INDIANAPOLIS — A team coming off a 3-13 season doesn't usually speak of "strengths," if for no other reason than they usually didn't have many, or any at all. The Bears don't entirely see things that way.
A Bears team ostensibly committed to running the football tied for fourth in rushing average (4.6 yards per carry), and rookie tailback Jordan Howard wasn't the only "strength" behind that success, general manager Ryan Pace assessed Wednesday at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.
"I feel good about what we've done with our offensive line," Pace said. "You look at the interior offensive line [guards Kyle Long and Josh Sitton, and center Cody Whitehair] that we have, you know, I think it's set to be one of the better interior groups in the league.
"Of course there are more pieces we need to add, that's important. I think you can see the value of building a strong offensive line and what it does for the quarterback. In Dallas you have a great example of that."
On the surface, the Dallas example is enticing — the Cowboys went from 4-12 in 2015 to 13-3 in 2016 with the constant being an offensive line regarded as one of the best in the NFL. Four of the Cowboys' five regular starters in 2015 returned in 2016, with left guard La'el Collins the departure after being sidelined three weeks into the year due to a season-ending toe injury.
First-round running back Ezekiel Elliott was a revelation and, coupled with that offensive line, allowed a soft landing for fourth round quarterback Dak Prescott. Prescott took full advantage of that opportunity, throwing for 23 touchdowns and only four interceptions (in what's been discussed as the best rookie year for a quarterback in NFL history) while pushing the Cowboys to a 13-3 season.
But as tantalizing as the 2016 Cowboys are, there's a flip side: The 2015 Cowboys still lost 12 games with the same offensive line. So what does that mean for the 2017 Bears?
The running game and offensive line strength is a good start, but it doesn't necessarily mean Pace will over-aggressively pursue free agents to add to the offense with decisions needed at quarterback (Pace described Jay Cutler's status as "fluid") and wide receiver (with Alshon Jeffery set to hit free agency).
The larger strategy Pace hinted at in Indianapolis, then, is to mix in some veterans through free agency (the Bears do have loads of cap space, after all) but continue to focus on building through young talent. And, to go back to the Dallas example, it's worth noting the two most important pieces the Cowboys added in 2016 were through the draft.
"There is a delicate balance between being aggressive and being decisive, but being responsible," Pace said. "I think you can always recover from the player you didn't sign; you can't recover from the player that you signed at the wrong price. I think we've got to be conscious of that."
INDIANAPOLIS – The Bears have nearly a dozen scenarios under study for addressing their quarterback situation in 2017 and beyond. An assumption has been that none of those include Jay Cutler.
Mmm, maybe...maybe not.
General manager Ryan Pace has talked candidly with Cutler's agent, Bus Cook, and has informed Cook and Cutler that efforts would be made to deal the veteran quarterback, according to various sources. But one reality is that Cutler is currently the only quarterback under an actual contract, and whether for negotiating purposes or whatever, the Bears have not ruled Cutler out for 2017.
"Yeah, that's one of the options, too," Pace confirmed on Wednesday at the outset of the NFL Scouting Combine. "At this point we pretty much have everything on the table. For us, to do it the responsible way, that's necessary."
Right now the Bears are perusing a fairly large "table," and even the Cutler option isn't a fully known commodity, given that he is still recovering from a torn labrum that ended his 2016 season.
Brian Hoyer is considered to have an inside track on the starting job by virtue of coaches thoroughly appreciating a quarterback who practices ball security. Hoyer has a career interception percentage of 2.2 and threw zero interceptions in 200 attempts last season before breaking his left arm in Green Bay.
In the process he earned perhaps the single most important, and glowing, endorsement outside of the front office.
"Brian's unique in that he makes very quick decisions," said coach John Fox. "He's very smart, been in a lot of different systems. He's been on the field a lot in the NFL. I thought he did a good job. He didn't have an interception on the season, which for the number of passes he threw, I think probably ranked No. 1."
After Cutler's promising 2015 season working under Adam Gase, Fox praised Cutler as one of the main surprises in his first year as Bears coach. The specifics of Fox's praise of Hoyer offer a tip as to his thinking now – defense-based coaches commonly want to adopt ball-security quarterbacks – but he did not speak of Cutler solely in the past tense.
After two years of Cutler, "I think the perception in the building may be a little different than outside from what I've gathered," Fox said. "But I think he's very smart; he's a very tough competitor. I think he's had to deal with some injuries; unfortunately, they're part of football. But he's bounced back quickly from all the ones we've experienced in the last two years. But I think the competitive nature of Jay, I've been very impressed with."