Hope springs eternal when we get to this point of the football calendar. Rookie deals have been signed, sealed, and delivered, giving fans the promise of a better future. And with training camps opening soon around the league, optimism grows anew as fans gear up for the coming season. But there’s always a “but” when it comes to these things. And this one from ESPN is a doozy.
The team of reporters Jeremy Fowler and Field Yates, along with, MNF analyst Louis Riddick, and analytics expert Seth Waldron put their heads together to rank each of the NFL’s 32 teams’ future over the next three seasons. The catch-all number is based on ranking a team’s QB situation, overall roster (sans quarterback), front office, coaching, and drafting. And when it comes to the Chicago Bears, it isn’t a pretty picture. At least, not at first blush. The ESPNers give the Bears a 69.1 overall grade, which – while nice for kicks and giggles – puts them below average on their grading scale. What’s worse is that their ranking at 27th puts them among the bottom tier of the NFL’s 32 teams. And to be fair, each has their reason.
Yates points out the franchise’s lack of current flexibility in terms of salary cap space and limited draft capital, and a roster that is aging before our eyes. These aren’t new problems for the Bears. But part of me feels better about not being alone in being concerned about a team that’s getting old and expensive. And sure, drafting Justin Fields helps matters on that front, but the Bears still have cap issues to navigate in the short-term. Riddick highlights concerns regarding the offensive line and weapons on offense surrounding Fields. Again, this is old hat for us.
But it’s not all bad. In fact, while dropping fair and honest critiques of where the Bears are at right now, the ESPN team stumbles upon reasons for legitimate hope. No foolin’!
Fowler writes the Bears can pull off an on-the-fly re-tooling of their defense. He circles defensive lineman Akiem Hicks as someone with trade value, even as Hicks enters the final year of his contract. Fittingly, the idea of trading Hicks this summer is something that was brought up earlier this offseason. Much like cutting cornerback Kyle Fuller, I wouldn’t love moving Hicks. But I can understand the line of thinking that gets us to that end game. Even if I were to disagree with that decision.
Elsewhere, Chicago could create $12.9 million in cap space by cutting pass-rusher Robert Quinn after June 1, 2022. Quinn didn’t make a great first impression last season, finishing with just 2 sacks in 15 games. But there is evidence a bounce-back could come in 2021. And if the team is feeling really froggy, it could move on from Eddie Jackson’s contract after this season. The dead-money hit ($8.9M) wouldn’t be pretty, but a post-June 1 cut could create $6.1 million in cap space. From there, the team can re-allocate funds to younger defenders on the rise such as cornerback Jaylon Johnson and linebacker Roquan Smith. And even address Riddick’s concerns about the lack of offensive firepower.
But let’s not fool ourselves here. We can talk about the upside that comes with creating cap space and adding draft capital until we’re blue in the face. However, in the end, we all know – deep inside – that Justin Fields is the No. 1 reason for optimism. Full stop.
“The Bears have a clear and direct path to flying up these rankings in Justin Fields,” Yates writes. “If the former Ohio State quarterback meets the promise so many see in him, Chicago’s fortunes turn immediately.”
And that’s what it comes down to when it’s all said and done. So much opens up if Fields is the quarterback we think he can be. Quarterbacks on rookie deals are worth their weight in gold. Check out what the Chiefs did in building around Patrick Mahomes while he was on his first contract. Look back to what the Seahawks put together during Russell Wilson’s early career. There are even success stories on the lower end of spectrum, such as the Rams’ run with Jared Goff during the course of his rookie contract. Simply put, having a good QB on a rookie deal allows good front offices to supplement the roster with high-end, high-price talent around him until the team has to make a decision on said quarterback’s second contract.
In other words, if you’re willing to deal with the growing pains that come with the 2022 season, brighter days could be on the horizon if the Bears play their cards right. And if they don’t, well, we’ll cross that bridge when we get there. But for now, we’ll allow ourselves to have a teeny bit of optimism.