Mitch Trubisky

Now that he has some weapons, Mitch-a-palooza can really start


Now that he has some weapons, Mitch-a-palooza can really start

Assessing or “grading” any team’s work in free agency is something of a cousin to doing that sort of critiquing of a draft class; opinions are easy but real substance only comes beginning sometime in September.

The reason is fairly obvious, not unlike the SEC’s required caution to investors, that “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.” Decisions are based on performance but after that… .

So any meaningful answer as to whether the Bears are a better team by virtue of their moves in free agency lies some months off.

And there’s one other really, really big “if” in all this – the one that matters more than any free-agency or draft pickup:

Mitch Trubisky.

The standard line through this offseason, going back to and including the arrivals of coach Matt Nagy and OC Mark Helfrich on top of retaining QB coach Dave Ragone, has been that a key component in the 2018 Bears mission statement has been to secure more of a supporting cast for Trubisky. That’s backwards.

The only way Trubisky was worth his GM trading up to ensure getting him with the No. 2 pick is if he makes THEM better, not vice versa.

These incoming players are basically upgrades of a woeful offensive unit and would’ve been made whether Trubisky, Jay Cutler or Mike Glennon were the starting Bears quarterback for 2018.

The point is Trubisky himself. GM Ryan Pace envisions greatness for Trubisky, meaning the kind of quarterback like a Brady, Brees, Favre, Rodgers, the kind of quarterback who turns average into good and good in great.

Allen Robinson may be the delayed fill for Alshon Jeffery, and Trey Burton may replace what the offense lost when Zach Miller went down. But those things only happen if Trubisky plays to his seed, becomes what Donovan McNabb did for the Eagles or what the four in the previous paragraph did for their franchises. Weapons don’t make the quarterback; the quarterback “makes” the weapons. That’s why they get $25 million a season and the weapons don’t.

The Bears are putting $14 million a year for three seasons into Allen Robinson on the strength of the wide receiver’s 2015 and 2016 seasons with a combined 153 receptions, 2,283 yards and 20 TD’s. The Jacksonville Jaguars were 3-13 and 5-11 in those two seasons. Jacksonville reached the AFC Championship in 2017 with quarterback Blake Bortles putting up career-bests in completion percentage, QBR and interception percentage. And a defense that was No. 1 in the AFC in points, yards and passer-rating allowed. And without Robinson for 15-1/2 games.

How much better in fact IS the Chicago offense with Burton, Robinson and slot receiver Taylor Gabriel?

Burton: As he did with Glennon, Akiem Hicks, Pernell McPhee, Markus Wheaton and others, Pace is going for “upside,” what that player could be that he hasn’t been before. Sometimes it works (Hicks); sometimes it doesn’t (Glennon, etal.).

Burton was never the No. 1 tight end with Philadelphia and played less than 30 percent of the offensive snaps over his last two and most productive Eagles years. Pace had to shore up the “move” tight end position and receiving capabilities at the TE spot with the loss of Miller and pedestrian production of Dion Sims. Burton was behind two very good Philadelphia tight ends in Brent Celek and Zach Ertz, and he wasn’t going to supplant Ertz or replace the just-released Celek, a physical blocker with 40 pounds on Burton.

What the Bears need is for Burton to follow the performance curve of Martellus Bennett, who, personality issues aside, became a force when he got out from behind Jason Witten in Dallas.

Right now, this is an upgrade from where the Bears were over the final eight games of 2017. But Miller caught 20 passes (not including the mistaken overturn of that final pass in New Orleans) in eight games. Burton caught 23 in 15 games last year. Miller averaged 11.5 yards per Bears catch; Burton averaged 9.6 over his last two Philadelphia seasons.

The Bears are counting on “upside” for their $32 million over four Burton years.

Gabriel: Gabriel is joining his third team in the last four years, being cut after his first two years in Cleveland by a Browns team coming off a 3-13 year in 2015 and was going to go 1-15. Playing for the NFL’s 2016 MVP in Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, Gabriel caught 35 passes and scored 6 of his 8 career touchdowns. Whether the Bears were outbid by the Miami Dolphins for former Kansas City slot receiver Albert Wilson or in fact wanted Gabriel more doesn’t matter in the rearview mirror. But Gabriel is presumed to add more explosiveness with the football than Wilson or Kendall Wright.

That explosiveness is what the Bears are investing considerably more than the $2 million they paid Wright in 2017. What they are banking on, again, is upside. Gabriel has averaged 33 catches over his four NFL seasons and 13.8 yards per catch. Wright caught 59 for the Bears last year but only one for a TD and his career average of 11.4 ypc isn’t likely going up at age 29.

Robinson: Potentially huge upgrade over everything the Bears tried at wide receiver in 2017. The qualifier: Robinson’s comeback from season-ending ACL surgery. That projects to roughly a 50-50 proposition, based on research of colleague JJ Stankevitz on wide receivers pre- and post-ACL injuries.

A second qualifier: The Bears never had a winning season over Jeffery’s final and best four Chicago seasons, in which he averaged 70 catches per season. Robinson averaged 67 receptions over his three good Jacksonville seasons. The Jaguars didn’t win then, either, because neither the Bears nor Jags got the quarterback situation where it needed to be.


Sometimes the free-agency marketplace imposes some quirky realities on the Bears and everyone else.

The Bears solidified their cornerback situation with the transition-tag’ing of Kyle Fuller and re-signing Prince Amukamara for $27 million over three years. But it means that the Bears approach 2018 with the same No. 1 corner pairing that they had for 2017, just with a combined price of $21 million vs. last year’s $10 million for the same players.

Whether they are the better with Amukamara at $9 million-per vs. Trumaine Johnson at a reported $15 million-per or Malcolm Butler at $12 million-per will play out in the fall.

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.

— — —

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.

— — —

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.

— — —

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.

— — —

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.

Bears reportedly set to make big free-agent splash by signing Allen Robinson to three-year deal

Bears reportedly set to make big free-agent splash by signing Allen Robinson to three-year deal

The Bears are reportedly about to make a big free-agent splash.

According to multiple reports, the Bears are set to sign free-agent wide receiver Allen Robinson to a three-year deal when free agency begins Wednesday.

Robinson, a Penn State product who spent his first four seasons as a pro with the Jacksonville Jaguars, missed all of last season after tearing his ACL in Week 1.

But his first three years in the NFL saw some impressive numbers: He caught a combined 201 passes for 2,831 yards and 22 touchdowns. In 2015, he led the NFL with 14 touchdown receptions and made the Pro Bowl.

Robinson would give Mitch Trubisky a legitimate top target as the quarterback continues his development after his rookie year last season. The Bears are also expected to have Cameron Meredith and Kevin White back from injury after both receivers missed nearly the entirety of the 2017 season. Robinson, too, missed almost all of 2017, meaning those three wideouts will enter 2018 with a combined three catches in the last calendar year.

But there's no doubt that Robinson would be a huge upgrade. The Bears were last in the NFL in receiving offense in 2017, with just 192.8 yards per game. They were also the league's worst passing offense, with 176 net passing yards per game.