The next stop on the busy off-season itinerary for Ryan Pace and John Fox: Indianapolis.
The Bears general manager, coach and their staff head there this week for the NFL scout-ing combine to advance the club’s agenda in their second season together.
As NFL executives, coaches and scouts convene to evaluate the top college prospects and attend to other roster business, the Bears will continue to address their litany of needs. Pace and Fox also are scheduled to speak to media Wednesday for the first time since the day after the regular season. There’s a lot to catch up on as their plan to shape next sea-son’s team is underway.
Here are five storylines to monitor:
1. Game of tag
The Bears are expected to retain top wide receiver Alshon Jeffery because their wobbly offense needs his presence and production. But it remains uncertain whether they will apply the franchise tag for a one-season hitch or agree to a new long-term contract.
The Bears and Jeffery’s representatives will be in Indianapolis and could negotiate in per-son. That could push things forward, although the Bears have until March 1 to use the tag. Pace has said he would rather reach a multi-year deal with the 26-year-old but Jef-fery’s recent leg muscle injuries complicate finding common ground, against which the Bears will want to protect themselves.
Jeffery is, by a wide margin, the NFL’s best receiver coming out of contract. He would trigger a bidding war if he hit the open market, but the Bears could prevent that if they use the tag, which would guarantee him a one-year contract worth about $14.5 million. On the plus side for Jeffery, the tag could serve as a starting point for determining the average annual value of a long-term deal.
2. Extinct orange and blue dinosaur?
Pace kept Martellus Bennett’s future with the Bears open ended when discussing it Jan. 4, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he did so again Wednesday. Last month, he said Ben-nett’s relationship with the club wasn’t permanently fractured but stopped short of pro-jecting the mercurial tight end would play out the final year of his contract for the Bears in 2016.
Since Pace last spoke publicly, the Bears completed their personnel evaluations, an analy-sis Pace said would include Bennett’s fit with the culture the new regime has established. But because Bennett is under contract (for a $5.1 million base salary), the Bears don’t need to rush into action. Don’t expect Pace to tip the Bears’ hand Wednesday and sacri-fice whatever leverage the club might have in trade talks. It’s more likely the uncertainty drags on.
If the Bears prefer to part with Bennett, they obviously would seek some compensation. And it’s possible a trade market won’t crystallize until May, when teams — including the Bears — can assess their need for a tight end in the wake of free agency and the draft.
3. Building the wall
The word still echoes from Pace’s postseason news conference: “playmakers.” Bears scouts and coaches will be searching for them when the defensive prospects are put through on-field testing at the combine (linemen and linebackers Feb. 28; backs Feb. 29).
With the 11th and 41st overall picks, the Bears are in strong position to tap into this year’s highly regarded class of defensive linemen. This draft isn’t as deep at edge rusher, but the Bears still should be able to give their maligned front seven a big-time jolt with their first two selections.
Inside linebackers Myles Jack (UCLA), Reggie Ragland (Alabama) or Jaylon Smith (Notre Dame) could inject speed and toughness to a position that lacked stability in Year 1 of the Bears’ 3-4 base defense. Eastern Kentucky’s Noah Spence or Georgia’s Leonard Floyd could boost the pass rush opposite Pernell McPhee. Linemen such as Jarran Reed (Alabama) or Sheldon Rankins (Louisville) could deepen the run defense.
In the seven weeks since their last season ended, the Bears have developed a clearer sense of their offensive line outlook.
The questions start at left tackle, the premier position up front. Did Charles Leno play well enough to earn the organization’s trust? Did the strength of his anchor and con-sistency of his pass-blocking technique satisfy the Bears hierarchy?
If not, would the club consider moving right tackle Kyle Long to the left side after gaug-ing his potential on the outside? They already challenged him on the eve of last season when they moved him from right guard to tackle. Would disrupting the continuity again be worth the possible reward of having such a gifted athlete protecting the quarterback’s blind side?
And how will the Bears try to stabilize right guard?
These are important matters to consider as the Bears set their personnel priorities amid glaring defensive needs.
5. Logged in
Offensive coordinator Adam Gase’s departure to become Dolphins head coach triggered a string of vacancies on the offensive staff that Fox filled since he last spoke publicly. Although he endorsed Dowell Loggains in December before Loggains was promoted from quarterbacks coach to coordinator, Fox could expound Wednesday on the promo-tion process, as well as the mix of newness and continuity Loggains provides. At least quarterback Jay Cutler has had a productive relationship with Loggains, who served as the Titans’ offensive coordinator at the end of 2012 and all of 2013.
The Bears also hired quarterbacks coach Dave Ragone, reuniting him with Loggains. And receivers coach Curtis Johnson, a former Saints assistant and Tulane head coach, replaced Mike Groh. Fox is expected to offer insight into the coaching staff’s evolution, especially after many considered last season’s group the team’s preeminent strength.