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Emma: This Critical Offseason Could Make Or Break Bears' Future

By Chris Emma--

(CBS) Once all the confetti had fallen in Houston and the Patriots hoisted the Lombardi Trophy once more, the offseason truly began. Thirty-one teams are preparing to strive for football's gold standard, its champion from New England.

Here in Chicago, we will soon bear witness to an offseason that could make or break this franchise's future -- one which at the least will define this present regime's fate in Year 3.

Ryan Pace, now in his third offseason as Bears general manager, offered a message of hope in the aftermath of a 3-13 season, the franchise's worst in a 16-game schedule. His work begins now.

"We're going to be aggressive and calculated this offseason," Pace said in early January. "We're in a position to do so. We'll have a clear understanding of our roster and where our needs are and where we want to add to each position. I'm honestly extremely disappointed in this season. But I'm honestly excited going forward.

"My message to Bears fans is simple: We're going to get better. We will improve. I hear you. But I also understand this is just talk and we've got to show actions. We've got to show results. I fully get that."

Pace has spent his first two full years in Chicago bringing the Bears a younger roster, ridding the age from Phil Emery's regime and bringing youth into the fold. Two phases have taken place, with Pace's direction clear. Now, this third phase must bring the roster better talent.

First comes cutting loose spare parts who don't fit, a common trend in Pace's first two offseasons. Veterans pieces on which the Bears can't rely may be dumped before this next phase begins. Cuts should come in the next weeks.

Of course, the name to watch is that of quarterback Jay Cutler, who could be released if the Bears are unable to find a trading partner. Cutler has been paid in full the $54 million guaranteed from a seven-year, $126.7-million deal signed in 2014. He's due $12.5 million in 2017, and trades can become official on March 9.

The Bears can put together a package for Patriots backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, though he could require a massive return. The Browns and 49ers are also considered potential landing spots for the 25-year-old Garoppolo. Scouting will continue into the NFL Combine, which begins Feb. 28 in Indianapolis. Pace and his team will be watching Deshaun Watson, Mitch Trubisky, DeShone Kizer and Patrick Mahomes, among others.

Quarterback is just the beginning of the Bears' priorities. Offensively, they need to add depth at receiver and could find a new fit at left tackle. On the other side of the football, the Bears will look at add another five-technique to join Eddie Goldman and Akiem Hicks up front. They could also use upgrades in the entire secondary.

Should safety Eric Berry hit the open market, he could become a top target for the Bears. Tony Jefferson is another option at safety. The Bears could target A.J. Bouye as their top cornerback, adding to a position that's desperately needed.

By the time free agency wraps up in March, the Bears should have a firm grasp on their draft board. They could have the quarterback quandary handled, perhaps with Garoppolo or a clear-cut No. 3 pick after bolstering the secondary and adding a five-technique to the fold.

The Bears should head into April with greater talent at present positions of need and some depth added to shore up the roster.

Pace knows well the urgency to bring the Bears wins. He and coach John Fox received the blessing of management to embark on a third season. They are being asked to bring wins back to Chicago.

The confetti has fallen and the offseason is underway. Pace and the Bears have great work ahead.

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago's sports scene and more for Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670 and like his Facebook page.

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