With a core of promising young players melding with key additions in free agency and the draft, the Bears are confident they'll improve in 2021. Here are four reasons for optimism:
(1) The Bears were able to re-sign several of their own key free agents, including kicker Cairo Santos, right tackle Germain Ifedi and defensive end Mario Edwards Jr.
Santos was rewarded with a 3-year deal following a breakout 2020 season during which he set Bears records by making 27 straight field goals and connecting on 93.8 percent of his field-goal attempts (30 of 32).
Last year during Ifedi's first season with the Bears, his move from right guard to right tackle was part of an offensive line reconfiguration that helped jump-start the offense and put the Bears in position to reach the playoffs.
Edwards agreed to a new 3-year deal after a productive first season with the Bears in 2020 during which he appeared in 15 games and established career highs with 4.0 sacks and 6.0 tackles-for-loss while also registering 17 tackles.
The Bears have also re-signed running back Ryan Nall, tight end J.P. Holtz, offensive lineman Alex Bars, inside linebacker Josh Woods, outside linebacker James Vaughters, safeties Deon Bush and DeAndre Houston-Carson and punter Pat O'Donnell, in addition to agreeing to terms with long-snapper Patrick Scales.
"As we went into this offseason, we had limited resources in regards to the cap and it was important for us to retain certain players," general manager Ryan Pace said Friday during a Zoom call with reporters. "Getting guys back like Cairo Santos and Mario Edwards and Germain Ifedi—just to name a few—that was kind of the first step in our offseason process."
(2) In the first two weeks of free agency, the Bears bolstered their offense and defense by signing seven veteran players from other teams.
The group consists of quarterback Andy Dalton (Cowboys), running back Damien Williams (Chiefs), offensive lineman Elijah Wilkinson (Broncos), defensive lineman Angelo Blackson (Cardinals), outside linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu (Broncos), linebacker Christian Jones (Lions) and cornerback Desmond Trufant (Lions).
Dalton signed a 1-year deal to be the Bears' starting quarterback in 2021 after spending his first 10 NFL seasons with the Bengals (2011-19) and Cowboys (2020). He led Cincinnati to the playoffs in each of his first five seasons and was voted to three Pro Bowls in his first six years.
Williams is a complete running back who helped lead the Chiefs to a Super Bowl championship in 2019 before opting out of the 2020 due to concerns about COVID-19. Williams set career highs in 2019 with 498 yards rushing, five rushing TDs and 30 receptions.
Wilkinson joins the Bears after playing right guard and right tackle the past four seasons with the Broncos, while Blackson was a key member of Arizona's defensive line rotation last year, appearing in all 16 games with nine starts and matching career highs with 24 tackles and 2.5 sacks.
Jones returns to the Bears for a second stint, having played in Chicago from 2014-17 before spending the last two years with the Lions. He's a versatile linebacker who can line up at both the inside and outside positions.
Trufant joins the Bears after starting all 103 games he played in eight seasons with the Falcons (2013-19) and Lions (2020). The 6-foot, 190-pounder has recorded 349 tackles, 14 interceptions, 83 pass breakups, 10 tackles-for-loss, six sacks, three forced fumbles and seven fumble recoveries, two of which he returned for touchdowns.
"We challenged ourselves in free agency really with limited [cap] space to get better and I thought our pro scouts and our coaches did a really good job adding valuable pieces," Pace said. "Were we big spenders in free agency? No. But I thought we addressed a lot of needs."
(3) Pace is excited about entering the April 29-May 1 NFL Draft with eight picks, including a first-rounder at No. 20 overall.
The Bears have made more than seven selections in only one of Pace's six drafts as GM; that came in 2016 when they chose nine prospects, including three that remain on the roster: offensive lineman Cody Whitehair and safeties Bush and Houston-Carson.
This is the first year the Bears have a first-round selection since 2018 when they picked linebacker Roquan Smith at No. 8 overall. Their first-round choices in 2019 and 2020 were both part of the package they traded to the Raiders in 2018 in exchange for perennial Pro Bowl outside linebacker Khalil Mack.
Here are the Bears' eight choices with round and overall selection listed:
- 6-208 (from Dolphins)
- 6-221 (compensatory)
- 6-228 (compensatory)
The Bears have their own picks in Rounds 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6. They will select 20th in Rounds 1, 2, 5 and 6 but will choose 19th in Round 3 because the NFL stripped the Patriots of a third-round pick for videotaping the Bengals sideline during a game against the Browns.
The Bears acquired the 24th choice in the sixth round (No. 208) from the Dolphins last summer in exchange for tight end Adam Shaheen. Miami had obtained the pick from the Seahawks during last year's draft in exchange for a 2020 seventh-round selection the Dolphins spent on tight end Stephen Sullivan.
The Bears were awarded two compensatory selections, both in the sixth round, by the NFL due to a net loss of unrestricted free agents last year.
The Bears were pleased with how second-round selections Kmet and Johnson performed as rookies, but both are expected to take another leap forward in 2021. Last season Kmet appeared in all 16 games with nine starts, catching 28 passes for 243 yards and two touchdowns. Johnson tied for ninth in the NFL with 15 pass breakups while also registering 42 tackles despite missing the final three games and the playoff loss to the Saints due to a shoulder injury.
In Mooney, the Bears unearthed a gem in the fifth round of the draft who set a team record for receptions by a rookie wide receiver with 61 for 631 yards and four TDs.
Other young players the Bears are excited about include offensive lineman James Daniels, a 2018 second-round pick who returns after missing the final 11 games last season with a torn pectoral muscle; running back David Montgomery, a 2019 third-round pick who rushed for 1,070 yards and eight TDs last season; and Smith, an impactful inside linebacker who led the Bears with a career-high 137 tackles and tied for second in the NFL with 18 tackles-for-loss in 2020.