The Bears can pitch stability and upside, but can Ryan Pace find the right targets in free agency?

The Bears can pitch stability and upside, but can Ryan Pace find the right targets in free agency?

As Ryan Pace enters the free agent market for the fourth time as a general manager, he does so with the full backing of Bears’ management. The Bears have their quarterback of the future in place, and hired a young, offensive-minded coach in January. The point: The Bears can pitch a much more stable future to free agents this week than they could a year ago, when Matt Nagy and Mitch Trubisky had yet to join the organization. 

And that means the Bears are in a better position to convince a top free agent — like Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Allen Robinson — to sign with them as negotiations begin Monday and contracts can be signed on Wednesday this week. 

Pace put forth competitive offers to two of last year’s top cornerbacks on the open market, but A.J. Bouye and Stephon Gilmore signed with the Jaguars and the New England Patriots, respectively. Bouye, in particular, signed with Jacksonville for less money than the Bears offered him, seeing an ascending defense as the best fit for him to continue his career. Previous losing wasn’t a prohibitive factor, either: Jacksonville averaged 12.3 losses per year in the previous six seasons before going 10-6 and reaching the AFC Championship in 2017. 

Maybe the Bears’ pitch to a free agent on the offensive side of the ball can be similar to what Jacksonville did to convince Bouye last year. Pace will have to sell upside and stability to free agents and hope that pitch resonates for a team that’s 14-34 since he took over as general manager. 

The Bears felt that Pace remained the right man for the job when they inked him to a two-year extension on Jan. 1, a move that ran concurrent to the firing of coach John Fox. Pace is now under contract through 2021 and is tethered to Nagy and Trubisky — the success or failure of those two men will ultimately determine how successful Pace’s vision will be. 

But Pace has to give Nagy the right players and Trubisky the right help to give them the best chance to succeed. And that’s where president/CEO Ted Phillips and chairman George McCaskey placed their bet on Pace when they extended his contract despite a string of high-profile whiffs in free agency. 

“He did a great job in particular last year of having a lot of younger players add value to the roster,” Phillips said in January. “We want to do that again, whether it's in free agency — obviously the draft is younger players — to look at more younger players in free agency. And even with some of the players that didn't work out last year, the contracts that were signed did not hamstring us past this season.”

Indeed, the Bears were not hamstrung financially by contracts given to Mike Glennon, who will officially be released this week, or Dion Sims, Markus Wheaton and Marcus Cooper, should the Bears choose to move on from any or all of those three players. The Bears enter the free agent market with about $64 million in cap space, according to Spotrac, which could scrape $80 million if all three of those aforementioned players are released (even if they aren’t, it’s still a healthy figure). 

Pace isn’t under a significant amount of internal pressure to have more success in free agency, at least from the standpoint of his contractual status and how he’s viewed by Phillips and McCaskey. 

“He’s not afraid to take risks in player personnel – my opinion,” Phillips said. “It’s a business where you don’t get a 90-percent success rate. If you’re getting a 60-, 65-percent success rate, I think most general managers would be considered successful. So you’ve got to take risks. You can’t be afraid to fail. So I would say that’s one area where I’m really proud of his growth.”

Pace, though, doesn’t have a 60-to-65 percent success rate in free agency. Of the 19 players he’s signed to contracts worth $1 million or more, only four fall under the “success” category (21 percent), while 11 can be considered “misses” (58 percent). Maybe you dispute those numbers a bit, but it's hard to dispute there being more misses than hits in the last three years.  

That ratio will have to change, or Pace will begin to feel internal pressure — as well as, of course, an immense amount of external pressure on him to get it right for Nagy and Trubisky, assuming he got those decisions right as well. 

That process begins this week. Pace can sell the Bears’ stability and upside, and now has to identify the right targets for that pitch. 

“One of the things that I think has been most impressive about Ryan is that through all these difficult times, he's kept a very even keel,” McCaskey said back in January. “He doesn't get rattled, people look to him for leadership and he's a dynamic leader and outstanding communicator and has excellent organizational skills and analytical skills. And we're looking forward to better things.”

After releasing him, Bears reportedly bringing back Marcus Cooper


After releasing him, Bears reportedly bringing back Marcus Cooper

Marcus Cooper's offseason has resembled a will they, won't they relationship.

The corner back signed a three-year deal with the Bears last offseason, but struggled last year and was released by the Bears after one year of that deal. However, Adam Caplan is reporting that Cooper could be back in a Bears uniform this season.

Cooper was officially released by the Bears on March 14 and visited the Arizona Cardinals earlier on Friday. Cooper started for the Cardinals in 2016.

Cooper began the year as a starter for the Bears, but finished with just four starts. He finished 2017 with 18 tackles and three passes deflected in 15 games.

His play with the Bears didn't exactly make him Mr. Popular with fans, as can be observed by looking at the savage replies to Caplan's report.

Cooper's original contract for the Bears with valued at $16 million over three years so the reported $2.5 million number is a significant pay cut and could mean he is being brought back for depth as opposed to last year when he was expected to start.

Plenty of possibilities loom ahead of Bears' draft pick

Plenty of possibilities loom ahead of Bears' draft pick

As the Bears begin to fill out their draft board in earnest, they’ll do so by evaluating the players they like and the players they think will be available when they pick eighth in April. And what players check both those boxes and go into their draft “clouds,” as Ryan Pace calls them, will depend largely on how many quarterbacks are taken ahead of the Bears’ pick. 

With about a month until the draft, it seems clear two teams will take a quarterback with a top-seven pick: the Cleveland Browns and New York Jets. The Browns own the Nos. 1 and 4 picks; the Jets traded up from No. 6 to No. 3, and teams rarely invest that kind of draft capital to not draft a quarterback. 

That leaves a few hinge points in how many quarterbacks are picked by the time the Bears are on the clock:

New York Giants (No. 2 overall)

The Giants still have an aging Eli Manning but could move to use the second pick to draft his long-term replacement. Or, alternatively, they could use this deep class of top-end quarterbacks as an avenue to trade down, add some picks and build out a young core that way. Either of these scenarios would be good news for the Bears, as we’ve seen Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, N.C. State defensive end Bradley Chubb and Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson connected to the Giants at No. 2 as well, if they were to stay there. The Buffalo Bills could be motivated to trade up to No. 2 to make sure they get the guy they want with quarterbacks almost assuredly going off the board at Nos. 1 and 3. 

Cleveland Browns (No. 4 overall)

If the Browns get their quarterback with the first pick — Sam Darnold? — they could be sitting in an ideal spot at No. 4. If the Giants draft a quarterback, Cleveland could play hardball and tell teams they’re fine keeping the fourth pick and drafting Barkley with it. That could create a bidding war between the Buffalo Bills (No. 12) and Denver Broncos (No. 5) to trade up and draft the last of the four clear-cut top quarterbacks in this class. In this scenario, Cleveland adds a bunch of picks to an already-sizable stash and accelerates their growth through the draft. 

If the Giants were to trade out of the No. 2 pick, let’s say to the Bills, it may lessen Cleveland’s desire to trade down from No. 4 unless a team in need of a quarterback like the Arizona Cardinals (No. 15) or Miami Dolphins (No. 11) starts lurking around. But as we saw last year with the Bears trading up one spot to draft Mitch Trubisky, teams don’t want to leave things to chance if they have conviction on the quarterback they want. So that brings us to the…

Denver Broncos (No. 5 overall)

The Broncos signed Case Keenum to a two-year deal and still have 2016 first-round pick Paxton Lynch on their roster, though he hasn’t shown much in only five games as a pro. Does Denver absolutely, positively have to draft a quarterback? No. They’re probably in the same boat as the Giants in that regard. But what if they really like Josh Allen and/or Baker Mayfield, both of whom their coaching staff worked with at the Senior Bowl, and one of them is still on the board when the Browns’ pick comes up at No. 4? Or what if Josh Rosen has been their guy all along? 

In that case, John Elway may make an aggressive move to guarantee he gets the quarterback he wants, and not risk losing that guy if a team were to cut the line by trading with the Browns. 

The other scenario is less positive for the Bears: Maybe the Broncos only have one or two quarterbacks out of this group they want, and they either can’t find a trade partner to move out of No. 5 or don’t want to. If three quarterbacks are drafted in the first seven picks, the Bears may not have the opportunity to draft one of Nelson, Chubb or Alabama defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds, for example, is a super-talented prospect — but we seem to be moving toward a consensus that Nelson, Fitzpatrick, Chubb and Barkley are the four best non-quarterback prospects in this draft. And in all likelihood, the Bears will only be able to draft one of them four quarterbacks are taken before they pick. 

The wild card here is Nelson, given his position (guard) is rarely seen as worthy of being a top-10 pick. But those who saw him up close in college believe he’s a future perennial Pro Bowler, possibly beginning as soon as his rookie year. The Bears’ fit is obvious, with Harry Hiestand coming to coach the offensive line from Notre Dame and the team — as of right now — still having a fairly clear need for another interior offensive lineman. Perhaps Nelson falls to the Bears even if there are only three quarterbacks off the board before they pick, but having four go off the board would make things a little less stressful at Halas Hall in late April. 

Indianapolis Colts (No. 6 overall) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (No. 7 overall)

The Colts already traded down once, and likely did so with the confidence that Chubb would still be on the board at No. 6 to help their limp pass rush. Fitzpatrick seems to be a good fit with Tampa Bay, though a player of his caliber would be a good fit anywhere. Either of these teams still could be persuaded to trade down, especially if the Giants and/or Broncos pass on a quarterback.

Chicago Bears (No. 8 overall)

If four quarterbacks are off the board by the time the Bears pick, that’s ideal for Pace. If three are, he still could get someone from his No. 8 pick “cloud” and be content staying there. If only two are — and this doesn’t appear to be a likely scenario — that means the Bills haven’t found a trade partner and may want to leapfrog the Dolphins at No. 11 to get their guy. More likely, if the Bears are able to trade down from No. 8, it would be because a team like Arizona wants to make sure the quarterback they want isn’t snagged by an opportunistic team ahead of them. 

But Pace's draft history has seen him trade up far more frequently than trade down. If someone who's in his draft cloud is available when the Bears go on the clock, chances are he'll pick that guy and not trade down. 

Plenty can and will change between now and when the draft begins on April 26. But for right now, the landscape ahead of the Bears suggests only positive things setting up for their first-round pick.