As the 2017 Bears season—and John Fox era—mercifully comes to an end, I have started to turn my attention towards the off-season. It is this writer’s opinion that the Bears franchise has come to a crossroads. The amount of important, high-level decisions forthcoming is unprecedented in my years following the team.

This is a make-or-break off-season in every conceivable way. It certainly appears that John Fox will no longer be the Bears’ head coach come January 1st and Ryan Pace will be allowed to hire his replacement. This hire is the most important aspect of the off-season for me. Not only do the Bears need to pair the right head coach with Mitch Trubisky, but the head coaching hire will set the tone for what should be an action-packed off-season.

Ryan Pace made his first bold move last off-season by trading-up to draft Trubisky. This next move is essentially doubling-down on the Trubisky selection. It was said at the time that Pace’s future would be tied to the success of Trubisky. Well, this is Pace’s opportunity to improve his chances for success but he needs to get the head coach right first.

The Bears have talent, and that is evident by the fact that they could beat teams like the Steelers and Panthers. However, they need more talent—especially high-end playmakers. In my opinion, the Bears needs are pretty obvious. The manner in which to acquire these upgrades is a little less clear, but still relatively easy to see.

The good news for the Bears is that the available talent, whether that be coaching, free agents, or draft picks, align well with what the Bears needs are. I am going to take a look forward to see what Ryan Pace’s job is going to look like this off-season. I suppose you can consider this a “mock off-season” but I look at it more like a checklist or shopping list. As I alluded to earlier, this is a team at a crossroads. The job that Pace does this off-season will determine whether this franchise takes a leap towards greatness or falls flat on its face and becomes the Browns.

The Hire

This is undoubtedly the most important decision of the off-season. Not only do you have to find someone who can elevate Mitch Trubisky’s game, but you need to find a head coach who can fill out a staff and who can capture the respect of a young, talented core. I personally think that Bears have enough talent in their core to be better than they have shown to be, which makes them an attractive destination for head coaching candidates.

First, let’s cut through some of the minutia with these candidates. David Shaw and Jim Harbaugh are not leaving Stanford or Michigan, respectively. Honestly, I don’t want either one. They are similar coaches to John Fox in their game management, and each would want roster control. How did that work out when Lovie Smith—another similarly conservative coach—got control of the roster?

Dave Toub is another name that comes up a lot. Sorry folks, he has no ties to the Bears any longer. He seems destined to land in either Indianapolis or Cleveland as both general managers are from the Chiefs organization.

How about the New England Patriots coordinators? I would imagine that Josh McDaniels (and potential general manager Louis Riddick) will be heading to the Giants. Matt Patricia seems to be the man for the Lions, should that job open up. I doubt these are likely candidates either.

Despite some reports, Ron Rivera is a longshot to leave Carolina. Should he become available, I think you would have to look long and hard at him. I would imagine that he could bring virtually his entire staff with him, which I would be on-board with. Just don’t get your hopes up on this.

Due to Pace’s connection with New Orleans, Pete Carmichael Jr. appears to be a leading candidate to coach the Bears next season. Not so fast. Carmichael has been rumored to be similar to Vic Fangio in that he may not have the disposition to ever land the head gig. The fact that he was left off the annual NFL Career Development Advisory Panel list of head coaches, speaks volumes to me. Especially since that list has Saints tight ends coach Dan Campbell listed on it.

For me, I want to have an offensive-minded head coach that can be paired with Trubisky for the next 10-15 years. In the annals of NFL lore, the best quarterbacks seem to be paired with one head coach for the bulk, if not all, of their career. The overwhelming majority of these head coaches have been offensive-minded and often work directly with the quarterback. The NFL is a copy-cat league, but this is a plan that has stood the test of time.

Having sorted through the names above, that leaves us with some really intriguing candidates. Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy, Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich, Eagles quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo, Rams offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur, Lions offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, and Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmer. Familiarize yourself with these names, because they are about to be the ones most talked about for the first two weeks of January.

Frank Reich is intriguing to me if he can bring DeFilippo with him as the offensive coordinator. But if you do that, you run into the “Adam Gase problem” from 2015. He will most likely be a hot head coaching candidate after one season, and you will have to make a decision. I am also not a huge fan of Jim Bob Cooter, despite his all-pro name. The Lions are perennially one of the worst rushing teams in the NFL and if you are playing eight home games at Soldier Field, you need to be able to run the ball.

If I was Ryan Pace, I would narrow my search to Nagy, DeFilippo, LaFleur, and Shurmer. These are four young, dynamic offensive minds that would almost assuredly boost Trubisky’s game and give the Bears a legitimate offense. The Rams showed the Bears the path to success. Pair your young, offensive-minded head coach with a seasoned veteran defensive coordinator, and watch your team take off.

It just so happens that there could be a number of those types of defensive coordinators out there. Jack Del Rio (should he be fired), Romeo Crennel, Gregg Williams, Mike Nolan, and of course, Vic Fangio among others. If Pace can get the head coach right, pair him with a “CEO of the defense,” and fill out the staff with NFL-caliber position coaches, it will go a long way towards legitimizing the Bears franchise again.

The Signings

Free agency has been a bit of a bugaboo for Pace throughout his Bears tenure. I am choosing to take an optimistic approach to his free agent signings though. I am not entirely sure that Pace is solely responsible for some of the swings and misses however.

In 2015, with a new staff and a switch to a 3-4 defense, the Bears made what seemed like prudent signings. Fox was familiar with Eddie Royal in Denver and Fangio was familiar with Ray McDonald in San Francisco. Alan Ball seemed to fit the mold of a cornerback that Fangio likes. Antrel Rolle was a stop-gap at the black hole of a safety position. Jarvis Jenkins played well, Will Montgomery broke his leg, and Mason Foster was cut (but went on to have a decent career in Washington). Pernell McPhee was the big name, and he seemed like a great signing until his knees gave out on him.

2016 seems like more of a home run. With a gaping hole at inside linebacker, Pace went out and signed the big fish in Danny Trevathan, then paired him with Jerrell Freeman. Say what you will about Freeman, but he was an excellent player for the Bears. Bobby Massie has solidified the right tackle position, albeit at a rather pedestrian level. Akiem Hicks has been a very pleasant surprise as he has been one of the Bears best players over the past two seasons, and should be cornerstone for the foreseeable future.

This past free agency period was a little odd. Consider for a moment that it has been speculated that Pace wanted to fire John Fox after last season but ownership was not keen on letting him do so. If that is accurate, then the moves Pace made in free agency make a lot more sense. Mike Glennon, Markus Wheaton, Marcus Cooper, and Quintin Demps were definite misses; Kendall Wright and Prince Amukamara were definitely hits; with Dion Sims, somewhere in between.

But here’s the kicker, every single one of these contracts were essentially one-year deals. Circling back to the Pace/Fox report, this means that Pace had the foresight to have the opportunity to re-load completely if Fox was fired. The other thing that is encouraging is that A.J. Bouye was a Bears target, and they reportedly offered slightly more money than Jacksonville, but Bouye saw Jacksonville as an opportunity to win sooner. He wasn’t wrong, and this is where the quarterback/head coach come into play in luring free agents.

If the Bears can get creative with some cuts, they could potentially have as much as $100M to spend on free agency. This would include cutting everyone signed in 2017 plus McPhee, Willie Young, and Josh Sitton. These are no longer players that the Bears can rely on for the long haul, and they may be better served to find longer term solutions.

The Bears obviously need to upgrade the wide receiver position. While the draft is pretty deep at the position, I don’t think it’s wise to rely on a rookie to solve your problems, especially with a second-year quarterback at the helm. The Bears need some veteran options. I would go after a bigger name, who will command big money, and a mid-tier player as well. Davante Adams is the pipedream but if the Packers keep him, I think going after Paul Richardson would be a good move. The Seahawks are going to have to be creative this off-season and I am not sure they can afford to keep Richardson.

In the second tier, it gets more interesting. There will be a number of players that were disappointing this year who are—or could become—available. Terrelle Pryor, Sammy Watkins, Jaron Brown, Marqise Lee, Allen Robinson, and should he be cut, Dez Bryant.

Something to keep in mind is that the Bears will be getting Cameron Meredith back next year. He certainly looked the part of a legitimate NFL receiver last season, and in the preseason. Kevin White will be back simply because his money for 2018 is fully guaranteed. Kendall Wright is a guy that I would like to see re-signed to play in the slot. Dontrelle Inman has shown enough to get a small deal to compete for a roster spot as well. Let’s say they can pry Richardson and Brown away from Seattle and Arizona, respectively, the Bears would have legitimized the position with sturdy veterans that still have an upside.

The offensive line could us a little re-tooling as well. Charles Leno Jr., Kyle Long, and Cody Whitehair are core pieces and are not going anywhere. I believe that right tackle is definitely in need of an upgrade. There are a lot of ways the Bears can go. The tackle market is poor and the guard market is lukewarm, at best. The center market however, has some interesting names. Could the Bears move Whitehair to left guard and sign a center like Ryan Jansen? What about moving Massie to guard? Massie can run block but struggles with speed, which would be negated at guard. His replacement would need to come from the draft more than likely however.

The safety position appears to be in good shape with Eddie Jackson and Adrian Amos, so I don’t see much movement there. Cornerback will be interesting to watch. The Bears and Kyle Fuller appear to be destined for a Franchise Tag showdown. In my opinion, you cannot afford to lose Fuller. Make him prove it one more year and see if you can lock him down long-term. Prince Amukamra has played well and I wouldn’t mind seeing him re-signed as well. But if the Bears really want to up their game, they should pull out all the stops and try and sign Trumaine Johnson away from the Rams. Johnson and Fuller would put you in the upper echelon of cornerback duos in the NFL.

Perhaps the biggest issue heading into the off-season is at the edge rusher position. Beyond Leonard Floyd, the Bears really have nothing. Sam Acho is solid and would be worth bringing back, as would Lamarr Houston. But the Bears need another pass rusher in the worst way. The problem is, the free agent market almost never has quality pass rushers and this year is no different. They can certainly add a rotational piece like Connor Barwin, but I wouldn’t want to roll into the season without more reinforcements.

The Picks

I admittedly have not done my draft prep yet for 2018, so I don’t want to get into specific names here, but rather the positions that I believe the Bears should target. There are a few positons that are historically difficult to procure in free agency; quarterback, offensive tackle, edge rushers, and cornerbacks.

The Bears will have either six or seven picks in the draft, depending on the stipulations of the Dontrelle Inman trade (he was traded for a conditional seventh-round pick). The Bears currently do not have a third-round pick but will have two fourth-round picks this year. I don’t think it is necessarily wise to target specific positions with specific picks, but in this case, I think that the Bears biggest needs line up in such a way that they will likely be doing just that.

There are several high-end edge rushers that could potentially be in-play for the Bears, who can pick as high as 6th and as low as 13th, depending on the outcomes this Sunday. If they miss out on the top names, they should be looking at some of the best tackles in the draft at their selection in the first-round. If they go tackle in the first, then they almost assuredly need to go edge rusher in the second, and vice versa.

The fourth round is generally a bit of a crapshoot for most teams. It seems to produce a lot of qualuty players but also a lot of rank-and-file players as well. This is where I could see the Bears targeting a cornerback and wide receiver. Beyond that, you can always use more depth on the offensive and defensive lines, and taking another swing at an edge rusher. Should they keep their seventh-round pick from the Inman trade, this could be a spot where the Bears look at drafting a solution to their kicker problems.

Setting the Pace

This off-season is hugely important for Ryan Pace. He simply cannot afford to make mistakes here. The future of the franchise depends on it. In a year when the Bears will be active in all three phases of the off-season calendar, they need to hit a home run every step along the way.

The first step is the most important though. The head coaching hire needs to be right. Not only does this man need to develop Trubisky and bring the Bears into this millennia on offense, he needs to also command the respect of the rest of the team. In addition to that, this hire needs to inspire potential free agents to want to play for the Bears. This was an issue last year, with many players sensing that John Fox was on the way out.

The next step is almost as important. Trubisky needs weapons to throw the ball to. I expect him to take a big leap from year-one to year-two but that can only truly be accomplished with some better players surrounding him. Pace can ill afford to be out-bid or out-sold by other teams. The Bears must be all-in on their targets and then land those players. Second and third-tier players like last year’s free agent crop are not going to vault this team into playoff contention.

The final step will be something that Pace has shown himself to be adept at in his time in Chicago. He must come away with a difference-maker, a solid starter, and some depth pieces that have the potential to become starters. A tall order to be sure, but not an impossible one.

The Bears are not as far off as some think they are but they will need to play the game well if they are going to take the next step. Ryan Pace has set himself up to push all of his chips onto the table this off-season, we better hope that he has aces up his sleeve.

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