Ryan Pace wants to avoid relying on 'risky' free agency, but the Bears aren't there yet

Ryan Pace wants to avoid relying on 'risky' free agency, but the Bears aren't there yet

INDIANAPOLIS — The Bears will have somewhere between $80 million and $90 million to spend in cap space, according to Spotrac, when teams can enter contract negotiations March 12 and free agency officially begins March 14. 

Ryan Pace has had more misses (Mike Glennon, Markus Wheaton, Marcus Cooper, Pernell McPhee, Antrelle Rolle, etc.) than hits (Akiem Hicks, Danny Trevathan) as he enters his fourth free agent period as the general manager of the Bears. On one hand, he’s learned the dangers of free agency the hard way, with those busts not reflecting well on his tenure in Chicago, which has attached to it a 14-34 record. On the other hand, he’s structured the contracts of a good chunk of his signings to give the Bears an out after one year, as was the case with Glennon, Wheaton and Cooper. 

As Pace prepares for this year’s free agent market, he preached caution and selectivity while meeting with the media on Tuesday. The Bears might have a mountain of cash to spend, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll blow through all of it. 

“Just because you have cap space doesn’t mean you can be reckless with these decisions,” Pace said. “So we have to be strategic, disciplined and calculated as we enter free agency.”

Take this quote from Pace, too:

“A lot of times guys become free agents for a reason and we’re mindful of that,” he said from the Indiana Convention Center. “And I think as we continue to build our roster more and more through the draft, maybe we won’t have to supplement as much in free agency. But we have to be mindful of that. It is risky. 

“We’ve done a good job of structuring the contract where we can get out of some of these. But it’s kind of treacherous waters and we have to be careful as we go through this.”

While the Bears do have that ascending young core — led by Mitchell Trubisky — that Pace has wanted since coming to Chicago in 2015, they’re likely not at the point where they can build a winning team in 2018 just because of that young nucleus. Or, to put it another way: If the Bears are going to end this four-year streak of double-digit-loss seasons and be a playoff contender, Pace is going to have to have some success in free agency. 

As things stand right now, the Bears have clear needs for starters in at least four units. They need at least two wide receivers (depending on the health of Cameron Meredith and Kevin White, maybe three, though Pace sounded confident in both players), one interior offensive lineman, at least one outside linebacker and two cornerbacks. Depending on the team’s evaluation of Jonathan Bullard, there could be a hole to fill at defensive end; the same goes for Nick Kwiatkoski at inside linebacker; Dion Sims could be cut, too, if the Bears don’t believe his blocking skills outweighed a disappointing year catching the ball. All told, from those units, they will likely need to find no fewer than six starting-caliber players between now and the end of the NFL Draft. 

The Bears can fill some of those holes internally. Kendall Wright looked like a starting-caliber wide receiver last year, though he’s better served as a third target, not a No. 1 or No. 2 guy. Signing Kyle Fuller to a long-term deal would solidify a cornerback spot (Pace said conversations with Fuller’s representation are “constantly ongoing,” and the Bears have until March 6 to decide whether or not to use the franchise tag on him). If the Bears can count on Meredith to be at or above his 2016 level of production (66 catches, 888 yards) that’d eliminate the need for one wide receiver. 

But Pace is going to have to connect on a couple of free agents from outside the organization in March. Maybe it’s focusing his attention on signing the best cornerback available, whether it’s the Rams’ Trumaine Johnson or the Patriots’ Malcolm Butler. Maybe it means making a run at Panthers guard Andrew Norwell, who’s 26 and might cost as much — if not more — than the $8 million Josh Sitton would’ve been owed in 2018. Maybe reuniting Matt Nagy with wide receiver Albert Wilson makes as much sense below the surface as it does on the surface. Maybe it’s jettisoning Sims and signing the Eagles’ Trey Burton to pair with Adam Shaheen.

The Bears, realistically, can hope to find two starters in April’s NFL Draft (any more would represent a tremendous draft class). Draft an edge rusher and a receiver, sign Wilson, sign an interior guy (either Norwell or someone cheaper), retain Fuller and make a big run at Johnson/Butler/E.J. Gaines/Bashaud Breeland — that sounds like a best-case plan. But Pace would still need to “hit” on Wilson, a guard/center and a cornerback in free agency. 

To paraphrase an old Pace quote — which he said at last year’s NFL Combine — it’s a lot easier to recover from the guy you don’t sign than the guy you do sign. Pace can recover from the guys he signed last year (again, the Bears can easily get out from under Glennon, Wheaton, Cooper and Sims after one year), but the Bears might not recover if they keep churning through more free agent misses than successes. That’ll be the case until the Bears don’t have to keep dipping into the free agent market to fill so many starting spots. 

“There have been a couple of big hits, we talked about Akiem and Trevathan and things of that nature, but there’s also some misses,” Pace said. “I think that’s the nature of free agency. I think the less you can dabble in it, probably the better. But in order to do that, you have to be drafting well and developing those players so you don’t have to be as aggressive in free agency.”

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Who should the Bears sign, Allen Hurns or Cam Meredith?


SportsTalk Live Podcast: Who should the Bears sign, Allen Hurns or Cam Meredith?

On this episode of SportsTalk Live, Patrick Finley (Chicago Sun-Times), Chris Emma (670 The Score) and Ben Finfer join Luke Stuckmeyer on the panel.

Allen Robinson’s former Jaguars teammate is a free agent. Would signing Allen Hurns make sense for the Bears?

Plus, Loyola has traffic problems on the Road to the Final Four and the guys debate the biggest need for the Blackhawks heading into a long offseason.

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below:

Kyle Fuller believes he's a Top 5 cornerback in the NFL

USA Today

Kyle Fuller believes he's a Top 5 cornerback in the NFL

Kyle Fuller caused a bit of a panic late Friday afternoon when a report dropped that he signed an offer sheet with the Green Bay Packers. For a few hours, the prospect — even if it was always unlikely — of the Bears losing their best cornerback to their arch rivals to the north loomed over Chicago. 

For Fuller, though, he said he barely had time to think about the possibility of cashing in on his breakout 2017 season with the Packers. The Bears quickly matched the offer sheet, officially announcing the four-year deal Tuesday that makes Fuller one of the highest-paid cornerbacks in the NFL. 

“It was crazy not really knowing what to expect,” Fuller said. “I would have never expected it. But when (the Packers’ offer sheet) came, it was definitely something to consider, just on the business side of it. At the end of the day, how it all played out, I’m definitely happy.”

Fuller sounded like someone who took a more passive role to his quasi-restricted free agency that was set about when the Bears placed the transition tag on him, allowing them to match any offer sheet that he were to sign. Fuller said he didn’t know all the details of what was going on with offer sheets coming in and negotiations with the Bears.

“I kinda was just getting the information from (my agents) and going with the flow of everything and knowing that at the end of the day it would end up working out,” Fuller said. 

The $14 million average annual value of Fuller’s contract ranks fifth among cornerbacks, behind only Washington’s Josh Norman ($15 million), New York’s Trumaine Johnson ($14.5 million) Minnesota’s Xavier Rhodes ($14.02 million) and Arizona’s Patrick Peterson ($14.01 million), according to Spotrac. 

Fuller said he considers himself a top-five cornerback in the league, and he played like someone who could wind up in that discussion in 2017. The 2014 first-round pick was one of four players to break up 20 or more passes last year, and he picked off two passes in December while providing excellent support against the run. 

“We could not be happier to have Kyle under contract for four more years,” general manager Ryan Pace said. “We feel he is an ascending player on our top 10 defense and we look forward to him having many more productive seasons here in Chicago.”