The Chicago Bears’ 2020 season was essentially four seasons wrapped into one. Early season highs, mid-season lows, a Mitchell Trubisky tour, and a humbling ending put things into perspective.
Looking ahead, the 2021 offseason could very well dictate the long-term future of the franchise. GM Ryan Pace enters the final year of his contract. He needs to prove he can find a quarterback and unearth offensive skill players. And Head Coach Matt Nagy has two seasons remaining on his deal. But he might not make it to next year if he can’t show that his offense can work. But before we cross those bridges, let’s take a position-by-position look at the team heading into a pivotal offseason for the Bears franchise.
WHO’S UNDER CONTRACT?
Kyle Fuller remains excellent, even as he enters his age 29 season. Since signing a long-term extension in 2018, Fuller has emerged as one of the league’s better corners with 11 interceptions and 41 passes defended in 48 games. And while a hearty chunk of that production came in 2018, he has made the Bears’ decision to match the Packers’ offer sheet on the Transition Tag look like a stroke of brilliance.
On the other side of the field, Jaylon Johnson‘s stock is on the rise. The 2020 second-round pick played 13 games and racked up 15 passes defended. Johnson didn’t come up with an interception as a rookie, but it’ll come as teams continue to (1) throw away from Fuller and (2) try to pick on a developing corner. A shoulder injury kept Johnson out of action in the Bears’ final four games of 2020, which was a bummer. But because he didn’t need offseason surgery, I’m already encouraged about what’s on the horizon in 2021.
When concussions kept Buster Skrine out of the lineup late in the season, it was Duke Shelley stepping up to fill in. Kindle Vildor, who was drafted a year after Shelley, joined the starting lineup in place of Johnson after his injury. Looking ahead to 2021, there’s a chance Shelley and Vildor could battle for the slot corner position vacated by Skrine.
Teez Tabor is a reclamation project. The University of Florida product was a second-round pick in 2017 who has yet to live up to his potential. Chicago’s secondary coaches have their work cut out for them working with Tabor, who was disappointing at each turn in Detroit. But who wouldn’t love getting the most out of a division rival’s discarded ex-prospect?
Tre Roberson was a forgotten man after spending the entire 2020 season on the non-football injury reserve list. But the Bears paid him a hefty amount of money out of the Canadian football League. And if all else fails, maybe the Bears can give him a tryout at quarterback? Hey, they’ve tried everything else!
Xavier Crawford played 5 defensive snaps for the Bears in 2020, and I don’t remember any of them.
EXITING FREE AGENTS
Buster Skrine was cut in a move that cleared up some salary cap space. Sure, the Bears have a ways to go before they clear what they need to get the type of impact players you’d want to add this offseason. But saying goodbye to Skrine was a start.
I had hope for Artie Burns least summer. Did I expect for him to set the world on fire? No. But I thought there was potential for a post-hype sleeper to emerge from the 2016 first-round pick on a one-year “prove it” deal. Instead, Burns suffered an ACL injury early in training camp and never got a chance to strut his stuff.
Michael Joseph has spent the better part of the last two years on the Bears’ practice squad.
WHO COULD BE CUT BEFORE THE LEAGUE NEW YEAR BEGINS?
Parting ways with Kyle Fuller doesn’t seem ideal. However, cutting him this offseason could create $11 million in cap space. And if the Bears found it necessary to cut him with a post-June 1 designation, that number increases to $14 million. But part of me feels like releasing Fuller is kin to slicing off your nose to spite your face. If the Bears did that, I imagine they’d go after another corner in the Draft hoping to unearth another Jaylon Johnson. And even though I trust this front office to find talented defensive players, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for another Johnson-like talent to fall into their laps.
Alternatively, the Bears could create cap space by extending Fuller’s contract and lowering the 2021 cap number in the process. Or they could explore trading Fuller, much like the Lions did with Darius Slay last offseason. But with the reality of the cap crunch being what it is, I struggle to find the perfect trade fit.
Cap numbers via OverTheCap.com
JAYLON JOHNSON WAS LOW-KEY KINDA GOOD
Even though injuries limited him to just 13 games, Johnson breaking in as a Week 1 starter and never turning back was impressive. Being an NFL cornerback is hard. Playing well at the position is one of the biggest challenges in modern football. And yet, the rookie held it down.
THE FREE AGENT MARKET INCLUDES…
⇒ Patrick Peterson
⇒ Malcolm Butler (hey, the Bears were in on him once upon a time)
⇒ Troy Hill
⇒ Desmond King
⇒ Mike Hilton
⇒ A.J. Bouye
⇒ Xavier Rhodes
SEVEN DRAFT-ELIGIBLE PROSPECTS
⇒ Caleb Farley, Virginia Tech
⇒ Patrick Surtain II, Alabama (his dad was a solid pro)
⇒ Asante Samuel Jr., Florida State (so was his dad!)
⇒ Jaycee Horn, South Carolina
⇒ Greg Newsome II, Northwestern
⇒ Shaun Wade, Ohio State
⇒ Ifeatu Melifonwu, Syracuse
HOW CAN THE BEARS ADDRESS/UPGRADE THE POSITION?
The idea of Davante Adams and Justin Jefferson lining up in the slot and beating an out-classed nickel corner legitimately keeps me up at night. Sure, the melatonin dummies help a bit. And the meditation countdown video Mario shared featuring Patrick Kane serves up an assist, too. But neither puts an end to the nightmares. Thus, leaving me to hope Chicago’s front office fears what I do and addresses the issue.
I don’t love the idea of the Bears spending money in free agency on defense. Not with the problems they have offensively. But I wouldn’t throw a fit if the team kicked the tires on Desmond King, who is an All-Pro performer as a slot corner and return specialist.