Patterns say Bears got just what they wanted in free agency


Patterns say Bears got just what they wanted in free agency

BOCA RATON, Fla. — Whenever a draft selection is made or a free agent signed, it is invariably presented afterwards as exactly the player the team had targeted and wanted all along. So it was no surprise that GM Ryan Pace stated on Tuesday during the NFL owners meetings that, “We got the guys we were targeting.”

Typical. What you would expect him to say about linebackers Jerrell Freeman and Danny Trevathan, defensive lineman Akiem Hicks and tackle Bobby Massie, their signings from other teams in 2016 free agency.

Except that something about these signings point to Pace being quite honest that these WERE in fact the targeted guys at the targeted need areas (free agency being precisely where you SHOULD opt for need rather than best-available, like in the draft).

Here’s the something, and it has left the Bears in very good shape roster- and salary cap-wise:

Notice when these signings occurred: Trevathan, Mar. 9, day one of free agency. Massie, Mar. 9, day one of free agency. Freeman, Mar. 12, day three of free agency. Hicks, Mar. 13, day four of free agency.

At the top of the list of exhibits: re-sign cornerback Tracy Porter Mar. 9, day one of free agency. More on that one in a moment.

[SHOP: Gear up, Bears fans!]

What the pattern says is that the Bears stayed out of the hysteria tsunami that produced jaw-dropping contracts for good-not-great players, yet at the same time moved almost immediately on certain players. And they got those without rupturing their budget. In other words, they really DID get guys they had high on position lists and still stayed out of cap hell.

“There were some guys [they’d had highly rated],” Pace said. “I just think you’ve got to be smart with it because if you put all your eggs in that basket, it’s going to be hard for that guy to live up to that contract. What if he gets hurt? There’s all these scenarios that can happen. I’ve said this before: I like how we kind of spread it out a little bit. And I think it reduces your risk a little bit.

“We have, ‘here’s Option A, B and C. First wave, first hour of free agency, things are going fast. I think that’s when I realize how disciplined we have to be with our plan and how much confidence we’ve got to have in our plan.”

[MORE: Bears' massive overhaul of 3-4 front seven to extend into draft]

The Porter Case Study

The Bears had designs on former Rams cornerback Janoris Jenkins. The bidding exploded to $52.5 million over five seasons, and Jenkins signed on Mar. 9 with the New York Giants.

Later that same day, the Bears struck the deal with Porter: three years, $12 million. Clearly the Bears had Porter, their best defensive back in 2015, as a priority. They didn’t shop around after the bidding for Jenkins rose to “Stupid,” and went for one of their own at an affordable price.

What does that mean overall? Well, a growing expectation was that the Bears were not going to be able to afford to keep rush linebacker Lamarr Houston at his $6 million for 2016. All of a sudden, Porter is done and Houston, the team’s sack leader last season, isn’t a cap casualty.

“I was proud of the way we stuck to that,” Pace said. “So we were very confident where, ‘Hey, this is getting a little out of control here.’ Let’s go on to another option, or let’s consider another option that’s a better value for us.”

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.