Three of the four NFC North teams go into the offseason knowing they are capable of playing at a high level.
At different points in the season, the Minnesota Vikings, Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers all rolled off big winning streaks to take command of the division.
That only leaves the Chicago Bears. The Bears went 3-13, never winning more than one game in any quarter of the season. The closest thing they had to a highlight was a 17-14 win over the Lions in October, which meant they finished the season with more victories over playoff teams than Detroit.
The offense finished 28th in the league in points and 30th in turnovers, while the defense was 24th in points and last in takeaways. In the last eight games of the season, they went 1-7 with 22 turnovers and four takeaways.
They used three starting quarterbacks – Matt Barkley in six games and Brian Hoyer and Jay Cutler in five each – and none won more than once. Other than that, it was a great season.
The good news is, along with the third pick in the draft, the Bears have a huge amount of money available under the cap. Dumping the contracts of Cutler, Lamarr Houston and Eddie Royal would add an extra $24 million to the pot, giving Ryan Pace one of the league’s biggest war chests.
The Bears have a ton of holes, but here are five free agents that they should give serious attention:
WR Alshon Jeffery, Chicago Bears: This seems like a no-brainer for Pace. The Bears have the money to give Jeffery something around five years and $60 million, and there’s no obvious way to replace him. He’s 11th among active receivers at 15.0 yards per catch and 10th at 72.2 yards per game. On the other hand, he’s missed 11 games in the last two seasons, including a four-game PED suspension in 2016, and he only scored twice last season.
The bigger problem, though, is that the Bears might not be able to sign him on the open market. He could help a lot of teams, most of whom can offer him a better situation than a 3-13 team with no quarterback. That means Chicago would have to give him the franchise tag and pay him $17.5 million with no guarantee that he won’t walk away at the end of the season.
If the Bears think they can turn the No. 3 pick into a veteran quarterback, tagging Jeffery is the right thing to do. If they are going to pick up a rookie QB and bring him along slowly, let Jeffery walk and use the cap space in other ways.
S Eric Berry, Kansas City Chiefs: This isn’t tough to explain. The Bears are in desperate need of help in the secondary and Berry’s the best defensive back available in free agency. He’d be a huge upgrade at safety and, given that he’s beaten cancer and regained his spot as a star, he’s not going to be afraid of adversity.
He’ll be expensive, probably costing upward of $10 million, but Chicago has money. Like Jeffery, the tricky part will be convincing him that he wants to play for the Bears instead of a team that is already in position to contend.
CB Captain Munnerlyn, Minnesota Vikings: The big target at cornerback is Trumaine Johnson of the Rams, but he comes with the same caveats as Berry. Chicago can throw a huge amount of money at him, but can they lure him to an outdoor stadium on the banks of Lake Michigan and a struggling franchise?
Munnerlyn doesn’t bring the same level of performance, but he’s a very good cornerback who is used to covering the top receivers in the NFC North. Signing him would also take him away from the Vikings, who would like to have him back, and make sure he doesn’t go to Detroit or Green Bay.
QB Kirk Cousins, Washington: The Bears don’t have a quarterback and, right now, Cousins is all that is available on the free-agent market. For the low, low price of $40 million, Chicago could team up Cousins and Jeffery and still have the No. 3 pick to grab a blue-chip prospect at another position. He’s used to playing outdoor football around the Great Lakes and he’s a Proven Leader of Men.
In the last two seasons, he’s thrown for 9,083 yards while completing 68.3 percent of his passes, and he’s put up 54 touchdowns against 23 interceptions. He took Washington to the postseason in 2015 and missed by a half-game in 2016.
He’s going to be hideously expensive, and no matter which team signs him, the fans are going to say “We couldn’t get anyone better than Kirk Cousins??” Still, it’s not the worst option in the world.
TE Martellus Bennett, New England Patriots: The Bears need a tight end, Bennett is outstanding, as seen by his performance in the Super Bowl, and the Patriots have a lot of big-money free agents to re-sign and Gronk will be healthy in 2017.
No? You aren’t buying it? Remember, we did say that Jay Cutler will be gone. He might like playing alongside Kirk Cousins… OK, maybe not. On paper, Bennett going back to Chicago makes sense, but those bridges are almost certainly burned beyond repair.
Jared Cook of Green Bay and Jack Doyle of the Colts are both tight ends who will have plenty of bidders, including their current teams, but the Bears have that huge bankroll to throw at people.