Ryan Pace has left no uncertainty about his Plan A for the Bears quarterback situation in 2020. The sixth-year general manager wants to see through his draft pick of Mitch Trubisky, whose inconsistency and regression in 2019 pulled the team backward.
"We've seen this before with young quarterbacks and the trials and tribulations they go through," Pace said Dec. 31. "It's part of it. Sometimes if you stick with it and you see it through and you're dedicated to the development of the process, that can be very beneficial to the organization long term."
But what about Plan B? What if Trubisky, in his fourth season, can't "smooth out those inconsistencies," as Pace put it?
Yes, Pace described Trubisky's erratic play as "just a growth process we're all watching take place." But after the Bears finished last in the NFL in 2019 with a yards-per-pass average of 5.7, it stands to reason he and coach Matt Nagy will try to thicken the ice beneath their feet in continuing with Trubisky's development.
Pace said the Bears will examine their quarterback depth with an eye on upgrades over incumbent backup Chase Daniel and third quarterback Tyler Bray. But unless Pace adopts a different sales pitch from what he said publicly, any quarterback who agrees to sign with the Bears would do so knowing Trubisky is the organization's priority.
Still, before Pace traded up to select Trubisky second in 2017, he spoke of taking multiple swings at the quarterback position to ensure a solution. In the months ahead, we'll learn whether Pace is again using that approach to guide the organization.
With that in mind, let's survey the landscape of veteran quarterbacks who could become available as free agents or via trade this offseason.
Quarterbacks are listed below in alphabetical order within three categories: entrenched starters with expiring contracts, lower-tier veterans headed toward free agency, and quarterbacks who are under contract at least through 2020.
The Bears are estimated to have approximately $20 million in salary-cap space, which is below the league average. Of course, cap space can easily be created by restructuring and/or terminating contracts. That's part of the quarterback puzzle the Bears must put together before free agency opens March 18.
Here's a look ahead to the 2020 quarterback market, with each player's 2019 team and 2020 opening-day age included in parentheses.
Entrenched starters with expiring contracts
It's fair to say these options are unrealistic for the Bears, but technically they're part of the QB musical chairs game.
- Tom Brady (Patriots, 43)
Brady is headed toward free agency because of clauses in his contract that void the deal and prevent the Patriots from protecting their rights to him with the franchise tag. The idea of Brady signing with the Bears seems more like talk-radio fodder than anything grounded in reality.
There are many more questions than answers here, such as why would Brady - when he has all the leverage in choosing his next team - sign up to play behind an offensive line that, by Pace's admission, regressed? Why would Brady choose to play with an undermanned supporting cast that needs upgrades at tight end and a vertical threat at receiver? Could the Bears afford the salary that the market dictates he'll earn?
That said, dreamers can rightly point out that Pace pulled off the Khalil Mack trade after even he and his top lieutenants didn't believe it was realistic. Chances are, though, that lightning won't strike twice.
- Drew Brees (Saints, 41)
Brees' best chance to win another Super Bowl involves staying in New Orleans with coach Sean Payton. The Saints' best chance to win another ring depends on re-signing Brees. Unless Brees retires, why would both sides end up at any other outcome?
- Dak Prescott (Cowboys, 27)
Prescott played out the fourth and final year of his rookie contract without accepting a preseason contract extension offer from the Cowboys. He bet on himself staying healthy, and now that he has, he stands to cash in from an organization that's restarting with new coach Mike McCarthy. Contract negotiations will be framed by the franchise tag, which the Cowboys could use to protect their rights to the former offensive rookie of the year.
- Philip Rivers (Chargers, 38)
Rivers intends to continue his career, which he expressed publicly after the Chargers completed their 5-11 season. He seemed to put it in the Chargers' hands whether he plays a 17th season for the organization. Rivers turned the ball over 23 times (20 interceptions) in 2019, compared with 24 times combined in 2017 and '18. His 23 touchdown passes were his fewest since his second season as a starter (2007).
- Ryan Tannehill (Titans, 32)
Tannehill's name is the one that doesn't feel quite right in this category, but he saved the Titans' season after replacing former No. 2 pick Marcus Mariota in Week 7. Now he has them in the AFC championship game. Tannehill was the NFL's highest-rated passer (117.5), thriving in the Titans' run-focused offense.
It seems reasonable for the Titans to try to retain Tannehill and continue riding the wave he provided them. They have the franchise tag at their disposal to protect their rights to him. Meanwhile, this situation serves as a blueprint for the Bears to build a safety net for themselves underneath Trubisky.
Lower-tier quarterbacks headed toward free agency
This classification is a mix of established quarterbacks and journeymen who have failed to hold a starting job. There's a vast range of quality, though, and the better players obviously will aim for opportunities to play. How will that match up with the Bears' stated commitment to Trubisky?
- Blake Bortles (Rams, 28)
After 2018, the Jaguars gave up on the No. 3 pick in the 2014 draft. He landed with the Rams on a one-year deal and attempted only two passes. In his five seasons as the Jaguars starter, his single-season completion percentages ranged from 58.6 to 60.3.
- Teddy Bridgewater (Saints, 27)
Expect a robust free-agent market for Bridgewater after he went 5-0 as the Saints' starter this season while Drew Brees was sidelined by a right thumb injury. In those five starts, he completed 69.7% of his passes for 1,205 yards, nine touchdowns and two interceptions.
In that sense, Bridgewater, proved he can come off the bench and win for an otherwise functional offense. That's what the Bears need to pair with Trubisky.
However, Bridgewater's performance in relief of Brees could give him an opportunity to start somewhere immediately. If the Bears are committed to Trubisky as their starter, their attractiveness to Bridgewater would be in doubt, regardless of salary.
He's looking to jump-start his career, which was derailed by a catastrophic dislocated knee in 2016. As the 32nd overall pick in 2014, he has a relatively impressive draft pedigree compared with other journeymen on this list. So expect him to have multiple suitors.
- Chad Henne (Chiefs, 35)
Henne joined the Chiefs in 2018 as a backup after coach Matt Nagy left for the Bears. He was on injured reserve (ankle) when starter Patrick Mahomes suffered a dislocated right knee Oct. 17, and he hasn't played in a game this season despite being activated from IR.
But Henne is familiar with Andy Reid's offense, which heavily overlaps with Nagy's. When Henne started for the Dolphins and Jaguars in parts of six seasons (2009-14), those teams went 18-35.
- Case Keenum (Redskins, 32)
Keenum is probably headed for his third team since helping the Vikings go 13-3 in 2017. The Broncos traded him to the Redskins in March as part of a deal that included a swap of sixth- and seventh-round picks. Then the spiraling Redskins benched him in midseason for rookie first-round pick Dwayne Haskins. With the Redskins, Keenum completed 64.8% of his passes with 11 touchdowns and five interceptions.
- Eli Manning (Giants, 39)
The decorated veteran said in December he had no fun being a backup after the Giants turned to rookie first-round pick Daniel Jones three games into the season. In 2018, Manning's last season as a full-time starter, he completed a career-high 66% of his passes for 4,299 yards and a career-best 1.9% interception rate. He also was sacked a career-high 47 times.
- Marcus Mariota (Titans, 26)
Mariota's youth, athleticism and the fact Ryan Pace liked him in the 2015 draft have spawned obvious dot-connecting between the Bears and the former Heisman Trophy winner.
But Mariota is represented by the same agency, Rep1 Sports, that represents Mitch Trubisky. Given the agency's interest in putting both of their clients in starting opportunities, it would be very surprising if Mariota ended up with the Bears.
Mariota has a career completion percentage of 62.9 and rating of 89.6. The Titans have gone 29-32 with him as a starter after drafting him No. 2 five seasons ago.
- Matt Moore (Chiefs, 36)
Moore started twice for the Chiefs this season, not bad considering he was out of football in 2018. The Chiefs signed him off the street in August after backup Chad Henne suffered an ankle injury that landed him on injured reserve.
Moore briefly replaced injured starter Patrick Mahomes in midseason, and the Chiefs split those two games. He has completed 64.8% of his passes with four touchdowns and no interceptions this season. A plus for the Bears: Moore knows the foundation of Nagy's offense by virtue of his Chiefs experience. His teams are 16-16 in his career with him as the starter.
- Jameis Winston (Buccaneers, 26)
Winston's status will help set the second-tier quarterbacks market whenever the Buccaneers decide on his future. The former No. 1 pick finished the fifth and final season of his rookie deal with some crazy numbers. He led the NFL with 5,109 yards and 626 attempts. He threw 33 touchdowns passes. But he also threw a league-high 30 interceptions.
Bruce Arians, Winston's third coach with the Bucs, has indicated he's fond of Winston. But Arians exited the season leaving Winston's status undecided. The Bucs could franchise-tag him or try to reach a multiyear extension. Winston's market should include an opportunity to start somewhere, so the Bucs will have to make a clear decision one way or the other about how he fits into their plans. They have the 14th draft pick.
Under contract; trade required
This group of quarterbacks represents the most realistic potential for upgrading the Bears' backup role. Trading for a quarterback would remove the need to convince a free agent to embrace a backup job behind Trubisky. This way, the Bears could land a capable No. 2 and let the situation play itself out.
- Derek Carr (Raiders, 29)
Carr's future is in question after the Raiders lost five of their last six games to crash out of the playoff race. Now coach Jon Gruden, who inherited Carr, must decide how Carr fits into Year 3 of his rebuilding plan, especially as the organization transitions to Las Vegas.
Carr at least made a decent closing argument. Over the final four games, he threw for 1,211 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions. He completed 69.9% of his passes and had a rating of 106.3. But can he be more consistent?
Carr's base salary for 2020 is $18.9 million, a hefty sum for a team to add to its cap via trade. (Mitch Trubisky is scheduled to count a fully guaranteed $9.2 million against the Bears' cap.) The Raiders would eat only $5 million of dead cap space if they cut Carr before Feb. 5, so that is a date to watch. After that, the dead money would be $7.9 million.
- Andy Dalton (Bengals, 32)
The Bengals are positioned to draft LSU quarterback Joe Burrow with the top pick and start a new era with second-year coach Zac Taylor. Taylor benched Dalton after the team started 0-8, effectively signaling the end of his nine-year tenure. The Bengals haven't had a winning record since 2015, and Dalton has been the first-stringer the entire time.
Trading for Dalton would require accommodating his $17.7 million cap number in 2020, which is the final year of his contract. The three-time Pro Bowler has a career completion percentage of 62, and he has started four playoff games, all losses. The Bears' new offensive coordinator, Bill Lazor, worked with Dalton as a member of the Bengals staff from 2016-18.
- Ryan Fitzpatrick (Dolphins, 37)
Fitzpatrick helped the Dolphins win five of their last nine games as they went from tanking mess to functional playoff spoiler. He's under contract in 2020 with a team-friendly $8 million cap number. It's easy to see how he would fit as a bridge to a quarterback the Dolphins draft high in April's draft.
- Joe Flacco (Broncos, 35)
Flacco's $20.3 million salary in 2020 won't be palatable for a trade partner. But it also might compel the Broncos to cut him and save approximately $10 million in cap space. Flacco ended the season on injured reserve (neck), while rookie second-round pick Drew Lock went 4-1 as the starter to finish the year.
Flacco - who played in college at Delaware, as Nagy did - threw only six touchdowns in eight games this season. He had five interceptions, was sacked a whopping 26 times and had a passer rating of 85.1, which is barely above his career average.
It's worth noting that the Broncos acquired Flacco (and his contract) from the Ravens last March in exchange for a fourth-round pick.
- Nick Foles (Jaguars, 31)
The Jaguars did a U-turn on Foles after guaranteeing him $50 million last March as part of a four-year deal. By the end of the season, he had missed eight games with a broken collarbone and was benched for the final four games in favor of rookie Gardner Minshew, a sixth-round pick.
With Doug Marrone coaching for his job in 2020, there's major doubt about how Foles fits with the team. From the Bears' perspective, Foles proved himself as a backup in a similar offense to theirs in 2017 when he led the Eagles to the Super Bowl championship. Foles also was with Nagy with the Chiefs in 2016.
Trading Foles would save the Jaguars approximately $3 million of cap space, although they'd have to stomach almost $19 million in dead money because of Foles' signing bonus. His base salary, which Foles' new team would pick up, is $15.1 million.
Foles' employer could get out of his contract after 2020 for $12.5 million in dead money, which is a manageable escape route if he doesn't work out. Keep in mind, the collective bargaining agreement expires after 2020, creating uncertainty about future salary-cap parameters.
- Josh Rosen (Dolphins, 23)
The salary-cap numbers on the remaining three years of Rosen's contract are manageable (less than $3 million annually) because of the rookie wage scale and because the Cardinals already paid his signing bonus. That makes the former No. 10 pick tradable, but it also makes him cheap for the Dolphins to keep.
The question is whether the Dolphins would want to keep Rosen if they draft a quarterback in the first round in April. Rosen's trade value was established last April when the Cardinals dealt him for a 2019 second-rounder and a 2020 fifth-rounder.
Given the Bears' commitment to Trubisky, their quarterback puzzle requires a more proven backup than Rosen, whose development and future remains in question.
- Alex Smith (Redskins, 36)
Imagine how eager Matt Nagy would be to acquire Smith, whose ability as a quarterback and mentor he came to deeply respect during their five seasons together with the Chiefs. No veteran backup quarterback option knows Nagy or his offense better.
A couple of deep questions, though, stand between Smith and any trade. Most importantly, there remains significant doubt about his physical ability to play football again.
He suffered a compound, open right leg fracture in 2018 and has endured numerous post-surgical complications related to infection. According to a D.C. media outlet, Smith gave a speech in 2019 in which he acknowledged having had 17 surgeries. He sat out the season while his rehabilitation continues, and he has not been cleared to resume full-speed football activities.
Secondly, the Redskins love Smith for the same reasons Nagy does. He's smart, and he's a magnanimous mentor to 2019 first-round pick Dwayne Haskins. Smith and Haskins are the Redskins' only two quarterbacks under contract, as new coach Ron Rivera takes over.
For the sake of this exercise, though, let's say Smith is cleared to play football in 2020 (which, again, is far from certain). A trade would cost his new team $16 million in base salary against its salary cap. The Redskins would save approximately $5 million in cap space by dealing him, although they'd absorb more than $16 million in dead money because of his signing bonus. The savings might not be worth it to the Redskins, considering how much they appreciate his presence.
The Redskins acquired Smith in 2018 in exchange for promising cornerback prospect Kendall Fuller (Kyle's younger brother) and a third-round pick. The price would be cheaper now because of Smith's injury. It's worth reiterating, however, that Smith's physical condition might make it a moot point.
- Tyrod Taylor (Chargers, 31)
Taylor backed up Philip Rivers and threw only six passes in 2019. He's now two seasons removed from a three-year stint as the Bills' starter. The Bills went 22-20 in games he started. He threw 51 touchdown passes and 16 interceptions with a 62.6 completion percentage for them. He also averaged 525 rushing yards, almost five rushing touchdowns, and more than 40 sacks per season. The Bills traded him to the Browns two offseasons ago for a third-round pick.
Taylor's base salary is $5 million in 2020, and the Chargers would have to eat $2.5 million in dead money to trade him.
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