Ranking the 10 best solutions to the Bears' quarterback problem: Dalton, Bridgewater battle for top spot

Ryan Pace is lucky. The general manager who built the Bears' Super Bowl-caliber defense, but is better known for his decision to trade up for Mitchell Trubisky instead of hanging back and taking either Deshaun Watson or Patrick Mahomes in the 2017 draft, has a chance to atone for his franchise-changing error. It's usually close to impossible to find a quarterback savior in free agency or the trade market, but a bevy of options exist for the Bears this offseason.

By now, it's become clear that Trubisky almost certainly isn't the savior the Bears thought they were getting when they drafted him second overall three years ago. After somewhat encouraging first and second seasons, Trubisky failed to make the leap in Year 3, which resulted in an otherwise good Bears team missing the playoffs with an 8-8 record.

That's the thing. The Bears aren't a bad team. They managed to win eight games with incompetent quarterback play -- Trubisky finished the year ranked 28th in both DYAR and DVOA, and 30th in total QBR. The Bears' defense, while regressing as widely predicted, is still good (eighth by DVOA, to be exact). The offense still has a good collection of weapons, from Allen Robinson to Tarik Cohen to David Montgomery to Anthony Miller (who is poised for a breakout in 2020). All they need is competent -- not even great -- quarterback play.

Without a first-round pick, the Bears can't expect to find a solution to the problem in the draft. Luckily for them, there are a multitude of possibilities in free agency and the trade market. The question now becomes, will Pace be willing to admit to his mistake and acquire someone who has a legitimate chance to steal the starting job away from Trubisky? Comments made in late December don't always hold value, but Pace has indicated that he remains committed to Trubisky.

Pace might think his job depends on proving that Trubisky is actually good. He'd be mistaken, though. The best chance he has to keep his job isn't to dedicate more time to an already sunk cost. It's to prove that he's built a good all-around roster that can win with a competent quarterback. Blindly committing himself to Trubisky won't save his job. It'll likely result in his dismissal. Moving on from Trubisky (he doesn't need to be released, only untethered from the starting job), supplying the playoff-caliber team with a competent quarterback, and making the playoffs will save his job.

With all that in mind, we decided to rank the 10 best quarterback options for the Bears. First, a few notes about the list:

  • Likelihood matters. That's why Colin Kaepernick isn't on the list, even though the Bears are the exact sort of team that should be giving him a chance. As much as it might make sense for the Bears to bring him in, we all know by now that it isn't happening.
  • As previously mentioned, the Bears do not have a first-round pick. They do have two second-round picks, but they also don't hold any third or fourth rounders, all of which is something to keep in mind as we talk about potential trade compensation. 
  • In terms of cap space, the Bears are somewhat, but not entirely limited. Spotrac has them with $12.8 million in available cap space, which ranks 27th among the league's 32 teams. The cap is almost always navigable, but the Bears do have some spots that they need to fill outside of quarterback. Big decisions loom, particularly at inside linebacker and safety with Danny Trevathan, Nick Kwiatkoski, and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix all hitting free agency. It's just something to keep in mind. 
  • One player who I wanted to include, but didn't: Alex Smith, who found success under Matt Nagy in Kansas City. Smith is dedicated to engineering a comeback after the horrific leg injury he suffered in 2018, but the Redskins don't really have a fit for him after drafting Dwayne Haskins. The problem is, Smith needs to demonstrate he's able to play football again before he can be seen as a realistic option. But if Smith is able to do so, the Bears would make the most sense as a landing spot given their need for a Smith-level quarterback and his ties to Nagy. 

We begin the list in Miami.

10. Josh Rosen 

Ever since the Cardinals traded up to take him No. 10 overall in 2018, Rosen's value has plummeted. When the Cardinals set their sights on Kyler Murray in last year's draft, they shipped Rosen to Miami for a second- and fifth-round pick. Even though it's been reported that Rosen will likely return to Miami for the 2020 season, the Dolphins already benched Rosen during their lost 2019 season that was all about accumulating high draft picks and are now in a position to draft their quarterback of the future to join Ryan Fitzpatrick in the quarterback room. In other words, there's reason to believe Rosen would be available -- and he shouldn't cost more than what the Dolphins paid for him.

Rosen hasn't found success so far in the NFL, but context matters. He's been placed in difficult situations, first in Arizona with a coaching staff that didn't know what it was doing and again in Miami on a team devoid of talent. That doesn't mean he's due for a breakout. It just means he shouldn't be written off entirely.

Rosen is an intriguing option given his age (23) and pedigree, but he comes in last on this list because the Bears should prioritize finding a quarterback who gives them a chance to win right now as opposed to a developmental prospect. But Rosen places on this list because the Bears are still in need of a long-term solution at the position and getting a former top-10 pick for cheap wouldn't be the worst move for a team lacking a first-round pick.

9. Marcus Mariota

Mariota will be an unrestricted free agent. He'll be cheap after he spent most of the 2019 season on the bench behind Ryan Tannehill. At his peak, he would give the Bears the exact kind of quarterback play they need. But there's ample evidence to suggest that Mariota is no longer the prospect he once was, when he came out of Oregon as the No. 2 overall pick in 2015.

There are the well-documented injury issues and the fact that Mariota just hasn't played good football when he has been healthy. Since an impressive 2016 season, Mariota has started 34 games across three seasons, averaging 2,321 yards, 10.3 touchdowns, and 8.3 interceptions per season. Those numbers extrapolated to a full 16-game season? 3,095 yards, 14 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions.

But Mariota will be available and he won't cost the Bears much in terms of cap space. At the very least, he could be brought in to compete with Trubisky. And here's where it's worth remembering that back before the 2015 draft, it was rumored that Pace was interested in Mariota. 

8. Derek Carr

For this to happen, the Raiders would need to cut or trade Carr, who is under contract through the 2022 season. But cutting him won't cost the Raiders much. Per Spotrac, they'd save close to $14 million by cutting him this offseason. Do the Raiders want to enter their first season in Las Vegas with Carr as their quarterback? Like the Bears, they're probably looking around at the plethora of available quarterbacks and eyeing an upgrade.

Anyone who's been reading my work over the past several seasons or listens to the Pick Six Podcast knows that I've never been a believer in Carr. But Carr would be an upgrade over Trubisky. He might not be good enough to elevate a team (like the Raiders) that doesn't have a playoff-caliber roster around him, but he also might not drag down a team (like the Bears) that does have a playoff-caliber roster they can surround him with. In 2019, Carr finished sixth in DYAR, eighth in DVOA, and 10th in total QBR.

The key is, not giving up any draft picks for him. The Bears should only be interested if Carr is cut. Even then, there are probably better options.

7. Jameis Winston

Fresh off the first 30-touchdown, 30-interception season in NFL history, Winston is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent. The Buccaneers could always decide to tag Winston or give him a multi-year deal. We don't know what they're going to do. 

If Winston hits free agency, he'll be coveted, even though his propensity for turning the ball over and his history off the field remain major concerns. Teams are going to tell themselves that they'll be the team to fix Winston's interception issues. I think that's a fantasy, but I also think Winston is a far better quarterback than Trubisky and would give the Bears a legitimate chance to return to the playoffs.

Winston ranks this low because the Buccaneers still control his future via the tag and he might cost too much money if he does hit free agency. He's still only 26.

6. Cam Newton

The only question here pertains to Newton's health, which remains a giant unknown. If he's healthy and the Panthers are looking to trade him, the Bears should be all in on the Newton sweepstakes. But if he isn't healthy, the Bears probably can't afford to gamble on him. Newton at full health would turn the Bears into a legitimate playoff team. The Newton we saw last season, however, wouldn't move the needle.

So, is Newton healthy? It doesn't even sound like Panthers owner David Tepper knows.

"Listen, I'm not a doctor," said Tepper, via David Newton of ESPN. "I said it a million times, is he healthy? He's not a doctor, so there's a lot of different things can happen. But first is he healthy? Tell me that and then we can talk." 

5. Philip Rivers

Rivers is on the downslope of his career. He wasn't good in 2019 -- not all of that was about him, it also some to do with the team around him. But he'd still be an upgrade over Trubisky considering he's still a competent quarterback. Even at his worst last season, Rivers ranked 14th in both DYAR and DVOA and 23rd in total QBR.

Acquiring Rivers wouldn't cost anything in terms of draft capital, but he might command a pricey one- or two-year deal. The Bears would also face competition for his services. All teams in need of a rental quarterback should be interested in Rivers.

If the Bears sign Rivers and he plays like the Rivers of 2018, they're a playoff team. If the Bears sign Rivers and he plays like the Rivers of 2019, they'd at least be more competitive. 

4. Tom Brady

I still don't really believe Brady will actually leave New England. I also don't think it would work out well for him. I think he should stay with the Patriots, trust that they'll find a way to improve the offense around him, and try to win another title with Bill Belichick. If Brady wanted to prove he's capable of winning without Belichick, he probably should've left years ago when he was still a great quarterback. It doesn't make sense to leave now when he's at the end of his career and probably isn't the quarterback he once was -- that doesn't make him bad, he's just not the same anymore at age 42.

But if Brady has his heart set on forging his own legacy independent of Belichick, I think the Bears should rank high on his list. Sure, the Chargers play in Los Angeles, but they're also not very good and they're stuck in the same division as Mahomes. The Raiders are also trapped with Mahomes in the AFC West. Looking at the options, I'd put the Colts and Bears near the top of his list. Both are a good quarterback away from entering the playoff conversation. 

If I thought Brady was actually leaving New England, I'd move him up this list. But I don't. 

3. Ryan Tannehill

Tannehill would rank first or second if I thought the Titans would be willing to let him go. After he rescued their season and won Comeback Player of the Year, they probably have to bring him back whether it's via the tag or a multi-year deal. Given that 2019 was his first real great season, the Titans shouldn't give him a mega-contract. The tag makes more sense so they can see if he can replicate the success he found in 2019 again in 2020.

But the Titans also have to sort out free agent situations with running back Derrick Henry and right tackle Jack Conklin. If the Titans use their franchise tag on Henry, they might be forced to use the transition tag on Tannehill, which would give the Bears a chance to steal him with an offer the Titans don't want to match. 

It seems unlikely. All signs indicate Tannehill will return to Tennessee, and with good reason. For those who think Henry played a bigger role than Tannehill in the Titans' second-half surge, consider this:

The Titans really set the perfect example of how to handle a shaky quarterback situation. They acquired a decent quarterback for cheap in the offseason as a backup plan behind Mariota and when Mariota struggled, they had the guts to bench him. It ended up saving their season.

The Bears should follow their lead. 

2. Andy Dalton

Dalton is this year's version of Tannehill. 

He's available on the trade market as the Bengals prepare to make Joe Burrow their franchise quarterback with the first overall pick. The trade compensation shouldn't greatly exceed the cost the Titans paid for Tannehill -- a fourth-round pick basically -- because the entire league knows the Bengals have to find a way to move Dalton. 

For Dalton, it's the opportunity to join a contender and team up with Bill Lazor again. Lazor, who coached Dalton in Cincinnati from 2016-18, was hired by the Bears last month as their new offensive coordinator. Dalton's only concern should be if he'll be given a fair shot at winning the quarterback competition. Pace might want Trubisky to emerge with the job heading into Week 1 so he gets one more chance to prove his worth, and Dalton undoubtedly won't want to participate in a rigged competition and sit behind Trubisky.

From the Bears' perspective, they might be concerned that Dalton is no longer any good after a terrible 2019 season that saw him get briefly benched for Ryan Finley. Dalton finished the season 26th in both DYAR and DVOA, and 31st in total QBR. But Dalton wasn't really placed in a spot to succeed. He didn't have A.J. Green. He was learning a brand new offense. The running game never got going. And the offensive line ranked 31st in pass block win rate. In 2018, Dalton ranked 19th in DYAR, and 17th in both DVOA and total QBR. That's the level of quarterback play the Bears need.

Dalton feels like the favorite to wind up in Chicago. It might be unsexy, but the Tannehill trade a year ago also felt unsexy. 

1. Teddy Bridgewater

Bridgewater gets the edge over Dalton because he's younger and better, and with Drew Brees returning, he's going to leave New Orleans to search for his first real starting opportunity since a horrific knee injury placed his career on life support. 

Bridgewater has revived his career. He wisely chose to stay in New Orleans a year ago as Brees' backup instead of going to Miami and likely floundering on a terrible team. The move paid off. When Brees went down with an injury, Bridgewater -- not Taysom Hill -- stepped in under center and helped the Saints win all five of his starts. In those five starts, Bridgewater completed 69.7 percent of his passes, averaged 7.3 yards per attempt, threw nine touchdowns and two interceptions, and posted a 103.7 passer rating. In a win over the Bears at Soldier Field, he went 23 of 38 for 281 yards, two touchdowns, no picks, and a 100.9 passer rating. That'll work.

No one is arguing that Bridgewater is a superstar. He doesn't really push the ball downfield. He averaged only 6.2 air yards per attempt last season, which was the lowest in all of football, according to Next Gen Stats. But he's accurate, takes care of the football, and can execute the offense as designed. He's the exact kind of quarterback the Bears need in the short and long term, which gives him the edge over a short-term option like Dalton.

It's not every year a 27-year-old former first-round pick hits free agency. It's the exact kind of bailout the Bears need. They likely can't find a young franchise quarterback in the draft because they don't have the necessary picks. Bridgewater gives them a chance at one. At worst, he's a bridge quarterback. At best, he's in Chicago for the long haul.

The only problem? He might be too expensive for them. If Bridgewater costs $30 million per season (a big if), the Bears likely wouldn't be able to sign him and fill their other needs. If Bridgewater's price is closer to what Nick Foles got a year ago ($22 million per season), the Bears should pursue him aggressively.

Dalton is the realistic option. Bridgewater is the dream.

CBS Sports Writer

Sean Wagner-McGough joined CBS Sports in 2015 after graduating from UC Berkeley. A native of Seattle, Sean now resides in the Bay Area. He spends his spare time defending Jay Cutler on Twitter. Full Bio

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