Bears

NFL free agency buzz: Bears GM Ryan Pace should be at home this time of year

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NFL free agency buzz: Bears GM Ryan Pace should be at home this time of year

One major component in Ryan Pace’s background makes the Bears’ efforts in free agency particularly worth noting. Pace comes from the pro-personnel side of the game, meaning for most of his career in New Orleans his chief task was scouting and scouring other NFL rosters, which he should know almost as well as his own.

Pace made a play for rush-linebacker Pernell McPhee, a Baltimore Ravens backup because of the talent (Elvis Dumervil, Terrell Suggs) ahead of him. Finding a starter-grade addition a little ways down someone’s depth chart is a knack, and Pace’s experience prior to taking over as Bears general manager was heavily on the Saints’ pro side.

In other words, he’s had files on NFL free agents long before they became free agents.

Shifting DL targets

With Denver Broncos defensive lineman Malik Jackson going to the Jacksonville Jaguars after flirtations with the Bears, Broncos and Oakland Raiders, the Bears and others begin tightening focuses elsewhere.

The Saints drafted massive defensive lineman Akiem Hicks in 2012 when Pace was a member of the Saints’ personnel department. Now that Pace is Bears general manager and Hicks is a free agent, few would be totally surprised if the two got together again this offseason.

[MORE BEARS: Alshon Jeffery signs franchise tag tender]

The Bears have been linked to Hicks, rated No. 2 among free-agent interior defensive linemen by CSNChicago.com, and the prospect of pairing Hicks (6-5, 324) with nose tackle Eddie Goldman (6-4, 335) conjures up thoughts of a run-proof defense.

And be in no doubt as to the importance of immovable objects to a pass rush, even someone like Hicks, who has 9.5 total sacks in four NFL seasons. Richard Dent once told me that no one fully appreciated what William Perry meant to him: “With Fridge inside next to me,” The Colonel said, “I never had to worry about anything to my left.”

Nightmare-come-true

When the Bears opted to commit toward Ka’Deem Carey and Jeremy Langford and away from Matt Forte, one worst-case scenario for the Bears was the prospect of Forte going to the Green Bay Packers, as Steve McMichael, Jim McMahon, Jim Morrissey and a handful of others have done.

According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, the Packers are sniffing.

Safety searches

It wouldn’t be an NFL offseason without the Bears scouring the league for help at safety, and 2016 is another safety quest. David Bruton, who played 77 plays on a broken leg in a late-season game with Denver last season, has been with the Broncos since being drafted out of Notre Dame in 2009 and played for John Fox during Fox’s four Denver seasons. Bruton reportedly has seen interest from the Bears, Broncos, Giants and Dolphins (where ex-Broncos assistant Adam Gase is now head coach).

[SHOP: Gear up, Bears fans!]

What makes Bruton intriguing is his leadership of Broncos special teams (three-year captain) , his age (28) and his potential. Normally “potential” is no longer in the discussion after seven NFL seasons, but Bruton has started just nine games, meaning low mileage, but partly because the Broncos have had some safety play from the likes of T.J. Ward, Rahim Moore and Brian Dawkins in recent seasons.

On guard: J.R. Sweezy a three-year Seahawks starter

Not that this means anything about how 2016 offseason will play out for the Bears’ offense, but efforts to upgrade the offensive line didn’t go all that well last offseason, meaning that Bears have to do some of the same work again.

The Bears used one-year contracts to bring in guards Vladimir Ducasse and Patrick Omameh (via waiver claim). Neither settled the right-guard spot and the latest effort is reportedly in the direction of J.R. Sweezy, who’s started the past three seasons at right guard for the Seattle Seahawks.

The guard/tackle market did get a little weird on Tuesday when the Oakland Raiders threw $60 million over five years toward former Raven lineman Kelechi Osemele. The Bears weren’t seriously in that discussion, though.

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Low

Decisions to be made on: Christian Jones (free agent), John Timu (free agent), Jonathan Anderson (free agent); Jerrell Freeman has reportedly been cut

Possible free agent targets: Demario Davis, Preston Brown, Anthony Hitchens, Avery Williamson, Navorro Bowman, Derrick Johnson

How the Bears rate Nick Kwiatkoski will be the key to figuring out what this unit will look like in 2018. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio thought Kwiatkoski finished last season strong, but strong enough to rely on him in 2018 as the starter next to Danny Trevathan?

The thing with the Bears’ inside linebackers, though: Trevathan makes whoever is playing next to him better. The problem is Trevathan hasn’t been able to stay on the field — he missed time in 2017 with a calf injury and a one-game suspension, and missed half of 2016 after rupturing his Achilles’. Trevathan hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2013, so durability is an issue for the soon-to-be 28-year-old.

So that leads to this question: Do the Bears need to find someone in free agency, regardless of how they value Kwiatkoski, who’s also missed time due to injuries in his first two years in the league?

Free agency could provide a few options. Demario Davis had a career high 97 tackles for the New York Jets last year and has never missed a game as a pro. Preston Brown had some decent production in Buffalo and also hasn’t missed a game since being drafted in 2014. Avery Williamson may not be a world-beater but has only missed one game in his four years in the NFL.

The Bears could also opt for someone who fits more of a rotational mold, like Dallas’ Anthony Hitchens, or try to lure a veteran linebacker like Navorro Bowman (who played for Vic Fangio in San Francisco) or Derrick Johnson (who Matt Nagy knows from his Kansas City days) to play next to Trevathan and/or Kwiatkoski.

The Bears could opt to keep the status quo and re-sign Christian Jones and John Timu for depth, and enter 2018 with Kwiatkoski and Trevathan as the team’s starters (Jerrell Freeman, who suffered a season-ending injury and then was hit with his second PED suspension in as many years, was cut on Tuesday). Signing a starting-caliber free agent isn’t out of the question, either, but there is a third option for the Bears if they appear to stand pat in free agency: Draft an inside linebacker in April. If that’s the route they go, Georgia’s Roquan Smith could be the guy. But again, those more pressing needs at other positions could mean the Bears don’t burn a first-round pick on an inside linebacker.

With Josh Sitton on his way out, what’s next for the Bears’ offensive line?

With Josh Sitton on his way out, what’s next for the Bears’ offensive line?

The first major move of Ryan Pace’s 2018 offseason hit on Tuesday, as NFL Network reported the Bears will not exercise Josh Sitton’s $8 million option for 2018. 

The move accomplishes two things for the Bears: 1) It frees up about $8 million in cap space and 2) Removes a veteran from the offensive line and creates a hole to fill, presumably by a younger free agent or draft pick. 

The 31-year-old Sitton signed a three-year deal with the Bears after Green Bay cut him just before the 2016 season, and was a Pro Bowler his first year in Chicago. Sitton played 26 of 32 games in two years with the Bears, but him being on the wrong side of 30 was likely the biggest factor here. If the Bears saw his skills eroding, releasing him now and netting the cap savings while going younger at the position does make sense. 

“Going younger” doesn’t guarantee the Bears will draft Notre Dame brawler Quenton Nelson, though that did become a greater possibility with Tuesday’s move. Nelson might be one of the two or three best offensive players in this year’s draft, and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand knows him well from the four years they spent together at Notre Dame. 

There’s a natural fit there, of course, but a few reasons to slow the Nelson-to-Chicago hype train: Would he even make it to No. 8? Or if he’s there, is taking a guard that high worth it when the Bears have needs at wide receiver, outside linebacker and cornerback? Still, the thought of Nelson — who absolutely dominated at Notre Dame — pairing with Hiestand again is tantalizing, and Nelson very well could step into any team’s starting lineup and be an immediate Pro Bowler as a rookie. 

If the Bears go younger in free agency, Matt Nagy knows 26-year-old guard Zach Fulton (No. 25 in Bleacher Report’s guard rankings) well from their time in Kansas City. Fulton — a Homewood-Flossmoor alum — has the flexibility to play both guard positions and center, which could open the door for Cody Whitehair to be moved to left guard, the position he was initially drafted to play (though the Bears do value him highly as a center, and keeping him at one position would benefit him as opposed to moving him around the line again). There are some other guys out there — like Tennessee’s Josh Kline or New York’s Justin Pugh — that could wind up costing more than Fulton in free agency. 

Or the Bears could look draft an offensive lineman after the first round, perhaps like Ohio State’s Billy Price, Georgia’s Isaiah Wynn or UTEP’s Will Hernandez. How the Bears evaluate guards at the NFL Combine next week will play an important role in how they go about replacing Sitton. 

The trickle-down effect of releasing Sitton will impact more than the offensive line, too. Freeing up his $8 million in cap space -- which wasn't a guarantee, unlike cutting Jerrell Freeman and, at some point, Mike Glennon -- could go toward paying Kyle Fuller, or another top cornerback, or a top wide receiver, or some combination of players at those positions (as well as outside linebacker). The Bears were already in a healthy place cap-wise; that just got healthier on Tuesday.