INDIANAPOLIS – After four straight last-place finishes, the Bears experienced a major resurgence in 2018, winning the NFC North championship with a 12-4 record.
With 21 of 22 starters under contract on a team that is now widely considered a Super Bowl contender, the Bears can supplement their roster in free agency this year rather than trying to fill major holes like they've been compelled to do in previous offseasons.
"We're a young team, we're a young team with a lot of guys under contract," general manager Ryan Pace said this week at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis. "That's exciting. It's exciting to be going into Year 2 of this offense and having [new defensive coordinator Chuck] Pagano come in and add his flavor."
All seven Bears who played in the Pro Bowl Jan. 27 were first-time participants. The team's success in 2019 and beyond will be more dependent on their continued development than on the performance of players who are acquired this offseason.
The first-time Pro Bowlers were quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, running back/return specialist Tarik Cohen, left tackle Charles Leno Jr., center Cody Whitehair, defensive tackle Akiem Hicks, cornerback Kyle Fuller and safety Eddie Jackson. Outside linebacker Khalil Mack was also selected, but he did not play in the all-star game due to an injury he sustained in the Bears' wild-card playoff loss to the Eagles.
"There's going to be natural growth and progression," Pace said. "We've got to make sure that happens. But we have the right character on our team and the right staff around those players to make that happen."
With the Bears' success in 2018, Pace can focus more on re-signing players he drafted to contract extensions than plucking free agents off other teams' rosters like he's done in previous years.
Safety Adrian Amos, a 2015 fifth-round pick, is the Bears' only starter due to become a free agent when the new league year starts March 13. Selected in the 2016 draft, Whitehair and running back Jordan Howard are signed through the 2019 season, while 2017 draft choices Jackson and Cohen are inked through 2020.
"You always talk about drafting and developing and the best form of free agency is re-signing those players to contracts," Pace said. "We are forecasting ahead to some of these guys coming down the pipeline that we're going to need to extend at some point.
"That's a good feeling because that means we've drafted well. It's refreshing to look at the depth chart and not be overwhelmed by all the needs everywhere. Now we can pinpoint and tweak and fine-tune, and that's exciting."