The Chicago Bears have completed their first season under the new regime, finishing 6-10 and last place in the NFC North. Now General Manager Ryan Pace enters his second offseason, which will be critical in the outlook for the franchise.
While the Bears offense certainly improved despite not receiving full seasons from Alshon Jeffery, Eddie Royal and Martellus Bennett, the defense still needs some work. That’s where Pace will try and work his magic with free agency and the NFL Draft.
Here’s five story lines you need to watch this offseason:
The Alshon Jeffery decision
The Bears decided to part ways with wide receiver Brandon Marshall last season when they traded the receiver and a seventh round pick to the New York Jets for a fifth round pick. That left Alshon Jeffery as the team’s true No. 1 receiver on the roster.
Now in the 2016 offseason, Pace will face a big decision regarding Jeffery who is scheduled to be a free agent.
— Brandon Marshall (@BMarshall) January 24, 2016
Bringing Jeffery back is the ideal situation for Pace and the Bears, it’s just at what price. Jeffery is surely going to demand a good amount although he won’t be paid Dez Bryant or Demaryius Thomas money, he’s still going to get a good chunk of change. The Bears pretty much have three options with Jeffery: Let him test the open market, sign him to a long-term deal or franchise tag him.
If the Bears decide to let Jeffery test the open market, they can still sign him but risk having another team throw more money at him. Despite injuries plaguing his 2015 campaign, Jeffery still has a lot of value. He graded as the third best wide receiver this season, finishing behind Antonio Brown and Julio Jones.
If they choose to keep him, they are going to have to agree to a long-term deal with Jeffery. That or use the franchise tag which will sit at a little more than $12,000,000. Over Jeffery’s four seasons in Chicago he’s been relatively healthy minus 2015 and has produced. He’s recorded 252 receptions, 3728 yards and 24 touchdowns in 51 games.
Will Matt Forte stay or will he go?
Jeffery won’t be the only decision Pace will have to make regarding an important position. With Matt Forte also scheduled to be a free agent, the Bears face a decision on whether or not to bring back the 30-year-old.
You can’t deny that Forte has been productive in his eight seasons in the league; all with the Chicago Bears. But it might be time for the franchise to move on and this year showed that. Forte struggled in the run game and with the emergence of rookie Jeremy Langford, his time could be over.
Forte missed three games this season due to an injury, which hurt his production, but signing a running back at 30-years-old to a long-term deal has proven to backfire in the NFL. The likely decision is to move Langford as the premier back in the offense and have Ka’Deem Carey be the backup. The Bears could also explore the option of bringing in a veteran through free agency or drafting another young back in the later rounds.
Will Robbie Gould face competition?
One area that became a big problem this season was Robbie Gould’s key misses. The normally accurate kicker missed six field goals this past season, but they came at key times. Gould missed three-straight field goals twice this season including a game-winner and game-tying attempt.
While you’ve heard about Gould’s misses on field goal attempts, there’s something else that should worry the Bears. Gould’s touchback percentage as a whole was among the NFL worst in 2015. The Bears finished at 27th overall with a touchback percentage of 46.99, meaning opposing teams were returning kicks more than half the attempts. In a league where the kickoff marker was moved ahead, touchback percentages really shouldn’t be that high.
For the Bears it will be a tough decision on Gould this offseason as he’s scheduled to be the highest paid kicker in the NFL. With Gould only getting older, it will be up to them to decide if they want to pay him that money next season or if it’s time to move on. After all, he has spoiled Bears fans for years now.
Improving the linebacking core
One major problem for the Bears defense last season was the play of the linebacking core. The Bears made the transition to a 3-4 defense and the linebacking weakness really showed.
Free agent signee Pernell McPhee was by far the best linebacker on the team recording 6 sacks and 53 tackles. But he’s not enough to get the Bears defense to the level it needs to be under Vic Fangio. Outside of McPhee the linebacking play was horrendous and once again it can be rooted to Shea McClellin.
The former first round pick made the switch to linebacker and seemed to struggle again. At some point, the experiment will end but will it be this offseason?
As the Bears' middle linebackers struggle, Washington's leading tackler is MLB Mason Foster, who was cut by Chicago in training camp.
— Chris Emma (@CEmma670) December 13, 2015
Alongside McCellin, second-year linebacker Christian Jones failed to take that next step after a nice rookie year. Several times both McCellin and Jones looked lost on plays as they blew assignments and missed tackles.
With the 11th pick in the upcoming draft, the Bears will have a shot at taking a linebacker of the future. Whether it’s through the draft or free agency, the position has to improve going into 2016. If not, the Bears will be in big trouble — again.
The curious case of Martellus Bennett
The final storyline to pay attention to is tight end Martellus Bennett. Since arriving in Chicago in 2013, Bennett has produced and there’s really no arguing that fact.
But there seems to be some tension between the 28-year-old who is scheduled to be a free agent following the 2016 season. Bennett skipped offseason workouts with the team as he wanted a new contract with the team.
Now this offseason, it’s going to be one of the hottest topics among the league as the Bears have the option of trading him. They did trade receiver Brandon Marshall last offseason, so that’s certainly not out of the question. If the Bears can get a deal they like for Bennett, he’s likely out the door.
Pace on if relationship with Martellus Bennett is strained: "No not at all."
— Adam Hoge (@AdamHoge) January 4, 2016
There’s still a chance the two come to terms on an extension as Pace stated there is no “rift” between the two. Keep an eye out as the Bears look to stack more draft picks.