There is little to no debate about what the Bears’ greatest needs are in order for them to return to the playoffs in 2020, or even much disagreement about what comes first, second, third or fourth.
If the Bears can fix the tight end, left tackle, safety and right guard positions during the offseason, the only excuse for missing the playoffs again will be poor performance by quarterback Mitch Trubisky, coach Matt Nagy or both.
Although we realize Trubisky and Nagy are the biggest wild cards, they can’t approach their ceilings until those other four positions are fixed.
With 52 players now under contract, the Bears will be somewhere between $12.85 million and $13.35 million under the salary cap once Kyle Long’s retirement papers are filed or he is released.
With no cap casualties, they can easily extend or redo a few contracts – Allen Robinson and Leonard Floyd are prime examples – to create at least an additional $10 million in space, and should players such as Prince Amukamara ($9 million) and Taylor Gabriel ($4.5 million) be deemed expendable, the Bears could end up with as much as $35 million-plus to play with.
The point is the Bears probably can afford one big-time free agency deal and three or four mid-level contracts.
Their issues at tight end are at both the Y position and the U.
But the reality is that a healthy Trey Burton with an $8.5 million cap hit but $7.5 million of it all dead space isn’t going anywhere, and he was much better than average in 2018.
Jesper Horsted is a proven receiver who probably can learn to block well enough to be a factor in the league.
Then there is Dax Raymond, who spent 2019 on the practice squad but has promise as either a Y or a U, although more likely as a Y.
A healthy Hunter Henry or Austin Hooper could be the player the Bears should invest that one big free-agent deal in, but Henry’s injury history is worrisome.
Reality is that the Bears only need one more tight end, but he has to be their No. 1 tight end, and there isn’t one in the draft who screams rookie starter at the Y.
Conversely, it is a great year to draft offensive linemen and a poor one to look for them in free agency.
Brandon Scherff would be an immediate, huge upgrade to the Bears’ line, but he is going to be very expensive.
The Bears can’t sign Scherff and Henry or Hooper.
Joe Thuney could look good at guard too, but may not be worth his price tag with the Bears’ cap situation.
The questions for Pace are: (1) Is Rashaad Coward or Alex Bars the answer at guard, and (2) Should Bars be competing with Charles Leno at left tackle altogether?
With Anthony Castanzo likely to either retire or stay in Indianapolis, Pace isn’t going to find an answer to his tackle dilemma in free agency, short of an ancient Andrew Whitworth or Jason Peters, and a trade for Trent Williams from Washington seems less likely with Ron Rivera now in charge.
Is Coward, Bars or both a quality NFL offensive lineman in waiting?
It seems unlikely the Bears will re-sign Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, which means Eddie Jackson is the only safety left on the roster.
There is talent in the draft and free agency, but was the seventh-round draft pick used on Stephen Denmark, the 6-foot-3, 215-pound converted wide receiver to cornerback mere folly based on workout numbers, or can the kid play defense?
If I’m Pace, I’m spending spring and summer finding out if Denmark has an attack mode, because he looks more like a safety than a corner to me.
Lastly, although I haven’t mentioned inside linebacker, Roquan Smith is the only one the Bears have left under contract, unless Joel Iyiegbuniwe can play. We haven’t seen any signs “Iggy” can yet, and if he can’t, a fair amount of the Bears’ cap space will have to be allocated at inside linebacker, too.
Horsted, Raymond, Coward, Bars, Denmark and Iyiegbuniwe are the young men who just might hold the keys to what the Bears do next.
The question is: How much better can they be?
• Hub Arkush is executive editor of Pro Football Weekly. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him on Twitter @Hub_Arkush.