Bears position needs: Free agents, draft options at linebacker
Roquan Smith and Khalil Mack remain two of the Bears' best all-around players. Both were second-team All-Pro performers.
From a contract perspective, it doesn't make sense to move on from any of the major players at inside or outside linebacker this offseason. With that in mind, major changes aren't likely at linebacker.
Here's what to expect:
The 2021 roster:
Outside linebackers Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn are under contract through 2024. Trevis Gipson enters year two after his rookie season. The Bears kept Ledarius Mack, Khalil's brother, on a futures contract.
While Quinn was a disappointment in 2020, the 31-year-old is basically uncuttable in 2021. Cutting him before June 1 would cost the team an additional $9.2 million in salary cap space, according to OverTheCap.com. Cutting him after June 1 would give them a negligible amount of additional cap space. The Bears are better off hoping Quinn improves in 2021 and, if not, cutting him next year, when doing so would save $6.7 million in cap space.
Starting inside linebackers Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan should both return. Backup Joel Iyiegbuniwe is under contract for one more season.
Trevathan, like Quinn, is uncuttable right now. Like Quinn, he played better later in the year and wasn't nearly so bad as to be considered unplayable. Trevathan and Quinn remain the best available options currently on the Bears' roster at their positions.
Pending free agents:
At outside linebacker, Barkevious Mingo is a free agent. James Vaughters is an exclusive rights free agent, as is inside linebacker Josh Woods.
Mingo was a nice find in free agency but the Bears probably don't have room in the budget to re-sign him. Vaughters made some nice contributions. Woods is a cheap backup who the Bears probably want to bring back.
Linebacker is one of the positions where the Bears seem unlikely to change anything in the starting lineup.
Mack and Quinn are going to be fixtures of the Bears' pass rush again in 2021. Quinn will almost certainly return for the reasons stated above. The Bears paid Mingo about $1 million in 2020, while OverTheCap estimates he was worth closer to $3 million. With needs elsewhere, Mingo is probably gone and Gipson likely steps in after seeing limited game action as a rookie.
On the inside, Smith and Trevathan will stick around unless one of them is traded. Trevathan's contract all but assures that he will be on the roster in 2021 and probably in 2022.
Available free agents:
The Bears have a lot of money invested in their linebackers already and don't feel destined to spend much more. They will certainly pick up the fifth-year option on Smith's rookie contract, keeping him in Chicago through 2022. If the two sides don't agree to a longer extension this offseason, Smith will almost certainly ask for one a year from now. Nobody wants to play on an expiring contract, least of all someone who is a top-10 performer in his position and arguably top five.
The expensive free agents out there include: Tampa Bay's Lavonte David and Buffalo's Matt Milano at outside linebacker, and Tennessee's Jayon Brown, Seattle's K.J. Wright and the Chargers' Denzel Perryman at inside linebacker. The Bears can't afford any of them.
If anything, they might sign a backup inside linebacker. An intriguing option might be Kevin Pierre-Louis, who is valued closer to $2 million per year. Pierre-Louis filled in exceptionally well when Trevathan and Smith missed time due to injuries in 2019. The Bears, however, passed on re-signing him a year ago. Re-signing Woods likely makes more sense.
The Bears invested a 2020 fifth-round pick in Gipson. They probably aren't going to use another pick on an outside linebacker this year. A more realistic option might be to draft an inside linebacker and keep him as a backup for now with the eventual goal of replacing Trevathan.
Georgia's Monty Rice, Auburn's K.J. Britt, West Virginia's Tony Fields, and Northwestern's Paddy Fisher could be options in the middle rounds.
The Bears hold tight at linebacker and hope Quinn finds more success in 2021 and that Trevathan doesn't regress any further. They could re-sign Woods and Vaughters as backups and/or draft someone in the later rounds.