INDIANAPOLIS — While the NFL Scouting Combine continues to evolve into a made-for-TV event, behind the scenes it remains a true convention — full of insight and gossip from agents, executives, coaches and reporters.
With that in mind, here are my big takeaways from another year in Indianapolis:
1. An encouraging sign for the Bears’ offense. Conversations about Mitchell Trubisky dominated the NFL Combine, not just in media sessions with general manager Ryan Pace and head coach Matt Nagy, but in hallways around the Indiana Convention Center and in local establishments late at night.
But as many around the NFL wait to see how involved the Chicago Bears get in the wild quarterback derby that will play out next month, let’s not lose focus on the offense as a whole. No matter who is quarterbacking the Bears, the pieces around the quarterback need to be better.
Perhaps the most encouraging development in Indianapolis is that Nagy appears to be genuinely invested in adapting his scheme for the better. While it’s up to Pace to improve the personnel, Nagy is actively looking in the mirror and figuring out how he can better.
“I learned a lot last year in so many different ways, on and off the field, as a head coach,” Nagy said. “I learned a lot as a play caller, with how players work, with scheme, with coaches. I’m at a point right now after two years in this role where I’m just so fired up and excited. I feel rejuvenated. And I’m refreshed in a lot of different ways. And really just taking on a lot of thoughts.”
Nagy said he’s “doing a lot of listening,” especially with new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor and new quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo coming into the organization with their own ideas and outside opinions of what the Bears need to do better. And this isn’t just offseason talk, as the coaching staff continued their on-going offseason meetings in Indianapolis. The resulting collaboration will almost certainly result in visible scheme changes that better support the quarterback and increase production in the run game.
“Whatever we need to do, you want to do that,” Nagy said. “It’s not fair to force (the players) into something that I do. Now, if you can get some of it that you do well, let’s keep it going, but this is a clean slate and we want to make sure we give everybody the best opportunity.”
2. Can Trubisky be saved? The majority of opinions on Trubisky at the NFL Combine skewed to the negative side, but many still believe he can be a serviceable-to-good starting quarterback if upgrades are made around him.
“Too much is on him in that offense,” one NFL assistant coach said. “He’s not that guy. But you can still win with him.”
Trubisky’s poor footwork remains a common criticism, but the footwork tends to break down when the quarterback isn’t trusting what he’s seeing or making confident decisions. And the Bears have been honest about how Trubisky needs to improve his processing by understanding coverages better.
“He needs to know it better than me,” Nagy said. “And that’s the goal. He’ll tell you that that wasn’t the case last year. That’s not a slight on him — he’s in Year 2 of it — but I want him to make sure that’s where he gets to in the future.”
Still, there needs to be an honest acceptance that this is already Trubisky’s fourth season and the load needs to be lightened. A better offensive line, tight end and overall running game would do wonders to help Trubisky, but so would lightening the amount of decision-making he is required to do pre- and post-snap. While the Bears are likely to build a more competitive quarterback room this year, I leave Indianapolis very confident that Nagy and the coaching staff are adapting the offense to get the most out of their former No. 2 overall draft pick.
3. Finding a better option won’t be easy. Marcus Mariota. Andy Dalton. Nick Foles. Nate Sudfeld. Case Keenum. All of these quarterbacks would need the same personnel/scheme support that Trubisky needs and some of them would cost more money, making it harder to make the necessary upgrades to other positions on the offense. Taking a big swing at Teddy Bridgewater or even getting crazy with Tom Brady would certainly leave weaknesses or even add more holes at other spots on the roster.
There’s a strong argument to be made that the Bears’ best path to winning more games in 2020 is to spend their limited resources upgrading around Trubisky and taking another swing at a quarterback in the draft. It’s not necessarily exciting, but it may be most prudent.
4. But, if the Bears do get crazy… my two favorite moves that seem somewhat possible would be trading for either Derek Carr or Nick Foles. Carr is a more extreme move that would likely also mean moving on from Trubisky immediately, but he’d be a safe option that would bring more consistency to the position. His $19 million contract in 2020 wouldn’t be cheap, but the 2021 and 2022 years have no guaranteed money and the $19.625 figure in 2021 is actually cheaper than the projected $25 million cost of Trubisky’s fifth-year option. The Bears had been projecting a big quarterback extension on the books (obviously hoping it was going to be for Trubisky) and Carr’s remaining three years are actually relatively affordable in the current quarterback market with plenty of flexibility. Of course, the big catch is the additional up front cost this year that wouldn’t have been projected in a Trubisky extension.
That said, the Bears have to be careful about trading more assets. They gave the Raiders plenty in the Khalil Mack deal. That’s why Foles remains so intriguing. The Jaguars can get an additional $3 million in cap space by moving Foles, and while that might not sound like a lot, it is when you consider they’d be saving $14.4 million in 2021 and $20.8 million in 2022. That’s enough that they should be motivated to find a team to take Foles’ contract — so motivated that they’d likely have to send an additional draft pick with Foles. So instead of giving up assets, the Bears could actually gain draft capital while also adding a Super Bowl-winning backup quarterback. At $15.875 million in 2020, Foles would certainly be an expensive backup to Trubisky, but he’d be a worthwhile insurance policy that knows the offense and has a history with Nagy, Lazor and DeFilippo. Plus, the team trading for Foles will only be on the hook for $5.5 million beyond 2020 so it’s not like the Bears would be mortgaging their future. So to recap: trading for Foles would give the Bears a good Plan B as they take one more shot with Trubisky AND could bring in an additional draft pick. It’s worth looking into.
5. NFL remains high on David Montgomery. The running back didn’t exactly live up to high expectations in his rookie season, but multiple NFL coaches I spoke with this week expressed enthusiasm about Montgomery. There seems to be a consensus that he can handle a bigger load and should be featured more in the Bears’ offense. One coach said Montgomery would be better served with less shotgun, but he also noted that all running backs prefer not to run out of shotgun. If the Bears make the expected adjustments to their scheme to help Trubisky, Montgomery should reap the benefits.
6. Don’t be surprised if Danny Trevathan returns. There’s a lot of buzz about Nick Kwiatkoski in NFL circles, especially because he’s only 26 and put together outstanding film in 2019. As a result, there’s a growing expectation that Kwiatkoski is going to get paid well in free agency. Trevathan, meanwhile, turns 30 next month and comes with additional injury concerns, potentially lowering his price. The Bears still like Trevathan and he may be a player that hits the open market only to realize his best option is to stay in Chicago, especially since he’s already a key starter on a very good defense.
7. Speaking of the defense, how about this quote from an NFL offensive coach that game-planned for the Bears: “Akiem Hicks is the best player on that defense.” Reminded that Khalil Mack is on the Bears, the coach responded: “Akiem Hicks is the best player on that defense.”
There’s no doubt the Bears missed Hicks in 2020 as he only played five games because of an elbow injury. The good news is that Pace said Hicks avoided surgery and they “don’t have any concerns there.”
8. One player to watch in the next 20 days: Leonard Floyd. His $13.2 million fifth-year option becomes fully guaranteed on March 18. That’s a lot of money for an edge rusher that has a total of 11.5 sacks over the last three years. Floyd’s ability to drop into coverage at his size is unique, but continuing to compliment his run defense only carries so much weight. You can find good run defenders on the edge for less than $13.2 million. If the Bears get into a situation where they need another sizable chunk of cap space, eliminating Floyd’s contract might be the obvious move.
9. NFL not in a hurry to adopt XFL kickoff. The XFL kickoff (in which both teams lineup on the same side of the field five yards apart) has been exciting, but don’t expect it to come to the NFL anytime soon. As is always the case at the NFL Combine, there are formal discussions about rule changes, setting the table for what gets voted on at the NFL Annual Meeting next month. The XFL kickoff has sparked some discussion, but the NFL has data showing that concussions on kickoffs continue to decrease so they don’t feel a need to make a drastic change at this point. Plus, the XFL kickoff requires an alternative to the onside kick. Last year, the Broncos proposed a similar 4th-and-15 rule that the XFL uses for the onside kick, but it didn’t get very far at the owners meetings. At this point, it’s unclear if a similar onside kick proposal will be on the table this year.
10. The new CBA is likely to pass. Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers can complain all they want, but the NFL is moving forward as if the CBA will get the majority vote it needs from players to pass. That doesn’t mean the players got everything they should have (they didn’t), but the owners benefitted from a smart strategy that appealed more to lower-tiered players rather than the high-priced veterans. So while Wilson and Rodgers get headlines for saying they’ll vote “no,” all the league needs is a majority vote and there are way more players making closer to minimum salaries than there are making the type of money that Wilson and Rodgers are.
Think about it like this: If you’re a player making a minimum-salary and you know you’re going to get an immediate $90,000 raise by passing this CBA, you’re probably going to vote “yes.”