The Chicago Bears have limped to yet another losing season after finishing 6-10 in 2015. Jay Cutler has been in and out of the lineup this year, and when he is on the field, he doesn’t play like a $100 million quarterback. Cutler is signed through 2020, but if the Bears cut or trade him in the offseason, he’ll only cost the Bears $2 million in dead money rather than $16 million if he’s on the roster.
Keeping that in mind, it’s entirely possible the Bears end the Cutler era in Chicago and move on to a new quarterback for 2017. There won’t be many available in free agency, but there will be a handful of options in the draft or via trade. Here are the seven best candidates to replace Cutler next season as the Bears’ starter under center.
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There’s little chance the 49ers retain Colin Kaepernick and his $19.37 million cap hit in 2017, even though he’s playing like a starting-caliber quarterback. They’ll likely cut ties with the dual-threat quarterback in the offseason, opening up the door for Chip Kelly to groom his own player – possibly a rookie like DeShone Kizer or Deshaun Watson. In that scenario, Kaepernick would become a free agent open to signing with any team he chooses.
The Bears could be one of the teams searching for a new starter at quarterback, which Kaepernick would fill, of course. He’s improved drastically over the past month, throwing for 278 yards per game with eight touchdowns and just two interceptions. On a team with a terrible supporting cast – worse than Chicago’s – those numbers are pretty solid. Of course, his asking price will be the biggest factor, and that will hinge on how he closes out the season.
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Jared Goff is the Rams’ starter of the future. They’re not going back to Case Keenum regardless of how much he struggles, meaning there’s no place for the former Houston quarterback in LA. He’ll be a free agent after this season, and considering he made just $3.6 million this season, his asking price will be relatively low in the offseason. It’s hard to imagine the Bears letting Cutler go to downgrade at the position with a guy like Keenum, but if they’re concerned about the salary cap, Keenum could be a bridge option until 2018.
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The Broncos have Paxton Lynch, their prized first-round pick, waiting in the wings. Trevor Siemian has staved him off for this season, but doing so in 2017 after a year of learning won’t be nearly as easy. Additionally, keeping a first-round pick on the bench for two seasons isn’t ideal and almost never happens. That means Lynch is likely to get a good shot next season, leaving Siemian as the odd man out. John Elway could opt to trade Siemian to a team like the Bears, who are looking for a decent starter that will keep their cap manageable.
The other possible route that could land Siemian in Chicago is if Denver trades for Tony Romo. If that were to happen, Romo would obviously be the starter with Lynch the likely backup. The Broncos wouldn’t keep three quarterbacks, opening the door for Siemian’s departure.
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Will the Cowboys part ways with Tony Romo in the offseason? Well, that depends on the next five weeks of the regular season, and their inevitable playoff run. If Dak Prescott were to somehow fall apart (he won’t) or they lose a five games in a row, the Cowboys could turn to Romo for the postseason. Not likely, but anything is possible with Jerry Jones. That would be the only way Dallas holds onto Romo, assuming he plays well. It’s more likely than not that the Cowboys trade Romo elsewhere this offseason, and the Bears could be a fit.
Romo would need to clear a trade to any team, so the Bears would need to bolster their roster a bit beforehand. A receiving corps absent of Alshon Jeffery won’t attract the veteran quarterback. If the Bears were to land Romo, it would immediately make them contenders in the NFC North. Whether they’d compete for a Super Bowl would still be a question mark, but Romo would be the best option, though not the likeliest.
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Recent drafts have showed that you can find a quarterback outside of the first round and still have success. Dak Prescott, Derek Carr, Russell Wilson and (don’t laugh) Cody Kessler have all proved that to be evident, despite the fact that the Browns haven’t won a game. The Bears are likely to have a top-10 pick given the way their season has gone, which isn’t just great for the first round, but it’s huge for the second and third rounds. They could potentially find a guy like Brad Kaaya in the second round, or Mason Rudolph from Oklahoma State in the third. Or if they want to spend a first-rounder on a quarterback, a guy like Mitch Trubisky or Deshaun Watson could be fits. The only problem with that is none of those players are considered NFL-ready. Still, the Bears would be smart to invest in the future with a young quarterback.
This one hinges on the notion that the Patriots will be open to trading Jimmy Garoppolo, which I believe they will be. Tom Brady has showed no signs of slowing down, and his contract doesn’t handicap the Patriots even a little. He has the 18th-highest cap hit among quarterbacks this season ($13.76 million), and it won’t spike until 2018 when it goes to $22 million. Of course, Garoppolo’s will be minuscule, but he doesn’t bring the same certainty at quarterback that Brady does.
Landing Garoppolo would likely cost the Bears at least a second-round pick, if not a first. They’d then need to sign him long-term, but a deal could be similar to the one Brock Osweiler got – four years, $72 million, half of which is guaranteed. That wouldn’t be a terrible contract for a quarterback with franchise-altering potential. The Bears should be open to making a trade with the Patriots, if Bill Belichick is willing to part with Brady’s heir – not that it’d be the first time he traded a key player.
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The Bears started Brian Hoyer in five games this season. Of those five, he won just one game. However, looking beyond wins and losses, you’ll see that Hoyer was actually a solid quarterback. He completed 67 percent of his passes for an average of 273 yards per game in his five starts. He had six touchdowns and no interceptions, posting a passer rating of 98. Surprisingly, he accomplished something in one month that Jay Cutler never did in eight years: four straight games with 300-plus passing yards.
If the Bears do cut ties with Cutler, Hoyer should be their No. 1 option. He’s not a flashy quarterback, but he’s also not one that will command $18 million on the open market. He’ll be a free agent in 2017 after making just $2 million this season, meaning his price tag will certainly be something the Bears can afford. Signing Hoyer for, say, $8 million would open the door for them to sign big-name free agents and rebuild the rest of their roster, especially when comparing Cutler’s $16 million cap hit in 2017.