George McCaskey

Bears NFL Draft Preview: Franchise-QB search expected to continue sooner rather than later

Bears NFL Draft Preview: Franchise-QB search expected to continue sooner rather than later

CSNChicago.com Bears Insider John "Moon" Mullin goes position-by-position as the Bears approach the 2017 Draft, taking a look at what the Bears have, what they might need and what draft day could have in store. Sixth in a series.

Bears pre-draft situation

Jay Cutler lasted through two years under the John Fox coaching staff while his 2014 contract still contained some guaranteed money. The new regime under GM Ryan Pace was given the option by Chairman George McCaskey of cutting ties earlier regardless of financial commitment but Adam Gase and Dowell Loggains as coordinators made a go of it before Cutler's injuries (shoulder and thumb last season) and mediocre play regardless of supporting cast made the organization's decision for it.

Resolving a now-decades-old problem position has been goal No. 1 of Pace, with all indications that the process will be ongoing, vs. the Cutler's-fine approach of the past eight years. Step one was signing Tampa Bay Buccaneers backup Mike Glennon to a three-year deal but with $16 million of the $18.5 million guaranteed coming in 2017. The situation establishes Glennon as the starter, with a chance to put a hold on the job beyond this season with a breakout year.

"It's a leap of faith to some degree," Fox acknowledged during the NFL owners meetings. "But I think you do that in a lot of different positions and evaluations of personnel and people. The big thing with him is that he has been in NFL football games. He has been in a lot of systems and around different players and personalities and, I think, handled it well."

The decision was made to move on from Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley as backups, signing Mark Sanchez, 30, to a one-year pact worth $1 million guaranteed plus a per-game bonus that allows the deal to top out at $2 million. Connor Shaw showed promise before going down for the year with a broken leg suffered in preseason.

Pre-draft depth chart
 
Starter: Mike Glennon
Reserves: Mark Sanchez, Connor Shaw

Bears draft priority: High

The Glennon and Sanchez signings were modest financial and time commitments by NFL standards. Their depth chart has no "elite" in place and does not need another mid-range quarterback; they had that for eight years in Cutler and know what limitations a limited quarterback brings to a franchise.

Using Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints experience as the template, Pace has been clear that he is seeking a quarterback with the intangibles to do more than post statistics, going further to lift the collective team mojo, something too often painfully lacking during the Cutler tenure.

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All of which makes the quarterback draft options a level more interesting than the basic talent/traits assessments and evaluations that have circulated. The Bears have done extensive research on the quarterback prospects, and few envision scenarios where the Bears do not strike for one within the first several rounds.

The overarching No. 1 question: Will the Bears disregard draft slot (No. 3) and land a quarterback perhaps not graded that highly but with the intangibles the organization craves?

Question No. 2: Could quarterbacks go a surprising 1-2 with the Cleveland Browns tapping Mitchell Trubisky and San Francisco 49ers snatching Deshaun Watson?

As far as this year's class, "I'm not banging the table for any of them," said NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock, who tapped Clemson's Deshaun Watson as the No. 1 prospect in the 2017 draft class.

Keep an eye on:

DeShone Kizer, Notre Dame — The Bears sent a task force to South Bend for Kizer's Pro Day, in addition to a Combine interview and private meeting. Athletic but INT rate (2.7 percent), accuracy (60.7 completion percentage) and W-L record (14-11) nothing special.
 
Patrick Mahomes, Texas Tech — Has been likened to both Cutler and Brett Favre for big-play predispositions, mobility and arm abilities. May have widest hit-miss potential, with major upside but also weaknesses in decision-making that concern some. "I just think his fundamentals break down too many times," Mayock said.
 
Nathan Peterman, Pittsburgh — Bears coaches worked with him at Senior Bowl. Not as highly touted as others in the class but among most pro-ready and rates as possible nugget in mid-rounds — if left on the board that long.
 
Mitchell Trubisky, North Carolina — Bears were scouting him intently early last college season and invested a Combine interview and private workout in additional time with what some rate as the best-available at his position in a class short on "elite" talents. But opinions vary widely, with Trubisky being mentioned for Cleveland at No. 1 or for No. 12, for example.
 
Deshaun Watson, Clemson — Unquestioned intangibles leader with curious "negatives:" accuracy (67.4 career completion percentage) and turnovers (2.7 INT percentage). Two full years as starter, two appearances in national championship game.

For 2017 Bears, more at stake than just win total

For 2017 Bears, more at stake than just win total

The release of the Bears’ schedule is something of secondary news, since the opponents for every team are set no later than the final game of the final Sunday. For that matter, 14 of every team’s 16 games are known years in advance simply because of the divisional rotation the NFL uses.

No, the overarching question for the Bears after their 6-10 and 3-13 seasons under John Fox is what kind of results from that schedule are needed for Fox to see year four as a head coach in Chicago. The schedule coming out didn’t really change that situation; the Bears were always going to play Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Green Bay sometime.

The same macro-question might be said of GM Ryan Pace’s fate. But nothing has indicated that Pace is standing at the brink of the abyss; the organization believes Pace has drafted well, in addition to making a real effort at trying to make a go of it with Jay Cutler as quarterback while there were millions in guaranteed money.

For that matter, so have Fox and his staff, who inherited Cutler and a talent cupboard with some very empty shelves.

But none of this is really about Cutler, who got his expected release earlier this offseason. It’s about whether senior team management likes what it is seeing, and while the records have been disasters, positives were seen “because we’re developing our own guys and rewarding our own guys,” Chairman George McCaskey said during the recent owners meetings. And frankly, isn’t that what most of BearNation wants, too?

So as far as McCaskey is concerned – and he specifically referred to the rookie impacts of Leonard Floyd, Cody Whitehair and Jordan Howard – Fox and his staff are getting Pace’s draft picks up and running, or at least the healthy ones.

If the Bears win seven or eight games this season, the win total by itself will represent some sort of progress over seasons of six and three wins. And folding the schedule into this: The early season with its Atlanta-Tampa Bay-Pittsburgh-Green Bay start is a crucible. But of the Bears’ final six opponents, only one (Detroit 9-7) had a winning record in 2016.

Meaning: Even with an anticipated rough start, with a still-jelling roster against some of the NFL’s best, the Bears could propel Fox into a clear year four with a finishing kick.

The reality is that no one really has a fix on what the mindset of McCaskey (and the Board) will be as the season plays out. Recent history has defined chaos and impulsiveness at more than one level.

The Bears opened 7-3 in 2011, Jay Cutler broke his thumb and the season unraveled behind Caleb Hanie. The result was McCaskey firing GM Jerry Angelo for an 8-8 season that came the year after falling a touchdown short of an NFC championship and trip to a Super Bowl.

Lovie Smith started 7-1 the year after the Angelo firing, limped to a 10-6 playoff miss and was fired by then-GM Phil Emery, who brought in Marc Trestman. Trestman started his second season 2-1 on the strength of two road wins, only to see the season and the entire football operation blow apart in a year many predicted would see a Bears next-step after Trestman’s 8-8 first season.

But McCaskey and the organization want their coach and GM to succeed, and obviously want an end to the kind of turnover that both results from and perpetuates failure. The Bears' First Family does worry about fan apathy and anger, but senior management also knows that fan loyalty reignites quickly; rebounds from abysmal times under Dave Wannstedt and Dick Jauron didn’t take long, just some wins, baby.

Anyone who’s observed the Bears for any length of time knows that a modest recovery in ’17 would do it. If the Bears win, say, seven games, one or two of those would likely have been “good” wins. It does happen; one of the Bears’ three ’16 wins was over playoff-bound Detroit; in ’15 they beat Kansas City and Green Bay, both playoff teams. What if the ’17 Bears stumble in at 6-10 but beat the Packers in Green Bay, the Lions in Soldier Field and one of the first three opponents on the schedule?

All of which is hypothetical/speculative/theoretical/all of the above. But the ’17 season will contain its own internal intrigue, beyond the schedule.

Sense of stability evident among Bears hierarchy going into pivotal year of major unknowns

Sense of stability evident among Bears hierarchy going into pivotal year of major unknowns

Specifics such as whom the Bears will draft at No. 3, or 36, or somewhere in between weren't going to be gleaned from this week's conversations with Bears Chairman George McCaskey, GM Ryan Pace or head coach John Fox. But more interesting, and important, too, are some the the more strategic takeaways from visits with the hierarchy most involved with Bears football fortunes.
 
More significant than anything regarding a player or position is the stability of the core, meaning Pace's and Fox's position under McCaskey. Because that ultimately affects draft choices, signings and myriad elements extending beyond the 2017 season. And some of all that involves understanding McCaskey's vision and history.
 
Realize: Pace was McCaskey's second GM hire in barely three NFL years. The first one of Phil Emery was an abject failure, as was the accompanying coaching hire. The absolute last thing McCaskey wants to be forced by circumstances into doing is replacing another general manager. Brother Michael lost his berth as president due to making the NFL's charter franchise into a laughingstock because of a botched coaching hire; Brother George has no wish to continue the kind of high-level turnover that both reflect, cause and perpetuate dysfunction, and losing.
 
Against that backdrop, one trail of breadcrumbs leads to a strong sense that Pace is secure in his job, barring something going epically wrong. McCaskey was clear that he approved of and likes the direction the Bears are moving under Pace, to the point of having Pace in a video directed to the fanbase. If Pace were on some sort of hot seat, McCaskey and the organization do not make him a short-term face of the franchise while they hope for a player to emerge as that "face."
 
McCaskey could not put a whole lot more pressure on Pace than the latter gets as part of his job and wanting to stay in Chicago for more than football reasons.
 
"Keep building through the draft," McCaskey said during the recently concluded owners meetings. "I told Ryan he should get ripped every time around this year, this time of year ever year for not being more active in free agency. And that's because we're developing our own guys and rewarding our own guys."

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The breadcrumbs from there lead to Fox's situation. Start with the thought that coaches operate for the present and GMs for the future. Not exactly true; GMs balance present and future.
 
But every indication, verbal and otherwise, has been that Fox was very much on board with the major makeover at one spot in particular — quarterback — and a coach with down to possibly a final season pounds the table for win-now material, particularly at that position. And when the Bears didn't re-sign Brian Hoyer this offseason, which may not have appeared to be benchmark non-move but was, at least one Bears coach was apoplectic at not staying a course with a quarterback who delivered 300 passing yards and zero turnovers in his brief Bears "career."
 
Fox, however, was clearly comfortable with giving the quarterback wheel a spin with Mike Glennon, and ultimately so is his staff. Because it is part of program plan.
 
Consider this scenario: The Bears rebound to a respectable seven or eight wins; not spectacular but the NFC North is the only division in either conference to send two teams to the postseason , meaning that Fox's Bears likely put up a couple wins over good teams, which can be construed as the "progress" that McCaskey referenced this week.
 
Meanwhile, Pace has a third draft with impact players, the Kevin Whites, Eddie Goldmans and others come back from injuries, the Bears go into the 2018 offseason and land Kirk Cousins or have Glennon be what they'd hoped, and the Bears are what McCaskey envisions: a challenger with an arrow pointing up.
 
All theoretical or hypothetical, but Pace has a plan that McCaskey knows and endorses, and best guess is that he gives his GM, and coach, time to have it play out.
 
"We have confidence in Ryan and John," McCaskey said, imposing only "progress" and "results" as his conditions. "We want to build through the draft. Ryan said that in his interview when he said he was interested in coming to the Bears. And we like how he has stuck to that plan."
 
Maybe that was the most significant tell; McCaskey has seen progress apart from the record: "Yeah," he confirmed. "Yes sir."