Bears' path to perfect offseason includes WR gamble, big free-agent swings
Eight moves to ensure Bears ace transformational offseason originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
The transformational offseason for the Bears has finally arrived, and things will only heat up from this point forward.
General manager Ryan Poles has all the assets needed to take a 3-14 team and inject it with the necessary talent to jumpstart his rebuild. With almost $100 million in salary cap space and the No. 1 pick, the Bears can make any move they want. With all that money, the Bears can absorb one or two misses in free agency and still come out on top.
The Bears must exit the offseason with several important holes filled and a better support system for quarterback Justin Fields. That's easier said than done, but there's a road map to a near-perfect offseason for Poles and the Bears:
Extend Darnell Mooney
After an impressive 2021 season, Mooney entered last year as the No. 1 receiver on a rebuilding roster. Mooney started the season slowly as he worked to become proficient in offensive coordinator Luke Getsy's scheme. The Bears also asked Mooney to know all the routes and motions for the X, Z, and F positions and wanted him to be able to move seamlessly between them on a play-by-play basis.
Mooney's numbers weren't what he wanted in 2022, and his season ended early after suffering an ankle injury in a Week 12 loss to the New York Jets.
But Mooney was always aware that the 2022 season would have a learning curve. He never worried about his targets or numbers. The only frustration came when the losses piled up.
"I haven't had that many impactful plays," Mooney told NBC Sports Chicago in a sitdown in early November. "I know that with everything being new, it's going to be a little tough trying to get there. You know, you have some other guys in different offenses who are doing well in their new offenses, but everything doesn't work the same in each and every offense.
"I'm honest to it. I'm true to it. I'm not, 'Oh, I wish I had these many yards, these many touchdowns.' I just want to win at the end of the day. Make sure we can worry about stats later. I just want to win."
Mooney and the Bears have mutual interest in getting a contract extension done. He has great chemistry with quarterback Justin Fields. Even if he isn't a No. 1 receiver, he is a good No. 2 or No. 3 and has immeasurable value to the rebuild. Rewarding him for his contributions is the right move.
Revamp the offensive line in free agency
Sign: Mike McGlinchey, Ben Powers
The Bears are expected to focus their free-agency pursuits on the offensive line. With around $100 million in salary cap space, Poles has the funds to completely change the look of a unit that struggled mightily in 2022.
That should start with the signing of free-agent right tackle Mike McGlinchey. McGlinchey is a good run-blocker with experience in a wide-zone run scheme in San Francisco. While he's still working to improve his pass protection, his 5.1 percent pressure rate allowed over the last two seasons is noticeably better from the 6.1 percent in his first three seasons, via ProFootballFocus.
After securing McGlinchey, Poles should turn his attention to 26-year-old Ben Powers. Powers allowed just one quarterback hit and zero sacks last season for the Ravens. He's a solid run blocker and is about to enter his prime.
Adding Powers could also allow the Bears to cut veteran Cody Whitehair, opening up $5.8 million in salary cap space. A 2023 starting offensive line of Braxton Jones, Powers, Lucas Patrick, Teven Jenkins, and McGlinchey would be a significant improvement over the unit the Bears trotted out last season.
Get the engine before the draft
Sign: Dre'Mont Jones
Head coach Matt Eberflus' quote about three-technique being "the engine" of his defense has been run into the ground.
However, it is instructive in how he views the construction of that unit. When in Indianapolis, the Colts traded for DeForest Buckner and paid him handsomely because of how vital a disruptive three-technique is to Eberflus' scheme.
That's why most people believe the Bears have Georgia's Jalen Carter circled as their preferred first-round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft. I like Carter. He has the potential to be the best player in this draft class. But I also think the Bears would be better off finding their three-technique before the draft, so they aren't pigeonholed into taking Carter.
Jones, 26, has the versatility to play inside and out, but he'd be a great fit at the three-technique for the Bears. Per PFF, Jones has 138 pressures and a 14.5 percent pass-rush win rate since 2019—those rank 19th and 11th, respectively.
RELATED: Five bold NFL offseason predictions, including Bears' big moves
The Bears can still draft Carter even if they sign Jones. But having the three-technique box checked before the draft allows them more flexibility with who they select in Round 1.
Sign: LB Bobby Okereke, CB Rock Ya-Sin
Both Okereke and Ya-Sin played under Eberflus during his time as the defensive coordinator in Indianapolis. They understand the scheme and the expectations.
Let's start with Okereke.
The 26-year-old acquitted himself well this season when Shaquille Leonard was injured. Okereke is a good run defender who has logged back-to-back seasons of 100 tackles and 50 defensive stops, per PFF. The Bears need to find an answer at WILL linebacker. Eberflus knows Okereke, and he won't break the bank.
As for Ya-Sin, the Bears also need to find a reliable third corner to put with Jaylon Johnson and Kyler Gordon. Eberflus was part of the regime that drafted Ya-Sin, and the 26-year-old had a good 2021 season for Eberflus before being traded to the Raiders last offseason.
In 2021, Ya-Sin allowed just 26 catches for 248 yards while getting a 72.4 coverage grade from PFF. According to PFF, Ya-Sin has an 18.2 forced incompletion percentage over the past two seasons. He'd be a good value addition to the Bears' secondary.
Sign: WR Michael Thomas
All signs point to the Saints cutting Thomas with a post-June 1 designation. Assuming he hits the market, Thomas would be worth the gamble for a Bears team in need of an elite pass-catcher.
Thomas has struggled with injuries over the past few seasons. He caught 16 passes for 171 yards and three touchdowns in three games in 2022.
But those numbers would rank third, fourth, and tied for first among Bears wide receivers in 2022.
Thomas did it in three games.
If he's fully healthy, the Bears should bring him on board on what figures to be a one-year deal.
Gambling $10 million on Thomas for one year is a better option than surrendering draft capital for Chris Godwin or DeAndre Hopkins. If Thomas stays healthy and pops, the Bears have a No. 1 receiver. If he doesn't, they can wash their hands next offseason and still have the draft capital to trade for a true No. 1 receiver.
Draft the best player
Draft: Will Anderson
As previously stated, I love Carter. There's a chance he's great.
But Anderson would have been the No. 1 pick last year had he been eligible for the draft, and nothing about his 2022 season suggests he shouldn't be the first non-quarterback off the board.
For all the talk about the importance of the three-technique, the Bears have zero presence on the edge. If Anderson lives up to the projections, he could be a decade-plus fixture in Chicago.
In his final two seasons at Alabama, Anderson notched 34.5 sacks and 146 total pressures.
Walking away from the draft with either Carter or Anderson would be a win for a Bears team that lacks blue-chip talent. I just think Anderson is the better bet to have prolonged, top-level success in the NFL.
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