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CHICAGO — Twenty-four months ago, two questions were hanging over the Chicago Bears as they launched into the offseason.
How would the defense transition after the departure of coordinator Vic Fangio to the Denver Broncos? And who would the Bears get to replace kicker Cody Parkey — whom they had signed the year before to a four-year, $15 million contract with $9 million guaranteed — as the next potential solution to the issue created when they cut Robbie Gould on the weekend before the 2016 season opener?
Parkey’s double doink from 43 yards at the end of the wild-card round loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in the 2018 playoffs remained a fresh wound for the Bears, who believed they had a path to the Super Bowl had that kick sailed through the uprights in Soldier Field’s north end zone.
An offseason kicking carnival ensued. The Bears have gone 16-17 since, including another first-round playoff exit, and the questions facing the team have multiplied. They need to find a quarterback; their best offensive player, wide receiver Allen Robinson, is coming out of contract; Sean Desai was promoted to replace Chuck Pagano, the man who followed Fangio as defensive coordinator; and the Bears, once again, could be embarking on another kicker search.
The intense focus is understandably on what general manager Ryan Pace will do at quarterback and about Robinson, whom the Bears can secure with the franchise tag beginning Tuesday. But what shouldn’t be lost is what will happen with kicker Cairo Santos.
In another year, without Robinson’s unsettled status, the Bears could use their franchise tag on Santos, but that seems highly unlikely. They certainly would like to keep Santos after he broke Gould’s franchise record by making 27 consecutive field-goal attempts last season, but he will enter free agency in 22 days if he doesn’t have a new contract before.
The Bears can re-sign Santos, tender an offer to restricted free agent Eddy Pineiro or start the process of trying to solidify the position all over again for coach Matt Nagy, who remains scarred by the Parkey experience.
If Pineiro is the option, keep in mind the Bears were not convinced he was the long-term solution at this time a year ago, vowing to make him compete for the job. Considering Pineiro has spent two of his three NFL seasons on injured reserve, the Bears might simply choose to start over if they can’t re-sign Santos or he is intent on exploring the market.
Santos entered the picture in August, his second tour with the team after a brief stint in 2017 when he wasn’t fully healed from a groin injury that derailed his career in Kansas City. The Bears were fortunate to turn to Santos when they did, as Pineiro was sidelined with a groin injury.
Santos performed well in camp, entered the season and never looked back, nailing a 38-yard field goal with 1:13 remaining to lift the Bears to a 20-19 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 5. Three weeks later, he hit a 51-yarder with 13 seconds remaining in regulation to send a game against the New Orleans Saints into overtime.
He finished the season 30 for 32 on field goals — a club-record 93.8% — and he made 36 of 37 extra points. Opposing offenses had an average starting field position of the 24.9-yard line, which ranked 12th-best in the league.
“It has certainly been nice,” Nagy said in December when talking about Santos. “We’re not talking about it a lot, which has been good, and for a good reason — he’s doing well. That’s great. It’s a huge part of momentum if you’re not able to score a touchdown. To get three points certainly helps.”
It will be a topic again soon if the Bears can’t find a way to bring back Santos. As many issues as the team has right now, it needs solutions, not more unknowns. While it would be surprising if the Bears were not attempting to re-sign Santos, he no doubt would have a solid market if he reaches free agency, which begins March 17.
The other two-thirds of the kicking operation — punter Pat O’Donnell and long snapper Patrick Scales — are also headed to unrestricted free agency unless the team can re-sign them. O’Donnell recently switched agents from Drew Rosenhaus to Justin Schulman. Bringing the entire unit back makes most sense for the Bears if it can be accomplished within parameters that work for a team with a tight salary-cap situation.
Santos, 29, was a bargain last season for $910,000. Keeping him likely would require much more and a multiyear commitment. Only four kickers had a better field-goal percentage last season: Graham Gano, Chris Boswell, Younghoe Koo and Daniel Carlson.
The three-year extension Gano signed with the New York Giants in November was worth $14 million and included $9.5 million guaranteed. The Miami Dolphins signed Jason Sanders to a five-year, $22 million contract last week that includes $10 million guaranteed.
Gano’s annual average of $4.67 million ranks second behind Justin Tucker’s $5 million, and Sanders’ $4.4 million is fourth. Nine kickers average more than $4 million per year, and 13 — nearly half the league — are above $3.5 million. Considering what the Bears signed Parkey for (four years, $15 million, $9 million guaranteed), Santos likely would seek $4 million or more per season with a guarantee in the same range.
Santos was nearing a lucrative long-term extension with the Chiefs in 2017 before the groin injury that sidetracked his career, requiring surgery and a lengthy comeback. Now he has the chance to get paid and put down roots, whether it’s as a member of the Bears or with another team in free agency.
Santos, who made 84.8% of his field goals with the Chiefs, is in a more difficult kicking environment now at Soldier Field, and the Bears have a decision to make. Things were simpler when the kicker question was the biggest one hanging over Halas Hall. Imagine what Pace would give for that to be the news everyone is hanging on.