remains untapped after a gruesome injury in the preseason of 2016. He could get the chance to compete as a starter for the Bears next season. Management is excited to see what it has in Shaw.
Tyrod Taylor, 27, Buffalo Bills — Perhaps headed for a divorce from the Bills, Taylor could be available in a trade. He’s been productive in two seasons in Buffalo, boasting a 94.2 rating as the Bills’ starter. Taylor’s 37 touchdowns to just 12 interceptions are also intriguing. He’s just another option on the table for the Bears.
Mitch Trubisky, 22, North Carolina — Trubisky ranks just outside the top five, because of the questions to what he can be. Trubisky throws a tight spiral with some zip and has a good pocket presence. He also can extend plays with his feet, but there’s more to prove after one year as a starter.