Takeaways from Bears' first strikes in free agency: Gains, but not without hard questions

Takeaways from Bears' first strikes in free agency: Gains, but not without hard questions

First, some questions in the wake of the Bears’ successful targeting of Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Allen Robinson.

A year ago, would Robinson have chosen Chicago and the Bears in a free-agency marketplace willing to pay handsomely for No. 1 wide receivers? Irrespective of the torn ACL that would abort his season, would he have left Blake Bortles and what was forming up to be a Jaguars team good enough to reach the AFC Championship Game?

And would the Bears have been able to convince Alshon Jeffery to remain in Chicago with the kind of deal — three years, reportedly $25 million guaranteed in a package topping out at $42 million — that Robinson is expected to get? The Bears are willing to risk $14 million per season, $1 million more per year than Philadelphia gave Jeffery in his four-year extension, on a wide receiver coming off ACL surgery, but they weren’t in for that kind of commitment on Jeffery.

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Dealing in hypotheticals isn’t really productive, but it can be useful for evaluation purposes. But Robinson coming to terms with the Bears does present as a casual confirmation of what general manager Ryan Pace believed would be a more attractive Bears team with Mitch Trubisky under center and John Fox headed to TV, replaced by Matt Nagy.

Money is usually the ultimate determinant, but the fact is that Pace made successful sales pitches to two players — Robinson and Philadelphia Eagles backup tight end Trey Burton — coming out of the 2017 playoffs. A year ago he offered the money, but it wasn’t enough to entice cornerbacks A.J. Bouye or Stephon Gilmore to Chicago.

Not that it means anything necessarily; Pace has typically gone for free agents from winning programs (including, for instance: Akiem Hicks, New Orleans and New England; Danny Trevathan, Denver; Pernell McPhee, Baltimore; Bobby Massie, Arizona; Mitch Unrein, Denver; Josh Sitton, Green Bay). And the Bears still have finished last in the NFC North in all three of Pace’s years in charge.

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If there is one doubt point for Burton and Robinson it would be their records of durability. Robinson went down in Week 1 last year with the ACL tear, though he’d played all 16 games the previous two seasons. But he’d also missed the final six games of his rookie season in 2014 with a stress fracture of his foot.

Burton has missed just three games in his four years. For comparison purposes, McPhee had missed just four games in four Baltimore seasons, all in 2012, but he’d been a part-time player for the Ravens and broke down when he became a full-timer in Chicago. Burton played just 26.5 percent of the Eagles’ offensive snaps in 2017, 29 percent in 2016, and only 69 total offensive snaps over his first two years, which were spent mostly on special teams.

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As the Bears moved into the maelstrom that is free agency, Pace is facing a level of pressure that realistically is above both the expectations placed on his coach, Nagy, and also the normal expectations that come with the job, any job, in the just-win-baby NFL. Pace predictably has focused on muscling up one of the NFL’s worst offenses of 2017, with an intensified degree of urgency because of Nagy and his staff needing the personnel to form the support system giving Trubisky the best chance at being successful, and taking Pace, Nagy, the McCaskeys and everyone else associated with Halas Hall with him.

But teams that have built successfully through the draft have done so by avoiding the need to re-draft positions because of misses. And in free agency, needing to go back into the market for veteran shoring-up of the same position repeatedly is a sure way to financial issues as well as zero growth.

Pace and the Bears went aggressively into the early hours of pre-free agency for a wide receiver (Robinson) and a tight end (Burton). These expected additions came almost one year to the day after the Bears went aggressively into free agency for a wide receiver (Markus Wheaton) and a tight end (Dion Sims).

Not every repeat position-stocking was necessarily the result of a personnel mistake. But the effect is the same, whether from a straight-out mistake or mis-evaluation, or from misfortune. The Bears are in nothing short of desperate need for pass-rushing linebackers because McPhee and Willie Young have broken down, not true “mistakes,” but an edge rusher is still the No. 1 draft need because of free agents that didn’t work out.

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Securing weapons for Trubisky is an obvious prime directive for Pace and the Bears this offseason. And that ostensibly was happening with the Burton and Robinson negotiations.

But the weapon that determines everything is Trubisky. Period.

The Bears had Martellus Bennett, Matt Forte, Jeffery and a healthy Zach Miller around Jay Cutler in 2015 and finished 23rd in yardage and 21st in points scored. The problem was the quarterback. You couldn’t even blame Dowell Loggains, who was still just the quarterbacks coach under coordinator Adam Gase.

As New England has been showing for the last 15 years, and Brett Favre before that, and Aaron Rodgers the last decade, and myriad others, the end game is still the centerpiece position, not the supporting cast.

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.”

That's right, Chicago. John Fox is coming to a studio near you


That's right, Chicago. John Fox is coming to a studio near you

So apparently John Fox is getting bored.

The former Bears head coach who led the team to three consecutive last-place seasons from 2015-17 just signed with ESPN as a NFL studio analyst.

He’ll be getting paid to dish out insider information on players and what’s happening on the field — details that frustrated Bears fans could not get out of the often elusive Fox

This is great news if you had a void in your heart that only John Fox quotes could fill — especially in case his “We don’t know exactly what we’re doing” and "Sometimes it's hard to measure what's behind the left nipple"  hot takes weren’t cutting it anymore

But more importantly, Fox’s new position brings up a new burning question: What ex-Bear will be a better analyst?

What will the Fox say? Will he be able to muster more than 10 words out of Jay? The NFL season needs to get here sooner.