Last year at this time, the Ryan Pace Bears’ personnel department had their work cut out of them. They lacked star power and depth at edge rusher, they had injuries and holes all over the offensive line, and the receiver position was nothing short of a tire fire.
Clearly, the times they are a-changin’. The Bears finished the 2018 season at 12-4 and feature one of the most complete rosters in the NFL, and some (including myself) would say that they are entering their Super Bowl window.
That being said, there are still certain positions that Pace can and will upgrade in the next few months. These are the five spots, listed from least to most dire need, where the Bears must improve between now and the opening kickoff of 2019.
Also, these are exclusively offensive and defensive needs. Kicker is not included. For more info on that situation, read this.
Adrian Amos is the incumbent here, but his contract will expire in March. Despite being a dependable starter on the back end, he was the 2018 Bears’ worst defensive starter and his chances of returning don’t look too good.
So with no proven replacement on the roster, you’d think it would be Pace’s top priority to find one, right?
Well, not exactly. When Eddie Jackson is one of your two safeties, he can conceal almost any flaw in his partner. Deon Bush played alongside Amos when Jackson went out with an injury, and he was fine. He clearly wasn’t the ballhawking stud that Jackson has become, but he made it clear that he wouldn’t be a liability, especially if given the chance to play with Jackson.
The other option to replace Amos would be signing another playmaker (which, and it seems I cannot stress this enough, Amos is not). Bring in someone along the lines of Eric Weddle (read more about him here), Tyrann Mathieu, Earl Thomas, or Landon Collins, who could elevate the defense from great to historic. But that would be a luxury signing, not one based off of necessity, so the safety position shouldn’t be near the top of this list.
The Bears enter the 2018 offseason with a grand total of two guards under contract. And one of them – Kyle Long – hasn’t been able to play more than 10 games for three years. Long is a clear candidate for release, and is not coming back at his current price, although I suspect he’ll be willing to take a pay cut in order to stay.
Even if they retain Long, the Bears can’t count on him to stay healthy and absolutely must acquire depth. Bryan Witzmann played fine in Long’s absence and could be worth keeping around, but he’s not a long-term solution. It would behoove Pace to draft a player to eventually take over at right guard, and if not this year, it will become a necessity in 2020.
Having Harry Hiestand to coach the O-Line will make up for many faults in personnel, which is why Witzmann starting Week One would not be the end of the world. They’re clearly capable of winning games with him in the lineup. What would be a problem, however, is down the road when Aaron Donald and Fletcher Cox come to town and he’s the only obstacle between them and the quarterback.
3. Edge Rusher
There’s a large gap between guard and edge rusher on this list. Though it may seem odd that Chicago has a large need at their best player’s position, it makes sense when you take a look at the rest of the roster.
While Khalil Mack is Khalil Mack, and Leonard Floyd is a suitable starter on the other side, the Bears’ third outside linebacker right now is Isaiah Irving. Irving is an interesting project and certainly deserves a roster spot, but when he’s one injury (which has been all too common for Floyd) away from a starting job, that’s a serious issue. Even if Mack and Floyd manage to remain on the field, Irving isn’t good enough against the run to warrant significant playing time and a much-needed break for the big guns.
Aaron Lynch played this spot well last year, but he’s an impending free agent and has well-documented injury problems of his own. Luckily, a ridiculously talented and deep free agent group offers solutions, as does as a promising draft class. The Bears should look to spend on a situational pass rusher or take a promising rookie in an attempt to create a three-headed monster at OLB.
2. Slot Corner
If that doesn’t happen, they’re in deep trouble. Sherrick McManis held down the fort after Callahan went down in December, but he is neither a proven player nor a long-term answer at a position whose importance cannot be overstated.
The free agent cornerback market, especially in the slot, is a barren wasteland save for Callahan. If he walks, Pace will have to roll with McManis and a draft pick. There isn’t much variety in how the Bears can address the slot corner position, but if they address it incorrectly, the consequences will be disastrous.
1. Running Back
If Jordan Howard was drafted fifteen years ago, he would have been a multiple-time all-pro. He shined in John Fox’s anemic offense with his hard-nosed, physical style of running despite deficiencies in other parts of his game.
Now that Matt Nagy is in charge, Howard’s career with the Bears is likely about to come to an abrupt end. He brought an offense more in tune with the modern NFL, and it requires an all-purpose back, preferably one with significantly more speed and agility than Howard currently possesses.
That’s why running back is the Bears’ most desperate need. It’s not necessarily the position where their personnel is the worst, but it’s what currently holds the team back the most.
So who can replace Howard as the Bears’ lead back? Tarik Cohen is awesome in so many ways and it was clear that Nagy’s offense works best when he was a featured part of it, but he will never be a primary ballcarrier. There are some tantalizing veteran free agent options, like Tevin Coleman on the younger side and Mark Ingram on the older side. LeSean McCoy is likely to be released and would be a risk, but he is an option. Of course, a certain former Chief will be in the mix, but it ownership would have to be persuaded on that front.
Whatever Pace does in free agency, I suspect that he’ll look to draft a back in the third or fourth round. Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller suspects that there will be instant starters available in those spots, and in order for Nagy’s offense to work as it should, it would be in Pace’s best interests to find one.
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