INDIANAPOLIS — It would be out of character for someone whose prime directives include ensuring that what’s said in Halas Hall stays in Halas Hall. But you do wonder how much negotiating Bears general manager Ryan Pace was doing through the media this week.
Not really, because Pace is clearly saying exactly the same things to agents for cornerback Kyle Fuller (and Malcolm Butler, and Trumaine Johnson, and ...): that “your client is a really good player, the Bears want him, but the draft is cornerback-heavy and there are other options, so let’s stay on Earth with those contract numbers.” And if he’s talking indirectly to Fuller, he’s mentioning to the media, that “ya know, we still do have that nasty ol’ franchise tag.” Same thing he doubtless has reminded Fuller’s agent of, just adding some public emphasis.
Divining exact intentions is never usually an exact science during the annual Scouting Combine here. But from Pace’s words and actions, some scenarios appear to be setting up.
Foremost among those is that the Bears in fact do want Kyle Fuller in a Bears uniform in 2018. That there are active negotiations point to Fuller as the Bears’ first choice for resolving matters at one of the two cornerback vacancies. For the Bears he is a known quantity, inconsistencies and his mystery absent 2016 notwithstanding, and Pace’s experiences with free agents from other teams were disastrous last offseason. As he said on Wednesday, “a lot of times guys become free agents for a reason, and we’re mindful of that.” His own guy (well, Phil Emery’s actually), Fuller, is available for the simple reason that he’s coming out of his rookie contract.
And getting a starting cornerback settled upon takes one very big position off Pace’s to-do list looking ahead to the draft.
Back to the Fuller overall: Pace said that the Bears are being “pretty aggressive” in talks with Fuller. Of course, Pace’s idea of “aggressive” might differ sharply from Fuller’s agent’s idea of “aggressive,” but the Bears are in fact talking a multi-year deal, which is in itself a statement. Not necessarily a conclusive one though: They were what they thought was aggressive on a multi-year deal with Alshon Jeffery in 2016 and still needed to resort to the franchise tag in the end.
Fuller isn’t expected to be hit with the tag, meaning the Bears will in fact be getting help from the rest of the NFL in setting Fuller’s market. A key in this process is the Bears strengthening a relationship with Fuller even as they’re saying no to a contract proposal and telling him to see if there’s a better deal out there.
Looking a little deeper at what Pace has at his disposal: As of this week at least, the Bears have not cut cornerback Marcus Cooper, a monumental disappointment from last year’s free-agency class. Consider this as Pace keeping an option open, far from his first choice but still an affordable body. Consensus from a number of different sources: Fuller is option one, followed by Johnson/Butler, then by Prince Amukamara returning, and finally by Cooper. Pace thought enough of Cooper to sign him to a three-year deal topping out at $16 million and carrying a 2018 base of $5 million.
That amount might appear outrageous, but only because of Cooper’s woeful performance, which no doubt has him ensconced in Vic Fangio’s doghouse. Which of course is exactly where Fuller was after a non-existent 2016. But the Cooper figure is about one-third of the money Fuller and presumably the other top corners are seeking per year. Best guess is that they will get close to max contracts simply because of the money supply chasing them. No one likes a bidding war, but with the massive cap spaces open, the surprise will be if the Bears have to get into exactly that, like it or not.
Pace wouldn’t do it last year for his first choices at cornerback. This year, he won’t have that choice.
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There’s one other catch in all this, that of simply getting the best/right guy, because that has been a franchise-grade problem for Pace.
How serious is that? Not many would categorize John Fox as a victim. But consider: In a must-win year for Fox, besides getting a rookie quarterback, with his No. 1 pick, Fox was given, in last offseason alone, Marcus Cooper, Quintin Demps, Mike Glennon, Dion Sims and Markus Wheaton. Just last offseason. All on contracts about which the best could be said, by Pace, that the deals were structured such that the Bears could exit them with relative ease.
But Winston Churchill famously declared after the heroic escape of the British Army from Dunkirk, that wars are not won with evacuations. And football teams take not even a little step forward when they exit a contract on a wrong player. That is not, in any remote respect, a victory.
The Glennon situation is perhaps the one in that group of gaffes that’s a little more interesting because of the reasoning behind it. Pace got the wrong guy, obviously, and what makes it more pointed is not specifically the money, because if Glennon had turned out to be an average or even a little below-average starting quarterback, he’d have been paid average or a little below-average money for a starting NFL quarterback.
What probably makes it sting a little more is that the Bears could’ve had Brian Hoyer back for about one-third of what Glennon cost, and the Bears didn’t even make Hoyer an offer. Ill-advised in hindsight. And ill-advised from the standpoint of mentoring Mitch Trubisky, who was Pace’s target all along. Hoyer arguably represented the best composite of Glennon as interim starter and Mark Sanchez as backup/positive influence. Hoyer’s price and value become an even bigger "what were they thinking?" when you throw in that one less roster spot would’ve been tied up in a quarterback.
But Pace, and by extension the McCaskeys and the organization, get a grudging "OK, I get it" in the context of not playing safe and in fact taking a flyer on a guy who might flash once he got his opportunity after a few years of league experience. Like the Vikings did with Case Keenum (9-16 as a starter before last year) or the Eagles with Nick Foles (Philly thought so much of Foles the first time that they traded him away for Sam Bradford), Pace was going for upside and a shot at “wow!” with an out-clause.
Wrong guy, but not a totally idiotic plan or philosophy, no matter how it ended up.