Championship Sunday ought to provide compelling football, with MVP favorite Patrick Mahomes going head-to-head against the Cincinnati Bengals’ Joe Burrow in the AFC in Kansas City, Mo., and the Philadelphia Eagles playing host to the San Francisco 49ers in a battle of the top NFC seeds.
At the end of the day, the stage will be set for Super Bowl LVII on Feb. 12 in Glendale, Ariz., and the NFL will be one step closer to an offseason in which the Chicago Bears are positioned to make a flurry of headlines coming off a 3-14 season and the hiring of President/CEO Kevin Warren.
The Bears own the No. 1 pick in the draft, which will provide months of speculation about whether a trade-down deal is in the works for general manager Ryan Poles. They also possess the largest amount of salary-cap space available in free agency, which begins at 3 p.m. March 15.
Five former Bears on Sunday will be vying for a trip to the Super Bowl: Safety Deon Bush and fullback Michael Burton are on the Chiefs, defensive end Robert Quinn is with the Eagles and kicker Robbie Gould and safety Tashaun Gipson are on the 49ers. Gould is one win from playing in his third Super Bowl in his 18th season.
Here are six offseason storylines to follow.
1. Veteran quarterback movement will not involve the Bears directly.
But it potentially will reduce the number of teams that could be interested in trading for the No. 1 pick, and it could have a profound effect on the future of the NFC North.
Less than 11 months after signing a three-year, $150.815 million extension with the Green Bay Packers, Aaron Rodgers’ future remains up in the air. Retirement seems highly unlikely — Rodgers would be walking away from more than $59 million — but a trade has been reported as a possibility.
The Packers would almost certainly want to move Rodgers to an AFC team as they once did with Brett Favre. The New York Jets — the team that traded for Favre — have been heavily mentioned as a possibility. The prospect of Rodgers leaving the NFC North would have massive ramifications. The Bears have been waiting for decades for the Packers to experience what it’s like to be without a franchise quarterback. Rodgers has a 25-5 record, including postseason, in the rivalry in 18 seasons in Green Bay.
Derek Carr of the Las Vegas Raiders is expected to land elsewhere, and two NFC playoff teams have quarterbacks coming out of contract — the New York Giants’ Daniel Jones and Seattle Seahawks’ Geno Smith. The Baltimore Ravens seem motivated to make things right with quarterback Lamar Jackson, the 2019 MVP, but there are more questions about their future together than there were before the season.
2. Free agency chatter begins at the Senior Bowl, which gets going Monday.
Mix top executives from nearly all 32 teams with agents for high-profile players in Mobile, Ala., for a few days and exploratory conversations can be the impetus to deals being done six weeks later. It’s tampering but the kind of thing that happens every year when teams and agents can claim they are discussing anything but what lies ahead in free agency.
3. It would be surprising if the Bears were to use a franchise or transition tag on any players.
The window for those designations runs from Feb. 21-March 7 and will be important to watch.
Teams can prevent players who potentially would be attractive free agents from reaching the open market. Defensive linemen Daron Payne (Washington Commanders) and Dre’Mont Jones (Denver Broncos), offensive tackles Orlando Brown (Kansas City Chiefs) and Kaleb McGary (Atlanta Falcons) and running backs Josh Jacobs (Las Vegas Raiders) and Saquon Barkley (New York Giants) are non-quarterbacks to keep an eye on.
4. Chatter — some realistic and thought-provoking, some downright goofy — about the possibility of trading the No. 1 pick will almost surely drag on for more than two months.
This isn’t the kind of deal that is likely to happen when Poles is on the clock April 27, but it’s difficult to imagine anything falling into place more than a month before the draft. The San Francisco 49ers traded up to No. 3 for a pick that turned into quarterback Trey Lance on March 26, 2021. In 2016, the top-two picks were traded: The Los Angeles Rams moved up from No. 15 to No. 1 to select Jared Goff on April 14 — two weeks before the draft. Six days later, the Eagles moved up from No. 8 to No. 2 to be in position to draft Carson Wentz.
If you are of the mind that Poles will not want to move down too far in Round 1 if he deals the pick, the Bears are going to hope teams picking in the top 10 do not land veteran quarterbacks. The Houston Texans (No. 2) and Indianapolis Colts (No. 4) are speculated to be in the market for a rookie passer. A wild card is the Atlanta Falcons, picking No. 3. If they really like one or two prospects, could they fire on a quarterback a year after choosing Desmond Ridder in the third round?
The Bears have two motivating factors to consider trading down. Although they own the top pick, that is their only selection in the top 50 because the second-rounder they acquired from the Ravens in the Roquan Smith trade is No. 54. They own only three picks in the top 100, the third being No. 65 at the top of Round 3. As intriguing would be the chance to add a first-round pick in 2024, especially if it comes from a franchise that could struggle somewhat in the season ahead.
5. Recruiting is going to be a huge part of free agency because the Bears are hardly the only team with a boatload of cap space and a laundry list of needs.
Money speaks loudest, but there will be intense competition for high-caliber players. That is where Poles’ pro department and the connection those people have with agents will be key. It’s where the coaching staff will have to sell the club’s vision. Plenty of elements are in play that go beyond waving around the McCaskey checkbook and buying players.
6. Buffalo Bills GM Brandon Beane made headlines Tuesday.
At his end-of-season media session, Beane said he doesn’t want the Bills to “suck bad enough to have to get a Ja’Marr Chase.” The comment, without context, generated headlines, but the point was Beane’s team is constructed differently with quarterback Josh Allen and wide receiver Stefon Diggs playing on high-end second contracts. The Bengals benefit from having quarterback Joe Burrow and Chase, their No. 1 receiver, on rookie contracts, giving them far more roster flexibility.
“(Chase) is a heck of a talent — I’d love to have him — but you’ve got to go through some lean years to do that,” Beane said. “And you know, they were able to get (Burrow) one, and I don’t remember where Chase was drafted but it was pretty high. … (The Bengals) have a really good team, and they’ve got some good young players. We’re going to try to get as many good players as we can through the draft and through free agency, but again, our cap situation’s a little different by whoever’s under the book.”
Dallas Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons piggybacked Beane’s comment on Chase and pointed out the Chiefs are the only team playing Sunday with a quarterback not on a rookie contract.
That created blowback for Parsons as some insinuated it to be a shot at Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, who struggled in the divisional-round loss to the 49ers Sunday in San Francisco. That led Parsons to clarify he wasn’t relating the Cowboys’ cap structure with Prescott to what he said.
The Bears are in the midst of “lean years,” to borrow from Beane, and what they do this offseason will shape a path to greener pastures. Certainly having success with quarterback Justin Fields on his rookie deal — he will be entering Year 3 of a five-year contract — would be ideal. But let’s not pretend as if having an elite quarterback on a mega contract is a problem.
Any team without a franchise quarterback would gladly welcome Allen and ever penny of his contract, and no team would hesitate to pay Burrow what the Bengals will have to in order to lock him up for seasons to come.