As the Chicago Bears continue to add to the roster in preparation for the 2021 NFL regular season, the NFL free-agent market still features a number of players that should intrigue head coach Matt Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace. Chicago is limited on cap space, despite cutting veteran Charles Leno Jr. on Monday morning. With the rookie class still unsigned, the Bears would need to penny-pinch to bring in any veteran talent, but as we’ve all heard the saying, “Cap space is fluid in the NFL.” That means the Bears could move around some money to accommodate a veteran they feel can be an asset to the team in 2021.
The good news about signing veterans once the NFL Draft has concluded is that contracts are usually cheaper. Veterans who play the following season are open to taking discounts, which works out for a team that’s looking for a short-term investment. With the Bears returning to Halas Hall in mid-May for offseason workouts, let’s break down some veteran free agents that Chicago should consider.
1) OLB Justin Houston
The Bears clearly didn’t get the return on investment they hoped in 2020 after inking Robert Quinn to a five-year worth $70M. Behind Quinn, the team has 2020 fifth-round pick Trevis Gipson who had a limited impact as a rookie. While the Bears did sign ex-Virginia pass rusher Charles Snowden as an undrafted free agent, adding Justin Houston would serve the team well.
Over the last two seasons, Houston has started 32 games for the Indianapolis Colts, totaling 19 sacks and 69 tackles. He’d be one of the more expensive free agents to sign, with money being the deciding factor. But he could be a rotational pass rusher for the Bears, splitting time with Quinn if needed.
2) CB Brian Poole
The Bears currently have 10 cornerbacks on the roster. So why not add an 11th? Brian Poole has split time in the NFL between playing on the outside but can also play inside as a slot cornerback if needed. Ideally, Poole would come in and push 2019 and 2020 sixth-round rookies Duke Shelley and Kindle Vildor, both of whom could be starting in the slot for Chicago in 2021.
Poole wouldn’t be a lock to make the opening day roster, but his experience could give the Bears enough competition throughout the rest of the offseason to warrant seeing veterans like Artie Burns, Tre Roberson, and Desmond Trufant be put on alert.
3) S Malik Hooker
Reclamation projects always seem to be fun talking points in the NFL, especially when it comes to former first-round picks like Malik Hooker. Chicago retained veterans Tashaun Gipson and Deon Bush this offseason, with both signing one-year deals.
With no starting safety lined up next to Eddie Jackson for 2022, Malik Hooker should intrigue the Bears. Give him a chance to see if he plays well enough, even in a situational role, to see if he earns a new contract for 2022. At worst, Hooker develops into a special teams contributor.
Injuries have been an issue for the former first-round pick, but he’s still worth taking a chance on as a reclamation project who could turn his career around under first-year defensive coordinator Sean Desai.
4) LT Eric Fisher
As mentioned above, the Bears released veteran left tackle Charles Leno Jr., ending an eight-year run with the team. Chicago did draft OT Teven Jenkins in round two, but Jenkins started just seven games at left tackle in college. Bears General Manager Ryan Pace did imply that the team was open to playing Jenkins at either left or right tackle on Saturday following the NFL Draft.
If Jenkins remains, the Bears starting right tackle, Erick Fisher could make sense. He’s familiar with head coach Matt Nagy, as the two spent time together in Kansas City. Fisher started 15 games for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2020, earning a Pro Bowl appearance in the process. Set to turn 30-years old, he’s got enough left in the tank to warrant protecting the blindsides of quarterbacks Andy Dalton and Justin Fields in 2021.
5) OLB Ryan Kerrigan
Another veteran pass rusher, it’s a mystery as to why Ryan Kerrigan remains unsigned. Starting 141 games since 2011, Kerrigan amassed 95.5 sacks. Set to turn 33-years old in August, Kerrigan could be another cheap option for the Bears as a rotational pass rusher or even someone to split reps with Quinn.
Compared to Houston, Kerrigan would be a much cheaper option, likely signing for just under $10M per year, giving the Bears a veteran who’s going something to prove heading into 2021.
6) RT Mitchell Schwartz
As it currently stands, the Bears starting right tackle is expected to be Germain Ifedi, who split time between right tackle and right guard in 2020. If Chicago does indeed plan to experiment with Jenkins at left tackle, that would leave Alex Bars, Elijah Wilkinson, and 2021 fifth-round pick Larry Borom as options to start at right tackle.
Bars has been solid for the Bears, playing a variety of positions on the offensive line, but a true upgrade would be Mitchell Schwartz, who spent time with Matt Nagy in Kansas City from 2016-2018. Bringing in Schwartz would buy the Bears time to develop Borom.
Set to turn 32-years old in June, despite coming off an injury, Schwartz has remained relatively healthy throughout his career, meaning he’s worth taking a chance on.
What should the Bears do?
Each of the names above would provide the Bears with an opportunity to add some sort of veteran presence, especially in the tackle room should the Bears bring in Schwartz or Fisher. Adding Kerrigan or Houston would be viewed by some as a luxury move, but it’d also be some insurance should Quinn get injured.
Adding Poole or Hooker would be more about creating competition. It’d also allow for new defensive coordinator Sean Desai to get creative when it comes to disguising coverages, as both do have different skillsets.
Overall, despite being short on cap space, adding a veteran player this late in the offseason shouldn’t be off the table for the Bears franchise, which is looking to surprise some people in 2021.