If Justin Fields is the answer to their quarterback problems, one major question remains for the Chicago Bears: Who is going to protect him?
The Bears ended 2020 with more needs than resources and opted to take a big swing at finding a long-term solution to their quarterback problems while also retaining a top-10 target in wide receiver Allen Robinson. The latter received a franchise tag instead of the long-term contract extension that would have been preferable for Fields, the first-round pick from Ohio State.
When the Bears won the NFC North in 2018, Matt Nagy’s first season as the head coach, their key was the defense led by Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks and Eddie Jackson. General Manager Ryan Pace has continued to invest on the defensive side of the ball.
This year’s team features a collection of linebackers earning a combined $46.5 million this season, the second highest figure among NFL teams according to Spotrac. The Bears also rank 12th in spending on the defensive line.
Quarterback has dominated the conversation on the offensive side of the ball.
Pace and Nagy hedged their bets after Mitchell Trubisky failed to develop into a reliable starter, trading for Nick Foles last season and signing Andy Dalton has a free agent last spring. While it’s the rookie Fields who is creating excitement in Chicago, the Bears nevertheless have $15.1 million invested in quarterbacks this season, the 13th highest total in the NFL.
Their spending on other positions left limited resources for addressing the offensive line, which last season was ranked 20th by Pro Football Focus. Pace opted for an overhaul but didn’t fund it as a priority.
Veterans Bobby Massie and Charles Leno were sent packing — at a combined dead cap hit of $6,194,000 — but the Bears did not dip into the free agent market to add any of the 10 linemen who signed either multi-year contracts worth $10 million-plus or one-year deals worth at least $5 million. They instead traded up in the draft to select Oklahoma State’s Teven Jenkins, who was quickly penciled into the starting left tackle spot.
Jenkins has proven to be damaged goods. He will require a surgery on his back, which will sideline him until late in the season, if not all season.
Even with Jenkins, Pro Football Focus projected the Bears’ offensive line to take a backwards step without Leno and Massie. Their Steve Palazzolo ranked the Bears’ line 28th entering the exhibition season.
A quick look at finances show why the Bears aren’t more highly regarded.
Guard Cody Whitehair is listed with a $5.2-million cap hit this season, the biggest among Chicago offensive lineman. That is 58th overall in the league. Veterans James Daniels (107) and Germain Ifedi (115) are the only other Bears linemen who rank in the top 150 in terms of cap hits.
The lack of depth prompted the Bears to sign 39-year-old former All-Pro Jason Peters to a deal worth about $1.2 million. He could wind up starting alongside fellow tackle Elijah Wilkinson, a free agent who got a deal for about $1.1 million after playing in Denver last season. The Bears are also giving a long look to fifth-round pick Larry Borom in the pre-season.
Whitehair is the key. It’s vital for the Bears that he continue his strong play from late last season, after he was moved from center to guard. Only Quenton Nelson and Trent Williams were given higher PFF grades after Week 12 last season. Daniels, returning from injury, will start across from him at guard with Sam Mustipher at center.
Fields was known for his mobility as well as his passing acumen in his two years as the starter at Ohio State. It appears Dalton is locked in as the Bears’ starter to open the season but he isn’t known for thriving under pressure, which suggests this will be Fields’ job sooner rather than later.
Can they improve from last year’s 8-8 season while not prioritizing an upgrade for the offensive line? It’s not going to be easy, especially with their top addition no longer listed on the depth chart.