As most of you heard in the postseason presser, Ryan Pace stated there will be some 'hard decisions' to make heading into the 2020 offseason. The Bears were technically over the cap heading into 2020, but they have already found a little bit of cash flow. First, they converted some of Kyle Fuller's 2020 base salary to free up an extra $6 million to play with. The next move wouldn't have been difficult from an evaluation standpoint, but it would have been an emotional one.
Luckily for the Chicago Bears and Ryan Pace, Kyle Long decided to step away from the game on his own terms. While some were surprised by his retirement, I saw the writing on the wall when he sent his "Bear for Life" tweet last offseason. The new deal he signed in 2019 made his contract voidable for the 2020 season with little dead cap. The deal itself was a win-win for the Bears. If he played at the elite level they know he's capable of, then the team could have retained him, and if he were plagued with another injury-ridden season, then it made it easy to cut ties. Even though it was something a lot of people saw coming, it still sucks to see. It was the only jersey I ever purchased from the Emery era. At that time, I was a BROKE college student and had zero issues overextending my budget to get that #75 jersey. The harsh reality is, after all of his hard work and dedication, he only played in one playoff game. 2019 was supposed to be his reward for sticking with the organization through everything, but it just wasn't in the cards. Unfortunately, he is stepping away from the game for now and won't get his chance to make a Super Bowl run. Maybe if the Bears find themselves in the mix next year they will pull a Seattle and sign him for a playoff run, but for now, it's taking one 'hard decision' off the Bears this offseason.
Now let's look at the 'hard decisions' the Bears will have to make this offseason.
Amukamara will carry a cap hit of $10 million in 2020 ($9 million yearly, $1 million signing), but only carries $1 million of dead cap. The Bears could use that $9 million to help shore up some of the missing pieces on offense, but when you boil it down, Amukamara hasn't played poorly. He hasn't been a world-beater by any means, but he has the 18th-highest salary among corners heading into the offseason. Free-agent corners like Aqib Talib, Jimmy Smith, or Logan Ryan all seem like desirable players, but they will all come at a cost. It's possible that all three players listed will end up getting a higher contract than Prince, so it really depends on Ryan Pace's intentions. If he feels the need to pay a different cornerback and improve upon the position then it's in the cards, but it will make things thinner at other positions. I find it more likely that he will let Prince play out the last year of his contract, and then the Bears will draft a pro-ready corner in the second round or hand over the job to Kevin Toliver. Toliver has shown the ability to play press corner, and the defense didn't take a huge step back while he was on the field. It all depends on how the draft shakes out, but my guess is that Toliver will end up starting at corner for the Bears in 2020.
2: Inside Linebackers
The Bears went into 2019 with six inside linebackers. In my opinion, a big reason for this is because the Packers are spread thin at the position. In 2018, the Packers extended Kyle Fuller an offer sheet while he was on the transition tag, and they picked up Adrian Amos in free agency in 2019. My biggest fear is that the Packers will try to snag one of the three inside linebackers set to hit the market. Right now, Roquan Smith, Josh Woods, and Joel Iyiegbuniwe are the only ILB's still under contract. After Danny Trevathan went out with an injury, Nick Kwiatkoski showed he is no longer a "liability in coverage" and is a noteworthy every-down inside linebacker. Kevin Pierre-Louis also stepped in admirably when Roquan Smith tore his pectoral muscle. Pierre-Louis was great and Trevathan has been a vocal leader on the defense since he came to the Bears, but Kwiatkoski is the one you fear losing the most. The Bears need to find a way to keep him on the roster, even though he will come with a higher price tag. The last thing Bears fans want to see is Kwiatkoski barreling down through their interior, blowing up David Montgomery, and pummeling Mitchell Trubisky while wearing green and yellow.
In the postseason presser, Ryan Pace was asked if he was getting positive feedback about Mitchell Trubisky from his peers around the league, and he confirmed he did. This reaffirmed that he still has close ties with the Saints and Mickey Loomis. When the Bears signed Taylor Gabriel in 2018 for an above-market contract and realized he was previously with the Falcons, I knew Pace had to have gotten input from one of the Saints pro scouts. Until becoming the Bears number two receiver, Gabriel was mainly used as a number 3-4 receiver that stretched the field. With Matt Nagy taking over the offense, the Bears needed that element of speed, but they saw something more in him. His route tree, offensive snaps, and responsibilities all increased as soon as he became a Bear. Although Gabriel did post a career-high 67 receptions for 688 yards with the Bears in 2018, he was hit by the injury bug in 2019 and sat for nearly half of the season. He has suffered four concussions throughout his career, which raises concern heading into 2020. It was already speculated that the Bears would cut ties with Gabriel in 2020 after adding Riley Ridley to an already crowded room, and Anthony Miller really started coming onto the scene in the back half of the season. Miller may not have the same 40 time as Gabriel, but he is a bigger, more physical option to play slot receiver. Cutting Gabriel will add $2 million more to the dead cap, but it will also free up another $4.5 million in cap space for 2020. The Bears have to weigh all their options, but all signs are pointing to Gabriel becoming a cap casualty.
After a letdown season, there will obviously be 'hard decisions' for the Chicago Bears front office, but Prince Amukamara, the inside linebackers, and Taylor Gabriel are atop the list. The Bears have an extremely talented core. They will need to keep the defense intact and add a ton of help on offense to become a contender in 2020. Additionally, they will have to cut ties with solid starters, re-sign some of their own, draft a few contributors, and hope some of the younger players take a step in the right direction. The offseason is a time to regroup and become optimistic again, and I absolutely love it.