Indianapolis will again become the NFL's hub this week, playing host to the annual scouting combine. As always, much of the TV spotlight and outside hype will center around the 330 draft-eligible invitees who will partake in on-field testing, medical examinations and interview sessions.
Yet for Bears general manager Ryan Pace and coach John Fox, the business demands will stretch beyond their draft preparation homework. Pace and Fox are scheduled to meet with reporters Wednesday at the Indianapolis Convention Center to offer their offseason updates. As that session closes in, here are four Bears storylines worth keeping tabs on.
The big catch
Photos of Bears wide receiver Alshon Jeffery.
Say this for Alshon Jeffery: He doesn't lack for self-confidence. On the final day of the regular season, after a 28-point loss to the Vikings completed a 3-13 season, Jeffery boldly declared that the Bears would win the Super Bowl next season.
A day later, when asked if he stood behind that proclamation, Jeffery affirmed his stance. "Damn right," he said. " I really believe it in my heart."
Misguided? Probably. Outlandish? Absolutely. But with Jeffery, such bravado comes from a well-intentioned place. The veteran receiver has a competitive streak and a deep belief in his own abilities. And that's not to be overlooked as he prepares to dip his toes into free agency for the first time.
Jeffery badly wants to be part of a winner. He also hopes to land a mega contract that will offer him fair compensation and long-term security. So will he prioritize loyalty to the Bears over a desire to land the richest deal possible?
The consensus around the NFL is that Jeffery will be one of the 10 most talented players to hit the open market March 9. And it's easy to argue that the Bears ultimately need Jeffery more than he needs them. After all, if Jeffery wound up departing, wouldn't that spell trouble for an offense that has only two other receivers — Cameron Meredith and Kevin White — locked into the 2017 plans?
Still, don't expect Pace to lose his business discipline if a high-priced auction breaks out on the first day of the new league year.
The Bears have plenty of room under the salary cap and are very much interested in keeping Jeffery around, even after his 2016 season (52 catches, 821 yards, two touchdowns) was interrupted by a four-game suspension for a violation of the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs.
But Pace also isn't hellbent on becoming the highest bidder if Jeffery's price tag shoots too high.
The Bears still have understandable questions about Jeffery's dependability and potential for growth. So just where will Pace draw the line in his negotiations?
Adding complexity to the issue is the lack of direction the Bears seem to have on offense. Other than a familiar setting, what can the Bears truly sell Jeffery on with yet another new receivers coach (Zach Azzanni), likely a new starting quarterback and a postseason drought that has reached six seasons and counting?
Photos of Bears quarterback Jay Cutler.
At last year's combine, Fox labeled quarterback Jay Cutler "one of the brightest spots" of his first season in Chicago, lauding the quarterback's mental toughness and ability to execute under pressure. A year later, it seems to be a matter of when, not if, Fox and the Bears will permanently pull the plug on Cutler.
From the front office's perspective, think of Cutler as that outdated toaster in the corner of the kitchen that's no longer of much use. The first option: Set him out on a garage sale table and hope someone desperate offers some form of compensation — anything really — to take him away. And if no one does? Then he's out to the front porch for the next Salvation Army pickup.
That, in a nutshell, is how the trade-or-cut question will likely play out in the coming weeks. And the Bears are certain to use their time at the combine to measure outside interest in Cutler.
Even Cutler's biggest backers at Halas Hall seem to understand that new direction is needed at the position. So the Bears must identify the most fruitful separation strategy.
Through that lens, any public comments Pace or Fox makes this week about Cutler must be properly filtered. Any praise of Cutler's recovery from shoulder surgery or optimism about his future potential should not be interpreted as a vote of confidence in Cutler but more so as a calculated sales pitch to other rabbit-eared NFL general managers.
The Bears' phone lines are open. Any and all offers will be considered.
Third watchJonathan Allen Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images
Alabama's Jonathan Allen tackles Washington's Myles Gaskin during the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl on Dec. 31, 2016 in Atlanta.
Alabama's Jonathan Allen tackles Washington's Myles Gaskin during the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl on Dec. 31, 2016 in Atlanta.(Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images)
The Bears own the No. 3 overall pick in April's draft, a nice consolation prize for last season's misery. Now, how will they use it?
If Pace wants to add his quarterback of the future in Round 1, he'll start with an intense evaluation of Clemson's Deshaun Watson and North Carolina's Mitch Trubisky. Maybe even Notre Dame's DeShone Kizer. But if the 40-year-old GM stays true to a philosophy of taking the best player available, the focus may instead shift to Alabama defensive lineman Jonathan Allen, LSU safety Jamal Adams or Ohio State defensive backs Malik Hooker or Marshon Lattimore.
The combine will give the Bears a chance to thicken their scouting reports on those defensive difference-makers. Allen might be the safest bet, a disruptive force who would be an immediate starter at end in the Bears' 3-4 defense. Allen is stout against the run and has shown an ability to consistently push the pocket as a pass rusher. His combination of quickness and power is elite and would make him an intriguing fit alongside Eddie Goldman and Akiem Hicks up front.
Open for business
A scheduling shift pushed this year's combine back on the calendar and closer to the start of free agency, a change that is being celebrated by agents and team executives alike. In recent years, the casual preliminary free-agency discussions that were had at the combine lacked urgency as teams and agents slowly felt each other out. But with the combine now oozing into March and butting up against the opening of the new league year (March 9), there's a sense that the business conversations in Indy will be a lot more meaningful this week.
That means Pace and his staff will be busy finalizing their free-agency vision and discussing contingency plans. The Bears are equipped with plenty of salary-cap room and have every intention of being active when the market opens.
Philosophically, Pace has never favored investing big in one headliner. He's more likely to spread his resources around with a handful of calculated moves. Don't forget that last year the Bears wound up adding four starters (Danny Trevathan, Bobby Massie, Jerrell Freeman and Hicks) in the opening week of free agency. A similar approach can be expected this year with the Bears having their biggest needs at cornerback, safety and tight end.
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