The Chicago Bears (5-9) will miss the playoffs for the fourth straight year, and now Jimmy Clausen will start over highly paid incumbent-quarterback Jay Cutler Sunday against the Detroit Lions.
Both Cutler and head coach Marc Trestman commented on the benching Thursday. Trestman said he believes the team needed a “lift” under center and a “spark,” while Cutler, who’s in the first year of a mega seven-year, $126.7 million contract extension, said he was “shocked” and “disappointed,” but understood that his massive contract came with high expectations.
Trestman’s comments could be interpreted as his last-ditch effort to keep his job. If Clausen succeeds in his offensive system, or at least performs better than Cutler has this year, then the former CFL coach can make the case that what Chicago really needs is a permanent change at quarterback, not at head coach.
It’s a major decision the Bears can certainly consider, but one that will cost them. Cutler is scheduled to make $15.5 million in base salary next season and another $1 million in bonuses, but if the Bears cut him outright they’ll still have to pay him and it will count as a $19.5 million hit against the salary cap next year, according to Spotrac.
From there, the Bears will likely turn to the draft for a new quarterback, and this year’s class includes some intriguing prospects. Assuming the Bears lose their next two games, they will be 5-11 and in line for a top-five selection in next year’s draft. The Oakland Raiders, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Tennessee Titans will likely make up the top three, and the Bears will fall anywhere between No. 5 or No. 8.
The assumption is Heisman Trophy winner and Oregon star Marcus Mariota will be the first quarterback off the board, followed by troubled-but-special Florida State lightning rod Jameis Winston. National scout Dan Shonka described this year's quarterback class as "not a great group," though he expects Mariota and Winston to be top five picks. There is a decent chance that Mariota and Winston will be selected before Chicago's pick, but there are a few other options for the Bears to consider.
The quarterback position, however, might not even be the Bears top priority heading into the draft. For one, the team’s longest-serving defensive stars, linebacker Lance Briggs and cornerback Charles Tillman, will both be free agents at the conclusion of the season. So will starting center Roberto Garza.
Paying off and cutting ties with Cutler would make signing free agents to fill those considerable gaps on defense and on the offensive line very difficult, if not impossible, for the Bears under the current salary-cap restrictions.
The Bears don’t necessarily have to spend their first-round pick on a quarterback, and could instead wait as late as the third round, as the Seattle Seahawks did when they picked Russell Wilson with the 75th pick in 2012. Chicago may hit the reset button and take a chance on the three quarterbacks below.
Brett Hundley, UCLA Bruins
Now a redshirt junior, Hundley does have the option to return to UCLA and gun for the top overall selection in the 2016 draft. But in most rankings he’s the consensus next quarterback off the board after Mariota and Winston. Standing at 6-foot-3 and 227 pounds, Hundley has a very good body type for the NFL’s most visible position. He’s also put up some gaudy numbers in the competitive Pac 12. Hundley has thrown for 3,000 or more yards in each of his three seasons as the Bruins starter, to go along with 74 touchdowns to 25 interceptions. His passer rating and accuracy have also improved each year, showing he’s capable of growing year-over-year. An efficient scrambler, Hundley also rushed for 1,667 yards and 29 touchdowns in his career.
Hundley does have his drawbacks. For one, UCLA does not run the most complicated offense in college, CBS Sports pointed out. When he makes the leap to the NFL, Hundley may have trouble adjusting to the pro-style system. Shonka has Hundley possibly sneaking into the second round.
Bryce Petty, Baylor Bears
Compared to his junior year, Petty’s numbers took a precipitous decline. He put up 3,305 yards and 26 touchdowns, both down from the 4,200 yards and 32 scores from 2013. His yards-per-attempt also slipped to 8.8 from 10.4. Still, he led the nation’s highest scoring offense with 48.8 points per game and nearly put Baylor in the inaugural College Football Playoff. Many believe he is the product of a pass-happy system that allows him to pick out wide open receivers.
Petty’s a little slower, and doesn’t have the same size as Hundley, but he’s known as a workhorse and is reportedly well-respected by teammates and coaches. He also has good arm strength, and shows a lot of poise in the pocket. Petty could be a good pick in the fourth round.
Dak Prescott, Mississippi State Bulldogs
At 6-foot-1, Prescott certainly doesn’t have the elite size that many NFL teams are looking for. It’s also unclear if he will even enter the draft, but according to The Clarion-Ledger Prescott already received his draft grade and wouldn’t reveal it.
Prescott led the Bulldogs to their best season in 15 years and the first No. 1 ranking in school history with 2,996 yards and 24 touchdowns to 10 interceptions. He also rushed for another 939 yards and 10 touchdowns.
While he might have trouble adjusting to the NFL game, Prescott’s the type of selection that would allow the Bears to address other areas in the first round. Should he enter the draft, CBS Sports projects Prescott as a second round pick. Shonka stated that Prescott would probably be better off with another season in college football, but could still be drafted between Hundley and Petty, and may find his way into the third round.