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Chicago Bears free-agency overview: Solving the quarterback conundrum

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Stephen A. warns Watson to stay away from Chicago (2:13)

Stephen A. Smith is opposed to the idea of Deshaun Watson going to the Chicago Bears. (2:13)

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- The Chicago Bears enter 2021 NFL free agency coming off an 8-8 season in 2020 and have 22 unrestricted free agents. Chicago has been consistently active in free agency during Ryan Pace’s run as general manager, but this offseason presents similar challenges as last year for a team with little cap space and needs across the board.

Nothing truly matters until the Bears figure out what they’re doing at quarterback. Being stretched so thin financially, Chicago will need to get creative if it wants to add a veteran quarterback via a trade or free-agent market and keep top pending free-agent wide receiver Allen Robinsonin the mix. Here’s what to expect from the Bears when the NFL offseason hits high gear with the start of free agency on March 17.

QUARTERBACK

Under contract: Nick Foles

UFA: Mitchell Trubisky

Game plan: The futures of Pace and coach Matt Nagy depend on the Bears righting the ship at quarterback after Trubisky didn’t pan out, so don’t be surprised if Chicago takes multiple swings at the position this offseason. Even if they draft a quarterback at No. 20 (or trade up to get one), Foles didn’t show enough last season to make the Bears comfortable rolling with him as the sole veteran. Any rookie brought on in April will be paired with another experienced quarterback. The likes of Alex Smith, Andy Dalton, Ryan Fitzpatrick or anyone not in line for a massive pay-day (like Dak Prescott) could be within Chicago’s price range.

RUNNING BACK

Under contract: Tarik Cohen, David Montgomery, Ryan Nall, Artavis Pierce

UFA: None

Game plan: The Bears could add an inexpensive pass-catching back for depth, but the running back room is pretty much set. Montgomery has shown he’s capable of being an every-down rusher while Chicago will get back the explosiveness it missed being without Cohen last season due to an ACL tear.

WIDE RECEIVER

Under contract: Anthony Miller, Riley Ridley, Javon Wims, Darnell Mooney, Jester Weah, Reggie Davis

UFA: Robinson, Cordarelle Patterson, Dwayne Harris

Game plan: Adding more weapons in the passing game is a high priority item for Chicago. Robinson is the Bears' best offensive player and one of the top free agents this cycle, so the likelihood that Chicago uses the franchise tag on its No. 1 receiver is great. Whether Robinson would then want to work out a long-term deal or Chicago tries to tag-and-trade him will be the next hurdle, likely dependent on who the team lands at quarterback. Fortunately, given the depth of this year’s receiver draft class, the Bears can continue adding depth in April on the cheap.

TIGHT END

Under contract: Jimmy Graham, Cole Kmet, Darion Clark

UFA: Demetrius Harris

Game plan: Chicago can create $7 million in cap space by releasing Graham but might also want to keep him around for the final year of his contract after he caught 50 passes for 546 yards and eight touchdowns while helping Kmet progress in his development. Harris will likely walk.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Under contract: Charles Leno Jr., Cody Whitehair, Bobby Massie, James Daniels, Arlington Hambright, Lachavious Simmons, Sam Mustipher, Rashaad Coward

UFA: Germain Ifeadi, Jason Spriggs

Game plan: The Bears could save upwards of $17 million if they choose to start over at tackle by releasing Leno and Massie (with a post-June 1 designation). If they go that route, re-signing Ifedi to play right tackle and using the cap space created to go after a bigger-name free agent to play left would still allow them to draft and develop their left tackle of the future.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Under contract: Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks, Bilal Nichols, Ledarius Mack, Eddie Goldman

UFA: Roy Robertson-Harris, Mario Edwards Jr., John Jenkins, Brent Urban, Daniel McCullers

Game plan: Releasing Hicks would save the Bears $10.5 million against the cap, which would help in their search for a quarterback, but an extension for the 32-year-old defensive tackle might also be in play. If he’s not on the roster, then Chicago needs to upgrade. If he is, then the starters are set and finding rotational linemen is the priority, which comes in the less-expensive second wave of free agency. The Bears are also set to get Goldman back from his COVID-19 opt-out.

LINEBACKER

Under contract: Roquan Smith, Danny Trevathan, Robert Quinn, Joel Iyiegbuniwe, Trevis Gipson

UFA: Barkevious Mingo

Game plan: The cost to retain Mingo might be too high for the Bears, who are hoping Gipson takes a step forward in his second year to play a bigger role. Chicago needs more production than it got from Quinn last season, so adding a veteran edge rusher could be in play depending on what happens with Mingo. Chicago will pick up Smith’s fifth-year option by May and should be in extension talks in the near future.

CORNERBACK

Under contract: Kyle Fuller, Buster Skrine, Jaylon Johnson, Duke Shelley, Kindle Vildor, Tre Roberson

UFA: Artie Burns

Game plan: Chicago needs to find an avenue to reduce Fuller’s $20 million cap hit, the second highest charge among all cornerbacks. If both sides can’t work out an agreement on a new deal, Fuller becomes a valuable trade asset. Slot corner can be addressed in free agency if the Bears cut Skrine for cap relief.

SAFETY

Under contract: Eddie Jackson, Jordan Lucas

UFA: Deon Bush, Sherrick McManis, Tashaun Gipson, DeAndre Houston-Carson

Game plan: Gipson is the biggest free agent name here and will determine whether Chicago needs to find a complement for Jackson or will roll with the 30-year-old UFA for another season on an inexpensive deal.

SPECIALISTS

Under contract: None

UFA: Cairo Santos, Pat O’Donnell, Patrick Scales

Game plan: Santos’ excellent play in 2020 could lead him to look for a considerable raise, but it shouldn’t be anything too difficult for the Bears to maneuver. Fellow kicker Eddy Piniero is a restricted free agent the Bears should consider tendering (it never hurts to have extra kickers around) while O’Donnell and Scales have shown consistency worth of retaining with the kicking battery.